Manhattan classmate Penny had leukemia

One look and even a kid knew she was dying.

Probably a minute passed, and Penny’s class started crying loud sobs.
  • Probably a minute passed, and Penny’s class started crying loud sobs.

When you’re young and someone your age is dying, you get scared. Penny was dying the year I was ten and right after she turned eleven. Penny was in a class two doors down from ours. We didn’t know she was sick until we came back to school in the fall. Mrs. Raskin, our teacher, told us.

After Mrs. Raskin said, “Penny’s got leukemia,” somebody asked how you get it. Mrs. Raskin said, “No one knows.”

David started running his hands through his hair and asked in a trembly voice, “Is it contagious? Can I catch it?” One of my two best friends, David sat across the aisle from me. His glasses were so thick you could hardly see through the lenses to his blue eyes. He weighed 50 pounds and had a sunken chest and got sick a lot and sometimes didn’t come to school for two weeks. He was so smart it didn’t matter; he could multiply double digits in his head and sit at the big Chickering upright at the back of our room and play by ear any song we asked. Nobody didn’t like David. Even though David talked mostly to girls and didn’t have a boy best friend and was lousy at softball and terrified by soccer and in swim class absolutely refused to dive, still the school’s rough boys never called him “Four Eyes” or “Sissy” or “Queer.”

Mrs. Raskin said no about catching leukemia from Penny. Mrs. Raskin looked you right in the eyes and spoke in a soothing alto that floated into your ears as easily as the dinner music they played on WQXR. Everybody liked Mrs. Raskin. She had pale blonde hair she curled with a Toni home permanent; she wore lots of navy blue, and she collected pins that she stuck on her blouse. Her rhinestone Scotty dog was my favorite. She also smelled good from the Camay soap she used and Coty face powder she kept in her top desk drawer; the powder came in a gilded orange box complete with pink powder puff. She never had bad breath, which in those days everybody called “halitosis.”

Mrs. Raskin said leukemia didn’t pass from person to person like cold germs did if you sneezed and forgot to put your handkerchief over your face. She said leukemia came from the Greek word for “white,” and when you had leukemia, white blood cells multiplied too fast. She said we shouldn’t worry. Leukemia happened to hardly anybody.

Our school sat on the 110th Street edge of Central Park. Our room was on the third floor. When you looked out our windows you could see down into treetops, you could see crowns of peoples’ hats, you could see parts in the hair of people who went bareheaded. When Mrs. Raskin left the room, sometimes we leaned out the windows and spit down on people. Our school wasn’t far from the Museum of the City of New York. Afternoons when we got restless, Mrs. Raskin lined us up, two by two, and we walked there, skittering the rusty, littering, fallen leaves with our brown oxfords’ blunt toes. We had a dozen, maybe fourteen in our class that year. It was a private school and what, back then, was called “progressive”; we were permitted to do pretty much what we pleased. You didn’t have to raise your hand to go to the restroom, you could chew gum, you could get up from your desk and stretch, you could read whatever you wanted, even comic books and Nancy Drew and Clara Barton. We had no dress code; girls could wear dungarees.

Even though Mrs. Raskin said not to worry, we did worry. We’d been born during World War II. We’d grown up seeing Life magazine photographs of dead soldiers and dead children and death camps and Japanese (whom we called “Japs”) atom bomb survivors. The bomb survivors’ faces were burned off, and the skin lay in ropes along their arms and legs and looked like chenille bedspreads.

Before Saturday matinees we watched newsreels that showed starving Europeans in refugee camps and bombed-out European and Japanese buildings. We knew people who died in the war. The Nazis killed one whole side of David’s mother’s family in Buchenwald. His mother was still scared Jews would be rounded up again. So was David.

The Bentons, who lived in the apartment next to me and my mother, were in a Japanese concentration camp for two years. Anne and Jane Benton, who were my age, almost starved to death in the camp, and when they got out and came to America, they had to get false teeth. Plus, we regularly had bomb drills at school; and all around the city, yellow signs showed you where to go in case of bombs, and we’d read about what the A-bomb could do to us, how at the epicenter we wouldn’t know what hit us, we’d fry so fast. I looked at my arms” and legs and thought, “These would fry up like Sunday chicken.” I heard myself sizzle the way the drumsticks sizzled when my mother dropped them into hot fat in the deep-fat fryer. So Penny’s dying scared us more than it would have if all we’d known about death was a dead pet or seeing Bambi or having to kiss a dead grandpa that the undertaker put a big smile on.

Mrs. Raskin ran off United States maps on the mimeo. The sheets of paper were so big that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans flopped over the sides of our desktops. The map showed all 48 states but didn’t give states’ names. We were supposed to print those in, from memory. Then we were supposed to print in state capitals, also from memory. When we got all through with this project, we would know all America by heart.

The afternoon Penny’s mother brought her to school for her birthday party was the afternoon we were printing in each state’s important agricultural products. These we didn’t have to know by memory; we were allowed to use our geography book.

Wheels squeaked across the hallway tiles when my pencil was right over North Dakota, whose principal agricultural product was wheat. I was just singing to myself about “amber waves of grain” when through the open door I saw Penny’s mother pushing a high-backed wooden wheelchair. Penny’s mother was tall, with blonde hair in a chignon. She wore a hat, as all women did then, and she wore gloves. The wheelchair back was woven rattan, the rattan a gold color, and shellacked. I thought the chair looked like a chariot, as in the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” another song I sometimes sang to myself. Penny’s mother had stopped and was leaning over Penny, who slumped in the chair. Penny’s blonde braids were gone. A ski cap, blue with white snowflakes, was pulled down over her head. She was skinny as a stick figure, and her face and arms looked white as white sheets looked in those days when all sheets were 100 percent cotton and mothers bleached them in hot water and Clorox. Penny and her mother were whispering. Penny didn’t so much seem to make words as noises, like cats’ noises when cats meow and scratch because maybe it’s raining and they’re starving and cold and want back in the house.

I stared down again at my map. “North Dakota, whose capital is Fargo and whose principal agricultural product is wheat,” I said to myself. I thought a minute about North Dakota and that it might already be winter there and the wheat long gone, already made into bread. I thought I was going to cry, so to keep the tears back I started again with “for purple mountain’s majesty” and “amber waves of grain.” The next time I looked out the door, Penny and her mother were gone.

I wasn’t all that close to Penny, except for our sitting next to each other on the small bus that took us to school and brought us home. I knew Penny was her parents’ only child, and her father taught history at Columbia, a few blocks from where we both lived. Penny’s apartment was on Riverside Drive, down the street from mine. Penny, from our seat together on the bus, one day showed me her bedroom window. Like one of my bedroom windows, hers also looked out over the Hudson River and the big Crisco sign on the Jersey shore that at night glowed across the black water. Sometimes when I looked out my window at night, I wondered, “Is Penny looking out her window, too?”

Penny and I, in good weather, almost daily played jacks together. We were both better at jacks than about everyone else. We played up on the school roof, ten stories up from the street, in a corner out of the wind. We played straight “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies,” and so on; and we played “Cherry in the Basket,” “Flying Dutchman,” “Over the Fence.” She had big hands and long fingers. I had small hands, but I was quick. We never talked much while we played. We concentrated on the metal jacks and tossing up the red rubber ball.

Natalie Oliver, who had frizzy black curls and slightly bucked teeth like the actress Gene Tierney, was Penny’s best friend since first grade. Natalie and Penny often dressed alike, right down to the same embroidered edelweiss on their anklets. They had Black Watch plaid dresses the same and silver charm bracelets with the same charms: banjo, strawberry, unicycle with a wheel that you could twirl around and around, teddy bear, American flag, violin, ballerina. Poor Natalie, though, was more than chubby; she was one of the girls at whom boys and rough girls sang, “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me,” until teachers came along and put a stop to them.

Natalie, ever since school started in the fall, got thinner and thinner. Also, she was quiet instead of her usual loudmouthed and bossy way. She was a very bossy girl, always telling you, when we were up on the roof for recess, to not forget to take down your class’s basketball, or warning you that you’d better not get the jump rope so close to her when you were jumping hot peppers. After Penny got sick, when Natalie was up on the roof, she’d glance around at all of us, as if searching for something she’d set down, like maybe her sweater, and then when she came back to pick it up, it wasn’t there.

Natalie went to Penny’s apartment and visited. When we were up on the roof for recess or eating lunch, girls in my class who were nosier than I was asked Natalie, “How’s Penny?” When they asked Natalie that, she always said, “Penny’s okay,” and her bottom lip trembled under her bucked teeth and she walked away from her questioners and stood alone and fretted her fingers and twirled the unicycle wheel on her charm bracelet. I felt sorry for Natalie and thought how sad I would be if anything happened to David or Mary Margaret, who was my other best friend at school, or to my best friend at home, William, who lived in the same apartment house I lived in. I felt most sorry though for Penny, especially when I walked over to the spot on the roof where we’d splayed out our legs in front of us and scattered out our jacks and tossed up the red ball. I thought, “Penny won’t ever get to play jacks again.” You couldn’t play in bed. I’d tried.

One look at Penny and even a kid knew Penny was dying. Penny, who only the year before, when we had swimming class, got teased because she had little rolls of fat under her arms and chubby legs, and Penny, who only the year before came to Halloween Night as Cinderella and looked pretty as a picture in a blue taffeta ball gown, and Penny, who could scoop up all ten jacks in her big hand, now didn’t weigh even maybe 50 pounds, and she didn’t look like she could even toss the little red ball up in the air, much less scoop up a palmful of jacks.

Our room was two doors from Penny’s, so we heard her class saying, “Hello, Penny! Hello!” A few minutes later, while we were still penciling in agricultural products, the sweet burning, wax smell drifted in from Penny’s birthday candles. Penny’s class sang, “Happy birthday, dear Penny, happy birthday to you!” I looked down at my geography book, and it all seemed to have turned to print and picture. I couldn’t make any sense of it.

Mary Margaret, who sat in front of me, told David and me that she thought Penny might die during her party. David said to Mary Margaret not to say that, because already he felt sick to his stomach. I felt sick to my stomach too. David thought maybe he’d throw up. I was afraid I would too. David politely told Mary Margaret to shut up about people dying at school. Because everyone knew that David was sensitive, Mary Margaret didn’t say it again.

Mary Margaret turned around to me, her face so close I could see the tiny dark hairs quiver in her nose holes. Mary Margaret had gigantic, pretty hazel eyes and fluffy eyelashes, but her left eye wandered, especially when she was nervous or excited. I could see that the iris of her bad eye had floated off to the side. She asked what I thought people gave Penny for birthday presents. Her breath smelled like lunch, which had been tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. I couldn’t answer her question. I couldn’t guess.

I was clear to South Dakota; capital, Pierre, and chief agricultural product also wheat, by the time Penny’s class was telling Penny good-bye and get well soon. The next thing we knew, Penny’s mother was rolling Penny back down the hall, Penny still slumped over, except this time her long, bony fingers gripped a cardboard box stacked up with presents. The box sat on her lap. Some of the girls in our class waved. I didn’t. My hand felt heavy as lead. It didn’t matter. Penny didn’t look our way. She just kept slumping and gripping her box. The box teetered. The wheelchair’s sounds of squeaking retreated down the hall.

Probably a minute passed, and Penny’s class started crying loud sobs. Their crying started Mary Margaret and several other girls in our room crying. Mrs. Raskin walked from desk to desk and handed out Kleenex and patted people’s shoulders with her cool hands. She said, “Let’s take a time-out and put our heads on our desks.”

You could hear us breathing in and breathing out. You could hear Mary Margaret’s nose snurfle. You could hear Mrs. Raskin riffle papers. You could hear the big Fifth Avenue buses’ brakes whine down below in the street. You could hear footsteps and whispers out in the hall; you could hear sobs from Penny’s classroom. You could hear the pigeons land on the windowsills and flutter up again into the sky. But you couldn’t see anything except what went on in your mind because during timeouts you kept your eyes closed tight.

During time-outs, my mind worked the way it worked at night when I lay in my bed, watching the yellow eye of the radio and listening to my programs. I saw what was going on in the radio show also going on in pictures in my mind. What I saw wasn’t like movies; it was a series of still shots, usually black-and-white. That afternoon while I lay my head in the cradle of my crossed arms, I “saw” Penny in her apartment. She was in her bed. Her dolls were propped up around her. Her mother was feeding her milk toast, torn pieces of toasted white bread afloat in buttery, warm milk. “Let’s take another bite,” her mother said. Penny turned away her head, clamped shut her lips. I knew Penny had a cat, so I added a fat tortoise shell tom to Penny’s bed. The cat purred. Penny stroked the cat with her skinny hand. Then I took away the cat, lifted his tubby, warm body off the bed, and stood him on the carpet, figuring Penny’s parents wouldn’t let the cat get on her bed, because it might carry germs.

The next picture I saw was Natalie. I had her bring Penny the newest Little Lulu comic to cheer Penny up. I stopped for a while and imagined Little Lulu. I really liked Little Lulu’s funny Dutch-boy haircut and her big, round eyes. I liked the way she was always getting into trouble. Then Natalie crawled up on Penny’s bed and sat cross-legged across from Penny. The next picture I saw was a night picture, a lurid, white full moon hanging outside Penny’s window and, from Jersey, the Crisco sign glowing. Penny’s mother knelt by Penny’s bed and prayed that her little girl might live. She offered her life and her husband’s in exchange for Penny’s. Penny’s father stood behind Penny’s mother, his hand on her shoulder. 1 had never seen her father. I gave him brown hair, brown eyes, a face with a goofy grin like the movie star Dana Andrews, who was in The Best Years of our Lives, with Fredric March and Myrna Loy. I dressed him in the brown suit, white shirt, tie, and brown fedora the father wore in one of my readers. Tears streamed down his cheeks. I started to cry a little too.

After our time-out, Mrs. Raskin said Penny’s parents and her doctors were doing everything for her that they knew to do. She said, “They are making her comfortable.” She asked if we had questions.

“Why,” Mary Margaret asked, running her fingers through her own auburn poodle cut, “did Penny’s hair all fall out?”

“Penny’s radium treatments,” said Mrs. Raskin, “made her hair fall out.” The radium treatments were to kill the bad cells.

Exactly two weeks after Penny’s birthday party, when Mrs. Raskin told us Penny died last night, all of us girls fluttered nervously about each other, touching each other’s fingertips and rubbing our own fleshy arms, the skin dry from steam heat. David right away said he’d vomit and was going to go home. Mary Margaret gripped onto my hand, and her hazel eyes got big and wide; and the eye that wandered, wandered so far off to the side that I thought it might disappear altogether. Me, I sank down inside myself like a stone.

This was a school where liberals sent their children. We were careful about bringing religion into the classroom, except in history class, which was all right with me. So when the principal, Mr. Harris, who had salt-and-pepper crewcut hair and big shoulders that stretched his jackets tight, came to our room to say Penny died, and when Mrs. Raskin told us

Penny died, neither said God called Penny to heaven to be with Him. No one said that angels with clean, wide wings pulled a beautiful gold chariot. Penny holding on tight to a roll bar that stretched across the front seat like the roll bar on the roller coaster at Coney Island, up through the dark sky. No one said God so loved Penny that He wanted her with Him. They just said, “Penny died last night. Penny’s dead.”

Mary Margaret bawled. When she turned around in her seat, I saw the tears spurt out of her drifting eye. Her tears smelled like rain falling on hot pavement. Me, when we first heard, as I said, I sank like a stone. I knew Penny had gone beyond us, that she was more like a faraway twinkling star now instead of a living being you could talk to who would talk back to you. I couldn’t help thinking she’d rather be here with us, crying so hard like Mary Margaret did that snot ran in strings out her nose. I thought she’d rather be here, even wetting her pants or something that embarrassing, than already dead, just a sack emptied of herself like the grocery sack that sits empty on the kitchen counter after you take out the hamburger meat, the elbow macaroni, the celery, and the Birdseye frozen peas, and the two cans of Vienna sausages, and the can of Dutch Cleanser to clean out the tub and sink that your mother sent you for to the store on the corner of 120th and Broadway.

David did vomit, and after he vomited, he went home. Mary Margaret worked herself up into an asthma attack and had to use her Benzedrine inhaler and spend all lunch period on the infirmary cot. Outside it was cold, and our windows were closed, and the steam heat puffed from the immense silver radiators. The room smelled of David’s vomit, which made me keep feeling I’d vomit. But I didn’t dare try to go home, because my mother was at work and nobody was at my apartment. I whispered to Mrs. Raskin, “Couldn’t we open the windows for a while to get out David’s vomit smell?” Poor Mrs. Raskin said she was afraid she’d give us a chill if she did that, and she called for a timeout, and I put my head down on my arms and thought about Penny’s dolls, still propped up against the pillows on her bed. I thought about her plaid dresses on hangers in her closet; her arms never would slip into their sleeves again. I wondered if she bled and vomited and screamed before she died and asked myself if I could tolerate such misery and bear up bravely when pain chased me out of my body up into the dark sky.

Late that afternoon, during the day’s last recess, the wind was high enough on the roof that I wrapped my wool scarf around my neck. Bronze shadows heaped up in the corner where Penny and I’d played jacks. The pigeons fluttered down and settled atop the wall that ran round the roof. I was scared of the pigeons; I was scared to walk into those shadows. I thought. Is Penny looking down on us? I thought, Is she sad that life’s going on without her? I thought. Is she clawing at heaven’s gate to get out and back to her mom and dad and Natalie Oliver? I was also afraid that if I went and stood in that comer, that it would be bad luck, that God might just reach down and pluck me up, the way hawks pluck up mice.

At home that evening I wasn’t hungry for the meat loaf and mashed potatoes and onion gravy and Birdseye frozen green peas. My mother said, “What’s wrong with you?”

I said, “Penny died,” and started crying.

My mother, already wrapped up in her pink quilted sateen bathrobe, and her high heels off and her pink scuffs on her bare feet, said she’d had a bad day. She said, “You hardly knew her. Eat your peas.”

Natalie Oliver did not come to school all that week, and when she did come back, she looked even thinner than before Penny died. When we went down to the basement to the pool for swim class and she walked out to the pool in her bathing suit, she looked almost skinny. She said to no one in particular that she felt really cold. Goose bumps rose up on her arms and legs. She went up to the swim coach, who had as much white hair on his chest as you’d guess a polar bear had, and said she was too cold to swim that day. He put a big hairy arm around her, and they stood that way for a long time at the side of the pool. His silver whistle nestled deep in his chest fur. The whistle chain sometimes got caught in his chest hairs, and he’d have a hell of a time getting the hairs uncaught.

All that fall and winter, our class had symptoms. Ulcers were big in the news that winter. David thought he had them. Mary Margaret got rashes and a huge, ugly, crusty sty in her good eye. I had stomachaches and dizzy spells and, after lunch, often felt weak and so sleepy I couldn’t keep up my head.

I had little sense of the body’s interior, of organs and arteries, liver and bladder and intestine. When I tried to imagine my body’s inside, I saw pink smoked ham, a marrow-filled bone running down its middle. Any twinge or ache, any rumbling through my stomach, this inexplicable drowsiness, I’d be scared that death was coming at me with its mouth open and sharp, jagged teeth showing. A filthy, dirty, skinny, smelly gray wolf showed its teeth. Drool dribbled out the sides of its long mouth. I’d think, That wolf s mouth’s watering for tastes of me. When I was asleep and dreaming, this wolf chased me. The wolf s claws clacked on concrete and made rasping screeches against my bedroom windowsill. I ran, ran, ran, and its dirty breath burned my heels.

I tried to figure how God would take my soul, which I saw as looking something like a fortuneteller’s crystal ball.

My death waited around every corner. Every belching Fifth Avenue bus or speeding Checker cab might hit me. I hung back from open windows on high floors. I worried in the elevator that lurched up to our fifth-floor apartment that the cables might break and I’d drop down into the basement. I examined all my moles for black spots and my tongue for white coating. When I did Number Two, I looked into the toilet for blood. And there was always the bomb, which would fry us all together, like some terrible leftover mess my mother scrounged together for Sunday supper.

My death was like those scary movies I saw that I reassured myself were only movies, play-acting. But I knew that someday, somewhere, the story about my dying would come true. I would drop dead or get killed. Knowing for sure I was going to end up dead, I couldn’t figure out how I could get through seven more years of school, get married, and have babies, who also had to die. I thought maybe it would be better to end it right then and there, simply to stop the terrible suspense about when I would die and how.

I wrote my will. I left David my books, including my Homes and Habitats of Wild Animals that he liked so much. I left my Uncle Carl, my mother’s brother, all the snapshots I took with the Brownie camera he gave me. I left my rock and mineral collection to David, even the box of labeled minerals and big hunk of pink rose quartz I bought at the Museum of Natural History. I left my dresses to Mary Margaret; also my paper doll collection. I didn’t leave William anything; I didn’t have anything he liked.

Before Penny got sick, when I said my prayers, the “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” always made me feel comforted. I would imagine God in His long white robes. He walked around Heaven all day, just like the song. Heaven was green meadows where beautiful, spotlessly white sheep delicately chewed daisies and Kentucky bluegrass. I’d see golden harps and angels with wide, white wings. I’d drift off to sleep, happy about green grass and white sheep and God drifting through meadows, a big smile on His face. After Penny died, the “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” kept me awake. I worried. Long gone were meadows and sheep, harps and winged angels. I tried to figure how God would take my soul, which I saw as looking something like a fortuneteller’s crystal ball. How would He get my soul? What would He do with it? Would it hurt, His taking my soul? Would it feel like having a loose baby tooth pulled?

One evening during dinner, when my mother wasn’t tired, I asked her what she thought happened after you died. She said beetles and worms ate you. She said she wanted to be cremated, because burials and coffins were a waste of money and gravestones and graveyards a waste of space.

“But where do you go after you die?” I wanted to know.

“You live on,” my mother said, breaking open her baked potato, the steam from the hot potato rising up into her pretty face, “in the minds of people who loved you.” She tucked a pat of butter into her potato and worked the butter around with the tines of her fork. “People remember you for the good that you did.”

I didn’t want to be remembered. I wanted to be the one who did the remembering.

Over the Christmas holidays, my mother and I one morning walked down the hill from our apartment house. We were going many blocks away to a butcher shop to buy a duck for a dinner party my mother was giving. Snow was falling, and the air was so cold my breath breathed out white in front of me. Mama and I were wrapped up warm and had on wool socks under our galoshes and wool gloves on our hands. When we got to the block where the butcher shop was, I heard birds squawking. Mama said they killed the chickens, the ducks, and geese out behind the shop. Which meant they were really fresh when you bought them. Right before we walked into the -shop, I saw Penny’s mother. She walked hunched over, the way Penny was hunched in her wheelchair that day. She wore all black —- black coat, black gloves, black wide-brimmed felt hat, black scarf wound round her neck. The scarf rose clear up over her mouth. Her eyes looked out at me from under the brim of her hat and then, quickly, she looked away. It was one of those mornings that Mama and I were getting along and holding hands. I thought that Penny’s mother saw us and thought, “I wish my little girl was still alive and that we were walking through the snow and holding hands.” I wanted to go up to her and say, “I am sorry Penny died.” But I didn’t. For two reasons I didn’t. One was that my mother would’ve gotten mad at me, because she hated what she called “emotional displays,” and the other was that how I really felt was that I was glad it was Penny dead and not me.

Natalie Oliver that spring got fat again, but I don’t think anybody all that year sang the “she’s too fat for me” song to her. Not even the meanest boys, I guess, thought that would have been right. Natalie was quiet, too, and no matter how close the jump rope got to where she was walking when we were hitting hot peppers, she didn’t say one word.

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