For one thing, Szymon never got a proper haircut. One side was longer than the other, and the bangs, which hung over his eyes, were cut zigzag. His clothes were those of a ragamuffin – like the boys with no homes who slept in stairwells and stole bread and pickles. His shirtsleeves and jacket were too short, his frayed pants were too big, and he wore a rope for a belt to hold them up. He made strange faces and constantly blinked. None of the other five Moskowitz children – Nadia, Little Boris, Alina, or the twins Igor and Maxim whom Miriam could not tell apart – looked so foolish.
Big Boris Moskowitz, Szymon’s father, was a dirty man, brawny and foul, who stank of horse dung. Miriam was sure that he never went to the baths. His broken-down boots were caked with muck, his pants were baggy at the knees and crusted with dirt or horse feed, and his shirtsleeves rolled above the elbows revealed burly arms that cleaned the city streets of manure. When he was angry, people on every floor in the building would pound on the walls with their fists, stamp with their feet, and bang on the floors with brooms. Some poked their head into the hallways to holler.
Anya Moskowitz, Szymon’s mother, slightly stooped, walked with her shoulders pulled up to her ears. Dark circles surrounded her weary eyes. Each year there was another baby on her hip, if it survived. Women in the building gossiped that the reason Anya lost so many babies was because Boris kicked her when he was drunk.
In all the years they lived next door to one another, Miriam never saw Szymon doing anything or playing with anyone. Instead, he sat alone on the front steps or up on the roof. Mr. Moskowitz would send one of the younger children to get him for dinner, and then shout at him as he slammed their apartment door. No one in his family, in the building, or on the street was nice to Szymon. Miriam believed everyone should have someone that cared about them, and she worried that no one cared about Szymon.
“Mama? Why does Mr. Moskowitz call Szymon bad names?” she began asking when she was six.
Mama looked up from the Singer. “Don’t ask so many questions.”
“Why doesn’t Mr. Moskowitz like Szymon?” she asked when he beat his son.
“Mind your business. I got to sew these cap linings for Monday.”
“What’s wrong with Szymon’s leg, Mama?” she asked when the boys playing marbles in the hall called him Cripple.
“Leave me alone with your ‘Why this, what’s that?'”
Always the hum of the Singer night and day when Mama wasn’t washing things – the sheet, the towels, rags, dishes, the floor and the rag rug. Always the impatient huff and puff of her breath, and never any answers to Miriam’s questions.
Without an answer, Miriam decided that Mr. Moskowitz didn’t like Szymon because his right leg was shorter than the left and caused him to limp. His leg, the faces he made, and the way he blinked his eyes all the time. Those were the reasons. She didn’t believe he was an idiot.
It was always the same. Mama would be washing the floors and muttering under her breath, and Miriam knew Mama would soon explode with anger – that Miriam was lazy, made a mess, would never amount to anything other than someone who picked up coal on the streets. Washing the floors made Mama cranky. She said she wanted her to help but nothing Miriam did pleased her. She was used to Mama’s harsh words; Mama’s friend Lottie always said that Mama worked hard, was tired, and to “go about your business.”
Now that she was eight, Miriam was realizing Lottie was right. If she went outside, got out of Mama’s view and her thoughts, Mama forgot all about her, did her work, and then cooked a good dinner.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mama would demand. “Don’t talk to anyone and don’t go nowhere with anyone,” Mama warned every time she went outside.
That’s why Miriam preferred to sit on the top step, where she could forget about Mama’s outbursts while watching everyone and everything – neighbors shopping from the pushcarts, haggling, pushing one another to get closer to the peddlers or get past one another on the crowded streets. Horse-drawn carts clopped by, kicking up the stench of dust, manure, and rotting garbage.
This spring afternoon, looking up at her from two steps below sat Szymon Moskowitz, who nodded his head, twisted his mouth and blinked again and again, and then turned away to look out onto the street. Szymon, like Miriam and all the children in the building, preferred to be outside. Every room in their building on Eldridge Street was filled with people shouting and babies crying, voices that echoed through the walls and halls and up and down the stairways. Mama would complain, “There’s no peace. Not a moment.” She and Mama were quiet but that didn’t keep out the neighbor’s noise. Mama never hit her the way other mothers hit their children. Mama didn’t have to because all Miriam wanted was to please her, but nothing ever did. Mama worried about everything.
“Hi Szymon. What are you doing?” she said, smoothing her skirt.
He shrugged, “Nothing, miss.”
Szymon was always polite; called her “miss.” That was one reason she didn’t think he was stupid.
Mrs. Epstein from the third floor, carrying baskets of food, her wiry brown hair flying in every direction, the baby on her back and two other children in tow, stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Move over, yutz.” Szymon’s face turned dark as he stood up to let her by. Miriam cringed when Mrs. Epstein spit on him as she passed.
Szymon silently wiped the spit off the front of his jacket with the sleeve. Miriam watched his eyes blink in rapid repetition. His face was twisted as if he were in pain – inside of him.
Mama didn’t like Mrs. Epstein.
Mrs. Epstein dragged three-year-old Rachel by the arm. Sometimes, she left four-year-old Lev in the hallway, howling and wailing, begging to be let into the apartment. That’s when Mama would say, “That Mrs. Epstein, she’s the devil.”
Sometimes Miriam could hear Mrs. Epstein shouting at her husband that he was good for nothing and lazy, that he should leave and never come back. Mrs. Epstein hated that he read books; she threw things at him as he ran down the stairs – glass that shattered, pots and pans that clattered against each step as they fell from the third to second floor, only seconds after Mr. Epstein himself, attempting to escape her terrifying temper.
He always had a book with him, when he left for work in the morning, when he came home, and even when his wife chased him out of the apartment. In the summertime, he would sit on the steps to read until there was no light. In the winter, Mrs. Epstein would shout out the window to him up on the roof, accusing him of reading when she needed his help.
Mama didn’t want Miriam to go to the roof, even in the summer to cool off, but every now and then she just had to. She had to because she felt like she could see the whole world from there. She could see downtown and up – the buildings, the river, and the ever-changing landscape in the sky. and the waves of laundry on lines stretching from building to building – dancing in winter, motionless in summer.
Mama said it was because of Isaac Tannenbaum that she didn’t want her on the roof. Isaac was twelve and always in trouble. Everyone in the building talked about the Tannenbaums. They said that Isaac and his brothers and sisters stole from the pushcarts and that Officer Thomas Reilly had arrested Isaac more than once. Miriam once watched as he pulled Isaac down off the front steps by his ear.
Miriam heard that Isaac and his family lived in the basement – twelve people – and that they slept on rags, under pipes and beams, with no furniture, in the dark. Szymon’s twin brothers said that the ceiling was so low in the basement, the Tannenbaums couldn’t stand up, and that a hundred rats crawled over Isaac’s family while they slept – every night – and that they ate potato skins and onion peels and cats.
Mama said the Tannenbaums were vermin, drek; that Miriam should stay away from them or she would bring bugs into the apartment.
Isaac kept pigeons on the roof. He built them houses from wood he found on the street when buildings were torn down, and Mr. Epstein brought scraps of food for them. Isaac would hold the pigeons tenderly to his chest. Miriam wondered what secrets he whispered into their feathers. When he stood at the edge of the roof, waving the stick with the rag attached, Isaac’s face was full of joy when suddenly the sky was filled with his birds returning home.
A peddler’s voice broke through her thoughts. “Hot potatoes, hot potatoes. Five cents.”
Szymon put his hands over his ears.
“Why are you doing that?” Miriam asked.
“What do you like to do, Szymon?” she asked.
“You must like to do something. Everyone likes to do something. Read books. Play ball.”
The minute she said “play ball” she was sorry, forgetting about his leg. She had never seen him join in when the other boys played in the street. They called him Cripple, as though that was his name. Once, when Mama was sitting on the bed, drinking a glass of tea, Miriam asked her why Szymon’s leg was shorter, and she said she didn’t know; that he was born that way, and there was nothing you could do.
“I can’t read and I can’t play ball,” he whispered, making that face he made, looking away, and then rubbing one finger back and forth across the steel step.
“Where do you go to school?” she asked.
“I don’t, miss.”
“Why not?” She couldn’t believe that.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I guess not, miss. What about you? What do you like to do? I see you go to school every morning.” He was banging the heel of his normal foot on the step below him. Miriam wondered why his mother didn’t put a hem on his pants so they weren’t so raggedy.
“You know my name is Miriam, Miriam Milman?”
“Please call me Miriam.” She waited for his response, which didn’t come. “So you can’t read?”
“I just can’t.”
“How old are you?”
“You’re one year younger than me. I’m eight. You should know how to read.”
“Because of my leg, I can’t go to school.”
“That’s ridiculous, ” she said. “What does your leg have to do with your brain?”
“Papa says cripples can’t go to school.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know.” He began blinking furiously and twisting his mouth.
“Well, you must think about things,” Miriam said. “Everyone thinks about something.”
“I like to look at the stars.”
He sat up, his expression relaxed, and he almost smiled.
“At night. I go up on the roof, when the sky is clear. Sometimes Mr. Epstein is on the roof, too. He reads there or helps feed Isaac’s birds. He knows all about the stars, shows me pictures of them in library books. I know their names.”
“The stars have names?” Miriam asked.
“They do.” Szymon moved up two steps to sit across from her. “There’s Orion, Ursa Major, and Centauri.” He counted on his fingers. It was as though he was singing, he was so proud knowing those names, and his voice was filled with wonder. The words flowed; he wasn’t twisting his mouth, or blinking. His eyes were lively and blue. “You can recognize them in the sky, too. The stars make pictures,” he paused, and punched his finger in the air, “You can learn to connect each star in your mind. Some night I could show you from the roof.”
He was looking at her, as though he was waiting for her to say something. But she was trying to imagine how stars could make pictures.
“Did you ever notice that the moon looks like a man’s face?” he asked.
Mama didn’t want her to go up on the roof, especially at night. “No, I never noticed that.”
“I could show you. The next time there’s a full moon.”
“Okay.” She didn’t mention that she wasn’t supposed to go up there.
“Mr. Epstein told me that he saw a moving picture once, The Man in the Moon.
“What’s a moving picture?”
“You sit in the dark and there’s this story that moves on the wall. Mr. Epstein says that in this moving picture, there was a giant cannon that shot this big bullet into the sky. There were men on it called astronomers.”
“Astronomers,” Miriam whispered.
“They study the stars and moon and the planets.”
She wished she understood because he was so excited and sure of himself. He knew every word he wanted to say and his cheeks blushed with pleasure.
“You mean the men, the astronomers, get shot into the sky?” She tried to imagine how that would feel – leaving Eldridge Street, passing through the clouds and stars, watching everything she knew disappear.
“Yes, the astronomers. They are inside this … Mr. Epstein calls it a spaceship.”
“Would you be brave enough to do that?”
“Yes, I would. Right now, even.” He opened his eyes wide and grinned.
She had never seen Szymon happy before.
“… And then the spaceship hits the man in the moon in the eye!” He burst out laughing.
“And then what?” Szymon was so much braver than she was.
“Mr. Epstein said the astronomers got out of the spaceship to look around, and from where they were standing on the moon they could see the earth. The earth looks like a ball when you see it from far away,” he explained.
“But how do they get home?” Miriam asked, worried about being so far away from home, Mama, and Lottie. Suddenly, she felt the late afternoon chill, buttoned her sweater, and then put her cold hands under her armpits. She would never look at the moon the same way again.
“The astronomers, they fall off the moon and fall down through the stars and clouds and, finally,” he paused for drama. “They land in the ocean.”
She had never heard anything so interesting. “Like Brighton Beach Ocean?”
He shrugged and twisted his mouth. “Maybe? Anyway, they were saved by a passing ship, brought home and everyone gave them a parade.”
“Gee, I wish I could see a moving picture like that. I’d like to see the stars, too.”
“I’ll come and knock on your door next time there’s a full moon.”
“I bet I could teach you how to read, Szymon. I could.”
“Could you really? You really think I could learn? You think I could read about astronomy?”
“I do. If you know all those star names, I’m sure you could.”
They were both startled when Igor and Max, Szymon’s twin brothers, shouted “Szymon,” in unison from the building’s doorway. “Mama says come in for dinner. Now.”