Susan Isaacs

Almost Paradise

Excerpt from Almost Paradise

Chapter One

We've just received a dispatch from Reuters saying Jane Cobleigh was hit by a car while crossing a street just outside London. Her husband, famed actor Nicholas Cobleigh, has refused to talk with reporters and is . . .

-Excerpt from NBC News Update

Jane Cobleigh’s mother would have loved the chance to talk to reporters. She would have opened her blouse an extra two buttons' worth, slid a wet tongue over her lips, and ambled out and murmured “Hi, boys.” Of course, that would have been during her show business days, before she became a housewife, mother, churchgoer, canner of vegetables. Before she became Mrs. Richard Heissenhuber.

In her show business days she was Sally Tompkins, chorus girl. She was an actress, too. In 1926, in the comedy skit Belle of Broadway, she had six lines that ended with “Well, Mr. Prescott, you can take that and that,” with each that swinging her chest from one side to the other. Then she would stomp off, stage left, and there would always be whistles and applause. The director, Mr. Norton, observed she had great comic talent, although he’d be the first to recognize her range was probably broader. But, he whispered later, if you got a pair of jugs like this, no one’s gonna let you play Lady Macbeth. And a few nights after that he told her that Sally Tompkins wasn’t a good name for her type. It was too girl-next-door and she was definitely an exotic. Since she was half Spanish-right?'-why didn’t she use something like Lola Torrez or’let’s see, one of those one-name names, Bonita or Caramba. But she told him, what could she do?

Sally Tompkins was her real name.

It wasn’t. Her real name was Sarah Taubman, and she was born a bastard in 1906 on the Lower East Side of New York.

Her mother, Jane’s grandmother, Rivka Taubman, was a fat, dreamy girl of fourteen, so nearsighted she could neither baste nor finish the women’s shirtwaists her parents worked on; she was only able to sew buttons. She would hold the fabric close to her eyes and stitch on button after button. What looked like freckles on her nose were tiny scabs where the needle pricked.

One April night when the wet winter chill finally left the air and it was too dark to sew, Rivka left the two-room apartment and clomped down five flights of stairs. She sat on the stoop, breathing clean spring air that was free of the indoor smell of boiled onions, smiling a gentle smile. Her pale round face was haloed by curly black hair. And who should come along and sit next to her but a boy from around the corner, a snappy dresser, Yussel ‘Joseph’ Weinberg. He was sixteen years old and tall like a regular American, a baseball player or policeman. He put his face up to hers, and she could see he was darkly handsome.

“Hello, there, good-looking,” he said. His English was perfect. So they talked a little and she saw him a couple of days after that and then a few times more. One evening he said “Come with me” and she did. They went into the hall of the building next door. He led her behind the stairs. She said “I can’t see,” and he told her to shush. Then he kissed her, and before she could say no he was touching her all over. She knew it wasn’t such a good idea, but he got angry when she pushed his hand away. So she let him. When she got back upstairs her mother yelled because she’d forgotten to bring the piece-work to Mr. Marcus. “Stupid!” her mother screamed. “Blind and stupid!” At thirty-four, her mother had no teeth.

So she would meet Yussel in the dank shadows behind the stairs where sometimes people threw their garbage, and she prayed the rats wouldn’t climb up her skirt. They didn’t; Yussel did. He lifted her skirt and pulled down her drawers and stuck it into her every single night. Of course, she became pregnant.

Her mother knew it before she did. Her father beat her and almost choked her and her mother dragged her to a lady on Rivington Street with four long hairs growing out of her chin who made her drink something that was warm and smelled like urine. Still, the baby would not go away. Then they beat her with a hem marker until she told them Yussel’s name. But by that time she hadn’t shown up behind the stairs for two nights and Yussel, no stupnagel, must have known the jig was up. He ran away from home and got a job taking tickets at the Belzer movie house on Twenty-eighth Street, but then he had to skip town because within three months he had impregnated Pearl Belzer, the boss’s daughter.

Two weeks before her fifteenth birthday, Rivka Taubman gave birth on her mother’s kitchen table. The baby wasn’t born dead the way its grandparents had prayed. It was a beautiful, sturdy girl, and Rivka named her Sarah.

But her parents wouldn’t let Rivka keep the baby. Her mother had heard about the Rose Stern Hoffman Home where they took Jewish babies and gave them away for adoption, so when the little girl was a week old, Rivka’s father wrapped Sarah in a fabric remnant, smacked Rivka across the jaw to stop her screaming, and went all the way to the Upper West Side. A sign nailed to the door explained the Rose Stern Hoffman Home was closed until February fifteenth for refurbishment, but he couldn’t read English so he brought the baby back with him.

Unlike her mother, Sarah grew up with keen vision and a quick mind. Although the child couldn’t put it into words, by age six she recognized that there were two types of people who dwell in the slums: those with hope and those, like her family, without. She visited other girls' apartments and saw parents cuddling children, pinching cheeks, stuffing little mouths with too many sweets, thrusting books into pudgy little hands. These parents knew their children’s lives would be better than their own. Her family had no such ambition, Sarah was their shame. All hope had died at her conception.