Sunday, September 13, 2009

sunday scribblings~tattoo

Sometimes, We Choose

Margaret Mary Doyle set Saturday aside for shopping when she moved to a Chassidic neighborhood off the Jamaica subway line in 1970. This meant the shops were fairly empty and she could wander at her leisure, humming along with the Muzak, looking over the meat in the butcher’s section, finding relaxation in the beigeness of the chore. A change in her job schedule found her going on Sundays, when it was crowded with the women of her neighborhood; Brooklyn-made wigs in place, lists at the ready, children in tow-- each one wanting the biggest chicken, the nicest kinsh, the freshest vegetables.

Eventually, they would congregate in the produce section, squeezing fruit and looking over vegetables with a small frown of concentration between their eyebrows... daughters learning the subtle trick to finding good ears of corn, sons standing patiently with yarmulkes bobby-pinned to cropped hair, payez tucked behind their ears. It was there, the second summer of living in the area, that someone finally answered the murmured hello she had offered many times. Weeks became months, and the two saw each other enough to share a smile and a nod when their eyes met... accepting that the produce department and discussions of food would always be the extent of their friendship of sorts. The boys would watch Maggie from under their lashes, not wishing to speak to a stranger, much less a gentile stranger...wondering why their mother did. Maggie never failed to smile at them, comment on their growth--they never failed to ignore her existence.

Over the next year or so, she watched the boys grow taller... knew when the elder made his Bar Mitzvah by his sudden absence. She congratulated her acquaintance on the upcoming birth of a child, bringing a small gift the week after she’d seen them back in the market. Passing the gift from one set of hands to the other caused them to touch--this action brought on the odd forced laugh one does in uncomfortable social settings.

Time passed, seasons brought squash and vine tomatoes and finally, the glory of summer melons. It was in late August when Maggie dashed in, late for a barbeque she was attending, focused on her list of items to buy, whispering under her breath and mentally ticking each thing off as it went into the basket. Unconsciously, she sorted meat from dairy, never allowing them near each other.

Cheese. Buns. Hamburger. All that remained was lettuce, two tomatoes and the cantaloupe she would cut up over at the gathering, letting it chill while they all ate...knowing the fruit dripping with it’s juice would cool throats rough from too many cigarettes, conversations and wine.

Looking the fruit over, she heard the voice she knew coming up behind her, speaking to the baby. The two women had never exchanged names, however, the children were known to Maggie from their mother saying them as she sent them to get a bag of potatoes or some apples. Asher. Samuel, who was now a man. Yakob. Baby Rebekah, sitting strapped in the front of the cart, content to suck on her fingers, not caring who you were; if you smiled at her, she responded with her whole body wiggling. Maggie felt a twinge of irritation...she didn’t have any time to converse, not even for their brief conversations. The manners drummed into her head by Sister Mary Paul put a smile in place, the words of Hello, how are you? already leaving her mouth... a question put forth that she silently prayed to God wouldn’t be answered.

They fell to discussing the price of cantaloupe, comparing it to larger, messier watermelon...never stopping in their testing, searching. Each had a different technique; Maggie sniffed the end, trying to scent the distinct flavour of the fruit. The other used the shaking method...holding them close to her ear, listening to hear if the seeds were at the point of coming loose from the flesh--a sign of perfect ripeness. As they stood and sniffed and shook and debated if this week or next would bring forth the best of the season, an older woman walked over, the younger boys holding her hands, all of them speaking rapidly in Yiddish.

Her friend turned, greeted the three, then said to Maggie, “This is my Mama. She is visiting us.” Smiles. Nods. Stepping up, she added another set of hands to join in the testing to find a cantaloupe that surpassed the usual standards.

Like daughter, like mother...the older woman, too, shook each round bit of fruit, moving from one to another, her wrist near her ear, listening for the ripe sound. All three concentrated on the task of finding that fruit; it bound them in the way only women are bound, the ancient voice hidden in DNA reminding them they were once the gatherers in tribes. It was then, as the older woman held up the yellow globe she had chosen, shaking it next to her ear, the long sleeves worn even in this weather slid back....Maggie had looked up to watch, a smile on her face...

There. On the forearm. Right. There.

Maggie stared. All else became unimportant. Those black-blue numbers held her eyes, her focus...stopped her breath. She wasn’t sure if it was the pale skin or the black knowledge of how it came to be there that caused them to suddenly stand out even more. With it, this woman had been listed, tracked, made a thing. Maggie stared, knowing it was her memory for life.

A 44762.

She heard something, focused on it, realised it was the older woman speaking to her.

“..... in August, 1943. I was 17. My Lilach stared that same way, the first time she understood this.”

Lilach took her mother’s arm, turned it so the tattoo faced up, kissed it.

Putting the melon down, Maggie turned, leaving her cart, leaving the group that suddenly seemed closed to her. Swinging her purse over her shoulder, she moved towards the doors, towards air. Towards something she could comprehend.

Maggie reached the bus, her seat, her was habit, and required no thought. In the apartment, sitting on the sofa, purse still in one hand, house keys in the other, she sat, trying to find some memory that didn’t have a dark place. She thought of the Leon Uris books she’d read, Mila 18, QB VII,...the works of Chaim Potok, books read since her move in some odd attempt to ‘understand’ her neighbors-- the books discussed the events, none had given her the skills to process what she’d seen.

The loss of six million was there, in that number. The loss of homes, security, freedom...of generations that would never be born. All of that and more was contained in the cheap ink, the badly drawn characters.

A 44762.

Maggie sat on her sofa, letting all of this settle into a brain that was still skittering over those details she’d never grasp, and knew something in her had changed.

With that knowledge came a great fear she’d do nothing about it, nothing to step up and voice her anger over genocides that still occurred. Standing, she let that fear find a hiding place in her soul, accepting it would stay hidden, accepting she’d live her life as it had always been...turning her head, remaining passive.

Margaret Mary Doyle unfolded her newspaper, and started to circle apartments in Manhattan.


First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

----Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.


  1. A powerful, moving piece. I live in a Muslim neighborhood and everything gets prickly this time of year...

  2. The other indignity on top of it all, was that a Jew with a tattoo, couldn't be buried in a Jewish cemetary. Obviously this rule was amended so that those who survived The Holocaust would not be excluded.

    A touching story, Quin.

  3. Incredible writing here. Just jaw-dropping. Great attention to detail. Reminded me of Atwood in some parts. You are that good but in your own voice, don't worry. :)

  4. Bravo, Quin. I love it. Thank you for the link and for the inspiration to continue... to continue writing and to continue speaking and to continue finding the BEST produce in the market. Thank you for the inspiration to continue harvesting... words, hearts, ideas. Amy

  5. Q it was hard but I read it thru and thru. This piece is as gorgeous as it is painful. It is a difficult subject and I admit that it should be published, but I will not read it again.
    I am afraid that I would take the coward's way out in that situation, but then I have never been all that brave to begin with.

  6. Breath taking! I actually felt as if I was one of the woman in the market! As I stand watching in the crowd, and see Maggie run after a blow of reality just set in! Wonderful Quin! I'm actually crying!

  7. This is a very well written, powerful story. Bravo.

  8. Beautifully written! Powerful and stimulating. It isn't often we consider the "other side" and their ability/ inability to cope with the Holocaust. Thank you for shedding some light, Quin! I think we are all better people after reading this!!!

  9. Grade A writing, Quin, you did yourself proud here, and well you should be for all the little painterly touches you put in with the melons, murmerings, observances and observations. As for the larger issues, sadly, I and many others feel helplessly homebound, and we all freak out when the threat comes knocking.
    I'm very impressed with your insight, and also how you made Maggie so real by having her apologetically, yet inevitably turning a blind eye to history she felt she couldn't change and yet not relating it to her here and now.
    The epigraph, too, was appropriate.

  10. Wonderful work. You've painted a picture with your words!

  11. You're right to be proud of this one Quin. I like that the women had become so familiar without ever exchanging names. Excellent work!

  12. Soft and beautiful in style; insightful and solid in substance.

  13. Quin,I read this earlier today, but had to leave the house. I am back now to tell you this piece has moving imagery and heatfelt delivery. We had two survivors that lived in our area and recently one passed away.She lived to be ninety years old and raised a beautiful family.

    Jeanette Cheezum

  14. A wonderful story Quin, and your eye for detail and nuance makes it an enjoyable read; the tattoo’s appearance is timed stunningly (is that a real number?) and her reaction is human and understandable.

    It’s worth remembering that they came for Niemöller in 1937; he spent eight years under close arrest by the Nazis, including a stretch at Dachau.

  15. the numbers in auschwitz started with an 'a', to avoid assigning high numbers. for an unknown reason, the “a” series for women did not stop at 20,000 and continued to 30, was different with men.

    i didn't research enough to find out who had this number...i pulled it out of my head... doing as much as i did was gutwrenching enough.

  16. Excellent writing, quin! Very powerful. I was riveted!

  17. Amazing Quin. I love the way you have captured the everyday flavor of this neighborhood - "the beigeness of the chore" and then you pull the rug out from under us - I was holding my breath when she saw the tattoo as though I had stepped inside her for a moment and was seeing through her eyes. Stunned and taking in the love of the daughter kissing her mother's tattoo and the need to get away from the reality. I'm not able to truly express what I felt - you are an artist.

  18. I'll not critique your work. Just let you know how it makes me feel:

    When I exited the Holocaust Museum in Isreal, I was glad there were benches close. I couldn't see for the tears, and I tried to keep control so my sobs wouldn't ring out and embarrass me.

    My friends were all heading toward the trees planted for the holy supporters during the Holocaust. But I could only sit until the sobs shook me, and the sobs rang out so loud that I was no longer embarrassed.

    Kind strangers who passed me paused to pat my shoulder or my head. But all I could do was sob louder than I ever had before. Before I finally fell silent, I realized my ringing sobs would prevent me from ever being silent again.

  19. NYC does you very well, Q. This is, as everyone has already said, remarkable : )

  20. This is wonderful writing, Quin. I am moved and horrified and something else ... I don't know what and that's the bit I like best! Wow.

  21. Very well done. It's in the details, as always.

  22. Strong and moving. I'm glad Joe mentioned the similarity to Atwood - I noticed that as well. Wonderful piece of writing.

  23. Quin,

    Your story is an absolute fictive treasure! It brought me back to my early childhood in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where most of our neighbors come right out of your story!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Salvatore Buttaci

  24. First times are disturbing and to be invited to your inner sanctum to hear the deeper notes resonate in your voice, is one of them. Schoenberg or Hindemith, and of course Wagner, might provide the background music to this autumnal setting where lurks evidence of crimes past.

    I digested your story thrice before advancing further into your chamber, to be mugged by Niemöller’s poem and then Agiev’s sorrowful remembrance. Such things are necessary reminders in a world where depravity persists with the help of brutal technology. But the bombardment of our senses by media inures us. We can watch war with our cornflakes every day of the week and hardly feel a thing.

    In current affairs the senseless brutality and suffering of the innocent in Northern Ireland wore me down. I brought home tears to the family table too many times. The barbarous nature of men seems to me ingrained.

    At the beginning of this year, the Israelites inflicted injustice but at a higher velocity on their ancient biblical nemesis, while the world stood back until their deadly job was done.

    Disturbed is how I began, which is what good writing does.
    Well done, Quin Browne.

  25. Bravo Quin;
    I totally agree with Peter in the above post.
    You have painted a soul on the face of inhumanity.And yet the Israelis are still inflicting this same pain onto the Palestinians.
    I love Peters thought that we have come to easily digest all this with our morning corn flakes.
    My grandfather had a saying,"You cannot understand someone else if you don't understand yourself."
    Ed Dean

  26. Well done Addi, this is very very good.

  27. Quin, this was excellent work. Very powerful, I know I will be thinking of this piece of work for some time to come, that is the test of relevancy...Great job!!...Brenda Kelsch

  28. I like it. There is a strong hint of something important - perhaps something bad - to come, right up early in the piece. This makes the details of choosing fruit, etc, draw out the tension. Like a tease.

    Great ending too. Not the happy ending we (or at least I) wanted, but unfortunately, far more plausible.

  29. This is the best short story I've read in months - and such an important topic. I really enjoyed the way in which order and chaos were juxtaposed in so many ways.

  30. Fantastic Quin. I can see why you are so proud of this piece. A very moving story, capped superbly with the quote at the end. Well done!!

  31. Quin,
    Very moving story, wonderful details, beautifully done. So glad you shared it.

  32. Good lord, ms q, you had me at "beigeness of the chore." How lovingly you drew us all into this romance, filling us with vegetables and fruit and stillness and then our own gasping at the surrounding hush and then the sweet sweet sweet sweet kiss of that wrist. It's heartbreaking that Maggie "must" flee, the ache of those circled listings.

  33. It definitely is one of the best pieces you've ever written.

  34. Kisses and applause! Thank for this - superb!
    What a punch it packs at the end, the tragedy of how, out of fear, we continue to keep important things hidden.

  35. Quinn,

    Your story is so beautiful. Being a Jewess, for a work of fiction, your portrayal and my history, and speaking for myself, I feel deeply connected to the story. I love it, you took my breath away and brought me to tears.