Daddy can't stand the kikes. Daddy says they look down their kike
noses at him in the state store, where Daddy picks and packs, crates up
the Liquor Board liquor. The kikes treat him without time of day.
"Those fucking kikes," says Daddy.
Maybe Daddy's a little tippy tonight.
"You're tippy," says Mother.
"I stopped for a few."
"But Daddy," I say, "aren't we the kikes?"
"That's what they say," says Daddy. "I say it's them. Who needs
them? Who needs her?"
What Daddy maybe means is that us Cherskys of the Hill District are
not like the Blitzsteins of Squirrel Hill, except maybe my Aunt Rachel,
who married in, and who we never see her anymore.
"Who needs her?" says Daddy. "Let her cavort with the kikes."
Cavort is a smartie word. It was on the vocab quiz. Maybe Daddy
knows it because he used to be a smartie, too. Now he's sore arms, sore
neck from him hauling all the Liquor Board crates, sore everything every
night, aching, waiting for his salt bath, wanting to know from us which
of us needs Rachel. Now he shushes up for in case the Old Lady will hear.
The Old Lady is in her room with her high holy silver, the Chersky locket
swinging on her collar lace. She never leaves her room. She gets her
dinner after, and not the ham we hide away. We are always shushing for in
case the Old Lady puts her high holy ear to the keyhole. We never say the
name of ham, or the name of Uncle Joey's Polish girl, Paula, Paula,
Let them hide the ham away. Let Daddy come home tippy, or call Uncle
Joey a bum until Joey bawls how it's not his fault, it's the gas he got
in France, the mustard. Then he'll peel off money for Daddy from his
copper money clip. Mother says the money is green enough for legal
tender, why ask what he does for it? A bagjob, a bet, a favor in a pinch?
Bumhood is not Uncle Joey's fault, either. He gave his mustard mask to a
boy with bad breathing. The gas came floating through the trees of
France, and now he reads books all day, Astronomy of the Gods, A Century
of English Verse, spits dip on the back stoop, gets mustard nervous,
waits for the moon to be over the park for Paula.
Let us just be Cherskys, Aunt Rachel's Blitzstein shame. This is my
Want to know my faith? School does. Mother says to say American.
"Hey," says Uncle Joey, "how about Alleghenian? That's what everyone
around here is. Gypsy, dago, mick, it's all Alleghenian."
What about chink Chinese? I want to ask. What about my best girlfriend
Mona Yee, who me and Mona are the front-desk smarties at Duquesne
Grammar, tops, not counting Alvin Kwon? We are best friends with our
shaved ices on the spit-brown stoop, and we are best friend rollers on
our roller skates. Everyone who sees us sees us together, the Chersky
girl, the pretty one, the only one, and Mona Yee, Chinese pretty. We are
from up the Hill and we roll down it, past the bakery, the butcher shop,
the state store where Daddy fetches whiskey for the kikes.
Sometimes I see Daddy through the window. He nods his curved-up jaw
at Mr. Vance, the Liquor Board man. Maybe Daddy sees me but he never
waves back. That's okay, it's like in school, somebody does an ink bomb
on you, but even if the paper sticks to your blouse you better not turn
around. Not if you want to stay a smartie. Only Alvin Kwon ever turns
around. He burns his eyes at the boys in back, the ones who vow they're
sending Alvin to the Slabs.
"Never!" says Alvin, who's going to be mayor someday, and can recite
the Gettysburg Address in perfect Lincoln.
Today, Mona and me, we are after-class rollers, rolling under steel
smoke, over all the broken-sidewalk backs of mothers. We roll down the
Hill past Paula's house, to the city pool, where I swim in the no-pee
water. Mona is sweet and waits with her books on the lawn. The no-pee
pool is no-Chinese. Mona doesn't mind. She's getting smarter while I do
my crawl, my butterfly, my aqua-ballerina spins. Oh, if only there were
more of us Chersky girls, spinning out the letter C, all of us identical,
aqua-amazing in our no-pee ballet. Only after, when I'm dressing, do I
remember Mona out there under the steel-smoke-lifted dark, under Paula's
park moon. I come out with my hair knotty wet. We sit for another minute,
then get ready to climb the Hill, skates laced around our necks. Mona's
having ham at the Chersky's tonight.
Mother is mad at the gypsies. What the gypsies do is come to the
back door, never the front door, and ask to cut through. Who's going to
tell a poor old gypsy woman she can't cut through? Don't be a dummy,
Mother says. Don't be foolish. Let them through, but don't lead them.
Otherwise, say goodbye to any silver on the table. Say goodbye to any
nickels in a coin dish on the table.
"It's not their fault," says Uncle Joey. He's got ham-hiding eyes.
His fork has the French shakes.
"Who's fault is it then?" says Daddy.
"It's their way," says Mother. "We teach our children to read, they
teach theirs to cut through."
"My teacher taught me to read," says Daddy.
"Are you tippy?" says Mother.
"I'm fine. I stopped for few. Vance was making a Federal case
what do you want? You know, I should just join the goddamn army. Be
useful. Maybe I'm old, but I could do something. Supplies.
"They'll supply you with the mustard," says Uncle Joey. "They'll
"Knock it off, Joseph," says Daddy. "And for the month, what have
Uncle Joey peels new bills from his copper clip. Mother says we
the money is U.S. mint and that's all we know. We don't ask. We're
Cherskys, what's to ask? We all look over to Mona, as though to say, "Oh,
Mona, sorry for the family fuss."
"Mona," says Daddy, "how's your ham?"
"Kosher ham," says Uncle Joey, keyhole loud.
Tonight we will be secret night rollers, me and Mona, after the
sink, the towel, the rack. Daddy goes to his newspaper chair, with all
the war parts and funny parts of the newspaper we are not to touch. Uncle
Joey tunes in the radio scores, shines his shoes for Paula. The way he
rocks in the rocker when the college scores come on, the vein in his
forehead pumping like a Frenched-up heart, you'd think he went to
college, but everything Uncle Joey knows, Mother told me, he read on the
stoop, spit into the wind.
It must have been a good day for bleacher blankets, all the college
smarties with their cocoa and their cheers. The radio man calls out
numbers over brass and whistles, marching drums. Uncle Joey jumps. You'd
think a gas bomb is falling through the roof.
"Oh, shit, oh, shit," he says, and goes.
Daddy looks over from behind the war parts.
"Don't worry," I tell Mona, "he's just late to the park."
Mona and me, we sneak out the back and roll down to Paula's house,
the alley window. Here's moonlight Paula in a wintergreen slip. Here's
the bone-handled brush she pulls through her bone-colored hair. She
brushes it and we wait for her to blow a kiss at Uncle Joey, who's
wallet-sized, tilted with the postcards in the mirror glass. He has his
brim hat on, his over-the-shoulder belt, his going-off-to-the-mustard-war
shirt. We have the same picture in our house, and one of Uncle Ferdie,
who didn't get the mustard, who got a bullet in the neck instead.
Ferdie's buried under the trees of France.
Blow a kiss, Paula, we whisper. But Paula runs her finger on the
bone, lays it on the bureau top. The Allegheny stars are out over us,
maybe the dipper, the bear, or all the god men Uncle Joey showed me in
his star book, stuck there bawling in their sky robes.
We are night rollers rolling by the bakery, the butcher shop, down
our block and down the Hill. We are rollers rolling past the houses like
the Blitzstein house, where Rachel is so pinned-hair pretty, not a
Chersky anymore, maybe with a locket on her collar, tearing tissue for
the Temple Jews.
We roll by Mona's house, and Alvin's with the Chinese lights.
"Alvin! Alvin!" we cry, but he must be busy burning up his mother's
kitchen, liberty or death, a perfect Patrick Henry. When Alvin is mayor
he'll let Mona swim in the no-pee pool.
We are rollers in the river town. We very much wish we could skate
the black waters here. We roll on off state corners instead. Here are all
the downtown buildings pointing steelish into the night. This must be
where Mr. Vance will make his Federal Liquor Board case. Poor Daddy will
have to join up for usefulness and maybe get a bullet in his neck. He'll
be tippy in a brim hat in the sky. The Old Lady will die of holy silver
sadness. Uncle Joey will marry in with Paula. He will tell us the truth
about his copper money clip, the college scores. What about Mother,
though? Who will bring her dinner after, after?
"Go, go, go," I tell Mona. It's a basement door propped open at the
bottom of a stairwell. It's a dim, white light.
"Go, go," I tell Mona, but I go first, sideways, skatewise, down the
This dirty tile river was made for secret rollers. We are rolling
down it, shushing ourselves as everything gets dirtier, dimmer, us
wishing our wheels wouldn't click. We could get demerits. We could go to
Juvey, even. The pretty Chersky girl in chains.
The hallway opens on a wide stone room.
It stinks of pickled animal, frog day at Duquesne.
"The Slabs," says Mona.
She skates off to the far dark of the building door.
The dead men here don't look asleep. They look woken up into
picklehood. They are stiff on cots that have skates fixed on. They are
swelled up, blued-over, see-through, with black slits for bone to show.
There are dead women, too, some the color of Mother, waxed over like
hidden ham paper.
You don't have to touch to know how cold they are.
You don't need a clock to know how late it is. It's almost early now.
A gurney, that's what the cot with the skates is called. It's no
vocab, but I'm very much sure. Here's one now, I can hear it on the
stone, the early wheels. A man in a dirty sky robe pushes it into the
"You here for him?" the man says.
Even as I roll over I can see the edge of the copper money clip.
It's sticking out of Uncle Joey's pants.
"It's not his fault," I tell the man. "It's not. The boy had bad
breathing. He couldn't breathe."
The man sweeps a hand for the whole stone room, all the
slit-shot-caught-a-stroke dead, all the broken-back mothers of dagos
dead, all the mick dead and time-of-day dead and which-ones-are-the-kikes
kike dead, all the cut-through Gypsy dead, the kosher-paper-lady dead,
the blued-over, see-through, Alleghenian steel-smoke dead, the
The man says, "Bad breathing, huh?"
The man says, "Looks like an epidemic to me."
the morgue rollers