Walking with Gerard Caliendo

by Daniel Shapiro


He used to carry my books every morning on our way to school. He was slender with dark, wavy hair that he combed back with pomade, and he was always neatly dressed. We must have cut quite a couple—him in pullover and long pants, me in my favorite emerald skirt and saddle shoes. We’d walk up East 12th Street, past the house on the corner, where that tawny pit bull growled and snapped at us as it ran alongside the fence. I never felt afraid with him beside me and he made me laugh, too. “Look at that beast!” he’d say, pointing at the dog, and then toss his fountain pen in the air. All of that while balancing our books against his chest.

Gerard wasn’t big but he gave off a warmth that seemed to keep bad things away. When he walked with me, Rosalie and the others—Eddie and the Nordica boy—never came out to taunt me. They used to do that because I was Jewish, calling me “Stuck Up” and “Salami,” names like that.

He was always full of compliments: he was the one who described me in our junior high yearbook as “a hurricane of beauty.” And one of the few who called me by my real name. He pronounced it with a flair. Other classmates at Winthrop were already calling me “Shelley,” a name I never grew to like, but it was easier for them so what could I do? Mama mentioned the Biblical anecdote all the time: “Out of Solomon’s thousand wives, Shulamith was the only one he truly loved.” Gerard nodded his head when I told him that. “You should be proud of your name.”

The Caliendos were traditional Italians. They went to mass on Sundays and afterwards had big family meals; we could smell the garlic from up the street. Once his mother invited me over after school and served us profiteroles—delicate pastry shells filled with ice cream, covered with a thick chocolate sauce. His younger sister, Anna Lidia, pale and blonde, appeared at the kitchen and looked in. When we walked to school, she’d wave as we passed (he’d always pick me up at my house first and then we doubled back down the street). I noticed his face light up as he waved to her and that prompted me to wave, too. “She’s had her share of sicknesses,” Gerard confided. “Scarlet fever, whooping cough—Mother keeps a close eye on her so she doesn’t catch something else.” One time I saw her jumping rope alone in the alleyway next to the house; when she noticed me looking, she smiled faintly, then hurried inside.

Their relationship—which appeared so unspoken, both distant and close—seemed so different from what I had with Solly and Judy. Ours was raucous and rollicking, with childish wisecracks inside the house, hide and seek around Papa’s rosebushes, games of stickball in the lots next to the street. There was that summer we went to Peekskill and fished for porgies in the lake. Papa had gotten real poles for me and Solly; Judy got a piece of string. I sometimes felt I was growing apart from them—Judy complained that I was getting “too fancy” and Solly told me I was spending too much time reading Nancy Drew: “You’ll turn into a four-eyes if you don’t watch it.” What a pain they sometimes were. Still, it’s true, I couldn’t imagine life without them.

Those were years of rationing and blackouts—even the headlights of cars were ordered half-darkened when people drove at night, in case of surprise attacks from the nearby coast. We made the most of it. We listened to the President’s radio chats around the Magnavox before “The Lone Ranger” and “The Singing Lady.” Papa liked to turn the lights down during those shows; the voices crackled in the air. There were occasional visits from others: Grandma Elke and Uncle Phil, who sometimes dropped in on weekends, and Aunt Gertie, who had a victory garden in Queens; in the fall she’d bring tomatoes and squash that Mama cooked into delicious stews.

Gerard liked to talk about the war, how he wished he could enlist, to do his part for the Allies. “I’d sign up today, Shulamith, really.” And he vowed to as soon as he turned eighteen, even though that was five years away. His eyes took on a bright cast as he spoke about his family still in Salerno, how he wanted to fight to bring down Mussolini, to help them come to the States “to live again.”

He often encouraged me with my dancing. I’d told him all of it—how when I was a child Mama taught me steps to Isadora Duncan’s dances, and then my audition of “The Blue Danube” that won me a scholarship to the Chalif School. And on and on. I loved to dance, drawing figures with my feet on the grass or sand. I dreamed of studying in Manhattan when I graduated high school. I’d be entering in three more years; my plan was to enroll at the School of American Ballet. “Imagine,” I told him, “classes with André Eglevsky and Ivanova, the great Balanchine.” He applauded it all.

“You’ll be dancing in New York City and I’ll be a fighter-pilot heading toward Italy, flying high over the Adriatic Sea.”

“But Gerard,” I said, “by then the war will be over—”

“And you won’t forget me?” he blurted out. “’Cause you’re the girl for me.” And his voice launched into that song: “Your lips, your eyes, your curly hair . . .”

“Oh, stop.” I felt myself blushing.

“. . . are in a class beyond compare . . .”

I threw up my hands and joined him in harmony: “You’re the loveliest girl anyone could see. . . .”

His face now beaming, he took my arm as we crossed Ocean Parkway, that boulevard modeled, so they said, on the Champs d’Elysee. “It’ll have to do until Europe is free,” I said as we crossed the island flanked by maple trees.

One Saturday, he took me to a matinee of “Broadway Melody” at the Avalon on Coney Island Avenue. We sat up close—the blue velvet seats tilted toward the screen—and then the curtain slid back to reveal a circle of dancers waving their arms in a syncopated rhythm. It was thrilling to see Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell as they danced “Begin the Beguine,” tapping and sweeping across a dramatic black-and-white stage. Theirs was a world where every conflict was resolved in a pas de deux, with a pirouette or swirling skirt, all of it punctuated by clicking heels. I felt tears come to my eyes during the closing chords, as Gerard took my hand in the darkened theater.

The following Monday, it was early November, he didn’t show up to walk me to school. When I went past his house, the blinds were drawn and there was a cold, withdrawn look about the place. I hurried by and continued up East 12th Street toward Avenue V.

When I returned from school the next afternoon, Mama handed me a card that had been left in our mailbox. I felt my body contract as I read the words in black script—Anna Lidia and memorial, the Caliendos’ address underneath. “Peritonitis,” said Mama matter-of-factly. She shook her head mournfully. “Like your brother had last spring, but the poor girl didn’t pull through. . . . We’ll pay our respects this Sunday at their home. Just you, Pa, and me—the others are too young.” I wanted to talk and walk with Gerard, right then and there, but I knew I couldn’t, I didn’t know what I could possibly say. “Shulamith. . . .” Mama continued. But I was already running to my room.

The day of the wake—that’s what Mama called it—I dressed alone in my room. Mama had appeared at the door and handed me a box that looked like it was from Woolworth’s, inside it a black rayon dress and a black shawl; the shawl had tassels whose silken threads slipped through my fingers. I glanced in the mirror with it wrapped around my shoulders and I somehow looked different, a blurry shadow cast from the lamp behind my head. When I stepped into the living room, Mama and Papa were also dressed in dark colors; both seemed heavier and it felt so strange standing together in those muted tones. Solly and Judy both looked up at us, silently, as if we were ten feet tall; then they scrambled in front as we headed toward the door. “Aw, Ma, but the game . . .” and “I wanna go, too!” Mama shot them a look and they quieted down. Then the three of us walked up the street to the Caliendo house. My feet were stones, our pace felt slow, slow and solemn, like when we walked to shul on Yom Kippur Eve.

As we came up the path, the orange marigolds in the window-box seemed to give off a mocking glare. Papa pressed the doorbell and the ring resounded. Mr. Caliendo finally opened the door. Though he was dressed in a neatly-pressed suit, his hair was disheveled and his face looked almost gray. He shook Papa’s hand, said “please,” and motioned us in. All the people in the living room stopped talking, some of them eyeing us curiously as we entered. It was like wading through murky water and trying to find your footing in the sand. My eyes were drawn to the center of the room. Could that be? A small lacquered casket was set on a platform, surrounded by lilies, roses, and gardenias, all of them giving off an overpowering scent. Mama nudged me from behind and I approached the bier, not wanting to believe it but knowing underneath what I would see.

There she was, Anna Lidia, chillingly beautiful in her coffin. She looked almost glamorous, like Greta Garbo, a miniature ice-queen, her face made up to highlight her cheekbones, her now-pale lips, her marcelled hair arranged around her face. She was wearing what looked like her best party dress, the starched cloth printed with tiny periwinkles, the lace collar adorning her throat. She was still, so still. I remembered her skipping rope in front of me just a couple of weeks back, her wan smile before she vanished through the door. I felt as if I was floating above her body, shocked and sad beyond belief, yet fascinated by what I was seeing. And while my fascination horrified me, I couldn’t resist: I started to reach out to touch her but a whiff of ammonia laced with perfume hit my nostrils and I pulled back.

I had nothing to compare this with. I’d heard about family members who’d died—Mama’s younger sister, the little girl Hannah, struck by a rock and Grandpa Max stuffed the wound in her head with a hunk of bread; and Uncle Abe who died of something called meningitis—but the first was long before I was born and the latter just a few months after I came into the world. Others were here one day and gone; I’d never seen them after they died, I’d never been confronted with their absence and presence in such a strange way.

Someone handed me a cookie and a napkin off a silver tray. I looked around the room. Most of the people were older, Mama and Papa’s age—women in hats, some with brocade veils, men in suits like a moving background, white hands and faces shaky against a rippling black sea. One man in a vest was puffing a pipe, a serious look on his face. He had the large, dark eyes of Gerard, which made me think he was the uncle my friend had mentioned to me, the one who lived in Manhattan, alone. I’d wanted to meet him, he sounded so interesting, “a man of the world,” as Gerard had put it, but I didn’t approach him, not here, not now. There was Gerard and his immediate family by the fireplace. He was wearing a dark suit too big for him; his body swimming in all that cloth, he seemed lost, forlorn. A lock of hair hung over his forehead. His face turned toward me in recognition and looked immediately down, as if he were ashamed. His mother, stout in black crepe, motioned me over. I looked behind me, to Mama and Papa, who nodded approval and followed in my steps. I felt exposed. Later, I realized that they’d probably brought me here to help me learn how to stand alone.

Mrs. Caliendo received my hand, which she held between her plump, sweating palms. “Dear girl . . . .” Her face-powder was streaked by the recent tracks of tears. Then she faced Gerard: “Your little friend and her parents came to be with us, son.” Her voice broke on the last word. She looked up at Mama, whose blue eyes softened as she returned her gaze.

“We’re very sorry about your daughter,” Papa said, touching her shoulder and then she began to softly shake. I couldn’t help feeling how solid they both felt standing beside me—Mama’s handsome head bound in its navy-blue turban, Papa staunch in his charcoal suit.

Gerard looked small, somehow younger and older than his thirteen years. He’d now have to manage, it came to me, with the memory of Anna Lidia, or try to forget her in order to go on. “I miss our walks to school,” he said, looking away as he spoke.

“So do I,” I answered emphatically, but it sounded all wrong.

“Don’t worry,” he said brightly, “soon we’ll begin all that again.” His voice trailed off as if he really didn’t mean it or understood it in a way that I couldn’t.

I reached for his hand and gripped it automatically, squeezing as if I wouldn’t let go. What would happen between me and Gerard, to all our fun, all our plans—were they suddenly gone, dropped like petals from a flower in frost? How would it feel walking to Winthrop by myself—at least until he returned to school—Rosalie’s taunts and grasping fingers brazenly tugging my hem? And how could I imagine a scene like this one—my brother or sister lying face-up in a coffin in the living room, people milling around conversing or bursting into tears?  And the emptiness of what would follow. Mama and Papa and I were close, we always had been, but now as I thought about just the three of us and nothing else, no one else, I felt the pull of something ghastly, as if the earth would swallow me up.

Then Papa said, “come, daughter,” and Gerard looked me in the eye and pronounced my name in his particular way, doing with his voice what his limbs couldn’t seem to do. That brought me back to myself; I have to admit, I even felt a fresh spring in my step. Like during that season of war and shortages, I told myself, I will do the best I can. I followed Papa and Mama back through the room crowded with people. Murmuring voices that occasionally hushed or, suddenly, one broke into laughter, out of nervousness or in remembrance of a happier time. We walked out the plain brown wooden door and closed it behind us. Papa held the storm door open for Mama and me, then shut it with a click.