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An excerpt from'Unbeschert'

“Green, they are green, your eyes, they are the color of, maybe, I don’t know …”

“Schav,” she suggested from the other end of the couch, and then remembering that his Polish family’s accent was more guttural than hers, “Skchav,” she corrected. Pronounced either way, it was a chilled green soup made of sorrel leaves and broth, and egg yolks too if the cook felt generous.

“I was thinking of a particular feather, you see it on ladies’ hats, sticking up.” He was in the garment business, more or less. “But schav, I like that,” and he whistled; he was an expert whistler. She amused him. She might amuse him for quite a while. His brother had pointed out that she looked like a camel. Phil saw the resemblance but he refused to let it spoil his pleasure. A camel was a kind of opportunity … though if you had asked him to explain what he meant he would have had a hard time. But explaining what he meant was not Phil’s talent, and Phritzi could always rescue him. “A camel,” she said, not reading his mind but remembering reading his brother’s; “A camel can support an entire family. Its grunts have been determined to follow syntax …”

“Which tax?”

“Grammar, I mean,” she said quickly. She had made up that stuff anyway. “A camel can go without food and water for ages and has the highest intelligence of any mammal.”

“Higher intelligence than yours?”

“Higher even than yours,” she managed, though flattery was not one of her talents.

“A camel is an opportunity,” he said, still not knowing what he meant.

In those days opportunities bubbled like soup, like Phil Kaminski’s mother’s beef stew, did anyone care that it was mostly cabbage? Mrs. Kaminski was a notable cook. What couldn’t she concoct from a flanken of uncertain origins? – imagine what she could do with a camel. Phritzi Levant’s mother, on the other hand, managed to bump into everything immovable in the Levant kitchen without accomplishing much. Somehow, though, she and her five daughters managed to put a meal on the table every night – not much flavor, but abundant enough for the girls and whatever suitors were hanging around and also the great uncle who lived with them. Dinner – an opportunity for romance! – after all, what was the food of love? – food!

Outside of the kitchen, outside the building, there were avenues, literal ones and also avenues for self improvement. Phil took a course in salesmanship. Phritzi took one in accounting (she was still only a book-keeper). Money was multiplying since the war-to-end-all-wars, enterprises were opening, retail was the new religion. In the new stores behind every display window mannequins enacted tableaux vivant – such poses, such clothes.

“Your blouse suits you,” said Phil. “In the advertising department they call that color celadon. What’s celadon?”

“A pale green ceramic glaze,” she said. The color of schav, she didn’t say.

It was good to be associated with such a smart girl, he didn’t say. Especially one who didn’t make you feel ignorant.

A little bit about Edith Pearlman

EDITH PEARLMAN

Edith Pearlman’s collection “Binocular Vision” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Story Prize. The author of four other collections, including, most recently, “Honeydew”, she has also received the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story. Her widely admired stories have been reprinted numerous times in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Pushcart Prize. A New Englander by both birth and preference, Pearlman lives with her husband in Brookline, Massachusetts.


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