First Edition | Prose

“First Edition” features original works by Northern California Jewish writers. In the first issue of each month, j. publishes a poem and an excerpt from a piece of new fiction.

Works may be submitted to [email protected] or [email protected]. Fiction excerpts may run to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online.


The Flowers of Devonshire

From Miss Lorelie Smith I first learned the meaning of daintiness. She smelled. I suspect she was a very good history teacher because she was the only Irish teacher I had who voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But I could never get the drift of what she was teaching because her stench would distract me from even the Civil War. She had a rather fruity voice, the music of Sarah Allgood, who played opposite Barry Fitzgerald. But even her lilting could not charm the smell away. I knew it was coming from her underwear, and although she was fairly stout, I could not imagine how it was she was not able to wash her private parts. She could afford a bathroom or tub — even a shower. Was it infection? Discharge came only from the nose.

Whatever the cause of Miss Smith’s lack of daintiness, I resolved to wash my underwear more than once a week and, what is more, I resolved to bathe more often, like twice a week instead of the long soaking on Sunday morning that used to leave me itching and dry and scratching for most of the day. Bathing more than the prescribed number of times infuriated my father. Possibly he was worried about the hot water we should be saving. Our landlord was a miserly old German Jew who didn’t sound Jewish and never let us sing when we were coming up the staircase. My poor father: Rent was $35 a month for three rooms, a bath and an army of cockroaches. And mice. Often we were behind in our rent, and that’s when daintiness meant getting into trouble with my father.

My brothers were culpable too. They liked to play handball and would come home dirty from the park when they should have been working thirty-three jobs and worrying about the future. Instead they too were bathing and painting themselves with calamine lotion to dry up incipient or galloping acne. They rigged up a shower head, hiding the apparatus from my father by shoving it under the tub, but the mice got into it and began nibbling at the tubing.

My mother too discouraged my increasing daintiness, but she didn’t do it out of meanness or economy. She liked to make raisin wine in the bathtub or mead from whatever fruit the green grocer sold for a penny a pound. There was a tub in the kitchen, but that was for clothes. The real agony of my trying to keep dainty, however, took place when suddenly I began to menstruate. Nobody was supposed to know. We hid the Kotex behind the ice box or under the bed but the mice, like the ice in “The Ancient Mariner,” were everywhere. They actually got into the Kotex boxes and started nesting. The first time I came upon their blissful occupancy of my sanitary napkins, I screamed in horror and turned off-white, like a blintzeh. Now everyone knew — my fathers, my brothers. They wouldn’t speak to me for a week. I was contaminated. It wasn’t only that I would be a permanent expense to the family, but that some moron in the neighborhood might conceivably — oh, you know. But the real irritation was that I would be forever washing myself, especially during those times. There were monthly explosions in my family. Even the neighbors became involved with the agony of my budding womanhood.

We moved. We moved from Sundstrom over the A&P to Girodsky over the bakery. Here we had a shower and plenty of hot water and no mice. The bakery was actually very dirty, but the famille Girodsky kept several cats — tender creatures, sporting names like Cabbage or Spinach or Carrots, the better to convince the health inspectors that the cats were comfortably housed and well fed. They were not. They were mean and hungry. Once Cabbage climbed up from the garbage can where he usually hung out, leaped onto the fire escape, and entered my private chamber, landing smack in the middle of my bed. I screamed. My father entered with a broom. My brothers assured him it was just Cabbage looking for a female in heat. Neither my father nor I completely understood the innuendo, but I got the drift of my brothers’ sarcasm.

We moved again. My brothers went to war. I had a room to myself, full of maple furniture and a Raphael Soyer print on the wall. I could shower as much as I liked. I began to take special notice of the way I dressed, working as a stock girl at A&S in Brooklyn and spending my breaks trying on clothes. Nothing helped. I could never make it past “jail bait.” My body remained fixed at size 8, although I had begun menstruating before I turned 13. But it was at A&S that I learned about scents rather than smells. I learned the difference between “Evening in Paris” and “The Flowers of Devonshire.” Dorothy Gray was the name of the American company that put together this English scent. The scent was so refined. I doused it on myself three times a day. It never overwhelmed. People would turn in my direction and smile, even on the subway.

* * *

I tried to join the WACS, but it was as if I were proposing to enter a brothel. Jewish girls didn’t serve their country by becoming camp followers, so the conventional wisdom went. They could serve coffee and doughnuts and write letters, but joining the armed forces was unthinkable. The WAVES? They wouldn’t have me. I wasn’t pretty enough, so why bother. Or important enough. My father tried to enlist in the National Guard and they wouldn’t have him, so what could I expect? Besides, I really didn’t have to worry. I was getting all kinds of proposals. My letters were knocking assorted GIs dead. I wrote about 15 letters a week. And when my pen pals came home on leave, they were dying to meet me, the babe who wrote such salty and sultry stuff. I would describe street scenes in Manhattan or Nathan’s Hot Dog stand on Coney Island, and the guys said they couldn’t wait to get their hands on me. They would come to the apartment, ring the doorbell expectantly, sometimes with flowers in their arms. And I would come to the door, and they would ask for my sister. My father helped, too. When he answered the doorbell and the GIs asked for me by my American name, Fania, my father refused to acknowledge me. I honestly think he didn’t know my real name. He knew only my Jewish name, or my nickname, Farfel. They would insist, but he would close the door on them. Then I would run shrieking down the hall, but the damage was done. One or two adventuresome boys tried to see for themselves if I were real, especially if they caught my scent. They had a way of sniffing the air like Caliban.

“It’s Flowers of Devonshire,” I would offer.

They were not always sure what I meant. Perhaps I thought I was a flower, and if I did, I was patently nuts. That was their feeling anyway, after an hour with me. I couldn’t make small talk.

My father decided one day to have a talk with me. The war was over, and none of my pen pals had offered me more than a dish of chow mein for all of the comfort my letters had brought.

“Listen,” he said. “You’re no bargain. Marry whoever asks you, even a cripple.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Don’t mention it.”

My mother insisted he meant nothing by it. She said I didn’t have to marry a cripple. A Gentile would do, if he were refined. My brothers came home from the war, both married to girls who didn’t look or sound Jewish but who were. I didn’t look Jewish, but my accent was an offense to anyone who had pretensions of gentility. Both my brothers said so. They said I sounded like the Lower East Side. For a while, only my girlfriends recognized how sweet I really was and how sweet I smelled. I left home when my younger brother declared one day that all my washing and sloshing the smelly stuff behind my ears was not going to do a damned thing for me.

“Wise up. You stink,” he told me.

His wife was startled but said nothing. He had just made Chicken Inspector for the Department of Health. He was a big man.

The real reason I packed up and left home was that it was true. In Brooklyn, no man would look at me. Out west, it might be different. Who could tell? Look at Calamity Jane. So I gave out that I was going to continue my education. And I was. I was. I travelled by Greyhound to California. I was so ill-informed about elementary geography, I thought Salt Lake City had a sub-tropical climate and all Mormons practiced wife-swapping. But people were very friendly on the bus. They played cards and drank vodka or whatever they could get their hands on. I felt comfortable among them. They liked the way I smelled, the guys especially. They put their arms around me. They didn’t treat me as though I were jail bait. I could tell the difference.

I got a job scrubbing floors as soon as I got off the bus and, once established as a maid, I enrolled at the university and moved in with a Red, Hortense Levinsohn. She knew everybody who was anybody because everyone who was anyone was a Red. It was Berkeley, at the end of World War II. We went to lots of parties where people took no notice of me because I didn’t belong to a cell and because I looked like someone who just tagged along with Hortense — her orphaned cousin or something. I was somehow manqué. I washed every day, but I had no money for clothes or cologne. And then my mother sent me two hand-me-downs and a bottle of the Flowers of Devonshire that she had found stashed away among my underwear. It was half-full. Thus began my blossom time and my undoing.

Berkeley was pastel, even in February. But by April, flowers I had never seen before, not even in botanical gardens, were in bloom. The ladies of the left would bake angel food cakes, enclose them in green or white or pink frosting, and then festoon the icing with rhododendron blossoms or float pansies on the stuff. Then they would raffle off the cakes to a worthy cause. I never got to taste a cake, but I wanted to look like one. Of course, they were dainty. I did get to taste white and red wine for the first time, wines with names like Burgundy, Chablis, Sauterne — table wines. Hortense and I would help out with the serving and cleaning up, especially me, because I had experience, and so I got to sample a great many leftovers like avocado dip. And clam. Clam was treif. I loved it.

One blossom-laden day in April, Hortense and I were invited to a beach home in Half Moon Bay to help out with a left-wing mailing. We arrived by truck, worked for four hours non-stop, were dutifully fed hamburgers and deposited again by truck at the corner of Market and Castro, where we had to find our way back to the East Bay terminal on foot because we had fare only for the ride back to Berkeley. Our truck driver had another worthy cause to serve, so he left us stranded. We walked. The tallest building in town was Coit Tower. Our sandals broke along the way. We walked barefoot and nobody noticed. San Francisco was a small town, but quaint. When we got back to the East Bay, there was another invitation waiting for us. We showered, washed the sand out of our hair, and decided once more to wear no shoes. We decided also to exchange dresses. My mother had sent me a lavender shift that Hortense adored because she was a redhead, and she had a valentine’s dress that she hated because it had little red hearts for buttons. Her mother had purchased it for her, thinking it might keep her from becoming Bohemian. We walked to the party in our bare feet and selected a few roses along the way from a willing bush. But the rose I nipped nipped me. I arrived with wet hair, no shoes and a bleeding thumb. It was a great entrance.

I had also doused myself with Flowers of Devonshire.

* * * *

A very handsome but obviously drunk young man removed himself from a table laden with rhododendron cakes and Burgundy wine and avocado dip and Ritz crackers to greet us. He didn’t know us. He just admired our sangfroid. He went first to Hortense, whose bosom was more visible than mine, and began at once to kiss her. He started with her hand and worked his way up her arm.

“Lay off,” she said.

His expertise was no doubt the result of inebriation, but John Barrymore couldn’t have done it better. I was fascinated. I was also still sucking my thumb. Hortense was obviously not smitten by his charm, so he turned next to me. He took my thumb in his mouth, my bleeding thumb, and then proceeded to work past my thumb to my elbow, to my neck, and I did not wish him to stop.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jack,” he said. “What’s yours?”

“I love you,” I said. “Farfel.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s my name. As in matzahs.” He poured me a glass of Burgundy. For himself, he poured whiskey.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s a Farfel?”

“It’s a crumb.”

“Salud,” he said. “You want a taste?”

I tried the whiskey. I shuddered. He laughed. He put his arm around me. I melted.

“Let’s go for a drive,” he said.

I followed him across the room. It was a big room. He told me to wait in the vestibule while he went to the bathroom. Hortense saw me. She called across the room. She had to shout to be heard.

“Where are you going?”

“For a drive.” I yelled in return.

“With whom?” It was time for Hortense to leave the bearded Israeli, who was engaging her in serious conversation, to look after me.


“That boy. That man.”

“Which boy? What man?”

“The guy who just left. He’s going to the bathroom.”

“The one who was kissing me?”

“He was kissing me last.”

“Are you nuts?”

I looked somewhat downcast.

“Shouldn’t I?”

“He doesn’t know you from a hole in the wall. Two minutes from now, he’ll be feeling up someone else.”

“He wasn’t feeling me up.”

“What’s he gonna do in the car, play pat-a-cake?”

I paused. I reflected, or I looked as if I did.

“I’ll tell him I changed my mind.”

Hortense wanted to wait with me.

“Go back. I can take care of myself,” I said.

Honestly, I was ready to tell him that I had changed my mind, but he put one arm around me when he found me waiting, and with the other led me out the door.

“You smell sweet,” he said.

What could I do? Hortense saw me leave, her anguished “Farfel, what the hell are you doing?” following me. For the rest of my life.

For a man who was drunk, Jack navigated very well. The car and me. He was very careful. After he kissed me for an hour at least — I couldn’t really keep track of time — he told me he was married. I tried to think of something smart to say, but all I could manage was, “I don’t care.”

He took me home the first time and the second, but not the third. Hortense tried everything. She bullied, she cajoled, she wept. She told me she had plans for me. She would teach me to read Marx and propose my name at the next meeting of the cell to which she belonged. She would help me become a “mensch.”

“Look,” I said. “I love him.”

“Your ass is on backwards, do you know?”

Whenever she saw me apply my cologne, she knew it was Jack for whom I was making myself dainty.

“What happens when the stuff runs out? He hasn’t got a pot to piss in.”

“I know.”

“It’s a sin,” she cried. “He’s a married man.”

That’s when I had her. “Hortense, really,” I crowed.

If it was sin she wanted, Jack wasn’t Jewish. I had to explain both matzah and farfel to him. But at some level, I was heeding the advice of my parents. Only a cripple and a Gentile would have me.

Jack was an alcoholic. He was also charming as only some alcoholics can be — drunk or sober. He never turned mean. When I had to tell him I was pregnant, he wept. And he sold his poor old car, the scene of our many trysts, to pay for the abortion. And Hortense found me the abortion. We were supposed to go to Seattle, the abortion center of the West Coast, but a contact found us a gent closer to home. He administered ergot injections, and Hortense stayed with me the night I expelled the fetus, rocking me in her arms while I cried with pain and shame. I recovered. I didn’t bleed to death. Jack’s wife found out and took him back. Why? Because he felt so bad for me.

Hortense became a union organizer in Fresno, and I used to visit her from time to time. She had rooms in a mortuary. Before she left for Fresno, she did something. She took my bottle of The Flowers of Devonshire and tossed it in the garbage.

“You’re worth more,” she said.

She was the best mother I ever had. And father.


Flossie Lewis is a writer and teacher living in Oakland. She spent 38 years as an award-winning English teacher at Lincoln and Lowell high schools in San Francisco, and also taught English at U.C. Berkeley for many years. She received her Ph.D. at age 73 from Berkeley, where she continues to teach a summer English class.