Fiction: Helena Writes #50_On winning, playing, and life through fiction

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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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 50th post, Helena shares another chapter from her favorite of her original works, Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn. Enjoy!

A chapter from Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn: "The Prize" (© Helena Clare Pittman)

“Testing…testing…” says Mr. Schreiber, our principal, into the microphone, looking at it suspiciously. “Uh—may I have your attention please…” Mrs. Harris, our assistant principal, plays three tones on her chime.

The gymnasium falls silent. Everyone is waiting. But Pappa stands up and makes his way from the bleacher seats at the back of the gym to my table of rocks and bird pictures, and my colored-paper book reports about my Rocks of Brooklyn and Birds of Brooklyn collections—my science projects. Then Mrs. Harris tells us we’ve all done a good job on our science projects. She tells us she’s proud to be the assistant principal of Public School Two-Twenty-One.

Mr. Schreiber is patting his jacket pockets. He doesn’t find what he’s looking for. Next he pokes his hand inside his jacket and searches his shirt pocket. Next, the pockets of his pants. He’s beginning to scowl, his thick gray eyebrows are pulled together at the top of his nose. 

Mrs. Harris doesn’t seem to notice. She still seems different than usual, after meeting Timmy, Stuie’s Slatsky’s snake, during her walk around the gym, stopping at all the tables of science projects, whispering with Mr. Schreiber, taking notes on her clip board to decide who will win first, second and third prizes. Ordinarily Mrs. Harris’ face doesn’t move much. But since Timmy waggled his tongue at her and she stepped behind Mr. Schreiber to hide, she looks a little dreamy. Her face seems soft. Now she’s looking around the gym at us all, really looking, as if she is noticing us all for the first time. Not just the adults, but the children, the children of her school, P.S. Two-Twenty-One. The corners of her mouth are turned up. 

“Where is that thing?” Mr. Schreiber says a little irritably into the microphone. The microphone begins to hum. This attracts Mrs. Harris’ attention. She puts her hand over the microphone and the humming stops. “I’ve lost that paper!” Mr. Schreiber tells Mrs. Harris. He looks a little helpless. Mrs. Harris hands him her clipboard, leans toward Mr. Schreiber, whispers, and taps the top sheet of paper. Then she looks back out at us all and smiles. I’ve never seen her eyes twinkle the way they do now, as if she also thinks Mr. Schreiber is a little goofy and strange, the way we do. 

“Oh! Um—I see! Um—umm…” says the principal. “Now, let’s see…”

I glance at my father. His eyes meet mine, bright with expectation.

 “Here it comes,” I whisper. My father nods.

Mr. Schreiber is clearing his throat. “…Honorable Mention goes to…,” Mr. Schreiber’s glasses have slipped to the middle of his nose. With his pointer finger, he pushes them back near his eyes. “Let’s see…who is that…?” Now Mrs. Harris leans toward him again and whispers, tapping the paper on her clipboard. “Oh, uh, yes—uh, George…Goldfarb—for his brine shrimp!” Some kids giggle. Evy Mailman covers her mouth, leans close to Aylene Muntzer and says something. She’s looking over at me.

Now Mr. Schreiber is shuffling through the papers on Mrs. Harris’ clipboard. She takes it from his hands and pulls out four sheets of paper. I can see the heavy black print of the awards certificates. She holds one out to George Goldfarb who’s come up to the stage to collect it. There is some polite applause, and Mr. Schreiber smiles at George, that same smile he smiles at parents, the way he smiled at Stuie Slatsky when he discovered Stuie’s snake was a boa constrictor.

“Third prize,” says the principal next, “goes to…Tim…uh…that’s Stuart Slatsky, for his boa—for his snake.” Stuie scoops Timmy out of his tank and holds him up for everyone to see. Timmy’s coiling and lurching, flopping against Stuie. Then he slithers against Stuie’s chest and wraps himself around his arm, making his way to Stuie’s neck as Stuie hurries to the front of the gym. 

A few people gasp. Someone’s mother hurries out of the gym carrying a small child and the door squeals, then bangs shut. The sound bounces off the walls of the gym. As Stuie approaches the stage, Mr. Schreiber steps back. He’s leaning to one side, away from Stuie and Timmy, and Mrs. Harris has stepped behind him again. Stuie’s got one hand on Timmy. With the other he accepts his award certificate, which Mrs. Harris is holding by its corner, dangling it at Stuie past Mr. Schreiber’s arm. Only a few people are clapping. There’s a lot of murmuring and some laughter. 

“It’s a boa—look!” Barbara Goldstein’s little brother, Harvey, is shouting. He gallops to the front of the gym. “A boa! A boa constrictor! Look!” shouts Harvey.

“Harvey!” calls his mother, hurrying forward. “Don’t get too close!”

“It’s a real boa constrictor!” shouts Harvey again, and now he’s jumping up and down. 

Mrs. Goldstein picks up Harvey and hurries him back to their seats. She looks upset. Stuie is making his way back to Timmy’s tank. Some people lean away from him as he passes. Harvey Goldstein wriggles off his mother’s lap and rushes toward Stuie. “Can I see him? Stuie, can I touch him?” “Sure you can, Harvey,” says Stuie, holding his arm with Timmy wrapped around it closer to Harvey.

“Harvey!” shouts Mrs. Goldstein. She rushes over to Stuie and Timmy and scoops Harvey up. “But it’s a real boa!” Harvey is shouting. Mrs. Goldstein heads toward the gym door. It squeals again then slams.

Mr. Schreiber lurches at the sound. “Let’s settle down!” he says into the microphone. “Better put that—uh—thing—that boa—uh, your snake, away!” His voice is just a little loud and the microphone starts to whine again. Mr. Schreiber jiggles it. The siren gets louder. Now Mrs. Harris looks annoyed. She pulls the microphone toward her and switches it off then on again, which takes care of the problem. 

I turn to Pappa. He looks at me and smiles. 

“Can everyone hear me?” Mr. Schreiber is calling. 

“Yes!” some people call back.

Mr. Schreiber clears his throat. “Second prize—” he says, finding his place on the clip board. I look anxiously at Pappa who’s now looking anxiously at Mr. Schreiber.

“—goes to David Mendelsohn, for his recording thermometer!” There’s a sinking feeling in my stomach. Second prize for metal that expands and contracts with the temperature in the room? I’m thinking. I look at the table with my birds and rocks. They’re only from the backyard, I think—not counting the bird food, the fat from Benny Pitt’s butcher shop. I pinch my mouth shut and try to imagine how I’ll feel gathering them back up again, carrying them to the car with my father. I think of those black, printed prize certificates, none with my name written in black letters.

Across the gym, our teacher, Mrs. Roth, is looking over at David Mendelsohn and smiling. She looks proud. I watch as she turns her head towards my father. Aylene Muntzer is directly in my line of vision. As I watch Mrs. Roth, I shift my gaze toward Aylene and wonder vaguely why Aylene’s green eyes, which usually look so slitty, look so wide.

“Ruthie!” my father is saying. His arm is around my shoulders and he’s shaking me. “Ruthie, you’ve won first prize!”

“—for her rare fossil and rock collection!” Mr. Schreiber is announcing. People are applauding. Pappa’s face is lit up. “And—and—” the principal is calling. Mrs. Harris begins to play her chimes. “And a very special award for extra credit goes to Ruthie Pincus for her art and photographic documentation about birds!”

Two awards

My head feels light, as if it’s not really attached, as if it’s floating to the ceiling of the gym like a helium balloon. As I turn from my father to Mr. Schreiber, Aylene’s face passes, then Joannie Nevins’. Their eyes, locked on to each other’s, look like they’re popping. 

“Two awards to one person?” I hear Evy say to her father.

“Two awards to one person!” exclaims Mrs. Harris playing the chimes as if she is applauding, the soft round end of her chime stick is one hand, the metal rectangles that are the notes, the other. “How unusual,” I hear Evy’s father say, looking at me, his smile crooked like Evy’s. 

Two two two two, I’m saying inside, my feet dancing across the polished wooden boards of the floor on my way to the front of the gym. Two two two! When Mrs. Harris hands me the two pieces of paper with my name on them. I see the space between her teeth peeking out under her top lip and hear a sound which I realize is a giggle coming from Mrs. Harris! Two two two two two!

Pappa is still applauding when I arrive back at the table, his face flushed, he’s laughing.

“Congratulations,” says David Mendelsohn’s father, nodding to my two prize certificates, rippling as I pass David’s table. He and David are packing up the recording thermometer. David smiles. I pinch my lips together. “You found a rare fossil,” he says quietly. He waves his second prize certificate and punches me in the shoulder. I punch him back. I can’t really believe what’s happened. 

Mrs. Roth hugs me. My best friend, Donna Pukatch, rushes up to my table. I look at her and I see she’s happy for me. “You look like a zombie!” she says. She puts her hands on both my shoulders and shakes me. Then we begin jumping up and down laughing.

Everyone’s begun to pack up. Mr. Stern and our custodian, Bill, are folding up tables and chairs. The gym is beginning to look like itself. Pappa and I pull the cartons from under the table and pack away my trays of rocks. “We’ll make two trips,” says my father. “I’ll bring around the car.”

Stuie’s covering Timmy’s tank with a blanket when I pass him. I think of the thing Stuie told me, that he has to feed Timmy dead mice. He gets them at the pet store. My throat tightens. “Did you ever try cat food?” I ask. Stuie nods. “He won’t even smell it,” he says. Then Stuie puts out his hand and we shake. “Congratulations,” we say at the same time, and laugh. 

“Extra credit!” says Pappa laughing when we carry our cartons to the car. I go back for the last carton and the bird album. Joannie Nevins, Evy, and Aylene are at my table, looking at the photographs of the mob of birds.  “Look at all of them!” Evy is saying. Aylene is looking over Evy’s shoulder. “What are they diving for?” Joannie is asking. I’m thinking about how Aylene told everyone on Crown Street about the fat I got from Benny Pitt’s butcher shop. About the way I saved it until it went rancid and smelled like old socks,  and how my sister, Rebecca, stayed at Aunt Dorothy’s for three days until the house aired out. “What do you think they’re diving for?” snaps Aylene. “Birdseed!”

“Fat!” I answer. “They’re diving for the fat from the butcher shop.” Joannie, Evy, and Aylene look up. Evy puts down the book. I pick it up. 

“Fat?” repeats Joannie. 

I put the book into the carton. Aylene Muntzer takes a step toward me. But we’re not alone. There are too many people here for Aylene to pick a fight. “An award for fat?” she says. “It’s the fat from Benny Pitt’s.” I answer. “The older the fat, the more the birds like it. Benny Pitt says it’s like bird candy.” I close up the carton and turn toward the back door where Pappa is waiting in the car. “Suet,” I say without looking back at Aylene. “The birds love it!”

Then I remember my two awards. I turn and walk back to the table where the certificates with black lettering are shining, reflecting the fluorescent lights from the ceiling, just before Bill switches the ones in the row over my table off. “My brother told me your sister said it smelled,” Aylene says. Now I look at Aylene. “It—smelled—good to the birds,” I say. “Like aged cheddar, or gorgonzola. For the birds it’s a delicacy.”

“What’s gorgonzola?” asks Evy.

“Cheese,” says Mr. Mailman. “Let’s go, Evy.”

When I reach the door and see Pappa waving from the car window I look quickly over my shoulder. Joannie, Aylene, and Evy are still turned toward me. Aylene looks sour. Joannie’s mouth is open. Evy is smiling her crooked smile.

Life and fiction

When I was a child, probably from ages eight to eleven, reading a Little Lulu Annual, was a kind of heaven. I don’t remember buying comics at the corner candy store, but I must have. Then I’d wait until I could lie down, and enter the world of Little Lulu, her friends,  her teachers, her dramas. I knew Lulu’s voice so well, it might as well have been my own. And it was, I have realized in recent years. It’s the voice closest to Ruthie’s voice.

When I found that voice, after many years of writing, I was free in a way I had never been free. Writing Ruthie was like reading Little Lulu. Reading Ruthie, revising Ruthie, reading Ruthie out loud to someone, a group, a friend, I am in that heaven again. But the heaven is 657 Crown Street, in Brooklyn, my childhood home. Here I can enter the characters I knew and animate them, from the safety of adulthood, the safety of being a writer, looking at those adults, with the slow-burn humor the writers of Little Lulu looked at those comic book characters they were writing through. They were Marjorie Henderson Buell, Irving Tripp, and John Stanley. Marjorie Buell would not have been writing when I found Little Lulu. She stopped writing Lulu for the Saturday Evening Post, in 1944, the year before I was born. John Stanley and Irving Tripp were writing when I was reading her. Their humor matched not only my humor, but my sister’s. And my sister and I had a lot of interaction inventing stories, situations, scenes, that were so funny to us we fell over, breathless. No one, I mean no one, has ever caused me to laugh that kind of laughter but my sister, Jolene.

Yet she was not a Lulu reader. She read Archie, who didn’t much interest me. And she read books—fed on them. She worshipped Jo March—she was Jo March—of Little Women. My parents were readers, popular novels, and my father read books on physics—this is all I remember. But there must have been others my father read, because he knew history, and he knew the bible, Old and New Testaments. There was a shelf of books that he and my mother must have read before we were born. It wasn’t a big shelf. My parents used the library. But on that shelf was one book that would come to me through my sister, who lived in my parents’  apartment in Queens, long after we’d moved from Crown Street. That book was The Hidden Lincoln, by William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. The year I read it began an absorption with Lincoln that is part of my life.

I read books, too—Margaret Henry, the Misty books about the wild horses of Chincoteague Island. I loved horses. And I read Jack London. And romantic novels for young readers, picked out for me by the school librarian, Mrs. Nelson. Her smile looks genuine from here, really genuine. She loved us, the children who haunted the library of P.S. 221. I think, smiling too, the romantic situations of those novels Mrs. Nelson took off the shelf and recommended to me, are an interesting juxtaposition with tall, statuesque, ancient Mrs. Nelson, whose smile was her communication with us. I can hardly remember anything she said.

The writers of Little Lulu must have loved what they were doing, the way I love writing Ruthie. Lulu had a sophisticated gaze cast outward onto the world, wry, sensitive, truthful, serious, kind, looking around a corner at the adults around her. Those writers were memoirists, remembering their own childhoods. Lulu was serious humor, never silly. She was it for me.

Now, rereading the chapters of Ruthie, published ten years ago, editing them again, to be more self-contained, to post here, I experience myself as a child who never grew up. I laugh inside reading my own lines. I erupt into laughter sometimes, typing. I know the place—the Brigadoon of childhood, and 657 Crown Street, Brooklyn, 13, New York. It’s always there waiting. I can see Mr. Schreiber and Mrs. Harris, and I can hear them speak the way they would, had they not been so boxed in by adulthood.

That’s how life and fiction work for me. I can play.

Did you ever win a prize as a child? Is there a place, or an event, or a group of people you can recall entirely with ease when writing about your life? What did you think of Helena’s offering from her middle-grade novel? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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