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Her eyes told me that she was tired of his stories. She hummed a couple of times, which was different from hmning. You could tell by the tone—it was way down low. And she didn’t have her fingers across her mouth. This was the sound of irritation. She hummed as if the vibration in her mouth would keep her awake. But as she nodded, her hands dropped to her lap, and soon her muted, monotonous voice became a whispered breathing.
There was no radio or phonograph or telephone to add noise to our second-floor apartment, only the murmur of my sister’s conversations with her dolls—a Shirley Temple, a mama doll, and a “Baby Wet.” In the alley, the neighbor’s dog howled whenever the peddlar’s wagon rumbled past. And in my parents’ bedroom off the kitchen, where boredom with Papa’s talk had finally driven her to nap, my mother’s alarm clock—snug under the pillow beneath her head—ticked rhythmically away.
My father’s disappointment at her leaving colored his cheeks and filled his watery blue eyes with unhappiness; his mouth bit down hard on his tobacco. He sat very still.
I played with my fingers on the table, making slight noises while Papa tapped his fingers, drum, drum, drum. The ice box knocked. My sister chattered. Papa was lost in thought. I wished he’d spell; instead, he thought some more and drummed some more, so I drummed along with him. Abruptly his mood changed as if all this thinking were a waste of time. He got up, made me a glass of Ovaltine, and sat down again.
“You know how far Germany is?”
“Very far, Papa. Right?” I asked, plying my fingers through imaginary waters.
“Yes. Right. Did you learn that in school?”
“No, I just figured.”
“You figured right. Do you read good in school?”
“Teacher says I learn perfect.”
“Good,” he smiled, making the OK sign.
I think he smiled more about my fingerspelling than about my progress in school. I tripped over my P, mistaking it for K; Papa’s eyes flickered with impatience but he listened, his cheeks bulging with tobacco. The pink flesh around his eves crinkled when he smiled. “It’s important you read. To read newspapers every day. To learn all about America.”
“I know you try. Do you say your ABCs good Do you speak clearly for the teacher?”
“Definitely, Papa,” but I gave up on that word and changed it to “sure.”
“When you were a baby, I worried you wouldn’t hear sound right, so everybody hearing came to the house to talk to you and your sister. Everybody! My father, my mother. . . .“ He ticked off the names, spelling and saving them on his fingers to remember: first his parents, Grandma and Grandpa Herzberg, on his pinky, then Helen, the neighbor, on his ring finger, and so on until he ran out of fingers. Then he started over to include Mama’s family, Grandma and Grandpa Rubenstein and all the aunts until he ran out of fingers once more.