by Arlene L. Mandell
I sit under the window fan in my bedroom with my skinny, suntanned
legs stretched out on the brown linoleum floor. The fan whirs hot air,
muting the sounds of stickball from the street below. My hair is pulled
up in a messy ponytail; my fingers dip into a bowl of Bing cherries. I
savor the cool slippery feel of the skin, pop off the stem, and sink my
teeth into the sweet, succulent fruit.
At the same time I’m curled over Little Women, absorbed in Amy
March’s turmoil. She’s wearing secondhand, patched finery to her first
grownup party. At eleven-and-a-half, I know all about hand-me-downs:
neat and serviceable, but not quite right—always too pink or too fussy.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my bedroom this boring summer of 1952,
waiting for something to happen. Something almost did happen in July
when I ran a 104-degree temperature and had swollen glands. I was sick
enough for Dr. Scholnick, that “handsome old bachelor” with the black
moustache and shiny black Buick, to make a house call. He’s the subject
of whispered gossip among my mother and the other housewives who sit
outside on folding chairs, fanning themselves.
“Sarah, the butcher’s wife, said his car was parked in front of that
divorcée’s house Tuesday night and Wednesday morning,” hissed Nettie,
one of my mother’s friends.
“A shanda,” my mother agreed, then saw me sitting on the front
steps, carefully picking at a mosquito bite that had scabbed over. “Little
pitchers have big ears,” she said, and turned the topic to the price of
Like I wasn’t supposed to know anything about sex till I was as old
as them. I thought maybe my mother and the other neighborhood women
were just jealous. Marie, the divorcée, was a legal secretary and a snappy
dresser who wore high heels and pearl chokers. She didn’t spend her life
sitting around with her hair in pin curls discussing whether to put chopped
celery or chopped onion in the tuna salad.
The day of my 104-degree fever, July 5, I was sweltering in my bed.
My neck was stiff and my whole body ached. I felt embarrassed when Dr.
Scholnick pulled up my nightgown and pressed his fingers in my armpits and
between my legs. “Swollen glands in the groin area, too,” he reported to
my mother, who was lurking in the doorway biting her lip. Groin. What a
His fingers were thick and smelled of harsh medicinal soap. I strained
to hear their whispered conversation about sex glands and danger periods.
“Total bed rest, fluids, soft foods,” Dr. Scholnick said. “Call me if anything
I knew what they weren’t saying aloud: POLIO! Paralysis and
crippled legs and iron lungs. I had seen the pictures in Life magazine. But I
was lucky; I just had the stupid mumps. A kid’s disease.
I slept a lot and ate Jell-O with square globs of fruit cocktail and wasted
nearly two weeks of my summer vacation. Now I’m “out of danger,” as my
mother calls it, but I’m still not allowed to go to the swimming pool or even
the movie theater, one of the only places in our part of Brooklyn with air
conditioning. I can still go to the beach because my mother says pool water
can carry the infection but salt water can’t. Sometimes I think she just makes
this stuff up to keep me a prisoner on Hemlock Street.
So now I have to wait and wait for the weekend when my father’s off
from work. That’s when we pack bologna sandwiches and beach chairs and
fruit punch that’s always too watery and too warm. And we drive out to
Rockaway Beach in my father’s wheezing ’34 Chrysler.
I’m too old to make sand castles and far too “undeveloped” to interest
the lifeguards, those sun-bronzed gods whose noses are always coated with
white streaks of Noxzema. I see the girls parading past them in two-piece
bathing suits, laughing together, pretending not to notice the lifeguards watching
them. I hate my bathing suit, a muddy plaid with little rows of ruffles over the
place where breasts are absent.
I comb out my dirty-blonde hair, “straight as sticks,” my mother calls it,
and fan it onto my shoulders and down over my phantom breasts. Then I walk
along the water’s edge, pretending to look for shells but just trying to keep
some distance between myself and my parents, who keep waving to me from
under their rented umbrella. It’s so embarrassing. I’m not a little kid anymore.
I’m not going to get lost on Beach 89th Street.
Until the weekend, I sit in my bedroom, waiting for something to happen.
Amy March is being taken in hand by a richer, more knowledgeable friend. She
lends her a prettier dress, curls her hair and applies makeup. Someone asks
Amy to dance.
I pick up a hand mirror and stare at my boring face, hoping my lips have
grown fuller and have been stained luscious red with cherry juice. Only my
tongue is red. Nothing else has changed.
Tired of Little Women, I flip through an old magazine my cousin Barbara
passed on to me in the latest box of hand-me-downs. I stare at a model with
cascades of bright blonde waves, dazzling white teeth, full red lips and glossy
fingernails in the reddest red, Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow.
I pull the rubber band out of my hair, letting it fall over my thin shoulders.
Then I toss my hair like a model and inhale deeply, willing my body to shift from
angles to curves.
There’s a shout from outside as Vinny Caparrato hits a home run down
Hemlock Street. I stand at the window as he runs the bases, all sleek and loose-
limbed, as though the whole world, not just some mothers in house dresses and
kids sitting along the curb, is watching.
Arlene L. Mandell is a retired English professor, now living in Santa Rosa,
California, who grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Her work
has appeared in such diverse publications as The New York Times and True
On “Cherries in the Snow”:
For the past three years, I’ve been working on a book: My Life on
Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir. One day I was flipping through a
Vogue magazine at Pomegranate, a hair salon in Santa Rosa, California,
waiting to get my hair cut. Revlon was running an ad for a new/old lip
and nail color: Fire and Ice. I remembered another of those vivid reds
they advertised in the 1950s, Cherries in the Snow. All sorts of details
came flooding back: eating cherries while reading Little Women, the polio
scare I had that summer of ’52, my yearning to have the sort of figure
that would make the lifeguards at Rockaway Beach sit up and take notice.
At 11½ years old, I was trapped somewhere between childhood and
young womanhood in a working class neighborhood where the word
“sex” was never spoken but illicit activities were whispered about. I
wanted “Cherries in the Snow” to capture that sense of longing for the
forbidden fruit of adolescence.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 1, Number 1
Copyright © 2006
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors