Tilde

1926

Stapleton, New York

Tilde wished they would stop. She was so tired. They all should be in bed, and she was in bed, but she could hear Clara and Liesrl and cousin Gunther running around the apartment, the girls giggling and shrieking, Gunther saying, “I’m gonna get you!”

Mama thought he was such a good babysitter, but that was because he didn’t charge anything. “Oh, you’re so good to me, such good cousins, how could I charge you anything?” He was so respectful to their faces. “So mature for seventeen,” Mama would say.

He was different when they left. “The cats are gone, little mice,” and that was the signal for Liesrl to shriek and Clara to giggle and all of them to play hide and seek and tag, and for Gunther to tickle them and hold them on his lap.

Tilde didn’t want to play. She was tired. She was over the measles, but she was tired from it still. “I want to sleep,” she mumbled, burrowing her face into her pillow and pushing the ends of it up over her ears.

It did no good. They had run downstairs and into the shop, but she could still hear them through the heat vent. She raised herself up and shouted, “Be Quiet!” into the vent.

She noticed brown stains on her hands and sniffed. Chocolate. Suddenly she remembered the chocolates she’d stolen from the shop and hidden under her pillow. They must have melted. She lifted the pillow and, sure enough, her hands had smeared chocolate all over the underside of the pillow.

Papa would be angry. “You can eat all you want, but don’t be getting chocolate on the sheets,” he’d say. But he only said they could eat as much as they wanted because he didn’t know how much they really ate. That’s why they hid them under their pillows.

Tilde went into the bathroom and ran water into the sink. Her hand left chocolate stains on the white porcelain tap, so she rubbed that off with her wet hand before shutting the water off and drying her hands.

There was still the problem of what to do about her pillow. She went back into the bedroom she shared with her sisters.

The pillow was a mess. She noticed one raspberry cream that had only melted a little. It was her favorite, so she put it in her mouth and savored the tangy sweetness while deciding to switch her pillow with one of her sisters.

Clara had done that to her last week, so she deserved it, but Clara was twelve, three years older than Tilde and much bigger and stronger. Clara might not tell, because then Tilde would tell on her, but Clara would pull her hair.

Liesrl would tell if she noticed the swap, but she was only seven and might not notice. In fact, Tilde could probably persuade Liesrl to hide chocolates herself, and then, when Mama found the stains, Liesrl would act guilty.

Tilde switched her pillow with Liesrl’s and hoped Mama wouldn’t notice the stains on the sheet. Then, feeling thirsty after the chocolate, she slipped out of her room and into the parlor, where Mama had set out a tray of fruit and a pitcher of water for a snack.

Tilde poured herself a glass of water and set the pitcher back down.

Gunther’s knife lay on the table beside a long strip of skin he had peeled from an apple. It was a trick he liked to do for them, to show he could take the whole peel off in one piece. Then he’d lecture them, “You must never touch this knife. It’s very sharp. Too sharp for little girls.” He’d feint at them with the knife, and that was their signal to shriek and run. “Yes, run, but never run with a knife.” And then he’d lay the knife down.

There it was: a pretty thing, with a mother of pearl handle and a thin, short curved blade. The whole thing was tiny, too small for Gunther’s hand. He used it to cut fruit and slices of sausage and sometimes cheese. He always carried it with him in a little leather pouch.

Tilde listened carefully. They were laughing downstairs, but sounded farther away. Probably they’d gone into the back room where Papa made the ice cream and the lady hand dipped chocolates once a week.

She set down her water glass and picked up the knife. The handle felt so smooth, and was just the right size for her hand. She wasn’t stealing it, she just wanted to hold it for a bit.

And then she heard them on the stairs and ran for her room.

“Ah, Tilde’s up: I saw you, Tilde,” said Gunther.

Tilde dove into bed and hid under the covers. She held very still, even when Gunther and her sisters burst in.

“She’s not asleep,” said Gunther.

“No,” said Clara, bouncing on Tilde’s bed. “Tilde’s faking, Tilde’s faking.”

“I’ll tickle her awake.” Gunther took Clara’s place on the bed and pulled the covers down. She scrambled to get away from him, but his hands were all over her.

“Stop it!” she said.

“What’s this?” Gunther’s hands were on her chest, holding her there while she struggled to get free. “Not much there yet. Clara has nice little buds growing, don’t you, Clara?”

Tilde saw Clara toss her head with a prideful smirk. She felt Gunther’s hand moving down between her legs.

“No!” she screamed, kicking him as hard as she could. The knife bounced on the mattress, where she must have dropped it. She picked it up. “Leave me alone.”

Gunther laughed. “Ooh, Tilde’s going to stab me with my little pen knife. I’m so scared. Give it back, little thief.”

He lunged for the knife. Tilde pulled it back, trying to keep it out of his reach. While her arms were raised, he lifted her nightdress.

Tilde felt her refusal harden like an iron shield. He would not do this. She made her hands into fists and pummeled his face, his chest, his neck.

“That’s enough, Tilde! Stop right now,” said Gunther when a lucky blow hit his nose. But he didn’t let her go, and she wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, would never stop, kept hitting him and hitting him.

Suddenly hot liquid squirted into her face and Gunther dropped her. He stood up, puzzlement in his face and blood pumping from his neck. Tilde was already drenched in it.

“What have you done?” he said, pressing his hand to the wound.

Liesrl broke into sobs.

Gunther staggered from the room, leaving a bloody trail behind him.

Clara looked at the knife in Tilde’s bloody right hand. “You killed him.”

“No,” Tilde said.

“You stabbed him with the knife.”

“I was just holding it.”

“They’ll send you to the electric chair.” Clara took a step toward Gunther, paused, looked back at Tilde. “Hide it in the wall,” she said, and ran after Gunther.

Tilde knew exactly what she meant: The hole in the wall, the one behind the picture.

Tilde dragged a chair over and stood on it to reach the framed print of a cottage surrounded by roses and set beside a stream. She slid it to one side, exposing the broken plaster beneath, and pushed the knife through a space in the lath. It disappeared with a thunk inside the wall.

She got down from the chair.

Liesrl had collapsed onto the floor and was sobbing and screaming.

“It’s all right, Liesrl. You’re all right.”

When she wouldn’t stop crying, Tilde left her there and followed the trail of Gunther’s blood down the stairs, through the shop, and into the street.

Clara was standing just outside the open door of the shop. Gunther lay half way down the block on the sidewalk beneath a street lamp. The whole front of him was very red, and he wasn’t moving. His eyes had a vacant look. A handful of people stood around him.

“Why aren’t they helping him?” Tilde asked.

“They tried,” said Clara.

Tilde walked toward him, the cement sidewalk cold beneath her bare feet. Could Gunther see her? His eyes were open.

“God in heaven,” said a man, crossing himself.

“Don’t let the child see this,” said Mrs. Grunwald, stepping between Tilde and the corpse.

“That white hair and skin, and there’s blood on her. I thought she was the Angel of Death.”

“It’s just Tilde from the ice cream parlor. Are you all right, child? What happened?”

Before Tilde could think of what to say, Clara interposed.

“A man broke into the store to rob us. Gunther tried to stop him.”

She went to Tilde, put her arms around her, and they both burst into tears.

All at once, Tilde sat up in bed, woke up, and took a breath that felt like the first one of her life, it seared her lungs so much.

Liesrl and Clara were asleep in Clara’s bed, and sunlight streamed through the windows. They were late for school. Mama would be angry.

But she remembered Mama had told them they could stay home today, so that was all right.

Then she remembered why, and she felt like thousands of tiny needles were pricking her skin. Was what she remembered true?

The policemen had big shoes and big hands and they carried thick sticks. They were Irish. They were trying to calm the three girls down, get them to stop crying and talk one at a time.

The one who was crouching in front of them and smiling eventually stood up.

“Mr. Becker, Mrs. Becker, I can’t follow their story. If the robber broke into the store and attacked your cousin and he ran out into the street, why is there blood going up the stairs?”

Tilde thought he was going to find out then, and because she was afraid of the electric chair, she started shaking.

Mama, her eyes bright with unshed tears, said, “He must have gone up to the girls first for help.”

The policeman shot them a quick look and pressed his lips tightly together. Tilde could almost hear him thinking, He didn’t get it, did he? But he said nothing.

“They’re just kids,” the other one said. “Don’t feel guilty,” he told them.

In a little while, they left.

She slid over to the edge of her bed and saw that a puddle of blood had seeped into the carpet near her feet and more had jetted out and fallen in drops across it. The little drops had dried to brownish stains; the puddle looked sticky. She could see it clearly by daylight. Last night, by lamplight and against the patterned rug, no one had noticed it. Mama, stripping Tilde’s blood soaked bedding, had thought that was where the smell was coming from.

So it was true. Gunther was dead.

I killed him, she thought. But it was his fault.

She slipped out of bed and picked her way across the carpet, being careful not to step on any of the blood splatter. In the living room it was all right, because Mama and Papa had cleaned it all up. The living room looked normal. Chilly, because Mama had the windows open for the room’s daily airing, but that was normal, too, and the starched white lace curtains filtered the sunlight the way they always did.

The bird in the clock on the wall beside Papa’s mahogany secretary cuckooed nine times, and Tilde paused to watch it. It was a little lopsided, because Mama’s canary Hansie had attacked it one day when he was exercising outside his cage. Nine o’clock. School had started without them, even though they weren’t sick.

Tilde thought her parents might be in the kitchen having coffee. She opened the living room door and stepped into the hallway, being careful to close the door behind her because she didn’t want to get in trouble for letting all the heat out of the flat. Depending on Mama’s mood, that could get a child a good natured rebuke or a hard slap.

She heard a murmur of voices from the kitchen and crept closer, coming to a stop behind the open door. Through the crack between it and the doorjamb, she saw Mama and Papa seated at the kitchen table, chunky white china cups in front of them.

Papa’s hair, red fading to gray, looked like it hadn’t been combed. He was smoking a cigar, which he didn’t usually do this early in the day, and not in the kitchen. His face looked puffy and tired, and his workday hadn’t even begun. Poor Papa.

Mama had her hair tucked under a blue kerchief and she wore an apron: her cleaning outfit. Her hand on the cup was the right size for it: big and broad, with short, strong fingers. She was gazing sadly into her coffee and saying, “What am I going to say to Tante Adolfina? She lost Gunther’s father to the war, and now this? How can I write that in a letter?”

“We have to send a telegram,” Papa said.

Mama bowed her head. Papa set his cigar down in the ashtray and put his hand over hers. She looked up at him and set her free hand on top of his.

Tilde judged it was safe to come out. She peeked round the door, then stepped out from behind it.

Mama saw her first. “Tilchen!” she said, holding her arms out.

Tilde ran to her and let herself be enveloped in a big hug. Mama smelled of soap and coffee and the starch she used on all their clothes.

“Are you all right this morning?” she said.

Tilde nodded.

“Your sisters still asleep?”

She nodded again, turning down the corners of her mouth and looking down.

“What’s wrong, liebchen?” her father said.

“I don’t like my carpet,” Tilde whispered.

“Carpet?” said Mama.

“It’s dirty.”

There was silence. Tilde felt Mama’s body stiffen against hers.

Papa said, “Ist es das Blut?”

Mama got up and walked swiftly from the room.

“Are you hungry, Tilchen? Would you like a fresh roll and a cup of milk?”

Tilde nodded, noticing the bakery bag on the table. Papa took a roll from the bag and buttered it for her. It was the kind of soft little white roll she loved. She usually went to the bakery with him to buy them, and the baker always gave her a free roll for herself. Papa had gone without her this morning. She supposed that was because she was sleeping, and that was all right, but she was sorry not to get her roll.

He set the roll in front of her and poured her a cup of milk. She bit through the crust into the yeasty crumb, fresh baked that morning and meltingly soft.

“Is it good?” he said.

Her mouth full, Tilde nodded again. When she had finished the small roll, he asked if she wanted another.

“Yes, Please,” she said, taking a drink of milk.

As he buttered the second roll, Papa said, “So, Tilde. What happened last night?”

“I don’t know. I was asleep, and Cousin Gunther came into my room and woke me up.”

“Why did he do that?”

Tilde swallowed hard, the bread suddenly a lump in her throat. “I don’t know.”

“Was he bleeding then?”

“Yes.”

“He didn’t come in before that?”

“I was asleep.”

“Did you see the man who cut him?”

She could feel the sting of tears in her eyes. “I was asleep.”

“All right, Tilchen. Never mind. Eat your breakfast.”

Tilde looked at the roll on her plate. Maybe she shouldn’t eat it. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to. She looked at papa, to try to guess if what he said was what he meant.

Mama came back in. “Soaked through all the way to the floorboards. Ruined,” she said.

“I didn’t notice blood on the carpet last night,” said Papa.

“You can see it quite clearly by daylight. Spattered all over. That I could get out, but there’s a… We have to throw it out.”

While their attention was on each other, Tilde, because she was hungry, finished eating her roll.

Things felt different the day Tilde went back to school. The other girls looked at her more, noticing her, but not like they wanted to get to know her. They didn’t talk to her. Instead, they’d whisper to each other, then melt away.

The boys were different. They were frankly impressed.

When the dismissal bell rang, Tommy Trumble caught up to her in the hall and walked beside her. “Did you really see somebody get killed?” he asked.

“My cousin Gunther,” she said, proud to be walking beside Tommy, who was a good looking boy, and popular.

“Wow. I heard it was a burglar. What happened, did he get shot?”

“Stabbed.”

“That must have been something. Was there a lot of blood? I heard your mom and pop had to throw the living room carpet out, there was so much blood on it.”

Tilde hesitated. She didn’t like to tell him it was her bedroom carpet. When she didn’t speak, the way he was looking at her changed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must be upset, it being your cousin and all. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“It’s all right,” Tilde said.

They were at the end of the corridor then. As they stepped out into the April sunshine, she heard her sister Clara shouting, “My family is not strange, and neither am I, Ellen Lamb.”

Clara was on one side of the wide stone steps, and a group of girls, backing up Ellen Lamb, was on the other.

“You are too. It’s strange, having somebody murdered in your house. And look at your dress. I mean, how odd can you get?” said Ellen.

Clara stood tall and held her head up. “He was not murdered in my house: he died in the street. And there is nothing wrong with my dress. It’s a good, sturdy cotton twill, and very well made. It’s every bit as nice as yours. Maybe nicer.”

Ellen rolled her eyes. “But you wear it every day.”

“I do not. I wear a different dress every day.”
 Ellen turned to her backup and there was a chorus of groans and “do to.”

Ellen said, “You always wear that same brown dress.”

“I do not. I have four more dresses at home exactly like this one.”

They all laughed at that, even Tommy.

“You don’t believe me? Come home with me, I’ll show you.”

The girls stopped laughing.

“Are you afraid?” said Clara.

“I’ll come,” said Tommy.

“I invited her,” said Clara, pointing at Ellen.

“Sure. I’ll come,” said Ellen.

The whole group moved off down the street, Clara determinedly taking the lead, and Tilde keeping toward the back, with Tommy. She knew he was mostly coming because he wanted to see the crime scene, but she didn’t care. She liked him.

When they reached the Beckers’ confectionary shop, the procession halted beneath the large “Soda” sign that jutted out over the sidewalk.

“Mama won’t let all of you come upstairs,” Clara said.

Tommy said to Tilde, “Where did he die?”

“There,” said Tilde, pointing to the street lamp. “They’ve washed away the blood.”

The girls shivered and squealed and went to look, all but Ellen. “So are you going to show me these dresses?”

“Come on,” said Clara, and she and Ellen and Tilde and Tommy went into the shop.

Mama was standing behind the long marble topped counter, under the stained glass Coca Cola lamp. “Was ist dieses?” she said.

“Mama, this is Ellen Lamb, my friend from school. I’m taking her upstairs.”

“You cannot take a boy upstairs.”

“I’m not. He’s with Tilde.”

“Ach.” Mama’s mouth compressed into a thin line. “You cannot take a boy upstairs, Tilde. There’s no one to chaperone you.”

“But I’m just taking him to my room,” said Tilde, annoyed because it had been all right when it was Gunther.

“No.”

“That’s okay,” said Tommy. “I’ll see you at school. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Becker.” He left.

Tears in her eyes, Tilde glared at her mother, stomped her foot, and ran upstairs.

She could hear Clara’s assertive tones and Ellen’s doubting ones coming from the bedroom. Tilde knew Clara might get mad if she interrupted, but it was her room, too. Chin up and mouth set in a defiant frown, she went in anyway.

Clara didn’t notice her. She was taking a dress out of the wardrobe. “One,” she said, laying a brown print dress on the bed.

Ellen’s expression of “show me” defiance turned to puzzlement as her eyes darted from the dress on the bed to the identical one Clara was wearing and back again.

“Two,” said Clara, laying a second brown dress down.

Ellen moved closer to the bed and examined the two dresses carefully.

This time Clara carried a dress in each hand. “Three. And four. And the one I’m wearing makes five. Now do you believe me?”

“They’re all exactly the same,” said Ellen.

“I told you so.”

“Why do you have five dresses all exactly the same?”

“Tilde and Liesrl do, too. Every year before the beginning of the school year, my mother buys a bolt of good cloth and has a lady sew dresses for us, one for each day of the week.”

“But why?”

“It’s more economical to buy the whole bolt. Do you still think I’m strange?”

Ellen shook her head. “No. But I think your mother is.”

Tilde felt a prickle of apprehension run up her neck: Clara had been known to slap people who insulted her. But instead, she laughed, and Tilde knew she wanted this girl as a friend.

“It’s not so bad,” said Clara. “We get all the ice cream and soda and candy we want.”

Yup, definitely trying to make her a friend.

On the first day that felt like spring, Tilde stood on the school steps waiting for Tommy to finish cleaning the classroom erasers. The teachers acted like the job was an honor, and most kids believed it was, but Tilde knew housework when she saw it and always managed to be tardy or mess up a test when her turn came up. She’d missed it every time so far.

Clara had gone ahead, and Tilde could see her farther down the block, walking with her new friends Ellen Lamb and Rachel Grunwald. Liesrl trailed behind, like a puppy off its leash. Tilde didn’t care. As far as she was concerned, Clara had gotten stuck-up since she’d made friends with Ellen and Ellen had introduced her to Rachel. Now the three of them spent most afternoons in the Grunwald’s apartment above their dry goods store.

But Tilde had noticed their snacks were mostly candy stolen by Clara from the Beckers’ store while Papa was watching it, or rather, while Papa was looking the other way.

Tommy came out of the school building. He was covered in a general dusting of chalk from clapping the erasers together, and there was a smudge on his nose.

“You have chalk on your nose,” she said.

“Huh?” he said, rubbing the white streak off. He looked up at the sun and smiled. “Lets go to the park.”

Tilde liked the way the sun lit up the bits of green and yellow and sepia that all together gave his eyes their brown color. She wondered if she could draw them that way. Probably not: she had all those colors in her crayon box, but how do you draw light?

“Sure,” she said.

Tilde picked up her school books, which were held together by a strap, and slung them over her shoulder. Tommy never offered to carry them for her, the way boys did for girls, but that was okay.

As they walked toward the park, he spotted a can lying in the gutter and kicked it. It bounced along the cobblestones and came to a halt.

Tilde ran after it and gave it another kick; Tommy ran ahead and intercepted the can, sending it flying. Together they played kick-the-can all the way down the street.

By the time they reached the park, Tilde’s legs and feet were tchy in their knee high woolen stockings. It was too hot for wool. She’d ask mama tonight if she could wear her cotton stockings tomorrow, but in the meantime…

Tilde plunked her books down on a bench and sat beside them. The trees were hazy with unopened yellow green leaf buds, but the square of grass at their center was already lush and green. Shops and houses faced the park on all four sides, her parents’ confectionery store among them. There was a fountain, but it wasn’t turned on yet, or filled with water.

Tommy dropped his books and jumped onto the low iron-railed fence that edged the lawn. “Bet you can’t do this,” he said, walking along the rail like a tightrope walker.

“Bet I can,” said Tilde.

She rolled down her stockings, took off her shoes, then the stockings, and stuffed them into the shoes. She wiggled her toes, then flexed her ankles. Her feet and legs felt much better.

“Whoa!” said Tommy, falling off. “See how far I got: almost half way.”

Tilde climbed onto the rail and, gripping the metal with her bare feet, walked along it. It was warm where the sun hit it, cool in the shade. She glided along, not on the ground, not in the air.

“Way to go,” said Tommy as she passed the spot where he’d fallen off.

A little dog yapped.

An old man looked at her over the top of his newspaper, then rattled the paper and went back to reading.

By the time she reached the end of the railing, Tommy was cheering.

Tilde paused, then lifted up her foot to turn around. As she did, her mind showed her an image of what she looked like: a flaxen haired little girl with a buster brown haircut and skinny legs poking out heron-like beneath a brown smock that fell, this late in the school year, to just above her knees. She set her foot down and began the walk back.

“It must be nice to live across from the park. You must get to practice a lot,” said Tommy, walking beside her.

“It’s easier barefoot,” she said.

“Do you play here a lot in the summer?”

“No. We go to Schiffler’s farm for the summer.”

“What’s Schiffler’s farm?”

“It’s just a farm.”

“Oh. I hear you have a new cousin.”

“Franz. He just got here. He doesn’t speak much English.”

And then Tilde saw Clara waiting at the end of the fence, her arms crossed, her nose tilted up in disapproval.

Tilde wobbled, but kept on going.

“There’s my sister,” she said.

Clara had the same haircut as Tilde did, and as Liesrl, but while Tilde and Liesrl looked like blonde and redheaded versions of Buster Brown, Clara looked like Clara Bow. She had the same softly rounded cheeks and pouty lips as Clara Bow. Boys carried her books home for her.

“Mama wants you,” Clara said. “Now.”

Tilde got down from the fence and went to the bench where her books and shoes were.

“See you tomorrow,” Tommy said, absenting himself.

Tilde thought he was a little afraid of Clara. She knew he was afraid of Mama. She sat down and began to put her shoes on.

“Put your stockings on,” said Clara.

“It’s too hot. They itch.”

“I know. So do mine. But if you come home without your stockings, Mama will be mad, and she’ll make us wear wool stockings until July.”

Tilde sighed, because Clara was right. She pushed her shoe off with her unshod foot and pulled on a stocking.

“And you shouldn’t be hanging around with that boy. Walking barelegged like that, where he could see you, and you with your skirt so short.”

Tilde shot Clara a dirty look and put on the other stocking.

“Do you want to go to Schifflers this summer? I don’t.”

“Schifflers is okay.”

“Okay for you maybe. You’re still a little kid. But I’m thirteen now, and I have friends here.”

Watching Clara carefully, Tilde put on her shoes and buttoned them.

“I don’t want my head shaved this summer.”

The head shaving was the reason they all had the haircuts they did: this was how long their hair could grow from one summer to the next. Mama just cut the ends even and their bangs short. “I hate that,” Tilde said.

“I want to have beautiful long hair,” said Clara. “And a different looking dress for every day of the week.”

Tilde hoped Clara could get those things, because then maybe she and Liesrl could, too. She stood up and picked up her books.

“Come on,” said Clara, and they walked toward the street, Tilde pulling away to the left, down the sidewalk.

“That’s the long way. Let’s cross here,” Clara said.

“I don’t want to.”

“It’s just a street lamp. You have to walk by it sometime.”

Clara grabbed Tilde’s hand and they crossed the street. Tilde felt a fluttering in her chest, as though her heart was a frightened little animal looking for a safe place to hide. It’ll be all right, she told it.

She heard the flies before she saw them and stopped abruptly, clutching Clara’s hand tightly.

“Ow,” said Clara. “What’s the matter with you?”

Tilde was staring at the flies swarming on the pavement where Gunther had died. Were they after his blood? Did Clara see them, too?

“It’s just flies,” Clara said. “What are you afraid of?”

“A ghost.”

“Look: somebody dropped an ice cream cone. They’re eating ice cream, that’s all. Gunther is dead and he’s gone and he’s not coming back. You don’t have to be afraid of him.”

Yes I do, Tilde thought.

“It’s not your fault he’s dead. It was the robber who killed him.”

“But that’s not how it happened,” Tilde whispered.

“Yes it is. It’s exactly how it happened,” Clara said. And she walked Tilde past the spot.