As a sneak preview of Tomboy, publishing June 28, 2022, enjoy the first chapter here.
Monday, June 26, 1939
Rivka’s Flat, 3528 Clay Street San Francisco, California
Elsie grabbed my short shaggy mane in her tiny fists and wrenched like I was a horse to rein in and break. Her head slammed into mine, cracking my nose and blinding me with pain. I instinctively bucked, throwing the back of my skull into the wall behind me. My head rebounded and banged into Elsie’s again.
The hit that did real damage was the one I caused myself, recoiling from Elsie, my toddler half-sister, my obligation.
Clanging filled my ears and everything turned yellow. I couldn’t faint, couldn’t let myself drop her, so I slid down the wall to my haunches. She stopped screaming briefly, as if surprised to have communicated something. She’s studying my reaction. Her forehead shone pink from the collision. Then she reverted to screaming, out of pain or anger or frustration. Or something else I didn’t yet understand.
“No more!” yelled our housekeeper Lola, like this was happening to her.
I squatted on the floor, blood flowing out my nose onto my lips and chin. I wiped it with my hand. The back of my head burned.
Lola gripped both my elbows, pulling me up to standing, Elsie still in my arms.
My roommate Rivka rushed in. Her eyes cut over to my nose and she gasped. “Lola, please, don’t leave. We need you. We’ll raise your pay.”
“Money is not the problem,” said Lola.
“You cain’t do this . . .” My accent slipped out when things fell apart, like whenever a housekeeper quit on us. “We have to go to work.”
Lola threw her apron on the floor. “This here is the work.”
She made an angry turn, grabbed her coat off the rack, and charged down the hall and stairwell. The door to Clay Street banged shut behind her.
God, I wanted to follow her. Just to run out that door.
Elsie wasn’t done. She arched back, her hands pushing up against my shoulders, trying to bust free of me. “No, no, no!” What was she saying no to? I didn’t know what she needed. I never did.
I strained to sing our song, which sometimes worked. “I never let you go, Elsie, never, never, never, Jujee never lets you go.” I wrapped my arms tighter around her, rubbing her back. “Never let you go, never, never, never.” My head and face changed shape as I lied.
Her screams downshifted to snotty sobs into my collar and her hands moved back into my hair, twining rather than yanking, her little torso heaving with unhappiness and loss.
I looked over Elsie’s shoulder at Rivka, who picked up Lola’s apron and handed it to me. I used it to wipe my face and pinch my numb nostrils. Everything pounded with noise and emotion.
“Your mother keeps calling,” Rivka said, crossing her arms over her narrow chest. “She wants her back. She has all that space now. It’s time to take Elsie home.”
“When Momma calls, hang up.”
Rivka groaned. She didn’t get it. Everything was black and white with her.
Momma did want Elsie back. But the idea made me sick.
She had the charisma that could pull you in, tie you there. It took me seventeen years to run, and I failed even then. I brought her with me to San Francisco, rescuing her from the dirt and the fields and her murdering common law husband. I couldn’t cut the rope because of Elsie. I couldn’t leave Elsie behind.
“This is not about you,” Rivka said. In her Czech accent, every word rang brutal. She made it her mission always to critique my flaws and I let her do it because she held the lease, paid the rent, and bought most of the food. Her home, not mine. I tossed in what I could every paycheck. Elsie and I’d been sponging off her for over a year and a half now. That didn’t feel great. But I chose it from a slate of worse options.
My pay at the San Francisco Prospect hadn’t changed since I got there. I’d made fifty cents an hour as a copy boy, fetching coffee and running grafs from cog to cog of the great news machine. Though the pay should have risen to seventy cents when I moved up to cub reporter, my managing editor Mac dropped me back down to fifty because I’d pretended to be a boy to get the job.
Elsie drummed the back of my neck with wet fingers now, her fit run out.
“They’ll let me have that column,” I said.
“Oh, there’s the solution,” said Rivka, the cynic.
But I knew it would work. I heard Hedda Hopper earned as much for gossip writing in Los Angeles as Walter Winchell did in New York. Hedda was big time, proof a newspaper would reward a lady columnist for writing about the bad behavior of famous people, and what they wore while doing it. Mac had been hinting such a column might be possible for a while now. Or at least not shooting it down when I hinted.
“I’ll bring it up today,” I said. “And when he gives it to me, that’ll be more money. Elsie and I can rent our own place, and hire somebody good to babysit. Help us for a little longer. Take Elsie today. I’ll fix it by tonight.” Maybe, I thought.
Rivka stomped down the hall to the kitchen. I could hear her rummaging in the ice box as I swayed Elsie back and forth, trying to relax the tension in her body with one hand, pinching my nose with the other.
Rivka came back and handed me an ice pack. I wadded the apron into my pocket and pressed the ice on Elsie’s forehead. She cried and pushed it away so I put it on my nose. The cold made me dizzy.
“This is not right for Elsie,” Rivka said. “She needs someone, fulltime, devoted to her. She needs her mother.”
“I won’t do that.”
“It’s time. Your mother’s situation has changed. She has what she needs.”
Rivka meant money. Momma had her new husband Jonesie’s money now, and his big house. And cash did make everything easier, flattening layers of crisis and challenge that provoked the best in some people, the worst in others, like Momma. Nobody knew that better than me. But I wouldn’t give in on this.
“You can practice at home on Mondays,” I said. “Just take her today.”
Rivka’s face bleached, but the way her shoulders drooped, I could tell she wouldn’t fight me. She didn’t have to be at the symphony today. She wouldn’t do any real practicing while taking care of Elsie, not the kind of practice that met her standard, and I did feel contrite about that. But I needed her help.
I peeled my sister off and passed her to Rivka.
“I’ll bring home good news. I promise.” Again, I thought, maybe.
Rivka held the ice pack against Elsie’s forehead, making her sputter.
I put on my Oxfords and took my jacket and fedora off their hook.
“You’re always negotiating,” Rivka said. “No matter what. Everything’s a deal you want to make, a promise you’ll renege on. We’ll settle this tonight.”
“Tonight. I promise.”
I gripped the rail, escaping downstairs, woozy from the head butting, and opened the door to Clay Street as my bus screeched up. Even the light of a gloomy June sky was too bright, the bus brakes too shrill. I climbed up, paid, took the last empty seat, back in the open-air section, and exhaled from down deep.
The old man sitting next to me stared at my nose with alarm, like he thought there might be a cruel young husband behind the door I’d emerged from. I closed my eyes, raising my face to the mist, and ignored his judgment.
Injury was temporary. I healed fast.