The story below was a big hit with students in my Wednesday class last week. During our critiquing period, people mentioned how much they admired how Roz Nelson brought her characters to life with specific details. As you read the story, notice how she focuses on individualizing characteristics that make her people feel real. At the same time, her setting details help anchor the story in a specific era. Finally, notice how dialogue works well to reveal personality and move the story along.
by Roz Nelson
“When Katie yells for Evelyn,” my mother said, “the Japanese beetles fall off the roses.”
Katie was our next-door neighbor, a vivacious brunette in her early thirties, buxom, with delicate features. Her cheeks were so rosy she needed no rouge. She had mischievous black eyes, with deep creases at the corners, and thick curly hair with dark strands that constantly escaped the kerchief she wore at all times.
Katie laughed often, and when she did, her voice boomed out over the neighborhood like Gabriel’s trumpet. Evelyn was her nine-year-old daughter.
Even as a small child I wondered why Katie had married her husband. He must have been in his seventies, a tall broomstick of a man, unkempt, taciturn, and humorless. My mother used to send me to his grocery store for milk, which in those days, in the thirties, came in tall silver-colored cans. The old man scooped out the milk with a metal ladle and poured it into pitchers his customers brought to the store.
What fascinated and nauseated me was that Kleinman–that’s what everybody called him–no Mr. or first name–had a misshapen index finger on his right hand, with a black and diseased-looking fingernail on it. He would shift the inevitable cigar stump to his left hand while he unhooked the ladle from its place on the wall. The he put the stump in his mouth, with its half-inch of ash overhanging the milk pail, and ladled out the milk with his right hand with that awful-looking fingernail. I was sure the ash would fall into the milk, and the blackened fingernail made me sick.
Like us, the Kleinmans lived behind the store. Sometimes when I was in our backyard, I could hear Katie singing in her kitchen. Out on the street, the reds and oranges and yellows she wore contrasted with the house dresses and sensible shoes of the other mothers. Katie was different, a butterfly among moths, high-spirited and fun to be around. Every now and then, when we girls were jumping rope, she’d join in the game for a minute, and when we played a game called Potsy in Brooklyn, and hopscotch in other parts of the country, she’d take a turn at that, too.
Then one day both Katie and Evelyn were gone. When they hadn’t returned by the end of the second day, curiosity got the better of my mother. She grabbed the milk pitcher and, with me in tow, headed for Kleinman’s grocery.
“Where’s Katie today?” she asked, as Kleinman ladled out the milk. She struggled to keep her tone casual.
“Gone,” came the laconic reply.
“Gone where?” My mother couldn’t stop herself.
“To her family.” He hung the ladle back on the wall.
“When is she coming back?” It was not a time when people traveled readily. Money was scarce in those Depression days.
“Not.” His cigar ash hung precariously as he capped the milk can.
“Not coming back. Took her bastard and walked out on me after I took them in when she didn’t know where to go.” It was the longest sentence I had ever heard him speak.
“Bastard?” My mother’s eyes widened. Her mouth formed a letter O. She glanced back at me, but I pretended to be absorbed in the contents of a pickle barrel.
Kleinman handed my mother the pitcher. “You didn’t think Evelyn was mine, did you?”
“I…I took it for granted,” my mother stammered. “Why would I think anything else? Kleinman….” My mother hesitated, but I could see she was bursting with curiosity. “I don’t mean to pry or hurt you, but why did Katie leave you? She seemed so happy.”
Kleinman shrugged and flicked the cigar ash onto the floor with that crooked, ugly finger. Some of the ash dusted his shirt. “Women,” he said. “Who understands them?”