Fiction: Helena Writes #48_On childhood fears and imaginings

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
9/14/2022

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 48th post, Helena shares a chapter from her favorite of her original works, Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn. Enjoy!

A chapter from Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn: "Aylene Muntzer" (© Helena Clare Pittman)

On my way home from school, I stop at Finder’s Grocery to buy the things on Mamma’s list for the chicken soup. I see Aylene Muntzer and Joannie Nevins through the Finder’s store window. I talk to Mrs. Finder to pass some time. She has placed a foil wrapped hazelnut chocolate in my hand. But Mrs. Finder is not someone who is known for making conversation, with adults, or children. I turn to Mr. Finder and ask him how he’s feeling this nice sunny day. He smiles at me, opens his mouth to answer. But Mrs. Finder sees there is no pot cheese left on the in ice-lined glass counter. She says so to Mr. Finder and Mr. Finder turns toward her.

I walk to the door, shuffling my leather-soled shoes to make marks in the sawdust covering the floor. Then I start up Troy Avenue, walking as slowly as I can, hoping Aylene and Joannie will be gone by the time I round the corner onto Crown Street. I count the shells in the concrete of the sidewalk. I count the squares in the sidewalk, the hand prints, the shoe prints, the number of “GG”s Georgie Goldstein’s fingers drew when the cement was wet, when the sidewalk on Crown Street was being repaired. I look at the sky, noticing how clear it is, how blue. Wanting to stop and just look at that blue, blue sky, wanting to fill my lungs with the clear, cool air.

But my feet keep moving. Then I’m at the corner, then I’m rounding the curve of hedges growing against Joannie Nevins’ apartment house, and I’m seeing Joannie leaning against the wrought iron and glass double door, and Aylene facing her, except for her eyes which are looking at me.  They look lollipop green in the sunlight. They turn back to Joannie. “I have to do homework…” Aylene tells Joannie. “Me too,” Joannie is saying, pushing against the heavy door with her back. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” says Joannie. “Hey, Joannie?” says Aylene, but Joannie has already disappeared inside the building. Aylene looks blankly at the door. Then she turns to look at me again. Her green eyes flash before she starts walking up Crown Street. 

I walk two houses behind, as slowly as I can to still be walking, waiting for Aylene to reach the middle of the block where the maple trees grow thick and shadowy, dividing Aylene’s Crown Street from mine. She’s walking slowly, too. Aylene’s shoes have taps. I can hear their metal strike the concrete as she walks. She stops in front of the Berman’s house. She opens her school bag, rummages around looking for something. Then she looks at me. Now her eyes look like snake eyes. Snake greens glitter through my head. My feet keep moving. The distance closes between us. 

Aylene Muntzer has two voices, one when other people are around and one when Aylene and I are alone. It’s the second one that comes out of her mouth now. She doesn’t say, “Hello, Ruthie.” No. She doesn’t say, “You’re walking slowly and so am I. Walking as slowly as the film in your father’s movie projector when the light starts to flicker and the film begins to come off the reel in a slow, helpless tangle, and everyone’s hands and feet and smiles look like they’re underwater and their voices would be moaning if we could hear them. Like everyone who is supposed to be enjoying themselves is pushing against a wall of time, as if they would like to move faster so they can look like themselves again, so their voices can have laughter in them again, but all they can do is move more and more and more slowly. And they can’t stop if they want to, and your father is trying to untangle the film, asking what the heck is the matter with this thing? pulling off his glasses to get a closer look to see it in the dark, saying, Miriam, turn on that darned light, will you? and he isn’t really saying heck or darned.”

No, Aylene doesn’t say that. Instead she asks, “Ruthie, do you have your math workbook?” And I just keep walking toward her in the same slow motion as the film in my father’s projector.

Aylene gets bigger and bigger, begins to look wavy through the wall of water that sits on my eyes. I imagine turning, hurrying back to Troy Avenue to the corner, and the big apartment house on Montgomery Street where my aunt is minding Georgie. Instead I hear myself answer, “I need it to do my homework, Aylene!” My voice comes out so loud I jump. Aylene jumps, too. 

My walk has changed. My shoes have no taps but I hear my heels strike the pavement, just their leather. I hear them as I brush past Aylene. Hear the soles scrape, climbing the fourteen concrete steps to my front door. I ring the bell even though I know there’s no one upstairs to hear it. I jiggle the latch, killing time, one hand burrowing under my clothes, feeling for the key that hangs on a ribbon around my neck but there’s nothing hanging from the ribbon. I feel my skin sticky. My hand travels to the elastic band of my skirt, and the key is there. I grab for it and it slips into my underpants.

I look over my shoulder. Aylene’s snake eyes are glowing up at me like a special effect. “She’s in the shower—my mother’s in the shower,” I say, but Aylene’s figured it out, figured out that we’re really alone and when we’re alone Aylene wants to fight. That’s the way Aylene is. Donna Pukatch likes to ride horses. I like to collect stamps, and rocks and plastic charms. Aylene Muntzer likes to fight. With me. “She’ll be out in three minutes, she takes fast showers!”

Aylene starts up the steps. I hear her metal toe taps. I hold my breath. Then we’re both distracted. A wheel that needs to be greased is singing. My mother wheeling Georgie in the stroller, I’m thinking, what a relief! But it’s Mrs. Greene, walking the twins.

“Hi, Mrs. Greene!” I call, trying to stop her with my voice, “how are your daughters?” forcing out my words like hands that would close around the shiny chrome of the twins’ stroller. “Hello, girls,” answers Mrs. Greene, smiling. “They’re fine, thank you, Ruthie. How nice of you to ask!” Then Mrs. Greene is four houses away in the Maple gloom.

Aylene is turned in the direction of Mrs. Greene, the squeal of the carriage wheel getting softer and softer, I slip my hand down my sweater, under the elastic waistband of my underpants, grope for the key which is ready to burrow its way through a leg elastic, grab it, pull it up through the neck of my sweater and stab the lock. But the door pushes open before I can turn it. “Is that you, Ruthie?” my mother calls from upstairs. “How are you, Aylene?”  My mother is drying her hair with a towel. I look up the stairs with an open mouth then down the stoop to Aylene, whose mouth is open, too.

“We got home a little early,” says my mother. “I was in the shower. There was no hot water his morning. The boiler was broken.” Now I dimly remember brushing my teeth and washing before school, cold water coming out of the hot water tap. Then I hear Georgie start screaming. “Did you stop at Finder’s?” My mother asks. “Be right there, Georgie!” she calls, and disappears from the upstairs doorway. “Uh huh,” I whisper. I step through the door then turn to face Aylene. Only then do I feel the hazelnut chocolate Mrs. Finder gave me, soft and slimy, oozing through its wrapper in my fist.

“Well, can I borrow it?” she’s asking. But her voice has already begun its change back to normal—if normal has anything to do with Aylene. I picture Mrs. Muntzer who chased Donna Pukatch and me when we rode our bikes past Aylene’s, and Donna’s bike hit a hole in the sidewalk and Donna fell and skinned her elbow and bright red patches of blood appeared like oddly shaped roses on her white blouse. Though Aylene is speaking softly now, it’s that voice I hear, high pitched and screaming. “Well can I borrow it?” she’s asking again. 

“I already told you,” I answer. “I need it to do my homework.”  My hand, the one without the chocolate, is closing on the doorknob. 

I look down the stoop at Aylene, her foot still on the first step. “I left mine at school,” Aylene says quietly. I catch a glint of rattlesnake green, changing to green sour balls, the ones I never can eat from Aunt Dot’s glass crystal bowl on her coffee table.

I climb the stairs slowly, licking the sweet, gooey hazelnut chocolate. Georgie is whimpering. I hear my mother talking softly to him. Georgie will nap.  I’ll have quiet to do my math homework before Mama’s chicken soup is ready for supper.

Was there someone—a classmate or neighbor child—you were afraid of as a child? What did you think of Helena’s offering from her middle-grade novel? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of nearly 2,400 writers.