The Fat of the
Land by Anzia
From The Century
In an air-shaft so narrow that you could touch the next wall with
your bare hands, Hanneh Breineh leaned out and knocked on her
Can you loan me your wash-boiler for the clothes? she called.
Mrs. Pelz threw up the sash.
The boiler? What's the matter with yours again? Didn't you tell me
you had it fixed already last week?
A black year on him, the robber, the way he fixed it! If you have
no luck in this world, then it's better not to live. There I spent out
fifteen cents to stop up one hole, and it runs out another. How I ate
out my gall bargaining with him he should let it down to fifteen cents!
He wanted yet a quarter, the swindler. Gottuniu! my bitter heart
on him for every penny he took from me for nothing!
You got to watch all those swindlers, or they'll steal the whites
out of your eyes, admonished Mrs. Pelz. You should have tried out
your boiler before you paid him. Wait a minute till I empty out my
dirty clothes in a pillow-case; then I'll hand it to you.
Mrs. Pelz returned with the boiler and tried to hand it across to
Hanneh Breineh, but the soap-box refrigerator on the window-sill was in
You got to come in for the boiler yourself, said Mrs. Pelz.
Wait only till I tie my Sammy on to the high-chair he shouldn't
fall on me again. He's so wild that ropes won't hold him.
Hanneh Breineh tied the child in the chair, stuck a pacifier in his
mouth, and went in to her neighbor. As she took the boiler Mrs. Pelz
Do you know Mrs. Melker ordered fifty pounds of chicken for her
daughter's wedding? And such grand chickens! Shining like gold! My
heart melted in me just looking at the flowing fatness of those
Hanneh Breineh smacked her thin, dry lips, a hungry gleam in her
Fifty pounds! she gasped. It ain't possible. How do you know?
I heard her with my own ears. I saw them with my own eyes. And she
said she will chop up the chicken livers with onions and eggs for an
appetizer, and then she will buy twenty-five pounds of fish, and cook
it sweet and sour with raisins, and she said she will bake all her
strudels on pure chicken fat.
Some people work themselves up in the world, sighed Hanneh
Breineh. For them is America flowing with milk and honey. In Savel
Mrs. Melker used to get shriveled up from hunger. She and her children
used to live on potato peelings and crusts of dry bread picked out from
the barrels; and in America she lives to eat chicken, and apple
strudels soaking in fat.
The world is a wheel always turning, philosophized Mrs. Pelz.
Those who were high go down low, and those who've been low go up
higher. Who will believe me here in America that in Poland I was a cook
in a banker's house? I handled ducks and geese every day. I used to
bake coffee-cake with cream so thick you could cut it with a knife.
And do you think I was a nobody in Poland? broke in Hanneh
Breineh, tears welling in her eyes as the memories of her past rushed
over her. But what's the use of talking? In America money is
everything. Who cares who my father or grandfather was in Poland?
Without money I'm a living dead one. My head dries out worrying how to
get for the children the eating a penny cheaper.
Mrs. Pelz wagged her head, a gnawing envy contracting her features.
Mrs. Melker had it good from the day she came, she said
begrudgingly. Right away she sent all her children to the factory, and
she began to cook meat for dinner every day. She and her children have
eggs and buttered rolls for breakfast each morning like millionaires.
A sudden fall and a baby's scream, and the boiler dropped from
Hanneh Breineh's hands as she rushed into her kitchen, Mrs. Pelz after
her. They found the high-chair turned on top of the baby.
Gevalt! Save me! Run for a doctor! cried Hanneh Breineh as
she dragged the child from under the high-chair. He's killed! He's
killed! My only child! My precious lamb! she shrieked as she ran back
and forth with the screaming infant.
Mrs. Pelz snatched little Sammy from the mother's hands.
Meshugneh! what are you running around like a crazy,
frightening the child? Let me see. Let me tend to him. He ain't killed
yet. She hastened to the sink to wash the child's face, and discovered
a swelling lump on his forehead. Have you a quarter in your house?
Yes, I got one, replied Hanneh Breineh, climbing on a chair. I
got to keep it on a high shelf where the children can't get it.
Mrs. Pelz seized the quarter Hanneh Breineh handed down to her.
Now pull your left eyelid three times while I'm pressing the
quarter, and you will see the swelling go down.
Hanneh Breineh took the child again in her arms, shaking and cooing
over it and caressing it.
Ah-ah-ah, Sammy! Ah-ah-ah-ah, little lamb! Ah-ah-ah, little bird!
Ah-ah-ah-ah, precious heart! Oh, you saved my life; I thought he was
killed, gasped Hanneh Breineh, turning to Mrs. Pelz. Oi-i!
she sighed, a mother's heart! always in fear over her children. The
minute anything happens to them all life goes out of me. I lose my head
and I don't know where I am any more.
No wonder the child fell, admonished Mrs. Pelz. You should have a
red ribbon or red beads on his neck to keep away the evil eye. Wait. I
got something in my machine-drawer.
Mrs. Pelz returned, bringing the boiler and a red string, which she
tied about the child's neck while the mother proceeded to fill the
A little later Hanneh Breineh again came into Mrs. Pelz's kitchen,
holding Sammy in one arm and in the other an apron full of potatoes.
Putting the child down on the floor, she seated herself on the unmade
kitchen-bed and began to peel the potatoes in her apron.
Woe to me! sobbed Hanneh Breineh. To my bitter luck there ain't
no end. With all my other troubles, the stove got broke'. I lighted the
fire to boil the clothes, and it's to get choked with smoke. I paid
rent only a week ago, and the agent don't want to fix it. A thunder
should strike him! He only comes for the rent, and if anything has to
be fixed, then he don't want to hear nothing.
Why comes it to me so hard? went on Hanneh Breineh, the tears
streaming down her cheeks. I can't stand it no more. I came into you
for a minute to run away from my troubles. It's only when I sit myself
down to peel potatoes or nurse the baby that I take time to draw a
breath, and beg only for death.
Mrs. Pelz, accustomed to Hanneh Breineh's bitter outbursts,
continued her scrubbing.
Ut! exclaimed Hanneh Breineh, irritated at her neighbor's
silence, what are you tearing up the world with your cleaning? What's
the use to clean up when everything only gets dirty again?
I got to shine up my house for the holidays.
You've got it so good nothing lays on your mind but to clean your
house. Look on this little blood-sucker, said Hanneh Breineh, pointing
to the wizened child, made prematurely solemn from starvation and
neglect. Could anybody keep that brat clean? I wash him one minute,
and he is dirty the minute after. Little Sammy grew frightened and
began to cry. Shut up! ordered the mother, picking up the child to
nurse it again. Can't you see me take a rest for a minute?
The hungry child began to cry at the top of its weakened lungs.
Na, na, you glutton. Hanneh Breineh took out a dirty
pacifier from her pocket and stuffed it into the baby's mouth. The
grave, pasty-faced infant shrank into a panic of fear, and chewed the
nipple nervously, clinging to it with both his thin little hands.
For what did I need yet the sixth one? groaned Hanneh Breineh,
turning to Mrs. Pelz. Wasn't it enough five mouths to feed? If I
didn't have this child on my neck, I could turn myself around and earn
a few cents. She wrung her hands in a passion of despair.
Gottuniu! the earth should only take it before it grows up!
Pshaw! Pshaw! reproved Mrs. Pelz. Pity yourself on the child. Let
it grow up already so long as it is here. See how frightened it looks
on you. Mrs. Pelz took the child in her arms and petted it. The poor
little lamb! What did it done you should hate it so?
Hanneh Breineh pushed Mrs. Pelz away from her.
To whom can I open the wounds of my heart? she moaned. Nobody has
pity on me. You don't believe me, nobody believes me until I'll fall
down like a horse in the middle of the street. Oi weh! mine life
is so black for my eyes. Some mothers got luck. A child gets run over
by a car, some fall from a window, some burn themselves up with a
match, some get choked with diphtheria; but no death takes mine away.
God from the world! stop cursing! admonished Mrs. Pelz. What do
you want from the poor children? Is it their fault that their father
makes small wages? Why do you let it all out on them? Mrs. Pelz sat
down beside Hanneh Breineh. Wait only till your children get old
enough to go to the shop and earn money, she consoled. Push only
through those few years while they are yet small; your sun will begin
to shine, you will live on the fat of the land, when they begin to
bring you in the wages each week.
Hanneh Breineh refused to be comforted.
Till they are old enough to go to the shop and earn money they'll
eat the head off my bones, she wailed. If you only knew the fights I
got by each meal. Maybe I gave Abe a bigger piece of bread than Fanny.
Maybe Fanny got a little more soup in her plate than Jake. Eating is
dearer than diamonds. Potatoes went up a cent on a pound, and milk is
only for millionaires. And once a week, when I buy a little meat for
the Sabbath, the butcher weighs it for me like gold, with all the bones
in it. When I come to lay the meat out on a plate and divide it up,
there ain't nothing to it but bones. Before, he used to throw me in a
piece of fat extra or a piece of lung, but now you got to pay for
everything, even for a bone to the soup.
Never mind; you'll yet come out from all your troubles. Just as
soon as your children get old enough to get their working papers the
more children you got, the more money you'll have.
Why should I fool myself with the false shine of hope? Don't I know
it's already my black luck not to have it good in this world? Do you
think American children will right away give everything they earn to
I know what is with you the matter, said Mrs. Pelz. You didn't
eat yet to-day. When it is empty in the stomach, the whole world looks
black. Come, only let me give you something good to taste in the mouth;
that will freshen you up. Mrs. Pelz went to the cupboard and brought
out the saucepan of gefülte fish that she had cooked for dinner
and placed it on the table in front of Hanneh Breineh. Give a taste my
fish, she said, taking one slice on a spoon, and handing it to Hanneh
Breineh with a piece of bread. I wouldn't give it to you on a plate
because I just cleaned out my house, and I don't want to dirty up my
What, am I a stranger you should have to serve me on a plate yet!
cried Hanneh Breineh, snatching the fish in her trembling fingers.
Oi weh! how it melts through all the bones! she exclaimed,
brightening as she ate. May it be for good luck to us all! she
exulted, waving aloft the last precious bite.
Mrs. Pelz was so flattered that she even ladled up a spoonful of
There is a bit of onion and carrot in it, she said as she handed
it to her neighbor.
Hanneh Breineh sipped the gravy drop by drop, like a connoisseur
Ah-h-h! a taste of that gravy lifts me up to heaven! As she
disposed leisurely of the slice of onion and carrot she relaxed and
expanded and even grew jovial. Let us wish all our troubles on the
Russian Czar! Let him bust with our worries for rent! Let him get
shriveled with our hunger for bread! Let his eyes dry out of his head
looking for work!
Pshaw! I'm forgetting from everything, she exclaimed, jumping up.
It must be eleven or soon twelve, and my children will be right away
out of school and fall on me like a pack of wild wolves. I better quick
run to the market and see what cheaper I can get for a quarter.
Because of the lateness of her coming, the stale bread at the
nearest bake-shop was sold out, and Hanneh Breineh had to trudge from
shop to shop in search of the usual bargain, and spent nearly an hour
to save two cents.
In the meantime the children returned from school, and, finding the
door locked, climbed through the fire-escape, and entered the house
through the window. Seeing nothing on the table, they rushed to the
stove. Abe pulled a steaming potato out of the boiling pot, and so
scalded his fingers that the potato fell to the floor; whereupon the
three others pounced on it.
It was my potato, cried Abe, blowing his burned fingers, while
with the other hand and his foot he cuffed and kicked the three who
were struggling on the floor. A wild fight ensued, and the potato was
smashed under Abe's foot amid shouts and screams. Hanneh Breineh, on
the stairs, heard the noise of her famished brood, and topped their
cries with curses and invectives.
They are here already, the savages! They are here already to
shorten my life! They heard you all over the hall, in all the houses
The children, disregarding her words, pounced on her market-basket,
shouting ravenously: Mama, I'm hungry! What more do you got to eat?
They tore the bread and herring out of Hanneh Breineh's basket and
devoured it in starved savagery, clamoring for more.
Murderers! screamed Hanneh Breineh, goaded beyond endurance. What
are you tearing from me my flesh? From where should I steal to give you
more? Here I had already a pot of potatoes and a whole loaf of bread
and two herrings, and you swallowed it down in the wink of an eye. I
have to have Rockefeller's millions to fill your stomachs.
All at once Hanneh Breineh became aware that Benny was missing.
Oi weh! she burst out, wringing her hands in a new wave of woe,
where is Benny? Didn't he come home yet from school?
She ran out into the hall, opened the grime-coated window, and
looked up and down the street; but Benny was nowhere in sight.
Abe, Jake, Fanny, quick, find Benny! entreated Hanneh Breineh as
she rushed back into the kitchen. But the children, anxious to snatch a
few minutes' play before the school-call, dodged past her and hurried
With the baby on her arm, Hanneh Breineh hastened to the
Why are you keeping Benny here so long? she shouted at the teacher
as she flung open the door. If you had my bitter heart, you would send
him home long ago and not wait till I got to come for him.
The teacher turned calmly and consulted her record-cards.
Benny Safron? He wasn't present this morning.
Not here? shrieked Hanneh Breineh. I pushed him out myself he
should go. The children didn't want to take him, and I had no time. Woe
is me! Where is my child? She began pulling her hair and beating her
breast as she ran into the street.
Mrs. Pelz was busy at a push-cart, picking over some spotted apples,
when she heard the clamor of an approaching crowd. A block off she
recognized Hanneh Breineh, her hair disheveled, her clothes awry,
running toward her with her yelling baby in her arms, the crowd
Friend mine, cried Hanneh Breineh, falling on Mrs. Pelz's neck, I
lost my Benny, the best child of all my children. Tears streamed down
her red, swollen eyes as she sobbed. Benny! mine heart, mine life!
Mrs. Pelz took the frightened baby out of the mother's arms.
Still yourself a little! See how you're frightening your child.
Woe to me! Where is my Benny? Maybe he's killed already by a car.
Maybe he fainted away from hunger. He didn't eat nothing all day long.
Gottuniu! pity yourself on me!
She lifted her hands full of tragic entreaty.
People, my child! Get me my child! I'll go crazy out of my head!
Get me my child, or I'll take poison before your eyes!
Still yourself a little! pleaded Mrs. Pelz.
Talk not to me! cried Hanneh Breineh, wringing her hands. You're
having all your children. I lost mine. Every good luck comes to other
people. But I didn't live yet to see a good day in my life. Mine only
joy, mine Benny, is lost away from me.
The crowd followed Hanneh Breineh as she wailed through the streets,
leaning on Mrs. Pelz. By the time she returned to her house the
children were back from school; but seeing that Benny was not there,
she chased them out in the street, crying:
Out of here, you robbers, gluttons! Go find Benny! Hanneh Breineh
crumpled into a chair in utter prostration. Oi weh! he's lost!
Mine life; my little bird; mine only joy! How many nights I spent
nursing him when he had the measles! And all that I suffered for weeks
and months when he had the whooping-cough! How the eyes went out of my
head till I learned him how to walk, till I learned him how to talk!
And such a smart child! If I lost all the others, it wouldn't tear me
so by the heart.
She worked herself up into such a hysteria, crying, and tearing her
hair, and hitting her head with her knuckles, that at last she fell
into a faint. It took some time before Mrs. Pelz, with the aid of
neighbors, revived her.
Benny, mine angel! she moaned as she opened her eyes.
Just then a policeman came in with the lost Benny.
Na, na, here you got him already! said Mrs. Pelz Why did
you carry on so for nothing? Why did you tear up the world like a
The child's face was streaked with tears as he cowered, frightened
and forlorn. Hanneh Breineh sprang toward him, slapping his cheeks,
boxing his ears, before the neighbors could rescue him from her.
Woe on your head! cried the mother. Where did you lost yourself?
Ain't I got enough worries on my head than to go around looking for
you? I didn't have yet a minute's peace from that child since he was
See a crazy mother! remonstrated Mrs. Pelz, rescuing Benny from
another beating. Such a mouth! With one breath she blesses him when he
is lost, and with the other breath she curses him when he is found.
Hanneh Breineh took from the window-sill a piece of herring covered
with swarming flies, and putting it on a slice of dry bread, she filled
a cup of tea that had been stewing all day, and dragged Benny over to
the table to eat.
But the child, choking with tears, was unable to touch the food.
Go eat! commanded Hanneh Breineh. Eat and choke yourself eating!
* * *
Maybe she won't remember me no more. Maybe the servant won't let me
in, thought Mrs. Pelz as she walked by the brownstone house on
Eighty-fourth Street where she had been told Hanneh Breineh now lived.
At last she summoned up enough courage to climb the steps. She was all
out of breath as she rang the bell with trembling fingers. Oi weh!
even the outside smells riches and plenty! Such curtains! And shades on
all windows like by millionaires! Twenty years ago she used to eat from
the pot to the hand, and now she lives in such a palace.
A whiff of steam-heated warmth swept over Mrs. Pelz as the door
opened, and she saw her old friend of the tenements dressed in silk and
diamonds like a being from another world.
Mrs. Pelz, is it you! cried Hanneh Breineh, overjoyed at the sight
of her former neighbor. Come right in. Since when are you back in New
We came last week, mumbled Mrs. Pelz as she was led into a richly
Make yourself comfortable. Take off your shawl, urged Hanneh
But Mrs. Pelz only drew her shawl more tightly around her, a keen
sense of her poverty gripping her as she gazed, abashed by the
luxurious wealth that shone from every corner.
This shawl covers up my rags, she said, trying to hide her shabby
I'll tell you what; come right into the kitchen, suggested Hanneh
Breineh. The servant is away for this afternoon, and we can feel more
comfortable there. I can breathe like a free person in my kitchen when
the girl has her day out.
Mrs. Pelz glanced about her in an excited daze. Never in her life
had she seen anything so wonderful as a white tiled kitchen, with its
glistening porcelain sink and the aluminum pots and pans that shone
Where are you staying now? asked Hanneh Breineh as she pinned an
apron over her silk dress.
I moved back to Delancey Street, where we used to live, replied
Mrs. Pelz as she seated herself cautiously in a white enameled chair.
Oi weh! what grand times we had in that old house when we
were neighbors! sighed Hanneh Breineh, looking at her old friend with
You still think on Delancey Street? Haven't you more high-class
neighbors up-town here?
A good neighbor is not to be found every day, deplored Hanneh
Breineh. Up-town here, where each lives in his own house, nobody cares
if the person next door is dying or going crazy from loneliness. It
ain't anything like we used to have it in Delancey Street, when we
could walk into one another's rooms without knocking, and borrow a
pinch of salt or a pot to cook in.
Hanneh Breineh went over to the pantry-shelf.
We are going to have a bite right here on the kitchen-table like on
Delancey Street. So long there's no servant to watch us we can eat what
Oi! how it waters my mouth with appetite, the smell of the
herring and onion! chuckled Mrs. Pelz, sniffing the welcome odors with
Hanneh Breineh pulled a dish-towel from the rack and threw one end
of it to Mrs. Pelz.
So long there's no servant around, we can use it together for a
napkin. It's dirty, anyhow. How it freshens up my heart to see you!
she rejoiced as she poured out her tea into a saucer. If you would
only know how I used to beg my daughter to write for me a letter to
you; but these American children, what is to them a mother's feelings?
What are you talking! cried Mrs. Pelz. The whole world rings with
you and your children. Everybody is envying you. Tell me how began your
You heard how my husband died with consumption, replied Hanneh
Breineh. The five-hundred-dollars lodge money gave me the first lift
in life, and I opened a little grocery store. Then my son Abe married
himself to a girl with a thousand dollars. That started him in
business, and now he has the biggest shirt-waist factory on West
Yes, I heard your son had a factory. Mrs. Pelz hesitated and
stammered; I'll tell you the truth. What I came to ask youI thought
maybe you would beg your son Abe if he would give my husband a job.
Why not? said Hanneh Breineh. He keeps more than five hundred
hands. I'll ask him he should take in Mr. Pelz.
Long years on you, Hanneh Breineh! You'll save my life if you could
only help my husband get work.
Of course my son will help him. All my children like to do good. My
daughter Fanny is a milliner on Fifth Avenue, and she takes in the
poorest girls in her shop and even pays them sometimes while they learn
the trade. Hanneh Breineh's face lit up, and her chest filled with
pride as she enumerated the successes of her children.
And my son Benny he wrote a play on Broadway and he gave away more
than a hundred free tickets for the first night.
Benny? The one who used to get lost from home all the time? You
always did love that child more than all the rest. And what is Sammy
your baby doing?
He ain't a baby no longer. He goes to college and quarterbacks the
football team. They can't get along without him.
And my son Jake, I nearly forgot him. He began collecting rent in
Delancey Street, and now he is boss of renting the swellest
apartment-houses on Riverside Drive.
What did I tell you? In America children are like money in the
bank, purred Mrs. Pelz as she pinched and patted Hanneh Breineh's silk
sleeve. Oi weh! how it shines from you! You ought to kiss the
air and dance for joy and happiness. It is such a bitter frost outside;
a pail of coal is so dear, and you got it so warm with steam-heat. I
had to pawn my feather-bed to have enough for the rent, and you are
rolling in money.
Yes, I got it good in some ways, but money ain't everything,
sighed Hanneh Breineh.
You ain't yet satisfied?
But here I got no friends, complained Hanneh Breineh.
Friends? queried Mrs. Pelz. What greater friend is there on earth
than the dollar?
Oi! Mrs. Pelz; if you could only look into my heart! I'm so
choked up! You know they say, a cow has a long tongue, but can't talk.
Hanneh Breineh shook her head wistfully, and her eyes filmed with
inward brooding. My children give me everything from the best. When I
was sick, they got me a nurse by day and one by night. They bought me
the best wine. If I asked for dove's milk, they would buy it for me;
butbutI can't talk myself out in their language. They want to make
me over for an American lady, and I'm different. Tears cut their way
under her eyelids with a pricking pain as she went on: When I was
poor, I was free, and could holler and do what I like in my own house.
Here I got to lie still like a mouse under a broom. Between living up
to my Fifth Avenue daughter and keeping up with the servants I am like
a sinner in the next world that is thrown from one hell to another.
The door-bell rang, and Hanneh Breineh jumped up with a start.
Oi weh! it must be the servant back already! she exclaimed
as she tore off her apron. Oi weh! let's quickly put the dishes
together in a dish-pan. If she sees I eat on the kitchen table, she
will look on me like the dirt under her feet.
Mrs. Pelz seized her shawl in haste.
I better run home quick in my rags before your servant sees me.
I'll speak to Abe about the job, said Hanneh Breineh as she pushed
a bill into the hand of Mrs. Pelz, who edged out as the servant
* * *
I'm having fried potato lotkes special for you, Benny, said
Hanneh Breineh as the children gathered about the table for the family
dinner given in honor of Benny's success with his new play. Do you
remember how you used to lick the fingers from them?
O Mother! reproved Fanny. Anyone hearing you would think we were
still in the push-cart district.
Stop your nagging, Sis, and let ma alone, commanded Benny, patting
his mother's arm affectionately. I'm home only once a month. Let her
feed me what she pleases. My stomach is bomb-proof.
Do I hear that the President is coming to your play? said Abe as
he stuffed a napkin over his diamond-studded shirt-front.
Why shouldn't he come? returned Benny. The critics say it's the
greatest antidote for the race hatred created by the war. If you want
to know, he is coming to-night; and what's more, our box is next to the
Nu, Mammeh, sallied Jake, did you ever dream in Delancey
Street that we should rub sleeves with the President?
I always said that Benny had more head than the rest of you,
replied the mother.
As the laughter died away, Jake went on:
Honor you are getting plenty; but how much mezummen does
this play bring you? Can I invest any of it in real estate for you?
I'm getting ten per cent. royalties of the gross receipts, replied
the youthful playwright.
How much is that? queried Hanneh Breineh.
Enough to buy up all your fish markets in Delancey Street, laughed
Abe in good-natured raillery at his mother.
Her son's jest cut like a knife-thrust in her heart. She felt her
heart ache with the pain that she was shut out from their successes.
Each added triumph only widened the gulf. And when she tried to bridge
this gulf by asking questions, they only thrust her back upon herself.
Your fame has even helped me get my hat trade solid with the Four
Hundred, put in Fanny. You bet I let Mrs. Van Suyden know that our
box is next to the President's. She said she would drop in to meet you.
Of course she let on to me that she hadn't seen the play yet, though my
designer said she saw her there on the opening night.
Oh, Gosh! the toadies! sneered Benny. Nothing so sickens you with
success as the way people who once shoved you off the sidewalk come
crawling to you on their stomachs begging you to dine with them.
Say, that leading man of yours he's some class, cried Fanny.
That's the man I'm looking for. Will you invite him to supper after
The playwright turned to his mother.
Say, Ma, he said laughingly, how would you like a real actor for
She should worry, mocked Sam. She'll be discussing with him the
future of the Greek drama. Too bad it doesn't happen to be Warfield, or
mother could give him tips on the 'Auctioneer.'
Jake turned to his mother with a covert grin.
I guess you'd have no objection if Fanny got next to Benny's
leading man. He makes at least fifteen hundred a week. That wouldn't be
such a bad addition to the family, would it?
Again the bantering tone stabbed Hanneh Breineh. Everything in her
began to tremble and break loose.
Why do you ask me? she cried, throwing her napkin into her plate.
Do I count for a person in this house? If I'll say something, will you
even listen to me? What is to me the grandest man that my daughter
could pick out? Another enemy in my house! Another person to shame
himself from me! She swept in her children in one glance of despairing
anguish as she rose from the table. What worth is an old mother to
American children? The President is coming to-night to the theater, and
none of you asked me to go. Unable to check the rising tears, she fled
toward the kitchen and banged the door.
They all looked at one another guiltily.
Say, Sis, Benny called out sharply, what sort of frame-up is
this? Haven't you told mother that she was to go with us to-night?
YesI Fanny bit her lips as she fumbled evasively for words.
I asked her if she wouldn't mind my taking her some other time.
Now you have made a mess of it! fumed Benny. Mother'll be too
hurt to go now.
Well, I don't care, snapped Fanny. I can't appear with mother in
a box at the theater. Can I introduce her to Mrs. Van Suyden? And
suppose your leading man should ask to meet me?
Take your time, Sis. He hasn't asked yet, scoffed Benny.
The more reason I shouldn't spoil my chances. You know mother.
She'll spill the beans that we come from Delancey Street the minute we
introduce her anywhere. Must I always have the black shadow of my past
trailing after me?
But have you no feelings for mother? admonished Abe.
I've tried harder than all of you to do my duty. I've lived
with her. She turned angrily upon them. I've borne the shame of
mother while you bought her off with a present and a treat here and
there. God knows how hard I tried to civilize her so as not to have to
blush with shame when I take her anywhere. I dressed her in the most
stylish Paris models, but Delancey Street sticks out from every inch of
her. Whenever she opens her mouth, I'm done for. You fellows had your
chance to rise in the world because a man is free to go up as high as
he can reach up to; but I, with all my style and pep, can't get a man
my equal because a girl is always judged by her mother.
They were silenced by her vehemence, and unconsciously turned to
I guess we all tried to do our best for mother, said Benny,
thoughtfully. But wherever there is growth, there is pain and
heartbreak. The trouble with us is that the Ghetto of the Middle Ages
and the children of the twentieth century have to live under one roof,
A sound of crashing dishes came from the kitchen, and the voice of
Hanneh Breineh resounded through the dining-room as she wreaked her
pent-up fury on the helpless servant.
Oh, my nerves! I can't stand it any more! There will be no girl
again for another week, cried Fanny.
Oh, let up on the old lady, protested Abe. Since she can't take
it out on us any more, what harm is it if she cusses the servants?
If you fellows had to chase around employment agencies, you
wouldn't see anything funny about it. Why can't we move into a hotel
that will do away with the need of servants altogether?
I got it better, said Jake, consulting a note-book from his
pocket. I have on my list an apartment on Riverside Drive where
there's only a small kitchenette; but we can do away with the cooking,
for there is a dining service in the building.
The new Riverside apartment to which Hanneh Breineh was removed by
her socially ambitious children was for the habitually active mother an
empty desert of enforced idleness. Deprived of her kitchen, Hanneh
Breineh felt robbed of the last reason for her existence. Cooking and
marketing and puttering busily with pots and pans gave her an excuse
for living and struggling and bearing up with her children. The lonely
idleness of Riverside Drive stunned all her senses and arrested all her
thoughts. It gave her that choked sense of being cut off from air, from
life, from everything warm and human. The cold indifference, the
each-for-himself look in the eyes of the people about her were like
stinging slaps in the face. Even the children had nothing real or human
in them. They were starched and stiff miniatures of their elders.
But the most unendurable part of the stifling life on Riverside
Drive was being forced to eat in the public dining-room. No matter how
hard she tried to learn polite table manners, she always found people
staring at her, and her daughter rebuking her for eating with the wrong
fork or guzzling the soup or staining the cloth.
In a fit of rebellion Hanneh Breineh resolved never to go down to
the public dining-room again, but to make use of the gas-stove in the
kitchenette to cook her own meals. That very day she rode down to
Delancey Street and purchased a new market-basket. For some time she
walked among the haggling push-cart venders, relaxing and swimming in
the warm waves of her old familiar past.
A fish-peddler held up a large carp in his black, hairy hand and
waved it dramatically:
Women! Women! Fourteen cents a pound!
He ceased his raucous shouting as he saw Hanneh Breineh in her rich
attire approach his cart.
How much? she asked pointing to the fattest carp.
Fifteen cents, lady, said the peddler, smirking as he raised his
Swindler! Didn't I hear you call fourteen cents? shrieked Hanneh
Breineh, exultingly, the spirit of the penny chase surging in her
blood. Diplomatically, Hanneh Breineh turned as if to go, and the
fishman seized her basket in frantic fear.
I should live; I'm losing money on the fish, lady, whined the
peddler. I'll let it down to thirteen cents for you only.
Two pounds for a quarter, and not a penny more, said Hanneh
Breineh, thrilling again with the rare sport of bargaining, which had
been her chief joy in the good old days of poverty.
Nu, I want to make the first sale for good luck. The
peddler threw the fish on the scale.
As he wrapped up the fish, Hanneh Breineh saw the driven look of
worry in his haggard eyes, and when he counted out for her the change
from her dollar, she waved it aside.
Keep it for your luck, she said, and hurried off to strike a new
bargain at a push-cart of onions.
Hanneh Breineh returned triumphantly with her purchases. The basket
under her arm gave forth the old, homelike odors of herring and garlic,
while the scaly tail of a four-pound carp protruded from its newspaper
wrapping. A gilded placard on the door of the apartment-house
proclaimed that all merchandise must be delivered through the trade
entrance in the rear; but Hanneh Breineh with her basket strode proudly
through the marble-paneled hall and rang nonchalantly for the elevator.
The uniformed hall-man, erect, expressionless, frigid with dignity,
Just a minute, Madam, I'll call a boy to take up your basket for
Hanneh Breineh, glaring at him, jerked the basket savagely from his
Mind your own business, she retorted. I'll take it up myself. Do
you think you're a Russian policeman to boss me in my own house?
Angry lines appeared on the countenance of the representative of
It is against the rules, Madam, he said stiffly.
You should sink into the earth with all your rules and brass
buttons. Ain't this America? Ain't this a free country? Can't I take up
in my own house what I buy with my own money? cried Hanneh Breineh,
reveling in the opportunity to shower forth the volley of invectives
that had been suppressed in her for the weeks of deadly dignity of
In the midst of this uproar Fanny came in with Mrs. Van Suyden.
Hanneh Breineh rushed over to her, crying:
This bossy policeman won't let me take up my basket in the
The daughter, unnerved with shame and confusion, took the basket in
her white-gloved hand and ordered the hall-boy to take it around to the
regular delivery entrance.
Hanneh Breineh was so hurt by her daughter's apparent defense of the
hallman's rules that she utterly ignored Mrs. Van Suyden's greeting and
walked up the seven flights of stairs out of sheer spite.
You see the tragedy of my life? broke out Fanny, turning to Mrs.
You poor child! You go right up to your dear, old lady mother, and
I'll come some other time.
Instantly Fanny regretted her words. Mrs. Van Suyden's pity only
roused her wrath the more against her mother.
Breathless from climbing the stairs, Hanneh Breineh entered the
apartment just as Fanny tore the faultless millinery creation from her
head and threw it on the floor in a rage.
Mother, you are the ruination of my life! You have driven away Mrs.
Van Suyden, as you have driven away all my best friends. What do you
think we got this apartment for but to get rid of your fish smells and
your brawls with the servants? And here you come with a basket on your
arm as if you just landed from steerage! And this afternoon, of all
times, when Benny is bringing his leading man to tea. When will you
ever stop disgracing us?
When I'm dead, said Hanneh Breineh, grimly. When the earth will
cover me up, then you'll be free to go your American way. I'm not going
to make myself over for a lady on Riverside Drive. I hate you and all
your swell friends. I'll not let myself be choked up here by you or by
that hall-boss-policeman that is higher in your eyes than your own
So that's your thanks for all we've done for you? cried the
All you've done for me? shouted Hanneh Breineh. What have you
done for me? You hold me like a dog on a chain. It stands in the
Talmud; some children give their mothers dry bread and water and go to
heaven for it, and some give their mother roast duck and go to Gehenna
because it's not given with love.
You want me to love you yet? raged the daughter. You knocked
every bit of love out of me when I was yet a kid. All the memories of
childhood I have is your everlasting cursing and yelling that we were
The bell rang sharply, and Hanneh Breineh flung open the door.
Your groceries, ma'am, said the boy.
Hanneh Breineh seized the basket from him, and with a vicious fling
sent it rolling across the room, strewing its contents over the Persian
rugs and inlaid floor. Then seizing her hat and coat, she stormed out
of the apartment and down the stairs.
Mr. and Mrs. Pelz sat crouched and shivering over their meager
supper when the door opened, and Hanneh Breineh in fur coat and plumed
hat charged into the room.
I come to cry out to you my bitter heart, she sobbed. Woe is me!
It is so black for my eyes!
What is the matter with you, Hanneh Breineh? cried Mrs. Pelz in
I am turned out of my own house by the brass-buttoned policeman
that bosses the elevator. Oi-i-i-i! Weh-h-h-h! what have I from
my life? The whole world rings with my son's play. Even the President
came to see it, and I, his mother, have not seen it yet. My heart is
dying in me like in a prison, she went on wailing. I am starved out
for a piece of real eating. In that swell restaurant is nothing but
napkins and forks and lettuce-leaves. There are a dozen plates to every
bite of food. And it looks so fancy on the plate, but it's nothing but
straw in the mouth. I'm starving, but I can't swallow down their
Hanneh Breineh, said Mrs. Pelz, you are sinning before God. Look
on your fur coat; it alone would feed a whole family for a year. I
never had yet a piece of fur trimming on a coat, and you are in fur
from the neck to the feet. I never had yet a piece of feather on a hat,
and your hat is all feathers.
What are you envying me? protested Hanneh Breineh. What have I
from all my fine furs and feathers when my children are strangers to
me? All the fur coats in the world can't warm up the loneliness inside
my heart. All the grandest feathers can't hide the bitter shame in my
face that my children shame themselves from me.
Hanneh Breineh suddenly loomed over them like some ancient, heroic
figure of the Bible condemning unrighteousness.
Why should my children shame themselves from me? From where did
they get the stuff to work themselves up in the world? Did they get it
from the air? How did they get all their smartness to rise over the
people around them? Why don't the children of born American mothers
write my Benny's plays? It is I, who never had a chance to be a person,
who gave him the fire in his head. If I would have had a chance to go
to school and learn the language, what couldn't I have been? It is I
and my mother and my mother's mother and my father and father's father
who had such a black life in Poland; it is our choked thoughts and
feelings that are flaming up in my children and making them great in
America. And yet they shame themselves from me!
For a moment Mr. and Mrs. Pelz were hypnotized by the sweep of her
words. Then Hanneh Breineh sank into a chair in utter exhaustion. She
began to weep bitterly, her body shaking with sobs.
Woe is me! For what did I suffer and hope on my children? A bitter
old agemy end. I'm so lonely!
All the dramatic fire seemed to have left her. The spell was broken.
They saw the Hanneh Breineh of old, ever discontented, ever complaining
even in the midst of riches and plenty.
Hanneh Breineh, said Mrs. Pelz, the only trouble with you is that
you got it too good. People will tear the eyes out of your head because
you're complaining yet. If I only had your fur coat! If I only had your
diamonds! I have nothing. You have everything. You are living on the
fat of the land. You go right back home and thank God that you don't
have my bitter lot.
You got to let me stay here with you, insisted Hanneh Breineh.
I'll not go back to my children except when they bury me. When they
will see my dead face, they will understand how they killed me.
Mrs. Pelz glanced nervously at her husband. They barely had enough
covering for their one bed; how could they possibly lodge a visitor?
I don't want to take up your bed, said Hanneh Breineh. I don't
care if I have to sleep on the floor or on the chairs, but I'll stay
here for the night.
Seeing that she was bent on staying, Mr. Pelz prepared to sleep by
putting a few chairs next to the trunk, and Hanneh Breineh was invited
to share the rickety bed with Mrs. Pelz.
The mattress was full of lumps and hollows. Hanneh Breineh lay
cramped and miserable, unable to stretch out her limbs. For years she
had been accustomed to hair mattresses and ample woolen blankets, so
that though she covered herself with her fur coat, she was too cold to
sleep. But worse than the cold were the creeping things on the wall.
And as the lights were turned low, the mice came through the broken
plaster and raced across the floor. The foul odors of the kitchen-sink
added to the night of horrors.
Are you going back home? asked Mrs. Pelz as Hanneh Breineh put on
her hat and coat the next morning.
I don't know where I'm going, she replied as she put a bill into
Mrs. Pelz's hand.
For hours Hanneh Breineh walked through the crowded Ghetto streets.
She realized that she no longer could endure the sordid ugliness of her
past, and yet she could not go home to her children. She only felt that
she must go on and on.
In the afternoon a cold, drizzling rain set in. She was worn out
from the sleepless night and hours of tramping. With a piercing pain in
her heart she at last turned back and boarded the subway for Riverside
Drive. She had fled from the marble sepulcher of the Riverside
apartment to her old home in the Ghetto; but now she knew that she
could not live there again. She had outgrown her past by the habits of
years of physical comforts, and these material comforts that she could
no longer do without choked and crushed the life within her.
A cold shudder went through Hanneh Breineh as she approached the
apartment-house. Peering through the plate glass of the door she saw
the face of the uniformed hall-man. For a hesitating moment she
remained standing in the drizzling rain, unable to enter and yet
knowing full well that she would have to enter.
Then suddenly Hanneh Breineh began to laugh. She realized that it
was the first time she had laughed since her children had become rich.
But it was the hard laugh of bitter sorrow. Tears streamed down her
furrowed cheeks as she walked slowly up the granite steps.
The fat of the land! muttered Hanneh Breineh, with a choking sob
as the hall-man with immobile face deferentially swung open the
doorthe fat of the land!