An Excerpt from Tell Me Another Morning
The Safety Pin
In the first weeks I did not notice how slow the soup line was. Now the line is long, long as the inside of the barracks. I hear Eva yawn behind me. Through her half-open mouth she says, “What is it today?”
“Cabbage, I think.”
It does not really matter. The taste is always the same, the color sometimes different. With one slice of bread, or two slices of bread. One cabbage leaf, two cabbage leaves, floating between the metal walls of a mess kit, in a liquid sometimes brown, sometimes gray. Between mess kits the space is twenty-four hours long.
The line shuffles forward between the racks for sleeping. Bringing closer the smell of the barrel at the door. I put one foot in front of the other as the tall girl in front of me does. I feel full of hollowness. The round light space in the middle of my body. It hurts a little. If I could just not talk about it. Eva is always hungry very quietly.
“You know, we had beautiful trees in our street, Eva.”
“That’s good. Trees are very important. And streets too.”
“Shut up!” says the tall girl in front of me.
Eva pats my shoulder twice. “They are all so stupid. Don’t pay any attention.”
“You know, it was a beautiful street. Not too long, just right. In summer, the trees had green light around them. And at the corner there was a candy store and on the other corner was an old woman with a pushcart selling pickles.”
Eva does not listen any more. But I see the pickles. They lie green in the shade of the barrel, glistening, deep lines on their skins, and the round whites of onion spread in circles around them….
“Maybe we will get the thick from the bottom today,” I say.
But Eva knows better. “Everybody wants the thick and you know there is less thick soup than there is us. So!”
“If they don't change the barrel now, we are bound to get it, Eva. We are bound to.”
I look down at my feet so that I cannot see the barrel. I wear big wooden clogs now. They took the leather shoes away. My feet feel small inside. I bend down and tie the rope more tightly, shoving my feet forward at the same time. When I stand up, I am in front of the barrel. I hand the girl my mess kit and try to smile at her. But she does not even lift her eyes.
I watch the ladle come down and part the gray liquid, then disappear. The soup moves in circles, then parts again, and the hand with the ladle is above my mess kit. And thick, thick is the soup. The potatoes come down with a round sound, one leaf of cabbage hangs over the side.
I turn to Eva and say, “I got it! I knew one day I would get it. Straight from the bottom!”
“I have the bottom, too.” And for the first time she smiles.
I push through the standing bodies, not seeing anyone. At the open door I stop and stand still. Here, as each evening, the group of men. Waiting…
I see my father. The skin of his face clamped tight from behind, giving him the false youth of the very wealthy or the very hungry. The color is gone from his hair. His eyes are empty. There was always pride in his body. Now there is an old man standing here. Shoulders jutting forward. Hands holding a tin can. Waiting.
I walk slowly through the men, toward the face, and I feel hate. That he has become like the rest of the men. Now he is everybody. I stop in front of him, the steam of the soup spreads over my face, and through the haze I see the safety pin. The lapels of his jacket pinched together with that pin. That lock, for which any hand is a key, holding together the helpless—babies and the buttonless.
I hand him my mess kit and keep staring at the pin. He gulps down the soup and tries to work his mouth into a smile. My hand pulls at the lapel and I say, “Why do you have that pin?” And the jacket opens under my fingers. There is nothing. No shirt, no sweater. Only his skin.
I stamp my feet and shout, “Your pullover… the blue one… What did you do with it?”
He does not answer; instead his hand reaches in the pocket of his jacket. “I… I have something here… for you…”
He looks as if he is counting to himself while he tries to find the thing somewhere in his pockets. Then relief on his face as the hand comes out.
There on his open palm—ten white cubes. Some specks of dirt cling to them. But otherwise they are solid, square-sided and bright—these ten cubes of sugar.
Father finds his smile. The smile is as I remember it. New as it always was, on his old face. “I made a good trade.”
And the tears that come I swallow with the sweetness of the first cube. [pp. 73–75]