And all summer long, Rachel Miller sat alone on her second-story balcony and watched the happenings on the street. Her pale face, framed by light blonde hair, never lost its tired expression. When the street was wrapped in darkness and our mothers’ voices called us in a discordant chorus to come home for supper, Rachel rose, took one last look at the street, and disappeared inside her flat. No one raised their eyes to speak to her; it was as if she didn’t exist.
No one raised their eyes to speak to her; it was as if she didn’t existRachel hadn’t attended school sincePurim, so it was obvious to anyone who gave her a second thought that she was very sick. Sometimes I noticed that her wistful gaze followed Artie, the nicest boy on the block, as he rode his two-wheeler, carefully avoiding collisions with the children who swept by on their roller skates.
I don’t know what possessed me to climb the narrow spiral staircase to her balcony that August afternoon; perhaps I was overcome by pity for a ten-year-old who spent her days confined to her balcony, or perhaps curiosity, an inner need to know what it was like to be Rachel Miller.
She was a year younger than I, so we had never attended the same classes. I dismissed the thought that her illness might be “catchy,” like measles or mumps, and in a moment I found myself on her balcony, facing her.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly.
“Hi,” she replied softly, staring at me in wonderment, as though I had made a sudden appearance from outer space.
“Can I visit?”
“Sure. Please sit.” She fingered the tiny gold Star of David that glistened at her throat. She rubbed her arms as though to relieve a persistent itch. There was a softness in her gaze despite the disease that ravaged her body, leaving her thin and weak. She gestured to an overturned orange crate that served as a chair. On the table lay an unopened Nancy Drew mystery and a half-glass of what appeared to be lemonade.
“Will you go to school in September?” I asked. I knew that was a dumb question, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“The doctor said I don’t have to. That is, not until I’m well.”
“There’s a lot of time to get well. Over a month before school begins.”
‘Yes,” she said faintly and rubbed her arm, as though to relieve a persistent itch.
The door to her house opened on a big woman wrapped in a large blue apron. A kerchief covered her gray hair, except for a few strays that fell on her forehead. A big smile formed on her round face. “Would you like some lemonade?” She spoke in the familiar Yiddish accent of my parents.
“No thanks, I’m not thirsty.”
‘I’ll bring some anyway, maybe later you’ll want to drink. You can stay as long as you like. Rachel does not have many friends.” She paused and asked in Yiddish, “Vos iz dein nomen?”
“Annie. They call me Chana’leh at home.”
“That’s nice.” She set a few pills and a glass of water before her daughter. Rachel dutifully swallowed the pills and returned the glass to her mother. With a deep sigh Mrs. Miller retrieved the glass, and disappeared inside the flat.
“Would you like to play cards?” Rachel took a deck from under her chair.
“Gin Rummy, A Hundred and One, or Casino?”
“Gin Rummy is okay.”
Expertly, she dealt seven cards each. I collected them in my hand, and although I had three kings, two aces and two threes, I decided to allow her to win. After all, she couldn’t play with her peers, while the entire street was my playground.
“Your turn,” she said.
After we played a few rounds, I realized that she wanted me to win. Perhaps it would induce me to visit her again. Without its competitive edge, the game turned out to be a disaster. We both laughed. Just then the rag-peddler’s wagon, filled with assorted junk and drawn by a tired old horse, rumbled down the street. The bushy-bearded driver wore well-worn mismatched clothes and a battered wool cap. He shouted in a high, tremulous voice, “Rex, Rex.”
“Why does he say ‘Rex’? What does that mean?” Rachel asked.
“He’s from the old country, and can’t pronounce the letter ‘a’—so ‘rags’ becomes ‘rex.’”
She grinned, “And I always thought he was selling something special called ‘rex’!”
“Me too, until I figured it out.” I said.
Then I told her that Perry Weinstein, pretending he was a knight on horseback, wielded a yardstick and chased the substitute teacher around the classroom. Rachel laughed again. And Itzik Shapiro was kept in after school for a month, for putting a live turtle in Miss Adelstein’s desk. She giggled and slapped her knees. “I haven’t had so much fun since my seventh birthday party, when my parents took me to Belmont Park, and I rode a horse on the merry-go-round.”
“I always wanted to be a comedian.”
“Comedienne,” she corrected me.
At that moment the girls below called, “Hey, Annie, come on down, we’re playing ‘Mother May I Take a Step,’ we need you.”
I rose from my chair. “Gotta go, see you around.”
“Will the street still be here after I’m gone?”
“What do you mean?”
“The children, the games, the iceman, milkman, ‘rexman,’ and . . . Artie.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To a beautiful place. Ma can’t come with me yet, but she’ll meet me one day. You’ll also come, but not for a long time.”
“Oh,” I said, finally understanding.
“But I’m not afraid, because the soul lives forever.”
“Yes, of course.”
“It’s just sad leaving all this behind.” She gestured to the street. “It’s like a movie, some win, some lose, some laugh, some fall and cry. And I sit here and watch everything.”
I took her hand. “Someday, soon, you’ll come downstairs and be in the movie too.”
“Maybe,” she said in my mother’s adult voice. I knew then that although she was a child like me, she knew more about life, its joys and pain, than all of us on the street.”
The children’s voices chimed below in unison. “Well, are you coming? We don’t have all day.” I didn’t move.
“Go, Annie. Now is your time to play. If you come tomorrow, I have a Monopoly game. Maybe you’d like that.”
“Yes, I would.”
The next day an ambulance, a rare feature on our street, parked in front of Rachel’s building. Everyone stopped playing and gathered around the vehicle, waiting to see what would transpire. My heart dropped when two medics climbed the stairs to Rachel’s flat carrying a stretcher. In a matter of minutes they emerged, and I caught a glimpse of her pale face above the white sheet that covered her. Mrs. Miller, clutching her purse, walked behind them. The men carefully descended the winding staircase. When Rachel saw me, she held out her little hand and smiled. “Don’t cry, Annie, I’ll be back, and we’ll play.”
I looked directly into her intense blue eyes, and took her hand. “Yes, of course. And this time, I won’t let you win.” When the medics slowly placed the stretcher and its occupant inside the ambulance, she reluctantly released my hand. Mrs. Miller wore a large-brimmed hat that shaded her face, but I could see her swollen red eyes. The woman turned to me. “It was nice of you to visit yesterday. Thank you.” The medic assisted her into the ambulance.
The other medic slammed the door to the back of the ambulance and hurried to the cab. “All right, we’re ready,” he said to the driver, and leaped inside.
I wiped my tears with the back of my hand, as I watched the vehicle drive past the grocery, the Tolner Rebbe’s shtibl, the candy store, and disappear around the block. We never saw Rachel again, but her spirit has remained with me to this day.
Shmateh ball: An old sock stuffed with rags and tied tightly at the end; it served as a baseball, football, or a ball to play “catch.” Although the boys couldn’t afford a real baseball, they made do with a “shmateh ball.”
Tolner Rebbe’s shtibl: A room in the rabbi’s house that served as a synagogue and classroom.