The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
A newly reissued short story from the under-appreciated late writer revives Jewish Toronto of the 1930s
Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Toronto, Shirley Faessler lost her mother at a young age and grew up with her father, stepmother, brother and sister in a small flat above a synagogue in the city’s Kensington Market. She quit school after eighth grade, had a failed marriage, traveled extensively, and read voraciously: Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Malamud—and later Mavis Gallant, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro, each of whom would become a friend and admirer.
For many years she presided over a theatrical rooming house, holding court at its famous kitchen table and telling tales of Yankev the Bootlegger, Henye the Hunchback, Motele the Blabbermouth, and other characters she had known in her youth. It was her third husband, actor-director James Edmond, who finally sent the actors and ballerinas packing—and sent Shirley upstairs to write down the stories she had honed in their midst.
Faessler didn’t start writing until she was in her forties and was already a grandmother when her first story was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. Eight more stories appeared in prominent magazines over the next decade or so, and a novel, Everything in the Window, was published in 1979; The New Yorker called it “a striking first novel.” Faessler’s acclaimed “Kensington Market” stories, which first appeared in book form in 1988, were recently republished as A Basket of Apples: Stories by Shirley Faessler (Now and Then Books), bringing her splendid literary voice back to vivid life.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
I met Lottie Kogan my first day in grade seven at King Edward Public School. It turned out that she and I lived on the same street, and overnight we became bosom pals. Lottie used to call for me every morning at a quarter to nine, but one morning she didn’t show up and I was almost late for school. “I’ll tell you later,” she said when I asked her about it at recess. She then left the schoolyard, which was forbidden, raced across the street, and came back with a nickel bag of broken biscuits and licorice all-sorts, which she shared with me. She didn’t call for me the next day, or the day after, but each time she had a nickel to spend at recess.
“Either you tell me why you stopped calling for me or I won’t talk to you again.”
“I can’t call for you because I make a nickel on my way to school.”
If she made a nickel on the way to school, why couldn’t I? “Okay,” she said, “but you’ll have to be ready tomorrow at a quarter past eight sharp.”
The next morning, instead of our usual route, we took a detour by way of Carlyle Street where some excavation work was going on. A deep pit had been dug in the road, which was closed off to traffic, and a plank about fifteen feet long had been placed across the hole in which men were working.
“Watch me,” said Lottie, “then do the same and you’ll get a nickel.”
She stepped out on the plank and slowly, sinuously, walked the length of it, sashaying and swinging her hips. At the other end she squatted, arid peering into the pit, she held out her hand. Then she straightened out and beckoned me to follow.
I stepped out as she had done, sashaying and swinging my hips. When I was halfway across, a hand shot out and grabbed me by the inside of my thigh. I let out a shriek and ran to the other side. A man’s head emerged from the pit, a scowl on the face. The man’s hand came over the dugout, and Lottie took the nickel for me.
“Don’t bring her here no more,” he said to Lottie. “And don’t you come back here neither.”
Shortly after that, a new source of revenue opened up to us. Charlie Reilly, who worked as a teller in a bank, rented a room at the Kogans. He kept his room neat and paid his rent on time, always thanking Lottie’s mother when he gave her the money. His room was next to the one Lottie shared with her sister, Jenny. (Jenny was two years older than Lottie, and wasn’t all there.) Some evenings when Lottie and I went up to her room to do homework, Charlie would be lying spreadeagled on his bed, fully clothed, with a checkerboard across his chest. One night as we were passing he fired a couple of checkers at us. We picked them up and fired them back, and that was the beginning of the Checker Game.
Lottie and I would take a handful of checkers from the board on his chest, and positioning ourselves at the door, would take turns firing them as he lay there, arms flung wide and legs apart. Anytime it happened that we hit him in the groin, he would draw his knees up to his chest, squeal with pleasure, then spread himself wide again, inviting the next barrage. We knew it was a dirty game and that we risked being caught by Mrs. Kogan, who had called up one night asking what the racket was about. After that scare, Lottie shrewdly appraised the pros and cons of continuing to play the Checker Game.
“He gets a bang out of it,” she said, “but what do we get?”
So Lottie put it to Charlie that we wouldn’t play the Checker Game anymore unless there was something in it for us. She proposed that each of us would take the same number of checkers and take turns firing them. “You’ll have to pay a dime to whoever gets the most hits,” she told him, “and a nickel to the loser. Okay, Charlie?” And he agreed.
About two weeks after Lottie had put the Checker Game on a paying basis, Charlie was transferred to an outlying branch of the bank. He was sorry to leave, and we were sorry to see him go.
It was about this time that a scandal broke out on our street, a scandal involving Lottie’s mother and a man called Tzarik. We were almost thirteen when Lottie’s father went into partnership with Tzarik. Tzarik was a dark-complexioned, slow-moving, handsome man about twice the size of Lottie’s father. The two of them would go to the country twice a week and bring back a truckload of live poultry. They would park the cackling fowl in front of Kogan’s while Mrs. Kogan attended them, feeding them before market. The partnership lasted a few months and ended in a fight with Tzarik being thrown out of the house.
I was asleep when the fight broke out across the street, and it was my mother who said to me the next morning, “You didn’t hear nothing? Kogan kicked his partner out of the house and the whole street came out, there was such a commotion. Mrs. Kogan was on the verandah crying and when she tried to go back in the house Kogan wouldn’t let her come in. Mrs. Zaretsky, the grocer’s wife, she said Kogan made his wife stay the whole night on the verandah before he let her come back in the house in the morning. When you finish your breakfast, go ask your friend what happened last night.”
That morning I asked Lottie on our way to school, “What happened last night? My mother says your father kicked out Tzarik?”
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