The Last Night of a New Day
Part one of four
The slap of a hand and the slam of a door ended Davey's childhood.
He stood on the front stoop for one second longer than necessary, his pulse pounding in his ears like a basketball slamming against the court, drowning out all other sounds. Cars going by, the rattle of a bus and the yowl of Mrs. Warshawsky's cat were like muffled reminders of a life that he was no longer part of.
His feet had wings, propelling him down the sidewalk toward something unknown, and away from what he could no longer abide. Fiery anger kept him going, taking him far from the small apartment, his mother's duplicity and his brother's sly grin.
He'd been smacked before, numerous times by his father. He was used to that, used to spending the night locked in a dark closet without any supper.
But this was different.
She'd never hit him before.
He'd never called her a Jezebel before.
That didn't make the print of her hand on his cheek sting any less. Didn't settle the score.
Davey paused to take a breath on the corner of Second and Twenty-third, fine vibrations running the length of his spine, agitating his belly.
Keep moving, keep moving. Go, go, go. Run, as far and as fast as he could.
There was nothing left for him here. She'd proven where her loyalties lay, and it was no longer with her eldest son.
Ideas bounced around his brain; bright, astonishing plans that glittered like the Emerald City in Oz. He'd grab a bus, leave New York behind, become the man that the rabbi had said he was. He'd recited the Torah for his bar mitzvah in front of the congregation just a couple of weeks ago. Nowhere in the ancient words did it say - in Hebrew or in English - that he had to stick around to witness the utter devastation of the Starsky family.
God damn her. Betraying all that had been the foundation of his life up until this point.
Davey plowed through the crowds along popular shopping streets, pushing past people without acknowledging a friendly greeting or even the call of his own name. This was no longer his home. He would never return. That was a solemn vow.
How he got to Grand Central Station, he was never sure. The last twenty blocks hadn't even registered. Davey dug into his pocket, closing his fist around his entire life's savings.
The original day's plan had been to go out on a fine Saturday afternoon and buy a bicycle. It wasn't new by any means, but it would have been new to him. The two-wheeled, shiny red bike had been featured in the window of Ron's Pawn Shop for two months. Every kid in the neighborhood had drooled over the sleek metal frame and speedy looking tires but Davey was one of the few who actually had a job and could save up his pennies and dimes. He had nineteen bucks and twenty nine cents from his paper route. Just enough to pay for the bike with some left over - he'd hoped - for a cherry coke and a couple of Hershey bars.
Now that money was his life line; a means to get as far away from the lower east side as humanly possible on nineteen dollars and odd change.
Skirting the massive building that was Grand Central Station, Davey made it around back, firming up his escape. There was no real need to spend the money on a ticket when he could hop aboard a train and be as far away as Pennsylvania in a couple of hours.
He'd had plenty of practice jumping on and off of the slow moving freight trains that trundled along the tracks near his neighborhood. Easy as falling off a log.
Davey crouched low behind a pile of metal railroad ties, watching the massive engines pulling lines of Pullman cars and boxcars out of the terminal yard toward new horizons. One of those trains would be meant just for him. He squinted, figuring out which trains were headed north and which west.
That's where he was going. West.
The golden state, where it was sunny all the time. The furthest west he could get and still be in the United States. He'd learned about Alaska and Hawaii in geography, which were poised to become states sooner or later, but getting to Hawaii would require a boat.
He wasn't even sure how to get to Alaska, which was really close to Russia, according to Mrs. Marcello, the teacher. There were still a couple of Starskys in Russia, judging from the one letter his mother had received with Russian stamps on it, but the relatives in California were a whole lot closer. And they spoke English.
California. Davey rolled the exotic name around on his tongue, tracking a train moving slowly to the left with his eyes. He had to stay hidden until just the right moment so that the rail yard workers didn't catch him. If he was grabbed by one of those men across the way, the ones who manned the switches, they’d call his mother. Send him home.
That was not going to happen. Ever.
He cupped his cheek, still feeling the hot, tender spot where she'd hit him.
Two trains passed in front of him, packed with happy families who loved each other. Fathers who took their sons fishing off the pier, mothers who packed school lunches of bologna sandwiches made with Wonder bread, brothers who played stick ball in the alley until the street lights came on.
None of them had to carry kosher brisket between two slices of brown homemade bread to school or wear a yarmulke pinned precariously onto unruly curls. None of them had to watch their father be gunned down…
Starsky squeezed his eyes shut, shoving away the image, and went back to thinking about bologna and brisket. Brisket simmering on the stove, surrounded by turnips and carrots - he loved what his mother cooked, it was just embarrassing to carry the old country fare to school when all his friends had American food. Ah, but Matzo ball soup and a big fat knishe would taste swell right about now. Or maybe a bubbly egg cream while he watched Mr. Zelleger spread a smear on an onion bagel at the corner deli.
Crap, he was hungry. Going into the station to buy something would waste time and money. Firming his resolve, Davey stretched out his forefinger and opened his eyes. He was pointing directly at a train idling three tracks over, going in the right direction.
It was now or never.
Glancing over at the station guard, Davey grinned. A large woman had cornered the blue uniformed man, prattling on about some infraction. There wouldn't be any problem from either one of them. As long as Davey could boost himself up into the open door of that red car, he was in like Flynn.
He trotted across empty tracks towards his destination, keeping his head down low. No shouts of discovery erupted behind him. No one came after him.
Not his mother. Not Nicky.
Davey sped up just as a low rumble coming through the soles of his well-worn Keds signaled that the train was beginning to roll. His heart in his throat, he gauged the distance between himself and the red car, running faster. The long line of cars trundled past him, pulling out of the station yard, and Davey ran full out, thigh muscles burning, lungs pumping like a bellows. With a mighty leap that would have gotten him a place on the high school track team, he twisted in the air and caught hold on the edge of the freight car.
Fear beat wildly in his chest. He could feel his fingers losing purchase on the slick metal door. If he fell now, he'd be crushed under the huge metal wheels of the train or thrown into the path of the train on the parallel tracks. Either way, he'd be killed.
Legs churning, Davey swung up and over, landing roughly in the car, and skidding on his belly to crash into a pile of wooden crates. He lay still, exhausted, trying to suck in enough oxygen to satisfy his aching lungs. The rackety motion of the train thundered through his stomach, reminding him that he was still hungry. No hope of food for a while.
But he was on his way.
Davey sat up, pulling his t-shirt down over the scrapes on his belly. Nothing new. He'd had worse sliding into first base in the dirt lot back home.
That was already behind him. A memory he only wanted to forget.
Glimpses of the lower East Side flashed past him as the train picked up speed, pieces of his life that were now only history. Nothing left here for Davey Starsky, no sir-ee.
Bracing himself against the metal wall, Davey shoved the sliding door closed, shutting himself away from everything that reminded him of what had been.
He hunkered down against a crate, drawing his knees up under his chin. He'd never gone to another state before. He rode the subway all the time but this was only the second time he'd been on an actual train, except to jump on and then off again. He'd gone with parents and his Uncle Schlomo to upstate New York once to attend a cousin's wedding, but that was the full extent of his traveling experience.
There'd been some kind of break down on the tracks, slowing the train and causing them to miss the wedding - but not the reception - which made the entire journey seem even longer than it had been.
How long would it take to get to wherever this train was going? Davey certainly hoped it was headed for Pennsylvania, but what if it wasn't? What if his mother figured out he'd headed for Grand Central Station and called the cops on him? Demanded they stop the train?
He could hear the honking refrain of the warning alarm as the train crossing barriers went down over the road the tracks crossed, and for a split second, the whine of a police car siren screamed over the alarm. Were the police coming for him?
Davey wrapped his arms around his knees, waiting, sure that someone would come bursting into the train as it slowed, snatch him up and return him to his mother. He trembled when the siren careened past, the sound dissipating into the distance.
So not for him, then.
The train continued on its westward journey, across the Hudson River, through little towns in New Jersey and on to Pennsylvania. One time, as the train pulled out of a station, Davey slid the door open just enough to look out so that he could see a whole different state, but Passaic reminded him of New York. And the faint smell of chicken cooking that wafted his way just made him hungrier than he already was.
Raising his face to the sun for a moment, Davey took a deep breath. This was his destiny. He was going west to be a man, just like all the pioneers before him. He could learn to ride a horse out west, maybe work on a ranch. He wasn't entirely sure what one did on a ranch, except herd cattle, but if Audie Murphy could do it, then so could he. And Audie Murphy was a war hero, so he was the kind of person his ma always told him to look up to, not like some people.
A particular person that his mother was now stepping out with.
Damn her, anyway. Damn her for ruining everything.
He'd thought having his father gunned down in the street - Davey squeezed his eyes closed, shoving that memory as far back as he could push it. He'd vowed never to remember that day ever again.
If that day had been the worst ever, then today came very, very close.
He'd learned a long time ago that the best way to deal with the bad stuff was to just forget about it. Forget that it had ever happened and focus on what comes next. Because whatever the future held, it had to be better than the past. Always keep moving forward.
The thockety-thockety sound of the metal wheels rolling on the tracks lulled him to sleep, curled up on top of a burlap sack.
Over the next day and a half, Davey found out that Philadelphia was a dark gray city on the Schuylkill River and that Cincinnati, Ohio was on the Ohio River. He thought his geography teacher would be very impressed by the education he was getting without setting foot inside a classroom.
Which led him to wonder if Joey Mancuso had beat up that little weenie, Carl Weinhaus, or if Sharman Crane missed him, and if she'd finished the birdhouse they were all making in shop class. Looked like he'd never get a chance to finish his.
Davey bit down on his bottom lip, fighting tears. Except men never cried. That's what his Grandfather Starsky told him at his father's funeral. Men bucked up. They took it on the chin and kept going.
Taking a deep breath, Davey kicked his feet against the cement wall he was perched on, overlooking the Ohio River. The train he'd been riding had let out all the passengers in Cleveland and moved onto a switchover track to head back east. The last thing he'd wanted to do. Davey had jumped off and wandered out of the train yard, uncertain of what his next move should be.
As he stood there, he'd spotted a small diner housed in an old railway car. There had been no other destination in mind once he smelled the delicious aromas coming out of the place.
A milkshake, cheeseburger and a heap of French fries later, the hunger pains in his belly had finally abated. The waitress had her nametag pinned over a ruffly hanky and she'd winked at him.
"On an adventure, sweetheart?" Edna asked and handed him the handwritten bill. He'd burped and reluctantly parted with two dollars of his hard earned cash.
Seventeen dollars and some jingly change left. That was not going to last him all the way to California at this rate.
The trash cans out back had yielded two bruised apples and an unopened bottle of Coca-cola. He'd tucked all into his back pockets, determined never to go for almost two whole days without food ever again and started for the highway. Maybe somebody would give him a ride.
Luck had been with him in the form of an older lady who reminded him of Mrs. MacInerny who lived in 2B, one floor below them. She was driving a green 1934 Ford and pulled over to the side of the road. The passenger side window rolled down and bright blue eyes peered out at Davey. "Where are you headed, young man?"
Stunned at this immediate good fortune, Davey didn't have an immediate answer. He wasn't even sure where he was yet.
"I'm going to Cincinnati, to visit my sister," the old woman added, apparently unconcerned with Davey's silence.
"Cincinnati is good!" Davey blurted out. He was pretty sure that was in the state of Ohio. Anywhere was good as long as he kept getting further away from the lower east side.
The old lady's name was Eulalie Lassiter and she smelled like old clothes, but she got him to Cincinnati where her sister Eunice lived. During the ride, Mrs. Lassiter gave him three cookies from the two dozen she'd been bringing to Eunice.
Davey gobbled down one immediately and then remembered his vow never to go hungry again. If he saved the other two, he'd have a decent meal for later. Proud of himself, Davey muttered a thank you and held the bag on his lap.
"You're all by yourself?" She drove just slightly under the speed limit, the other cars racing past with ease.
"Yes, ma'am." He spotted a sign that pointed toward Cincinnati and thought about eating another one of the cookies. If he kept his mouth full, he wouldn't have to answer any of her questions. He thought about what his mother would have said about him taking a ride from a stranger. And then he thought about his relatives in California. "I'm going to visit my aunt. My mother's sister."
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Mrs. Lassiter had pinched Davey's cheek, right in the same spot his mother's palm had landed. "Where does your aunt live?"
"I'm supposed to meet her…" He'd scrambled mentally for a story just as they crested a hill into Cincinnati and he could see a twisty river up ahead. Aunt Rosie lived in California, supposedly near the ocean. "By the… river." He embellished his tale, weaving fantasy with reality. "There's a bench, along the river. It's the last place we ever saw Uncle Reuben…" Davey ducked his head, feeling a hot flush warm his cheeks. His father would have blistered his butt for such a blatant fib. "Before he drowned."
The falsehood had come amazingly easily, especially since it was only partly a lie. He really did have an Uncle Reuben who had drowned. Of course, it hadn't happened in Cincinnati, but in three feet of standing water on D-day. He just neglected to mention that part to the kind old woman.
"Oh my, how horrible!" Mrs. Lassiter exclaimed. She stopped the car, searching the riverside for a woman who was not likely to appear. "I don't see anyone down that way."
"She'll come," Davey said, mustering up bravado. "She's probably just late. And we'll have dinner after. Uncle Reuben's favorite—" He almost slipped and said zrazy, which was his own favorite, succulent sirloin stuffed with mushrooms and bacon. "Irish stew."
"Good luck to you, Davey," she'd said with sympathy in her eyes and left him by the river.
Davey ate the rest of the cookies with one apple and downed the Coke, watching boats on the water. Ever since the earlier cheeseburger and milkshake, he kept expecting his mother, not to mention the rabbi, to come yell at him for eating tref. He'd never had cheese and meat together before, but it was really tasty. What was the use of being kosher if it kept him from such wonderful meals, anyway?
His mother would have frowned at a meal of cookies and cola, too. She was big on the food of her childhood, Polish meals heavy on the cabbage, like her favorite stew, bigos. Davey's mouth watered even though he'd just eaten two chocolate chip cookies.
Except thinking of that comforting dinner brought back less comforting memories. His mother last week, pink cheeked from cooking in the kitchen, with that strange and secret smile on her face. A smile he hadn't seen in years, not since he was very small, before his parents had taken to yelling at each other every single night. Davey never quite learned to keep his mouth shut when they started in on each other, or worse, when they started in on him. A dark closet without dinner had almost been a haven on some of those nights.
Nicky'd always watched silently, his narrow face pale and his eyes wide with some inner thrill that Davey never understood. But, invariably, Davey would wade in between his parents, shouting back at them.
The last time was the night before his father…
He kicked his heels against the cement wall, hard enough to hurt bad. No more of that. No more stupid memories of his mother taking them to the synagogue on Friday nights, and watching her sad eyes catch the flicker of the flames from the candles.
No more seeing her standing in the kitchen, making pierogis for him, the man she'd been seeing. The man who had divided the Starsky family.
He was his own man now, headed west.
Davey hitchhiked for the next week, sometimes traveling only a few miles, sometimes gaining another state. He'd acquired an old leather satchel along the way, to keep his food in, and the trinkets and souvenirs he found. He acquired a grimy map of the states outside an abandoned gas station. It had red and blue squiggly lines showing every connecting roadway in the US, and he liked to run his finger from east to west, tracing his journey An only partially used composition notebook had became his favorite companion. He wrote down each city and state he arrived in, using the list as a gauge of his journey. Originally, there had been twelve states to cross, if he drew a line directly from New York to California. Already, he'd gone through seven of them, and was currently cooling his heels in Wisconsin, which was known for its dairies and cheese.
Davey wrote that down in his notebook, chewing on a cheese sandwich that the last driver had given him.
His mother had always warned him about hitchhiking, especially when he wheedled a ride from Mrs. MacInerny, who couldn't see in the dark and often hit fire hydrants as well as the curb when she parked. But so far, Davey'd had nothing but pleasant rides from good people who not only gave him a ride, but frequently shared their lunches or dinners with him. One man had even supplied him with a coat that was only a little too big. As the nights got colder, Davey was really glad of the coat.
Twilight was coming earlier each day that he was out. Davey looked across the highway at a small cluster of houses grouped around a curved road. His eyes were drawn to the lighted windows as families gathered together for dinner and the typical evening activities of homework, card games and maybe watching Uncle Miltie on the television.
He had a sudden, almost overwhelming need to call his mother. If he found a phone, he could call collect. Surely she'd accept the charges from her prodigal son? And there was no way she'd be able to figure out where he was.
As long as he didn't answer the phone. As long as she wasn't making bigos for him.
Davey felt a wave of revulsion, and quickly wrapped the rest of the cheese sandwich in a piece of old newspaper. He could easily imagine the heavyset man perched in the chair his dad used to sit in, his bulbous nose sniffing eagerly as Rachel Starsky set a steaming bowl of stew on the table.
He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing away the gritty, raw feeling behind his eyeballs. His whole head hurt, his left cheek most of all, almost as if he could still feel the sting of his mother's hand a whole week later.
Did she even miss him? Because he never wanted to see her again. As long as she kept company with him,. The man who'd once called Davey's father his best friend.
Taking a deep breath, Davey peered down the highway with fading hope. Traffic was sparse tonight. Few cars had passed him in the last hour and not one had slowed down to pick up a lonely boy. He'd discovered that he was most successful if he gave the same lie that had half convinced Mrs. Lassiter. Incorporating partial truths into whatever story he was embellishing made remembering the details so much easier than having to create a whole new personality out of the air.
Which meant that the next time someone asked where he was headed, it had to be somewhere in Wisconsin or…. Davey frowned. Boy, it would have been really useful if he'd paid attention in geography class. Or studied harder to memorize the forty-eight states and their capitals. What was next to Wisconsin? He was pretty sure that it was one of the great lakes, but which one eluded him.
After slinging his leather book bag over one shoulder and across his chest, Davey started walking, kicking a rock along in front of him. There was a nice big sign up ahead, which would likely clue him into what city was the closest. It was amazing how many people didn't seem all that curious about a single boy on the side of the highway who said he was headed for the next city or the one beyond. As if they themselves hadn't read the roadway signs or paid attention to small details that caught Davey's eye.
One truck driver had been astonished when Davey pointed out that the names on several gravestones in a local cemetery corresponded to the name of the mayor of a small town in Northern Illinois. As they drove into the tiny hamlet, there was a 'Welcome to Pixley, population 450, Mayor Augland Sumpter' along with the usual symbols for the Lions club, 4-H and the Shriners. The name Sumpter also graced the sign over the market and the gas station, too. Maybe the truck driver had never stopped to spend the night curled up inside the abandoned caretaker's shack on the edge of the cemetery, and spent his morning wandering through a foggy graveyard munching on day-old donuts.
Davey found it endlessly fascinating to discover how many different sorts of people there were in the world. This helped to distract him from the aching loneliness that bowled him over at the weirdest times. He learned that if he just concentrated on talking to people or noticing odd things and interesting sights, then he didn't think about his mother and Nicky, back in New York.
Turned out that many people just didn't notice the stuff that Davey found fascinating. His father used to tell him that once he grew up and got a real job - "one that beats you down day in and day out, life'll just grind that curiosity right outta you, Davey-boy."
He could hear his dad's voice as loud as anything. Davey swung around, his heart thumping, sure that somehow, some magical way, Jacob Starsky would be standing there on the highway in Wisconsin, right next to him. "Dad…?"
No one. Not as if he'd expected anyone to be there. His father had been dead for nearly a year. Davey felt a sudden intense pain in his chest.
He'd forgotten to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. The rabbi had told him to do so every morning, to remember his father. He should have honored his father by respecting his religion. Instead, he'd paid about as much attention to the Kaddish as he had to Mrs. Marcello, the geography teacher.
But at least he'd thought about the Kaddish, about his father lying there in the… Davey swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, dry heaves coming up from his stomach, threatening to toss up the cheese sandwich.
Rachel Starsky hadn't even paid a single moment's regret to her husband's passing. That was obvious. She'd started working with him only a few months later, using the excuse that she had to make money to make ends meet.
"You think I like going out every morning, young man, while you and your brother wander the streets like hooligans?" his mother had shouted at him. "You think I want Mrs. MacInerny looking at me like I'm some kinda harlot, working when I should be caring for two kids like a drudge? No, thank you. I got a life, too, you know, David-look-just-like-your-father-Starsky. So shut your trap, 'cause if I hear from the principal of that school one more time..."
That's when he called her a Jezebel.
And she'd smacked him across the face.