Being American–A Short Story

In THE INHERITORS, Alicia discovers her mother’s history in the abandoned Bartley mansion, once the home of a Chicago industrialist. Such mansions, their marble entries opening into warrens of apartments, dotted the streets of the inner-city district where I worked as a welfare worker. This particular one is fiction, and, bolstered by research into Chicago’s past, it gave birth to many stories. Elements of these found their way into the novel, but here is one in its original form.


Being American: 1937

     Lucetta Bartley watched her children join the park urchins, listening to the chatter of Italian as they fished for tadpoles in the lagoon. She’d been one of them once, and the familiarity of both scene and language restored her. She came here often, and endured the long Chicago winters when the stone walls, brocaded draperies and marble cornices of the Bartley house became a prison, knowing that come spring, she could just cross the street into this noisy world.
       She’d brought little Arthur here even in the cold, so he could breathe air free of the too-still air of the house. The Depression had taken Bartley Foundry by the time little Carla was born, and she’d fled here to escape rooms emptied by poverty and the tightening noose of despair. She was still shaken at Charles’ anger when he discovered her receiving a bundle of mending at the back door.
     “Like a maid! You are not a maid, Lucetta!” he’d cried.
     “I am!” she’d shouted back. “As I was when you met me. You insult me because I know better than you how to keep hunger from the door?” She knew well what joblessness cost men; the sight of her mother at her stitchery when her father’d been pounding the streets looking for work all day, had thrown him into a rage.
     Like her father, Charles couldn’t stand to come in exhausted after a day in the street and find some stranger at the door, paying Lucetta for mending his trousers. He’d clench his fists, turn on his heel, and wander the streets until long past bedtime. The way her father had. Did he visit brothels, too, like Papa? The familiarity of the pattern clutched at her heart, and she wished more than anything to put her arms around her mother and ask forgiveness for her arrogance, for her belief she could escape this fate. But her mother, a woman who walked the picket lines with pride, had not spoken to her since she married a boss’s son. Mending neighbor’s clothes for food money, the activity that drove her husband mad, became Lucetta’s defense against despair, and she could see no way out.
     But today she could lift her head and breathe again. Yesterday, Charles had broken the tightening noose; he’d burst through the door crying, “Lucetta, I found it! I’ve found it!” and swept her into his arms. Then he’d bundled them all into their coats and mufflers and hauled them off by streetcar without telling them what it was he’d found. A surprise! They arrived at a padlocked grill on a street full of padlocked shops and, with a flourish, produced the key. “Madame,” he said, shoving back the rusty grill, “Bartley Printing at your service!”
     The sound that burst from her was a choked laugh, then tears, for she was looking into a cave full of crouching monsters, silent in the gloom. Charles flipped a switch and the light from a bare bulb revealed snowdrifts of discarded paper and set up a skittering of rats in the walls. She pulled their bewildered children to her, and turned to look at her husband whose face was alight with excitement. He beamed as though he’d come into possession of a gold mine. “Come!” he put an arm around her shoulders and led her about, explaining presses, paper, and bins of type.
     “Charles, stop!” she’d cried finally. “How did you pay for this?”
     He took her in his arms then and whispered in her ear, “My mother’s wedding ring.” She reared back and looked up at him. “I’ve kept it,” he said, “all of the time we were selling everything else just to stay alive, I’ve kept it for something special—a magic seed.” He drew her to him again.
     “Do you know how to run all of these monsters?” she said into his chest. “Do they run?”
     “Not yet,” he answered, “but they will. I’ve hired the man who owned the shop to help me. The magic of it is that he carries my mother’s name—Sullivan.”
     Lucetta smiled at the memory of his face as the sun soaked into her winter-chilled bones, and her children’s voices blended with others.
The children’s voices rose, suddenly, at the edge of the lagoon, and she got up to settle their squabbling. Arthur was pushing Carla away again; he wanted to join up with the boys. Lucetta was about to chide him when Carla took care of it herself, screaming that she didn’t want to play with him anyway, and then sent a wave of water, barely missing his pants. She chided both of them, concealing her laughter under a spate of Italian. Carla turned, hands on her five-year-old hips and marched off to the swings. Arthur threw an Italian curse after her and went off toward the ballfield. Lucetta watched the pair, a little alarmed, as always, at the speed with which they grew independent, out of reach, charging into hazards they knew nothing about. It brought back the shrill calling of mothers that was the constant music of her own childhood. She turned back toward the bench, then swung around at sound of a fight from the ballfield and began to run.
     Screaming in Italian, she hauled boy after boy off the pile until she uncovered Arthur. They screamed Italian back at her, cursing the name of Bartley, threatening to kill him in voices that did not belong to boys.
     Arthur screamed when she touched him. “Dear God, help us,” she said under her breath. “Shhh …” She laid a hand on his bleeding cheek.  “Where does it hurt? Tell me.” Then Carla was at her shoulder, round eyed, her fist shoved into her mouth to muffle her cries.
“My arm,” Arthur gasped. “Can’t move my arm.” He struggled to get up, using his good arm behind him.
     Lucetta reached an arm around his shoulder to help.
     “No, no, leave him be,” a voice came from behind her. She turned to face a heavyset woman of about her own age. “When my Benny got beat up that way, they told me to leave him be until you’re sure his head’s okay, and his back and such.” She bent over Arthur. “Look at me, boy.” Arthur, who had turned quiet under the confident tones of the woman, looked up at her. “Hello,” she said. “Your head hurting you?”
Arthur blinked a couple of times and tried to nod, then winced and stopped.
     “How about your legs? Can you move them?”
     Arthur moved his legs. “They’re okay. It’s just my arm—and my head, maybe.”
     “They gave you a pounding, didn’t they?”
     “Ya.” Arthur closed his eyes.
     “What started it?” the woman asked.
     “Dunno. Just said my name, that’s all.” He laid back and rubbed an arm across his bloody cheek.
     “That’s so?” The woman’s brows shot up. “And what would that be?”
     “Bartley,” Lucetta said. “Arthur Bartley.” A small shock of premonition passed through her as she said the name and watched the woman’s face change.
     “You’re a Bartley?” The woman said sharply, sitting back on her heels. “Of that house over there? Of the foundry that closed?”
Lucetta nodded, remembering suddenly the gangs of her own childhood, their savagery to outsiders.
     The woman snorted. “No wonder, then. What would you be doing sending him play with a bunch of wops?”
     Lucetta’s face stiffened. “I’m a wop! I grew up in this park.” But even as she said it, she knew her mistake. Arthur was a Bartley.
     It was the woman’s turn to look puzzled. Then her face cleared. “Ah. Then you must be—” She stopped, looking around at the people that had started to gather. “Never mind. We’d best be getting this lad to the doctor. I’ll stay with him. You take the little girl and go call.”
Lucetta hurried toward the house, so consumed with the dreadfulness of her mistake she hardly heard Carla’s tearful questions. They had no money for a doctor, but thankfully, Dr. Williams didn’t ask. She listened to him give instructions for getting Arthur into a car and to the hospital, biting her lip in terror. They had no money to pay him, no money at all, and no car either. They’d had to sell the car along with most of the furniture in the house. In mounting panic, she grabbed blankets and ran back across the street, still dragging Carla behind her.
     She arrived at the ballfield out of breath. “We need a car,” she cried to few remaining people. “To take him to the hospital. Does anyone have a car?”
     They shook their heads. “Got a wagon,” said a swarthy man in suspenders, nodding toward a horse-drawn vegetable wagon at the curb.       “Guess that’ll do, eh? If this lady don’t mind a wop takin’ him, that is,” he added nodding at the older woman.
     “Oh, don’t mind her,” Lucetta said in Italian. “Of course we don’t. And thank you. Thank you so much. Just think,” she said to Carla who still clutched her hand. “You get to ride in a vegetable wagon, just like you always begged to.” She turned her attention to the job of getting Arthur onto the blanket without hurting him further.
     “Well, now,” the older woman said in admiration, when Lucetta finished without drawing so much as a whimper from her son. “You do have the knack. You a nurse?”
     “No,” Lucetta smiled. “But I helped my father take care of an old man, once.”
     They laid him in the bed of the wagon, shoving aside bags of onions and potatoes, and lifted Carla in beside him. “Thank you so much,” Lucetta said, turning to the woman. “And I don’t even know your name. I’m Lucetta Bartley.”
     “Thelma O’Malley,” the woman answered, holding out her hand. “I’m housekeeper for the VanDeusen’s,” she pointed to the huge brick house a couple of houses from the Bartley’s. “Are you going to be okay, now? Do you want me to come along?”
      Lucetta shook her head. “I’m all right. My husband will be home soon. He’ll come get us. Wait,” she said, turning to the vegetable man.     “Let me leave him a note.”
     “Well, then, you just call if you need me anymore.” Thelma O’Malley said, retrieving her purse from the ground.
     “Bless you,” Lucetta said.
      Mrs. O’Malley looked up, startled at the passion in Lucetta’s voice. She reached out and patted Lucetta’s arm. “Just don’t let him go mixing with ruffians after this,” she said, and turned away.
     Lucetta returned from writing a note to Charles to find Carla up on the seat with the driver. “Dominic says I can drive the horse!” she cried in Italian, now delighted with the adventure. “See, mama?” She held up the reins. “Gidyapp!”
     The wagon started to roll with a jerk, and Lucetta had all she could do to steady Arthur as they went swaying down the boulevard.
During the endless hours in the waiting room; adrenaline faded and remorse surged. She shouldn’t have been there. Charles had warned her about the ruffians in the park, but she hadn’t listened. She tried to distract herself by playing games with little Carla until she fell asleep. When they finally brought her son back to her, swathed in cast and bandages, Lucetta burst into tears at the sight of him, wakening Carla, who clung to her in fear.
     Charles had not come. It was well past dinnertime, and the sun had turned red in the sky. “Keep him awake until ten if you can,” they told her. “And wake him up two or three times during the night.”
     “I need to borrow a wheelchair,” she said. “To get them home.” She gestured toward the children.
      “I thought you said your husband was coming to get you,” the nurse frowned, looking around the waiting room.
     “He must not have gotten home yet to get my note.” She kept her voice level.
     “How far do you have to go?” The nurse looked at the chart.
     “Not far.”
     “Central Avenue,” the nurse said, reading from the chart, then gave Lucetta an appraising look, probably matching the name with the address and wondering why there was no chauffeur waiting outside.
     Lucetta pushed the wheelchair through the streets in the dying light, trying not to move faster than the five-year-old who trudged, exhausted, at her side. Finally, Carla exclaimed she could go no further and plopped down on the sidewalk; Lucetta lifted her to Arthur’s lap despite his grumbling, and sped through the last blocks in the dusk.
     Under the front portico was a covered dish from an anonymous donor. From Mrs. O’Malley? It must be. She gave one gasp then bit her lip to stop another outburst of tears.
     “Mama?” Carla’s sleepy voice was frightened once again.
     “No, no, it’s good!” She laughed and lifted her from Arthur’s lap. “Look! Supper! The kind lady left it.”
     With a final burst of energy, she wheeled the chair through the echoing, near-empty rooms to the kitchen, put the casserole in the oven to heat, and sank into a chair. For the first time, she let the last hours unravel around her, hoping the size of the calamity would shrink as it settled into the past. She watched Arthur who sat limp and pale against the chair, gazing into his lap. He looked strangely inert and closed off, as though he wasn’t with them at all.
     “Arthur?” she said finally, when he wouldn’t look up at either of them. “Does it hurt?”
     He looked up for a second, shrugged and looked down again. “Just some.”
     “Look at me, Arthur,” she said, frightened now at his indifference. “What’s the matter?”
     “Why’d they do that?” he burst suddenly. “What’s the matter with my name?”
     She sighed. “Nothing is the matter with your name. They’re the children of people who lost their jobs when your Papa closed the factory. They don’t understand that—they look at the house and think you are rich. It has nothing to do with you.”
     “I hate them.”
     “Oh, no Arthur. They’re very poor. Hungry.”
     “We’re poor, too!” he yelled. “They’re just dirty wops, and I’m not going near them, ever again.” The words sounded like a steel door closing.
     “Don’t use that word! Ever.” She slapped the table. “Arthur! Look at me.” She waited until his eyes defiantly met hers.
     “Children call each other names and they always will. That doesn’t mean you hate them. I’m Italian. You’re Italian, half way—do you want someone calling you a wop?”
     “They already do. At school.”
      She stared, trying to read his averted face. Was that why he’d turned more and more into himself in the two years since he’d started school? She closed her eyes at the memory of the school grounds of her own childhood, each group claiming its turf, trying to drive the others out. She remembered with painful chagrin, the elation, the pride, of being among her fellow Italians, supported, justified, proud, as they pitched iceballs at ‘bohunks,’ ‘wetbacks,’ ‘kikes,’ and ‘niggers.’ Woe to the child who found himself alone.
     Dear God, what had they done to him? Charles thought the private school would be different, that the children wouldn’t be such savages, but the pinched pallor of Arthur’s face told her he was wrong. Arthur fit with none of the battling groups—he was alone. “And what do you do?” she managed to ask, finally.
     “I tell him my grandpa owned a factory that made guns, and I was going to get one and shoot them all dead!” The words blew a hole in the wall fortress he’d built around himself, and the explosion of his anguish bounced off the walls.
     “My God. Oh, my God, Arthur, no.” She reached out and clasped the clenched fist of his single free hand. “Don’t even think those thoughts, Arthur. Think about beating them up the way they beat you up today, but no guns. That isn’t why your grandpa made guns. Guns are for war. Grandpa made guns to fight the Germans with—back in World War I.”
     “They’re for enemies!”
     “All right, but for nations, not for using against anybody you’re mad at.” Even as she said the words, the difference dissolved.
      Arthur shrugged the distinction away and leaned back in his chair; she felt him backing away from his own outburst, closing the armor of indifference around himself again. “I won’t be going to that school anymore, anyway,” he mumbled. “Daddy said we’re too poor now.”
She sank back, exhausted. The piano had paid his tuition, then the walnut bedroom set his mother had loved, but there was very little left to sell. “I don’t know. Let’s eat.” She got up to serve the casserole, giving a tender rub to the tousled hair of the five-year-old whose head had fallen to the table but whose eyes, above the thumb jammed in her mouth, watched her brother’s face.
     “Will I have to go to school with those kids?” Fear punctured the shell as this new thought took hold of him. “The ones who beat me up?”
     The sudden question stopped her in her tracks. Those were the children of her brothers, cousins, friends. She stood transfixed by the terror they had caused her son and by his hatred. Where were her children to go? “We don’t know that, Arthur. Daddy has to go see them. Now eat.” She put a plate in front of him and another in front of Carla.
     They were almost finished when she heard the front door open and prepared herself for the wrath she knew would come. But Charles yelled in exultation as he came down the hall and appeared, grease covered and glowing in the kitchen doorway. “Bravo, Luci! They run!”
     She leapt from the table and ran to him, stopping just short of his soot-blackened shirt. She reached out and put a kiss on his lips, transmitted by hand. “I knew it! I knew you would!”
     He reached for her hands, then noticed the grime on his own. “Oh, oh, now you’re for it—you’re a printer’s wife.”
     She laughed. “Wonderful. But I will still order you about. Leave your clothes on the back stoop and wash up in the laundry before you come in.”
     He laughed and started across the kitchen, stopping short at the sight of his son. “Whoa. What happened here?”
     “Got beat up,” Arthur mumbled sullenly. “They broke my arm.”
     “Who?” Charles’ head swiveled to Lucetta, questioning.
     Her breath caught, and she had to force her answer through dread. “Kids in the park.”
     “The park. This park?” He motioned toward the front door.
     He’d never understood the pull of the past for her, didn’t like her taking their children to the park, didn’t like hearing them speak Italian to each other. He wanted her to slam the door on her past the way he had on his own.
     “’Cause of grandpa’s factory,” Arthur said. “’Cause I told them my name. That’s all.”
     “Their parents worked there, and now they have no jobs,” Lucetta explained, though she knew he already understood that, too well.
      Charles stared at Lucetta and then at the boy. “Goddamn it Lucetta, I warned you!” He raised his hands, about to say more, then glanced at the children and marched out onto the porch, slamming the door.
     “What’s he mean, Mama? Warned you of what?” Arthur asked, frightened by his father’s tone.
     She took a breath, staring at the closed back door. “That you should stay away from them—workers’ children,” she said turning.
     “But you did it. You took us.” Arthur’s voice condemned her now.
     “I did.” She sat down and looked him in the eye. “Because I always loved the park, Arthur, not because I wanted you hurt.”
     “It’s your fault, still,” he said, sliding off his chair and heading out of the room. “Because you’re a dirty wop!” His words bounced off the walls of the empty hall.
     She stared from the empty hallway ahead of her to the closed door of the porch, her mother’s rage in her ears. “Betray your own and you’ll live to regret it!” End of story. Except for the little face across the table, roused from sleep by her father’s entrance.
      “Let’s get you to bed,” she said, picking Carla up and holding her warm body tight against her own. She undressed her daughter and watched through the open doorway as Arthur struggled to undo his clothes. She tucked Carla in, then calmly walked across the hall and cut the shirt free, split the side of his pajama shirt so she could button it around him and piled pillows behind him so he wouldn’t roll on his injured arm. She did all of this without trying to break through the impenetrable wall of his anger; her fingers grew cold with the knowledge that this would not pass, that this boy was a stranger now.
     “Good night Arthur,” she said finally.
     He didn’t answer.
     She went to the bathroom, closed the door and leaned her forehead against the jamb, but tears wouldn’t flow. Her head began to pound instead. Finally, she forced herself back into motion and went to their bedroom to get fresh clothes for her husband. There was no sound from the children’s room as she passed, but she could feel the chill of condemnation through Arthur’s open doorway. Back in the kitchen, she put the casserole into the oven to warm again and sat down to wait, her hands flat on the table in front of her.
     Charles came in, finally, and sat down opposite, staring at the table. He nodded his thanks when she put his dinner in front of him, and began to eat without speaking.
     “Why do you do it?” he exploded a full minute later, slamming his fork down. “Why? Because you don’t want to live in this world my father fought to get into—for us? Because you want that violence and blood and dirt and suffering of poverty?”
     “That world won’t have me, Charles! Why can’t you understand that?”
     “Because you don’t try! All right,” he raised his hand as she opened her mouth to protest. “But not hard enough. The men admire you.”
     “Admire? Is that what you call it? They leer. They see me as a puttana—a nice guinea whore to sleep with behind their wives’ backs!”
     “What? No, no, you’re wrong—”
     “I’m not wrong. They’ve tried it, Charles—grabbed me in the hallway of the club!”
     Silence fell. Charles stared. “You never told me.”
     “It’s not the sort of thing to tell a husband.”
     He shook his head. “Well, you have to try—to dress differently or something. Cut you hair. I don’t know, Lucetta, but you can’t take our children back into that—jungle.”
     She put her head in her hands. “The jungle is no different at your private school, Charles. They call him a ‘wop.’”
     “What?” He raised his head.
     “A ‘wop.’ That’s right, and it’s not even hate—not their hate. They’re only imitating their parents, Charles. Arthur’s different and that’s what people do to anyone who’s different—even the high-class people you want to call your friends!”
     Charles stood up and took his plate to the sink, scraped the remains of his dinner into the garbage, then leaned against the rim, staring out into the night. It wasn’t his world, either, this row of marbled mansions; he’d started life as a mill worker’s son. He sighed and turned back.    “Well, he’ll have to hold his head up and dare them to shut him out. That’s all. And they won’t. Sooner or later they’ll accept him. He has to walk away from hate, or it will swallow his life.”
     Lucetta watched his back, knowing he was talking about own father’s battle for acceptance when he bought the shop that became the foundry. Charles had grown up listening to his mother’s father, who had lived with them after he was crippled in a factory accident, jeer at his father until the bitter old man drove him from the house. Arthur had come into the world in the midst of that bitterness, and there wasn’t a day she didn’t pray that it wasn’t an omen. With all her strength she pushed that fate away. “I want both for him, Charles. Both your strength and my family’s passion.”
     “No,” he said, exasperated. “That’s a dream, Luci, a dream you have to let go of. You can’t have that life and this, too!” Then his arms dropped and he came over and put his hands on her shoulders, his voice gentle. “You want to pretend that the hate isn’t there, that your mother will forgive you for marrying me and come visit. She won’t, Lucetta. You want to believe your children can be Italian Catholics and Scotch/English Protestants at the same time. They can’t. Today says that, Lucetta. Don’t you see?”
     “What did I bring into this house, Charles, if it wasn’t Italian passion for life? What was it you loved about me if it wasn’t that? What are we, you and I, if not Italian Catholic and American Protestant combined—and our children? That’s what they are, Charles.”
     “But they can’t live that way, Lucetta. You are dreaming they can be happy hybrids of you and me, and your dreaming is putting them in harm’s way.” His hands dropped and he turned away from her.
     “Were we both dreaming then?” she asked his departing back. “To think we could love each other? Not hate? Will our love turn to hate?”
He turned. “God, no.” He came back and took her in his arms. “I love you, Lucetta. And I’ll make it good again. The presses are running, and I’ll print the first job, tomorrow—a church newsletter, would you believe it? A Catholic church, no less. We’ll buy our furniture back in no time and get you a housekeeper, too.”
     She put a hand to his cheek. And pay tuition, she to herself silently, and watch my children become strangers.
     He kissed her. “Let’s dance. We haven’t danced in a long time.”
     “We have no music.”
     “We don’t need it. We’ll dance to the music in our memories.”
     Hours later, he turned to her as she lay awake, taking her in his arms. “I tried it once, hanging out with the workers, when I was in college, working the furnaces in the summer. It doesn’t work, Luci, being something you aren’t. It won’t work for Arthur or Carla either.”
She didn’t answer. She had no answer; she’d named him Arthur, not Arturo, then tried to take it back. Today was the answer. “Am I to be something that I’m not then?”
     “Lots of people are different on the outside than on the inside, Lucetta. You be my Italian princess at home, and a Bartley at the club. Can you do that?”
     “You think I can be a Bartley?” she smiled sadly, putting a hand to his stubbly chin. “How? I’ve never even known a Bartley woman.”
     “Invent her,” he said, kissing her for her forgiveness.
     She laughed, then lay back knowing full well that he was the one who was dreaming now. No invitations had come her way since the first year, when they were all curious about the girl Charles had married. They didn’t wheel baby carriages about the park striking up conversations with each other the way the women of her childhood did. Some of their lives had been shattered by the Depression, too, but they didn’t seek each other’s comfort; they hid their poverty in shame. Unlike her Italian childhood, where both laughter and tears spilled out the doors, over the porch railings into the streets, the houses remained impassive, showing nothing, no one, unless they burst wide open, the family vanished, their elegant furniture piled into the yard. Then the other houses seemed more closed than ever, as though averting their faces. The way into what Charles called his world was lined with polished, blue-eyed mannequins who examined her every move and utterance.“I was at the top of my class in school and my mamma and papa are leaders of the union and the church, too—why do I have to prove I am not dirt to these people?” she’d yelled at Charles. Over and over she’d rebelled; now all that was left was Charles’ heavy breathing beside her, Arthur moaning in his sleep down the hall, and the emptiness left after the end of a battle.

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtTHE INHERITORS is no longer in print, but paperback copies are available from my website for $10. Send me your email and address to and I will send an invoice. Once that is complete I’ll mail your book.

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