EXCERPT

From Amy Bloom's "Away"

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

An excerpt from Away:

It had taken eight hours for Lillian to get from Ellis Island to the Battery Park of Manhattan and another four to find Cousin Frieda's apartment building. She had read Cousin Frieda's letter and the directions to Great Jones Street while she stood on three different lines in the Registry Room, while the doctor watched them all climb the stairs, looking for signs of lameness or bad hearts or feeble-mindedness. ("You step lively," a man had said to her on the crossing. "They don't want no idiots in America. Also," and he showed Lillian a card with writing on it, "if you see something that looks like this, scratch your right ear." Lillian tried to memorize the shape of the letters. "What does it say?" "What do you think? It says, 'Scratch your right ear.' You do that, they think you can read English. My brother sent me this," the man said and he put the card back in his pocket, like a man with money.)

They had room, Cousin Frieda's letter had said, for family or dear friends. They had a little sewing business and could provide employment while people got on their feet. It was a great country, she wrote. Anyone could buy anything -- you didn't have to be gentry. There was a list of things Frieda had bought recently: a sewing machine (on installment, but she had it already), white flour in paper sacks, condensed milk, sweet as cream and didn't go bad, Nestlé's powdered cocoa for a treat in the evening, hairpins that matched her hair color exactly, very good stockings, only ten cents. . . .

Lillian had walked through the last door, marked PUSH TO NEW YORK, and showed her letter to a man moving luggage onto the ferry. He smiled and shrugged. She held up the letter and the block-printed address a dozen times to faces that were blank, or worse than blank, knowing and dubious. . . . She hadn't imagined that in front of her new home, in her new country -- after the trolley cars and the men with signs on their fronts and their backs, the women in short skirts, the colored boys with chairs on their backs and pictures of shiny shoes around their necks, and a team, an old man in red pants working with a young girl with a red hat, selling shoelaces, fans, pencils, and salted twists of dough, which smelled so good, Lillian had to cover her mouth and swallow hard -- the first thing she would see when she finally got to Great Jones Street was a woman in her nightgown and a man's overcoat, weeping. Lillian watched the woman open a folding chair and take a china plate from her pocket and hold it on her lap. People passed by and put a few coins in the plate.

Cousin Frieda had run down the stairs and hugged Lillian. "Dear little Lillian," she said. "My home is your home."

-- from Away


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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