Frog And Horse



Jerome Turken

“All right, so you don’t like him,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s not necessary to like him to get trigonometry into his head.  Now get going or you’ll be late for your next class.”

I looked at him under my brows and took a deep breath.  “Thanks,” I said.  Before I reached the door he called me back.

“Listen, Ellenbogen, he needs help.  We’re talking about three hours a week for five weeks, that’s all.  You can arrange the time and place at your convenience.  Come on, it’s for a good cause.  Fifteen lousy hours is not going to hurt you, is it?”

It was going to murder me.  I couldn’t stand Samuel Yellen, but that was the least of it.  What bothered me was what I was going to have to give up to do it.  It couldn’t be my homework, and it wasn’t going to be playing three on three after school, and it better not be practicing my violin.  So it would have to be the expeditions.

That’s what the Zephyrs called gallivanting around the neighborhood for a few hours after supper looking for girls.  Not that it ever amounted to much.  Because whenever we got a clique of them interested it didn’t take more than fifteen minutes for someone to come out with a remark like, “What color panties you wearing?” or something, and that would be the end of the acquaintance.  We just never learned how to get anywhere with girls, mainly because JHS 65 had none to get anywhere with.  What it had was a school full of lunatics from the north side whose idea of socializing was to get you in a half nelson and twist your arm out of its socket just for looking at them the wrong way.  So all winter long you wait for spring to bring out the girls, and then it’s April and they’re out in droves with their girlgiggles and googly glances, all bulged out with another year’s growth, and you can’t wait to get out there, yearning to make some contact. And those are the evenings that Mr. Bell just did me out of, fifteen of them, just to tutor some fool in Algebra 2 who was so hopeless that he still didn’t know what an equal sign meant.

That’s all Samuel Yellen was, a fool.  Frog the fool.  Frog the fuck‑up.  He’d been in my class since we started JHS 65, all three years.  In the seventh grade he wasn’t the smartest kid in the world, but he wasn’t dumb either.  He was one of these skinny, timid kids who are born to take shit.  Frog wasn’t the first name he was stuck with.  He had a tic, a kind of blink, so right off the bat the sniggerers in the class started calling him Blinky.  Blinky got a stinky pinky‑‑stuff like that.  He got more hotfoots and was pushed on his ass over more backs than all the other kids in the school put together.  He’d just hover around the fringes of different groups watching everyone, thinking he was participating in what was going on just by looking interested.  If they looked serious he’d look serious.  If they started laughing he’d start laughing.  Once in a while he’d work up enough nerve to say something and it would come out in a kind of gurgle, like it had been blocked up in his throat and pushed through suddenly, and then he’d let out a nervous chuckle and stand there with a look on his face like guilt, or shame, as if he just violated some rule that said he had to keep quiet all the time.  The only time anyone ever paid any real attention to him was when they were making fun of him, and then he’d just stand there taking it, blinking, trying to smile away the hurt in his eyes, until they’d finally get tired of it and walk away, leaving him standing there all alone.  I was the only one in the class who ever took the time to really talk to him. And I did most of the talking because he never seemed to have anything to say on his own.  You had to ask him questions.  If I stopped talking he’d start blinking so much that his eyes would look as though they were going through some kind of spasm, and then he’d come out with something like, “You know, 683 people died of diphtheria in Morocco last year,” or “They’re going to start painting the Williamsburgh bridge dark gray Friday,” or something.  The one thing he was interested in was electricity.  He was always inviting me up to his house to see what he called his electrical circuits, and I’d always pretend I was busy.  But he asked me so many times that one day after school I went home with him to see what they were all about.  He lived in a two family house above a store on Havemeyer Street.  His mother was a little older than I expected, fifty maybe, a small chubby woman who always wore the same faded housedress with small, purplish flowers, and looked as much a part of the kitchen as the sink.  She had suspicious eyes and a sour face, like she was always nauseous.  The first thing she did when we walked in was pour Samuel a glass of milk.  Then she looked at me.

“You want a glass too?”

“No, thanks,” I said.

Samuel led me through a passage to the rear of the apartment into the smaller of two bedrooms.  It had a single bed on one side of the door and narrow cot on the other, with about four feet of floor space in between.

“What have you got, a brother, or something?” I said.

“A sister,” Samuel said, and started blinking.

“How old is she?”


“And you’re still sleep in the same room?”

Samuel just pretended not to hear that.  He was on his hands and knees pulling a cardboard carton from underneath the cot filled with wire, batteries, switches, transformers and other electrical equipment.  While he was making the hookup his sister came home from school.  Before she even closed the door you could hear her twangy voice complaining: half her class were idiots; this teacher was prejudiced, that one didn’t know what she was talking about; during lunch when this boy‑crazy Shirley Rosenfeld sat next to her she got up and changed her seat.

“Just stay away from her,” Mrs. Yellen said.

Then she came through the passage.  As soon as she saw us she was yapping again.

“Ma, Sammy is playing with his electricity again.  He’s taking up the whole room.”  She had on a plain navy blue dress with shoulder straps and a white blouse underneath with a wide, floppy sailor collar.  She still wore ankle socks and Mary Janes like the girls in the lower grades.  And she had a lower grade body too, narrow and shapeless; but her face looked fourteen.  Her nose was kind of long, not in the sense that it came out of her face too far; it was long lengthwise, like a horse’s.  And she had large, round brown eyes with droopy lids like a horse.

“How long are you going to be fooling around there?” she said.

“This is my room too,” Samuel said.  “Ma, tell Trudy to leave me alone.”

“Make it quick, please,” Trudy said.  “I have a lot of homework.  I don’t go to that dump, 65.”  She put her books on the bed.  “And don’t go opening windows so flies can get in.”  She kept glancing at me, like she was on the lookout for mischief.  “What are you, in Sammy’s class?  It’s full of bums, that dump.  Half the windows are always broken.”

“We like a lot of air,” I said.

“What’s that, your idea of humor?” she said.

Samuel finally finished his hookup.  He closed a few switches and little bells tinkled, little bulbs lit up and little motors started turning little wheels.  All of which seemed to annoy Trudy no end.

“Just don’t start any fires,” she said.  “And when you’re finished with that nonsense take the garbage out.  And it better be soon because it’s full.  And don’t forget to put the cover back onto the garbage can or else we’ll have flies.”

“Well, I have to go now,” I said.

“You want to see my erector set?” Samuel said.  “I can build a five foot suspension bridge.”

“I have to do some shopping for my mother, Samuel,” I said.

He came back through the passage with me.  His mother was giving Trudy a lecture on the perils of hanging around with bums.

“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said to Samuel, then called out to his mother and Trudy, “Good‑bye.”  Neither of them even looked up.

That was Samuel’s home life.  In school, even after we got out of the 7A finally and no longer considered cannon fodder for the upper grades, some absolute atrocities were committed on him.  Like that February in the 7B when Onions and his gang pulled his shoes and socks off with snow and slush still on the ground from a storm a few days before, and he would have had to walk home barefoot if I hadn’t loaned him my rubbers.  Or that time when he never showed up for the sixth, seventh or eighth periods.  He disappeared for a whole afternoon. By the time we got back to home room at three o’clock more than half the class must have already known what happened to him, judging form all the snide smiles and snickering that was going on while Mr. Kessler was checking his Delaney book.

“What happened to Yellen?” Mr. Kessler said.  “He came back from lunch, didn’t he?  I got him marked present.”

“He’s in the toilet,” Alan Schreiber, the class clown, called out, and then there were horse laughs.

“Is there a joke hidden in there somewhere?” Mr. Kessler said.

“I don’t think Yellen’s going to show up,” Schreiber said.

“Why not?” Mr. Kessler said.

“Because he can’t pull his pants up,” Schreiber said.

“Can’t pull his pants up?” Mr. Kessler said.  “Why?”

“Because he lost them,” Schreiber said, and there was another burst.

“He lost his pants?” Mr. Kessler said.  “Literally?”

He got whoops and guffaws for an answer.  “All right!”  He slammed his desk with a fist.  “Which toilet is he in, wise guy?”

“The one next to 407,” Schreiber said.

Mr. Kessler dismissed the class and I followed him down the flight of stairs.  “Was Schreiber kidding me, Ellenbogen?” he said.  “If he was kidding me I’ll break his ass.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Yellen never showed up for sixth period history.  The last I saw of him was when he left Home Room after lunch.”

“You mean to say he’s been missing since the sixth period?”

One of the booths was closed.

“Hey, Yellen,” Mr. Kessler said.  “Is that you?”

There was no answer.

“Is anything wrong?” Mr. Kessler said.  “Answer me, Yellen.  Is it true your pants are missing?  Come on, Yellen, speak up!”

It took ten full seconds for Samuel to answer that. “Yeah,” he said finally.

“Who took them?” Mr. Kessler said.  He waited another ten seconds without getting an answer this time.  “So what do you intend to do, Yellen, sleep there?”  He shook his head. “How the hell are you going to get home?”

“I don’t know,” Samuel said.

Mr. Kessler’s eyes rolled in exasperation.  “You don’t know.  All right, let me see what I can do.  Don’t go away, Ellenbogen.  I’ll be right back.”  He walked out.

“What happened?” I said.  “Was it Onions again?”

“No,” Samuel said.



About ten minutes later Mr. Kessler came back with a pair of green work pants.

“Here, Yellen,” he said.  “I got Mr. Wilson to loan you a pair of his pants.  Put them on.”  He handed them to Samuel over the door.  “Just roll them up.”

Mr. Wilson was the custodian.  He was over six feet tall and weighed about 250 pounds.  After a while Samuel came out struggling to hold his books with one hand and the pants up with the other.

“All right, let’s go,” Mr. Kessler said.  “If you don’t want to tell me who did it, I understand.”

“I have to get my jacket,” Samuel said.

Mr. Kessler’s tongue clicked and his eyes rolled again.  “Get his jacket for him, Ellenbogen.”

I went upstairs and got Samuel’s jacket from the wardrobe.  When I got back down Mr. Kessler was picking Samuel’s books off the floor.

“Ellenbogen,” he said.  “Why don’t you be a nice guy and help Yellen get home?  It looks like he can’t hold his books and those pants up at the same time.”

On the way I asked Samuel: “What are you going to tell your mother?” He mumbled something that I couldn’t make out.  I carried his books upstairs for him. Walking up the last flight I heard some kind of argument going on between his mother and Trudy.  Mrs. Yellen was yelling her head off and Trudy was kind of whining.  Each was saying a single word:

Mrs. Yellen: “No!”

Trudy: Why!”



Mrs. Yellen sounded like a wild woman.  “Take it off!  That hem is coming down right now!”

“But it’s not too short.  That’s how all the girls are wearing them.”

“I don’t care how all the girls are wearing them!  I care how you are wearing them!  Take it off!”

Outside Samuel’s apartment I propped his books under his arm but before I knocked on the door they fell.  As I was picking them up off the floor the door swung open and Mrs. Yellen and Trudy were standing there in shock, gaping at Samuel stooping to pull Mr. Wilson’s pants up.

“What happened to your pants!” Mrs. Yellen shrieked with the same voice she had been using on Trudy, like she just shifted right into another victim.

Waiting for Samuel to give his mother some kind of explanation, I was noticing Trudy.  She had a different look about her.  Her hair was bobbed and her eyebrows tweezed and her eyes done up, or something.  The dismal‑astonished look on her face seemed to improve it.  She had put on weight and was wearing nylon stockings and medium heels like the rest of the girls.  Her skirt didn’t look too short to me; it was a good two inches below her knees.

“Well!” Mrs. Yellen was screaming.  “Open your mouth!”

Samuel did open his mouth, but nothing came out.  He was standing there holding Mr. Wilson’s pants up with one hand, his other arm crooked out in front of his cringing head as if he expected his mother to take a swing at him.  He reminded me of a dog looking at his owner like he knows he did something wrong but doesn’t know what.  Finally he managed to get his voice going.

“I lost them,” he said.

“What!  You lost your pants!” Mrs. Yellen shrieked. “How!” She was looking at Samuel like if an answer didn’t come out of him pretty soon she was going to grab him by the throat and choke it out.  “How could you lose pants!”  There was a long, creepy silence, the kind you hear tom‑toms in the background of.  Samuel’s face was chalk‑white.  He lost his grip on Mr. Wilson’s pants and they got half way down before he got them under enough control to pull them back up again.  But he just couldn’t seem to get his mouth going.

I was holding both Samuel’s and my own books and my arms were practically numb by now.  “Where do you want me to put your books, Samuel?” I said.  “I have to get home.”

Mrs. Yellen started screaming again.  “Whose pants are those!  Speak!”

It was no use.  Samuel was struck dumb.

“Mr. Wilson’s,” I said, more to make everyone aware of me and my struggle than anything else.  “He’s the school custodian.”  I would have just walked in and dropped Samuel’s books on the kitchen table, if only his mother and sister weren’t blocking the door.  “Will someone please take these books from me?”

“Give them to me,” Mrs. Yellen said.  She grabbed them from under my arm like she suddenly got the idea that I might damage them, or something.  I took one more look at Trudy, then get the hell downstairs.  I couldn’t get over how much she changed.  You could almost say she looked like a piece now.  She reminded me of a pretty girl horse in a cartoon with a bow between its ears.

It was around the following fall that Samuel started changing too.  You could almost see it happening from one day to the next, like watching a plant.  No, not a plant.  A plant just grows.  He was transforming, like a tadpole transforms.  Like a head began to emerge and take shape with goggling eyes in big‑boned sockets.  Frog eyes.  He stopped blinking, and you began to notice that his arms had reach and his legs took steps.  His voice kept getting lower and lower until he even sounded like a frog.  It seemed that every time I saw him he was a little taller and a little heavier than he was the time before.  Until by the middle of that spring, although he still may not have filled those pants of Mr. Wilson’s, he would have looked a hell of a lot more respectable in them than he did nine months earlier.

When he came back from vacation to start the ninth grade that fall he must have grown another three inches and gained twenty more pounds.  There was enough fuzz above his lip to be called a wispy mustache.  Two weeks into the new term he showed us that it wasn’t only his body that changed.  First he started to dress like the rest of the lunatics.  He sewed a red and white patch on the sleeve of his jacket that said Rheingold Beer, and always had a comb sticking out of its breast pocket.  He started wearing sharply pegged pants in loud colors, like orange or purple, and pointy shoes.  If you ran into him before or after school he’d either be smoking a cigarette or have one stuck behind his ear.  All of a sudden he was talking and kids were listening.  He kept bragging about all the girls he fooled around with in the country.  He even claimed he laid one.  It was as if I knew two different Samuels: Electricity Samuel and Cigarette Samuel.  I couldn’t get them together in my mind, except every once in a while you’d see some of the old shyness swimming around in those frog eyes he developed and for a few minutes the two Samuels would come together.

I don’t know how he got associated with Vitale, the same sonofabitch who stole his pants that time.  One day when I got back to school after lunch, there he was, playing basketball with him and his crew in the courtyard.  By the way Samuel was just barely hanging in there, making these pathetic, half‑assed attempts for rebounds and never getting any, being shoved around and never shoving back, you could see just where he stood with those guys.  They called him‑‑what else?  Frog.  Vitale would get on him.  “Hey, Frog, give us a few croaks.”  And Samuel would gurgle something in his throat, trying to imitate a frog.  Soon the whole school started calling him Frog.  He was proud of the name. Maybe he thought it gave him some kind of status.  He’d walk around taking these gangling strides, angling his knees out as if to accentuate his frogness.  Sometimes walking in the street he’d start to croak on his own for no reason at all.

Vitale was his downfall.  He didn’t seem to care about school anymore. He hardly ever did his homework.  I tried talking to him a few times.  He’d listen and keep nodding, and then go right back to hanging around with Vitale again.

One day after school I had a run‑in with Vitale and his stooges.  Samuel was with them.  There had been a rehearsal of the school orchestra and I had my violin with me.  They were standing in front of Harry’s horsing around, and as I approached them I could tell by the sneaky and menacing way they were looking at me that they had something in mind.  So I crossed the street.  They crossed too and intercepted me.

“Hey, Einstein,” Vitale said.  “You know how to play The Blue Danube on that thing?”

The only thing you could do with Vitale was wait him out.  The more you reasoned the more vicious he got.  I knew Samuel had no say in the matter; he was looking straight down at the sidewalk.

“Can I take a look at it?” Vitale said, and grabbed the case and tried to take it from me.  “Let me see the fuckin thing!”  I held on to the handle but the way he started yanking at it, I was afraid he might damage the violin, so I let him take it. He put it down on the sidewalk and opened it and pulled the violin out by the strings.

“If you damage that violin it’s going to cost your father two hundred dollars,” I said, even though it was worth about twenty‑five.

Vitale looked at me as if I were crazy.  “Two hundred dollars my ass,” he said.  But he started handling the violin a lot daintier.

“If you don’t believe me, go ahead, damage it, you’ll find out,” I said.  “Why don’t you do your father a favor and just put it back?”

He gave me one of his black looks.  “You better keep my father out of this unless you want a kick in the ass, you little cocksucker,” he said.  He took the bow out of the case and without tightening the hairs drew it across the strings of the violin, which he was holding against his stomach.  He started to guffaw like an idiot at the squeaks he was making, and the others busted out laughing too, including Samuel.  Then all of a sudden he stopped and put the violin back into the case like he was putting a frying pan with a hot handle back on the stove, dropping it the last six inches, and tossed the bow on top of it and walked away, the others following.  As I was looking the violin over for damage, I saw the reason for Vitale’s coming to his senses.  Walking toward me on his way to the subway was Mr. Scalfani, the assistant principal.

“Is anything wrong here?” he said.  “Were they giving you trouble?”

“They just wanted to see what a violin looks like,” I said.  I was more angry at Samuel Yellen than I was at Vitale and the others.  They were just a bunch of schmucks.  But when Samuel laughed at me he laughed at the only person in that school who ever treated him like a human being.  That’s when I stopped talking to him.

And now it was like he was laughing at me again.  Because for his benefit I was going to have to give up fifteen nights that at least started out with dreams of pleasure for fifteen that were going to start and end in pure misery.  I gave it one more try with Mr. Bell, but he didn’t even wait for me to ask him this time.  He didn’t even wait for me to reach his desk.  He didn’t even look up from what he was writing, like he saw me approach him through another pair of eyes on top of his head.

“The answer is no, Ellenbogen,” he said.

I put on the disappointment.  “Thanks,” I said again.  And again he called me back as I started walking out.

“Ellenbogen, I know how you feel,” he said.  “Look, listen to me.  All I want you to do is get him a 42 on the regents.  That’s the lowest mark any student of mine ever got in all my eighteen years of teaching.  You see, I don’t want any records broken.  Now I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you.  If you outdo yourself and get him a 65 I’ll give you five extra points for your final grade.  What do you say to that?  You could break a record, Ellenbogen. You could be the first student to get a hundred out of me.  Ever.”

Walking to my next class I gave the situation some thought.  Let’s say three on three until four‑thirty.  Then practice and do as much of my homework as I can until supper.  Which, if I could get mom to have ready fifteen minutes earlier than usual, would enable me to get to Samuel’s house by seven.  Then if I worked fast enough to do all the algebra homework and explaining in forty‑five minutes, I’d be through with Samuel by a quarter to eight and could catch the Zephyrs at Millers by eight, when they usually started out.  Then when I got home after the expedition I’d finish my homework even if I had to stay up a little longer.

When we got back to home room at three o’clock I gave Samuel my tutoring conditions.  I told him it was going to be on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at seven o’clock (Wednesdays were out because of my violin lesson, and who wanted to be screwing around with schoolwork on Friday), and it was going to have to be at his house, since I didn’t want him coming into mine.

“Aah, this tutoring is a lot of bullshit,” he said.

“I agree with you,” I said.  “Why don’t you go see Mr. Bell and tell him that?  Just tell him you don’t want any part of it, and that’ll be that.”

“He’ll call my mother up to school,” Samuel said.  “Why don’t we just tell him we’re doing it and forget about it?”

It took me a moment to go over the pros and cons of that.  “No dice,” I said.

“Well, I’ll let you know,” he said.

“What’ll you let me know?”

“If it could be in my house.”

“What do you mean, if?” I said.  “It has to be.  Those are my conditions.”

“All right, in my house,” he said, like he was doing me a favor.

That night I talked to mom about supper.

“Why don’t you do it right after school?” she said.

“Because that’s the only time I have to play some ball.”

“Can’t you exist without playing ball three times a week?”

“No, I can’t”

“Can’t you come right home after your tutoring and finish your homework, instead of hanging around that candy store three days a week?”

“Can’t you do your own son a favor every once in a while?”

“All right, I’ll do it!” mom said.  “But no more than fifteen minutes.”

“That’s all I need.”

That Monday I got there seven on the button.  Samuel’s mother answered the door.

“All right, you can come in,” she said, like she was doing me a favor too.  The expression on her face hadn’t changed in two years.  She still looked nauseous.

The smell hit me as soon as I walked in, that girl smell of sixteen and up, that conglomeration of perfume, makeup, nail polish, shampoo and whatever else they use.  Jesus, his sister was starting with all that stuff already.  I was hoping she wasn’t going to be a pain in the ass by insisting on staying in the room and nagging the hell out of Samuel while we were working.

“He’s in there,” Samuel’s mother said, motioning to the back of the apartment with her head.

Samuel was playing solitaire on a studio couch, squeezed into a shallow alcove between the bathroom and a closet, that took up half the width of the passage.  In the small bedroom, I caught a glimpse of a female in bed reading a magazine, who I had trouble believing was Samuel’s sister.  Because from the size and the attitude of her body she could have been a full-grown, very well developed woman.

“You’re early,” Samuel said without even looking up from the cards.

“What do you mean, early?” I said.  “It’s after seven.  Let’s get going.”  I waited for him to put the cards away, but he just kept on playing.  “What do you say, Samuel?  I haven’t got all night.”

“I’m almost finished,” he said.

“Never mind, almost finished!  Let’s get going.”

“This is an interesting game.”  He carefully moved the cards intact to the end of the studio couch, then went to the kitchen and came back with his mother’s cooking timer.  He set it for an hour and put it on the floor in front of the studio couch, and the damn thing started buzzing and grinding as it ticked its way back.

“What do we need that for? I said.  “I have a watch.  I’ll know when to stop.”

“This way a bell rings,” Samuel said.  “It’s automatic.”

“What’s the matter with you?” I said.  “Aren’t you worried about failing algebra?”

“Sure I am,” he said.  “But I got to be someplace at eight o’clock.”

“All right, then we better get going,” I said.  “If we work right maybe we can get done early.  Come on, get your books out.”

He went to the bedroom where Trudy was and started to search for them on a chest of drawers that looked like it had all his possessions piled on top of it.  Trudy raised her head to watch him.  She had the same basic horse face that I remembered, but somehow the fullness of it and the fact that she had some makeup on made her look like one of those girls who catch your eye but don’t hold it for too long.  I couldn’t believe how much flesh she grew.  It wasn’t easy to keep my eyes off the plumpness of her ass ballooning around inside the folds of her skirt as she moved.

“What are you doing, stupid?” she said.  “What are you looking for?”

“I didn’t know horses could talk,” Samuel said.

“What are you taking?”

“The jewels from your harness.”

“Ma, he’s getting smart with me again,” Trudy called out.

“What do you think, you own this room?” Samuel said. “I got just as much right in here as you.  All I do is sleep out there, and don’t forget it.”

“Just don’t take any of my pencils,” Trudy said.

“You think I want to catch horse fleas or something, fatso?” Samuel said.

“Idiot!” Trudy said.

Mrs. Yellen yelled from the kitchen: “Did you ever see such lunatics?”

Samuel came back with his books and put them on the studio couch between us.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “We have to face the same way.  I can’t read upside down.”

Samuel looked at me as if I were talking Chinese.

“Don’t you have a little table or something that we can put in front of us to put the books on?” I said.

“There’s a little bench in there,” Samuel said.

“All right, get it,” I said.  “As long as it’s big enough to hold our books.”

He went back into the bedroom.

“What are you doing now, stupid?” Trudy said.  She got up to look.

Samuel just stuck his middle finger into the air then disappeared from my view.

“Where are you going with that?” Trudy said.  “I was just going to do my toe nails.  Ma, tell this big dope not to take my toe nail bench.”

“Ma, tall this fat horse she can go kiss my ass,” Samuel said.

“Two lunatics!” Mrs. Yellen said.

Samuel came backing out of the room pulling the bench and Trudy along with it.  He yanked it free and placed it in front of the studio couch, leaving her standing in the threshold of her room looking at him with pure hate in her eyes, her nostrils flared almost like an angry horse’s, almost snorting.  It was just long enough to hold our books and only about a foot wide but, counting the room we had to make for our knees, it blocked the whole passage.  The only way to get by without moving it was to jump right over it.

Which is just what Trudy did.  She came galloping up to it on her way to the kitchen and picked her dress up halfway to give her legs leeway and took a leap right over it like a horse clearing a hedge in a steeplechase, her front knee lifting her dress high enough as she flew by to reveal enough of her shadowy underness to make it look interesting, all less than two feet from my eyes.

“Ma, tell that lizard to give me my toe nail bench!” she wailed to Mrs. Yellen.  “I’m going to do my toe nails soon.”

“You and your toe nails,” Mrs. Yellen said.  “One of these days I’m going to take a hammer and break all ten of them.  Let him have it for the time being, and close your mouth because I didn’t want to hear no more.”

“I didn’t know hoofs had toe nails,” Samuel said.

Trudy came rampaging back out of the kitchen through the passage.  This time she stopped in front of the bench and waited, glaring down at Samuel, who was actively not paying the least bit of attention to her.

“Ma, tell him to move the bench!” she yelled.

“Oi, that’s all I do all day is go around telling everybody.” Mrs. Yellen said.  She looked into the passage and Samuel picked the bench off the floor and held it across both our laps.  Trudy stomped by and dropped onto her bed and started turning the pages of her magazine like she was ripping them right out.  Then she started whistling Stars and Stripes Forever, keeping the rhythm by whacking the pencil on the magazine and rocking the bed with her toes on the footboard, with the spring creaking and jangling accompaniment.  It was nerve wracking.  Because of the way we were sitting, Samuel half facing the kitchen and me half facing the bedrooms, she was directly in my line of vision, so that even looking down at the work the edge of my eye caught every move she made.

When we finally got started it was already a quarter past seven.  I must have been kidding myself with that forty‑five minute business.  Between Samuel’s thick head and the working conditions I’d be lucky if he finished even half of the ten problems assigned in that time.  And that bench, it may have been all right for Trudy’s toe nails but the surface of it just barely held the books.  And it was no more than eighteen inches high, so that we had to sit right at the edge of the studio couch and lean in over it, writing with our elbows resting on our knees.

Mrs. Yellen kept pumping food into Samuel.  First she came over and put a banana right on his notebook.  A few minutes later she put a glass of milk down on the bench, kind of shoving the books around to make room for it, then kept nagging him to drink it.

“Sammy, you’re milk is on the bench.  Drink it, right now.”  She finally came over and yelled into his ear: “There’s your milk!  Drink it!”

He picked it up, tilted his head back and poured it straight down his throat.

Mrs. Yellen and I watched him empty the whole glass that way.  Then we looked at each other.  Then she said:

“Do me a favor.  After you finish teaching him arithmetic teach him how to drink a glass of milk.  Because in one second I’m going to send him straight to the crazy house.”  She went back to the kitchen muttering: “They get me so nervous I can’t even hold a knife to cut an orange.”

Trudy didn’t need any coaxing.  Every ten minutes it seemed she’d go to the kitchen to get something from the refrigerator, and we’d have to stop everything and lift the whole bench over our laps to let her pass.

“Don’t put it down yet,” she’d say from the kitchen. “I’m coming right back.”

Finally Samuel said: “What are you wasting time going back and forth?  Why don’t you just put the whole refrigerator in your feed bag”

On her way back she stopped and said to me: “I don’t know why you’re wasting your time on this lummox.”  She was eating an apple and holding another in her hand.

“Aah, go back to your stall and take a shit, horse face,” Samuel said.

Trudy wound up like she was going to throw the apple at him, but changed her mind and took a bite.  “You’re pathetic,” she said.

“Are you still alive?” Samuel said.

“Drink poison,” Trudy said, then stomped back to her room.

“Ladies first,” Samuel said.

“You can drop dead from them,” Mrs. Yellen said.

I gave Samuel the whole hour.  When his mother’s cooking timer went off we were in the middle of the fourth problem.  He just closed his books without even finishing it and brought Trudy’s toe nail bench back to her room and went into the bathroom to comb his hair.  He completed only three and a half out of ten problems, and I had to push him through all of it.

Samuel and Trudy were mortal enemies.  She was always there in her bed surrounded by books, pencils, papers, clothing, sewing supplies and God knows what.  She’d lie there reading or doing her homework or a crossword puzzle or arranging her clothing.  She kept discovering all kinds of crimes that Samuel had committed against her.  She accused him of bending her key, mixing up her underwear, staying in the toilet for spite when she had to go, tearing her library card, eating a sandwich she made for herself, getting cookie crumbs all over the bedroom‑‑all kinds of things.  One time she came up to him with a pair of scissors in her hand.

“Did you put this underneath my blanket?” she said.

“Now you’re getting crazy altogether,” Mrs. Yellen said.  “What is he, a murderer?”

“Yes!” Trudy said. “Who else could have done it but that psycho case?”

Samuel was gritting his teeth, about to explode back at her.  Suddenly he leaped up, upsetting the bench and scattering the books and notebooks all over the floor, and landed back down in exactly the same place he was sitting.  And then Mrs. Yellen was right there with a frying pan in her hand, holding it over his head like she was about to squash him with it any second.

“Don’t move and don’t even try to open your mouth!” she yelled.  Then she turned her attention to Trudy.  “And as far as the Grand Canyon of Havemeyer Street is concerned, I’m warning you, you better close up for the season.  You better go back to your room if you know what’s good for you.  I’m bringing up two animals.”  She glanced back and forth between Samuel and Trudy as if she were whipping them with the anger in her eyes.  “Neither one of you is human.  If I hear one more word I’m going to tell your father to talk to you.  You know what he talks with, don’t you?”  And she made a fist. “Crazy animal mishugeners.

The mention of a father took me by surprise.  Until then it never occurred to me that there was one around the house.  I just assumed he was nonexistent or dead, or something.

“What does your father, work nights, or something?” I asked Samuel.

“Nah,” Samuel said.  “Why?”

“I never see him around,” I said.

“He goes to the Democratic club and plays pinochle every night,” Samuel said.  “Except Saturday he takes us all to the movies.  That’s all he likes is pinochle and the movies.”

“Your sister too?” I said.  “Doesn’t she have dates, or something?”

“Who, Trudy?” Samuel said.  “She went out twice in her life, and both times it was with girlfriends who didn’t know her too well.”

That’s how it went for two weeks.  Trudy and Samuel had at least one fight every time I came.  One night‑‑it was the Monday of the third week‑‑as soon as we opened our books on the bench Trudy started calling Samuel names under her breath.  She was sewing a hem or something on a skirt and with each stitch she called him another name.

“Stupid idiot.  Big lummox.  Psycho case.  Moron.” She kept repeating it like a largo in 4/4 time, until Samuel finally yelled back to her:

“Why don’t you go pull a wagon?”

Before he even finished saying that Trudy was out of her bed, steaming toward us.  She didn’t wait for Samuel to pick up the bench this time.  She leaped right over it in a commotion of skirt and thigh, traveling so fast that she had to slide to a stop to avoid colliding with her mother.

“He’s starting on me with the wagon again!” she shrieked.

“She gallops and the whole house can cave in,” Mrs. Yellen said.

Trudy turned and came back to the kitchen side of the bench and stood there with her arms bowed out and her fingers clawed stiff as tree branches, glaring down at Samuel with fire in her eyes.  Somehow the fierceness of her expression gave her face a certain attractiveness.  She reminded me of a pretty cartoon horse with steam coming out of her nostrils.

Mrs. Yellen appeared in the passage with a half peeled potato and a paring knife.  “What’ll you do when I’m dead?”  She was speaking to both of them.  “Will you tell me?  Who will you find to aggravate?”

Trudy’s body loosened and her hands dropped to her sides and her eyes cooled off.  She stood there with her chest heaving.  “Move the bench, stupid,” she said finally.  “I have to pass.”

“Who are you calling stupid?” Samuel said.

“Move the bench!”

“Make me!”

“I have to pass!  Move the bench!”

Samuel looked at me.  “Do you hear someone talking?”

“Stupid!” Trudy said.

“Get plastic surgery!”

“Nitwit!” Trudy hiked her dress above her knees and with one lead‑in step sprung back over the bench, giving me another undershow from the other side.

“They belong in the zoo,” Mrs. Yellen said.

Trudy plunked herself down on her bed and started sewing again, sticking that needle into her skirt as if she were stabbing instead of sewing it.

Samuel was stubborn as a mule on the issue of Trudy’s toe nail bench.  He just would not move it for her.  He even took a stand against his mother on it.

“Don’t be stupid,” Mrs. Yellen said.  “Take it out of the way for her.  What do you expect her to do, jump over it every time she has to pass?  She could break a leg.”

“Then let her grow wings and fly over,” Samuel said. “This bench ain’t moving, that’s final.”

“Final?” Mrs. Yellen said.  “Final?  Wait till I tell papa.  We’ll soon see what’s final.”  She started back to the kitchen hissing between clenched teeth: “Crazy stupid!”

That just about summed it up.  That bench stood right where it was.  Whenever Trudy approached Samuel would actually clamp it between his knees and the wall opposite just in case she tried to move it herself.  So to get by she’d just have to jump it, giving me another eyeful, which was the only worthwhile thing going on in that house.  Every ten minutes she’d spring out of her bed to go the refrigerator and just barrel through the passage toward us like if we didn’t get our heads out of the way she’d bowl right through them, and she’d take that skirt‑swirling, thigh‑exposing leap over her toe nail bench.  Sometimes her legs came so close that I could see the fine black hairs and goose bumps on her thighs. She had a light brown birth mark the size of a raisin on the inside of her right thigh, about half way up.

That went on for three days.  Then on Monday of the fourth week something happened.  The hour was almost up and for the last twenty minutes or so Trudy hadn’t left her room at all.  She was busy arranging some clothing in her drawer when a sheer pink glimmer caught my eye and I glanced up.  She was holding a pair of her panties at arm’s length in front of her, stretching the waistband open like when you play cat’s cradle, and examining a hole in the seat the size of a quarter, as if trying to decide if they could still be used.  They were so slight and flimsy I couldn’t see how those two bulges of hers could have fit into them.  All of a sudden the cooking timer went off and her eyes flew to me and the panties sprung into her stomach and rumpled in her hands and I wasn’t sure I dropped my eyes before she realized I was looking.

As I started through the passage on my way out I glanced in at her and said good night like I always did, but she didn’t look up.  She never did.  It was the tenth time I was there and she never once said hello when I got there or good night when I left.  She just ignored me.

Walking home my thoughts were on how skimpy those things looked; and then the idea that I wouldn’t mind making out with Trudy started flitting around in my head.

When I got there next time it was obvious that Samuel’s father had finally talked to him because I could see the effects of the conversation.  The whole left side of his face was swollen.

“What happened to you?” I said.

“Aah, it’s only a toothache,” he said.

So I knew that Trudy now free to go to the refrigerator without having to jump over that bench.  But it didn’t look as though she intended to use her freedom.  She stocked up before I got there.  She was in bed propped on two pillows reading a magazine, holding it in front of her face so that I couldn’t make out her attitude.  On a chair beside her bed was half a glass of milk with the container beside it, a package of chocolate cookies, some peaches and a bunch of dried figs.  Her legs were extended straight out, stiff as two boards, her skirt tucked snugly beneath them.  She stayed in bed like that, quietly reading, the whole hour.  The only time she opened her mouth was to put food in.  That was Tuesday.  The same thing happened on Thursday.  I didn’t know if it was just that she found a way to read and nourish herself with less exertion, or if it was me; like she wanted to keep her distance from this contemptible cockroach who saw her panties, or something.  Anyway, in those two days, because of the peace and quiet, I managed to get a lot more into that thick head of Samuel’s than I had the first ten.  He was finally learning something.

Before leaving that night I asked Samuel what was wrong with his sister.

“You first noticed it?” he said.

“I mean why is she so quiet all of a sudden?”

“Aah, she’s cracked.  Either she’s always yapping or else she goes into these weird silent spells of hers.  She ain’t normal.”

The next time, the Monday of the last week, Trudy finally made a move that was neither turning a page nor putting food into her mouth.  Her hand reached down to scratch the middle of her thigh through her skirt.  It must have been really itching because she had to scratch every two minutes, like you’d scratch a mosquito bite.  After a while her hand started lifting the hem of her skirt a few inches to get to the bare skin.  That knocked me out.

When I got to Samuel’s house the next day, Tuesday, he was waiting downstairs.

“We’re skipping today,” he said.  “I got something to do.”

“Nothing doing,” I said.  “You could have cancelled the whole thing at the beginning and failed and been done with it.  But now I got too much time invested in you.  I stand a chance of getting five more points on my final mark if you pass the regents.  If you quit now there are going to be consequences, that’s all I have to say.”

“Aah, this tutoring is a lot of bullshit,” he said.  But he was looking at me from under his brow like the old Electricity Samuel, and he backed down.

When we got started Trudy was already scratching.  She started off the same way, through her skirt, but before long she was slipping her hand underneath the hem again.  About half way through the hour her itch spread to behind her knee, which she had to bend a little in order to reach, revealing a piece of her other thigh.  By the time that cooking timer went off her itch spread down to the bottom of her calf, making it necessary for her to bend her knee that much more to get at, with that much more of her other thigh emerging under her skirt, and that much more in shadow for me to yearn after.  And me eating my heart out that much more because Thursday was going to be the last time I was going to hear that cooking timer of Mrs. Yellen’s go off.

When I got home that night mom told me that Schneider had called to reschedule my Wednesday lesson to Thursday evening, since he was called to sub at the Queens Symphony on Wednesday.  I picked up the phone.

“What are you doing?” mom said.

“Calling Schneider,” I said.

“What for?” mom said.

“To tell him I can’t make it Thursday.  I got tutoring.”

“I think you’d better take that violin lesson Thursday and reschedule the tutoring,” mom said.  “Whoever that kid is, he must be more flexible than Mr. Schneider.”

The next day in school I told Samuel I couldn’t make it that Thursday.

“Well, if you can’t make it, too bad,” he said.

“What do you mean, too bad?”

“If you’re not at my house at seven o’clock Thursday you forfeit.”

“Hey, Samuel,” I said, “this ain’t like a ball game.  If I forfeit you’re the one who loses.  Besides, what are you getting technical for?  Don’t you want to pass Algebra, for crissake?  Let’s make it tonight.”

“I can’t.  I have a date.”

“How about Friday?”

“I can’t.  It’s shabbes.”

“You’re religious?”

“No, but my father don’t allow writing on shabbes.”

“Well, how about—”  I was going to say Saturday night after shabbes, then I remembered their movie night.  “How about Sunday?”

“Are you kidding?” Samuel said.  “That’s a day of rest.”

“For the Christians, not us.”

“I’m not talking about religious rest.”

“All right, how about Monday?”

“That’s too far away.  I might be busy.”

“Listen, Samuel,” I said.  “Mr. Bell keeps asking me if you’re giving me any trouble.  If he asks again I’m not going to lie to him, understand?  He’ll get your mother up to school just like that.  And maybe she’ll get your father to talk to you again.”

“All right, Monday,” Samuel said.

It was for nothing.  Trudy wasn’t there when I got there.  Samuel’s head wasn’t working at all.  I kept explaining things to him and he’d say, “Yeah, yeah,” and then just keep doing everything wrong.  We didn’t even finish a quarter of the assignment.  I offered to spend more time with him.

“You must be kidding,” he said.

So I left.  Walking down Havemeyer Street I met Trudy coming the other way, on her way home.  When she reached me she stopped.

“Are you coming from my house?” she said.


“Sammy said you were finished with his tutoring.”

“We are now.”

“Well, I’m glad of that.”

“So am I.”

“That’s good,” she said, and continued walking.

I kept turning to look at her.  She sure did look piecy in the dark.  The last time I thought I saw her face peeping at me from behind the doorway.

During supper the Saturday after regents week I got a surprise telephone call.  Mom answered.

“It’s for you,” she said, looking at me like I was a goldfish in a bowl who just turned black.  I couldn’t understand what she was looking about, until she added: “It’s someone called Samuel Yellen’s sister.”

It was like sparklers lit up in my head.  I was almost afraid to put the receiver to my ear.  I didn’t know what the hell I was going to hear.

“Do you have any calamine lotion?” Trudy said. “You’re my last resort.”

“Calamine lotion?” I said.

“What are you, deaf?” she said.  “Well?”

“Wait a minute,” I said.  I asked mom if we had any.

“Calamine lotion?” mom said.  “The last time I used calamine lotion was when you had the chicken pox.  That was nine years ago.”

“We don’t have any,” I said.  “I know where to get some, though.”  There was a Rexall on Broadway and Marcy that was open seven days a week until ten.

There was a long pause.  “Well, I can’t go out in my condition.  Could you get some for me and I’ll pay for it when you get here?”

“All right,” I said.

“Don’t rush,” Trudy said, and just hung up.

“Why can’t she go for it herself?” mom said.

“She has a fever,” I said.

“What’s the matter with her?”

“I don’t know.  She has an itch.”

“That’s obvious.  What kind of itch?  What’s the cause of it?”

“How should I know?”

“Who is she, anyway?”

“Samuel Yellen’s sister.”

“I already know that.  Who’s Samuel Yellen?”

“The guy I was tutoring.”

“What about the rest of the family?  What are they, all cripples?”

“They’re all in the movies.”

“Don’t get too close to her,” mom said.

After supper I took a dollar from some money I had saved and went to get the calamine lotion.  At Samuel’s house I rang the bell downstairs, but there was no answer.  It worked because I heard it ring.  As I started up the stairs the thought came to me that maybe this was Trudy’s idea of a joke.  The door to the apartment was ajar about a foot.  The kitchen light was off, but it was made darkly visible by an overflow of light coming from the passage, one of the bedrooms maybe.  It looked creepy, seeing the kitchen that way.  I knocked softly. No one answered.

“Hey, Trudy,” I called in a whisper.  I went in and put the calamine lotion on the kitchen table and took a look into the passage.  The light was coming from the bathroom, but not enough was reaching Trudy’s room to see clearly from where I was.  There was something on the bed, but it could have been a rumpled blanket.  I already had one foot outside the door when I heard a moan.  Then I heard it again, like suffering.  I went back in and picked the calamine lotion off the kitchen table and tiptoed into the passage.  Half way to the room I was able to make out Trudy’s legs on the bed.  I kept calling her name but she didn’t answer.  I continued on to the threshold and then my chest sprung.  She was lying on her back with her skirt more than halfway up her thighs, her legs somewhat apart.  What was she, sleeping?  I couldn’t make out whether her eyes were open or closed.  I stood there staring at her like that for about half a minute, then reached over and put the calamine lotion on her toe nail bench beside the bed and turned to leave.  Half way through the passage I heard her call out in a strange, stony voice: “Hey!” I went back to her room.  She still had her eyes closed but her eyelids seemed to be fluttering.  Glimmers of light reflected in tiny beads of sweat above her lip.  She started to breathe in a queer, panting way and her face looked like it was starting to twist.  Something was going on there but I couldn’t tell exactly what.

“Are you all right?” I said.

And then her eyes were open and she was glaring at me.  She pulled her skirt down and sat up and started yelling.

“What did you wake me up for, stupid!  Who do you think you are!”

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “All I did was bring you the calamine lotion you asked for.”

“So what!” she said.  “You were my last resort!  I told you you were my last resort, didn’t I?”

“What’s the difference what resort I was?” I said.  “You asked me to do it and I did it.  So what are you yelling about?  I can’t help it if you were sleeping.  What do you want from me?  All I did was what you asked me.”

“I know what you were doing!” she shrieked.  “You were looking up my skirt, weren’t you!  Admit it!”

“Who was looking up your skirt?” I said, feeling heat rise to my head.

“So what are you standing there for!”

“What do you mean, what am I standing here for?  I just brought you your calamine lotion.”

She looked at me like she was in pain.  Then her face started twisting again and she sprung off the bed and grabbed the bottle from the bench.  “You better get outta here!” she yelled.  “Here’s your stupid calamine lotion!”  And she almost jabbed my stomach with it.  “Go on, get outta here! Go on!  You’re a disgusting pervert!”

“Don’t you need it?” I managed to get out.

“Not from you!” she said approaching me with an open hand cocked like she was going to take a slap at me.  “I wouldn’t take anything from you in a million years!  You better get going!”  She shoved me.  She didn’t have to, I was already on my way out.  She slammed the door after me.

I was hardly aware of walking down the stairs.  The dimly lit hallway looked funny, unreal.  In the street the sound of the door slamming was still in my ears.  I held the calamine lotion up in front of me and then something built up inside of me and I yelled at the top of my lungs:

“Frog and horse!  Goddam frog and goddam horse!”  I wound up and flung the bottle at the front of the building.  There was the dead pop of filled glass hitting brick and the pink splotch and there went fifty‑nine cents.

Samuel Yellen got a fifty‑nine on the regents.  I couldn’t get over the coincidence.  On the Thursday before school ended Mr. Bell came over to me.

“You couldn’t get him six more points?” he said.  “You could have made history, Ellenbogen, you could have made history.”