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I could see his hands were tired. He rested his elbows on the table to support them. If I had been a better signer, he would have given up on the fingerspelling and finished his recollections in signs, which would have taken half the time.
“When you were a baby, I was rich. We had a fancy apartment and a nurse for you. I smoked expensive cigars. You know much they cost?”
“Lots of money, I bet.”
“And we had a woman to clean the house. Mama liked that.” He sat quiet for a while, his eyes taking in the scratched linoleum, the cracks in the ceiling, and the broken oven door.
“Babe Ruth is the greatest ballplayer of all time,” he said, changing the subject. “I saw him homer out of Sox Park.” He swung his arms across his chest. “And Jimmy P . . . sky.”
He spelled it, but it made no sense to rue. As I grew older, I would learn that he was a terrible speller, especially with the long names of the Polish players. But at the time I blamed my poor understanding of his fingerspelling, so I pretended to know what he had spelled. His knowledge of stats was perfect, however: Who had earned the most runs. Who had won the league in what year. He kept notes on these facts, followed the papers, and talked about baseball with his friends in front of Charlie Mandel’s candy store at the corner of Washtenaw and Potomac. If they weren’t around, he collared a hearing neighbor and took his pen and paper out of his shirt pocket.
I could always spot him from our living room window by the way his fedora tilted back on his head and the way he politely turned his head aside to spit out his tobacco juice.
Papa began talking about his father. He said something that escaped me and opened his hand in a “what do you think about that?” motion, but the peddlar was leaving the alley just then, and I—tuned in to the sounds my parents couldn’t hear—interrupted his storytelling.
“Peddlar’s selling oranges. You want?”
“In the rain? Silly man. He should stay home. It’s not fair to the horse to get him all wet. He treats the horse like dirt. No, you drink your Ovaltine. Don’t go. Tomorrow we’ll walk to Mr. La kin’s store to buy oranges.”
“So what about Grandfather Herzberg?”
“Grandfather Herzberg died when you were a baby,” he said, slitting his throat and pointing his finger down to indicate six feet under. “Very sad!”
Adelaide took her dolls into the living room. Papa watched her go, blinking his eves in disappointment. I was the only one left to listen, so I asked, “Are you sorry he’s dead?”
“Sorry for him—that he lost all his money. He should never have taken the chance and bought a candy store. He threw his money down the toilet.” His fingers turned down again.