Scene I from BROADWAY BABY
"Tomorrow I'll be ten years old," Miriam Bluestein told herself as she sat in the bathtub. Ten years old, and in a few days her mother would be taking her to New York City for the first time. She looked out the bathroom window at the bright-lit billboard on the rooftop of Fleischman's Bakery, where all the way from Broadway and the Ziegfeld Follies, Fanny Brice looked in at her, at Miriam, here in Mattapan, the singer's shining arms held out, her face smiling, as if to welcome the little girl, now that she wasn't so little anymore, into the company of stars. How many nights during bathtime had she stared at the great singer, the great Jewish performer her grandparents especially, but everybody really, up and down the street and throughout the neighborhood, revered and talked about. How many evenings before bedtime did they listen on the radio to the Follies coming to them "from the Ziegfeld Theater in downtown Manhattan," and every time Miss Brice would sing "My Man," or "Second Hand Rose," she and Bubbie would sing along, and afterward Zaydie would look at Miriam and smile a smile that she was sure was saying, imagine the joy she gives her parents. What a blessing such a child would be.
Miriam looked out at Fanny looking in at her, and thought, who knows, maybe in a few days she'd be watching Fanny Brice herself. Maybe someday that would be Miriam up there on a billboard looking in on some other little girl who in a few days would be ten years old and coming to New York City for the first time. Mattapan, Manhattan, they were practically the same word. Only two letters made the difference. Only two letters turned the every day into the never before, the just here into the far away. How had she never noticed that before? Maybe this was what it meant to be ten, almost a teenager, almost an adult. What other new things would she soon be noticing?
Next week she'd be someone who had been to New York City, who'd been to Broadway. No one she knew, not one single person beside her mother, not any of her friends, could say that. Not Zaydie and Bubbie, and certainly not her father, no, not him.
Mattapan, Manhattan. She wrung the sponge out over her head and laughed as the water cascaded down over her face. It wasn't too long ago that Bubbie used to bathe her. Bubbie would lather her up until she wore an ermine stole of suds along her arms and shoulders, and a white tiara on her head, and she would call her "a regular little star, a little Fanny Brice, a Sophie Tucker." Now, of course, she bathed herself the way grown-ups did. It was a funny thing to think about, to try to remember, the last time Bubbie bathed her. There had to have been a last time, though she couldn't recall it, a time like any other time that she and maybe Bubbie, too, believed would just go on forever, and it did, or seemed to, until it didn't, and now she couldn't even find the memory of it. That must have meant there'd come a last time, too, to play with all her dolls and who knew what else. Now that she was older, how many things every day would she be doing for the last time without knowing it, things she would not recall until too late when whatever it was was beyond recalling? Mattapan, Manhattan, Manhattan, Mattapan. She dunked her head under the water and opened her eyes. The blurry shapes of the drain with the white plug in it, her hands, her arms, all of her on the eve of her tenth birthday, a few days before her trip to New York City, were wavering with water shadows, shadows that the bathroom walls and ceiling would later seem to swallow as the water twisted down the drain.
The next day, she was walking home from school down the alley that ran behind her block of buildings when an orange kitten ran out from under a parked car.
Overhead laundry flapped from clotheslines on the back porches in the cold November air. She could hear a baby crying and someone shooing something off a porch. She imagined someone in one of the windows looking out at her, seeing what they thought was just a little girl walking home from school, not realizing what today was or where she'd be come Friday, or who she'd see.
She followed the kitten to some nearby trash bins. It must be hungry; it must be looking for food. "Here kitty, kitty," she called, kneeling on the gravel. She tried to make herself sound younger than she was, the way adults did when talking to little babies, like Fanny Brice as Baby Snooks. But the kitten dashed out and slipped under a neighbor's roadster and out the other side and leaped onto the far corner of a fence, behind some scraggly bushes. She could see it among the leaves, its paws drawn under it, its tail pulled round like a moat. She said, "I won't hurt you, kitty. It's my birthday today; you'll be safe with me." Up and down the alley, dogs were barking; she could hear old Mrs. Leavitt, their next-door neighbor, yelling at her twenty-year-old nephew Joey who'd come to live with her after his parents died of influenza so many years ago. "Maria, Joey? Maria? She's not for you. Maria?" The tabby meowed and kept meowing but it wouldn't budge, and after a while Miriam gave up and went home.
"Bubbie," she asked her grandmother. "Bubbie, there's a lost kitten out back; since it's my birthday, can I keep it?"
"No alley cats," Bubbie said. "I don't care what day it is. The filth, the stink — I don't have enough to do already? Call your big-shot mother at the store, maybe for the rats she'll want it."
"Tula's," her mother said, in the cheerful voice she used at work, only with customers.
"Ma," Miriam said, "there's a kitty out back and, um, well, it's my birthday and ..."
"Miriam," her mother said, "how many times have I told you not to call me at the store, I have a business to run, and what does your birthday have to do with anything?"
"Well," she said, "Bubbie says we can't keep a cat here but I was thinking maybe at the store I could keep it; it might help with the mice."
Her mother said, "If you want a cat, just ask for a cat. Don't give me a song and dance about your birthday."
"So, can I have a cat?"
She decided to keep it anyway. It would be her secret pet. She left a bowl of milk out, near the fence, tucked under the bushes, and an hour later the bowl was empty. But the kitten was still there, still crying, so she brought out a bowl of little bits of tuna and crackers. The kitten still would not approach. It cried as she knelt there, calling to it, and then after a while it simply watched her. But it never consented to be touched, to be petted, which was all that Miriam longed to do. Miriam told herself that eventually the cat would learn how kind she was, how mistaken it was to fear her. She was ten years old. Then she shook the bowl to show the kitten that it was full and not a trap; she shook the bowl, calling out sweet names. But the kitten wouldn't budge, and when she edged a little closer, it just retreated farther back into the bushes, its green eyes glaring at the little girl calling kitty, kitty, come here kitty, holding the bowl out and shaking it, shaking the bowl as if asking for alms.
From Broadway Baby by Alan Shapiro. Copyright 2012 by Alan Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books.