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Chapter Seven. JOHNNY came into the kitchen
JOHNNY came into the kitchen. It was warm and cozy in there, the big stove throwing off waves of heat. "Where's Peter?" he asked.
Esther put the cover back on the pot of soup and turned to look at him. "He went out for a walk," she told him.
He looked at her in surprise. "In this weather?" he asked, going to the window and looking out. The snow was still coming down heavily; the street was already covered with drifts. He turned back to her. "There must be almost three feet of snow out there."
She made a helpless gesture with her hands. "I told him," she said quietly, "but he went anyway. He's been so restless the last few days."
Johnny nodded his head understandingly. He had noticed Peter’s restlessness himself ever since they had to close down the nickelodeon three days ago because of the heavy snowfall. The summer had been profitable, but now the first snow of winter had closed them up.
Esther looked at him. Her mind was still on Peter. "I don't
know what got into him lately," she said half to herself. "He was never like this before."
Johnny dropped into a chair in front of her. His brows knitted together puzzledly. "What do you mean?" he asked.
Her eyes looked directly into his as if the answer to her problem lay there. "Since the nickelodeon opened, he's changed," she said slowly. "A little business more or less never bothered him before; now every morning he stands at the window and curses the snow. 'It’s costing us money,' he says."
Johnny smiled. "It ain't that bad," he said. "In the carny we knew that the sun can't shine every day. It's all in the business."
"I told him we shouldn't complain, we were lucky so far; but he only ignored what I said and went out." She sat down in the chair opposite Johnny and looked down at her hands folded in her lap. When she looked up at him again, her eyes had filled with tears. "It seems almost like I don't know him anymore. Like he's a different person, a stranger. I remember back in New York when Doris was a baby and the doctor told us the only way she would get back her health was if we took her out of the city. Peter sold the business there and came out here without a second's hesitation. Now I'm beginning to wonder if he would do a thing like that again."
Johnny shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was embarrassed by the sudden flood of her confidence. "He's been working pretty hard lately," he said, trying to comfort her. "It isn't the easiest thing in the world trying to run two businesses at once."
A sudden smile at his poor attempt to console her broke through her tears. "Don't tell me that, Johnny," she said softly. "I know better. Since you come back he hasn't had to do a thing in the nickelodeon."
Johnny's face grew red. "But the responsibility is his," he replied lamely.
She took his hand, still smiling. "You're a good boy to say so, Johnny, but you're not fooling anybody."
The soup on the stove behind her began to boil; she dropped his hand and got up to look at it. She took a spoon and began to stir it, speaking over her shoulder to him. "No, it's not that. There's something on his mind and I don't know what it is." A discouraged tone seemed to permeate her voice. Peter seemed farther away from her now than he had ever been.
She remembered when Peter had first come into her father's store. She had been fourteen then and he was about a year older.
He had just got off the boat and had a letter from her father's brother, who had settled in Munich. He had looked like a real greenie too, his wrists shooting out from the cuffs of his too short jacket. Her father had given him a job in the small hardware store on Rivington Street and Peter had started in to go to night school. She used to help him with his English lessons. It was the most natural thing in the world for them to fall in love. She remembered when he went to ask her father for permission for them to get married. She had watched them from behind the door that led into the back room of the store. Peter had stood there awkwardly watching her father, who was sitting on a high stool behind the counter, his little black yamalke perched on his head, reading the Jewish newspaper through his small spectacles.
At last, after a long, uneasy pause, Peter had spoken. "Mr. Greenberg."
Her father had looked up at him over the rims of his glasses. He didn't speak, he wasn't a very talkative man.
Peter was nervous, "I—uh, that is, we—Esther and I, would like to get married."
Her father had looked up at him over the rims of his glasses, then, without speaking, dropped his eyes back to his newspaper again. She remembered how her heart was pounding so loudly that she had been afraid they would hear it out in the store. She held her breath.
Peter spoke again; his voice was strained and cracked slightly. "Mr. Greenberg, did you hear me?"
Her father looked at him again and spoke in Yiddish. "Nu and why shouldn't I hear you? Am I deaf?"
"But—but you didn't answer me," Peter stammered. "I didn't say no, did I?" Mr. Greenberg answered, still in Yiddish. "Neither am I so blind that I could not see what you were going to ask." He turned back to his newspaper.
Peter stood there a moment as if he did not believe his ears; then he turned and started back to tell Esther. She had just time to get out of the way of the door before he burst into the room with his news.
When her father had died, Peter took over the store. Their little Doris was born in the room behind it. When she was three years old she had been a very sick little child and the big doctor they had gone to had told them the only thing they could do for her was to take her out of the city. That was how they came to Rochester, where, after a few years, Mark was born.
Now there was an urgency in Peter, a restlessness she had never seen before, something she didn't quite understand. She felt strangely excluded from his mind, somehow apart from him, and felt a vague hurt within her.
She heard the door open. Peter came into the kitchen, brushing the snow from him.
Johnny cleared his throat in relief. Esther's protracted silence had added to his embarrassment, he was glad that Peter had come in. "Bad weather," he said.
Peter nodded his head morosely. "It looks like we'll be closed tomorrow too," he said irritably. "It doesn't seem to be letting up." He took off his overcoat and dropped it on a chair, where it began to shed small drops of water as the snow on it melted in the heat of the room.
"That's what I thought," Johnny said. "I've been thinking of running down to New York and seeing Joe at the studio. Why don't you come with me?"
"What's the use?" Peter snapped, "I told you before I wasn't interested."
Esther looked up at him suddenly. Intuitively she knew from his voice that this was what had been troubling him. She turned to Johnny. "What is it you want him to do?"
Johnny turned to her, sensing an ally. "Bill Borden is opening a new studio in Brooklyn shortly and he's putting his old one on the block. I want Peter to come down to New York and look at it. If he thinks enough of it, maybe he and Joe and me will go into it."
"You mean make pictures?" she asked, watching Peter out of the corner of her eyes.
"Yeah. Make pictures," Johnny answered. "There's a lot of money in it an' it's getting bigger every day." Excitedly he began to tell her about the possibilities he saw in it.
Esther listened attentively. It was all new to her, but Peter
sank into his chair with an apparent air of boredom. It was only Esther who could see that beneath the mask of indifference on Peter's face the idea had intrigued him.
Johnny talked about it all through supper. He could speak endlessly about it, and when he went downstairs to sleep, his words still lingered in Esther's mind. Peter had not 'commented one way or the other; he seemed wrapped up in other thoughts.
About nine o'clock they went to bed. It was still snowing and the room was cold. Esther waited for him to come to bed; when he did he was sleepy, but Esther wanted to talk.
"Why don't you want to go and see what Johnny says for yourself?" she asked him.
He grunted and turned over on his side. "What for?" he mumbled into his pillow. "The kid is all excited over nothing."
"He was right about the nickelodeon," she pointed out. "Could be he's right about this."
He sat up. "That's different," he said. "The nickelodeon we know is a novelty. When it wears off, we close up the thing; we're not out no money because we went in cheap. But this is a big business. It takes a big investment to go into it. Yet it's based on the same novelty, and when the nickelodeons close, where is it? Gone. With this when we close up, we made our money, so we don't lose no sleep."
She persisted. "But Johnny thinks it will get bigger. He says nickelodeons are opening up at the rate of over twenty a week."
"So it'll die so much quicker." He lay back on the pillow again. A thought came to him. "Why are you so interested in what Johnny says all of a sudden?"
"Because you are," she answered simply, "only I don't go around looking for excuses why I shouldn't do something because I'm afraid of it."
Peter didn't answer. "She is right," he was thinking. "I'm afraid to take a chance. That's why I won't go down with Johnny. Because I'm afraid he's right and I'll pass it up anyway."
They were quiet for a while. Peter was just drifting off to sleep when she spoke again. "Are you up?"
"I'm up," he answered testily.
"Peter, maybe it's a good idea that Johnny's got. I got a feeling."
"I got a feeling too," he grumbled. "I got a feeling I should like to sleep."
"No, Peter." She sat up in bed and looked at him. "I mean it. Remember when the doctor told us to take Doris out of New York and how I felt about Rochester?"
He looked at her through the darkness. He wouldn't admit it, but he had a healthy respect for her hunches. Time had proved her right many times. That time he had wanted to go somewhere else. Instead they came here and prospered, while the man who had taken the other place had failed. "So?" he asked.
"Well, now I got a feeling this was one of the things we came here for and now the time is right for us to go back to New York. I never said nothing because we came here for the baby's health, but now, thank God, the baby's all right and I'm lonely. I miss my people, my family. I want Mark to go to cheder where my papa used to pray. I want to go where I can hear people speaking Yiddish and I want to stand with my children in front of the matzoh bakery on Rivington Street and smell the matzos warm from the oven like my father and I used to do. And suddenly the feeling is strong in me that the time has come to go back home. Please, Peter, go down and look. If it's not good, don't do nothing about it, but go and look."
It was a long speech for her; in that way she was a great deal like her father, and Peter was impressed. He pulled her head down on his shoulder. There were soft wet spots on her cheek where it lay against his neck. With his free hand he stroked her hair. When at last he spoke, his voice was very soft and he spoke in Yiddish. "All right, so I'll go and look."
She turned her face toward him. "Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," he answered, and then suddenly turned to English. "But I'm not making no promises!"
Esther lay awake for a long time listening to Peter's slow breathing as he slept. It was funny sometimes how hard you had to work to convince a man that it was right for him to do the thing he really wanted to do.
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