Some of my most memorable high-school teachers were those who taught Spanish. There was Mr. Acevedo, who sported a short beard and wore low-slung pants in a variety of blazing colors. There was the unforgettable Mr. Jonath, who combined a Groucho Marx appearance and sense of humor with an absolute mastery of discipline and pedagogy. And there was the red-headed Mrs. Marshall, a quiet, kind lady who exposed us to serious Spanish literature in the original.
I remember reading in Mrs. Marshall’s class a story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “El Alef.” The only religious references we had ever encountered in Spanish class were to Jesucristo. Here, though, was a story named after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and which contained references to “el libro de Zohar.” Mrs. Marshall, who knew that I studied Hebrew, asked me if I could tell the class something about the Zohar. I answered that it was a book whose ideas were very deep and hard to explain.
One of my other Spanish teachers was Maria the seamstress. She was a Columbian immigrant who came in a few afternoons a week to do “Expert Tailoring” for Dave the cleaner. I remember her as being middle-aged, short, dark-haired, olive-skinned, and saucily red-lipped through frequent application of lipstick. We always greeted each other in Spanish. Maria would have been happy to converse with me and teach me new words and phrases, but I did not take advantage of her offer very often. I’ve since regretted that I didn’t allow Maria to be the teacher that she could have been.
One day Maria didn’t show up at her usual time. Dave told me that Maria was home, ill with a bad cold. He gave me a small bundle of clothes and told me to take it to Maria’s apartment where she would mend them at home.
I found Maria’s building, just a few blocks straight down Main Street. I was buzzed in and climbed to the third floor. A child led me in to the apartment. I stepped in and said, “Hola, Maria, coma esta?” As Maria answered “Bien,” my senses began to survey the scene.
The first thing I noticed was an unfamiliar cooking odor; it was nothing like the fragrance of the American and Jewish dishes that my mother made at home. Maria sat on a couch. She looked tired, but vivacious as usual. Next to her sat a man, I guess her husband, who smiled shyly. A few children were scattered about the room, some playing on the floor, others watching television.
On the wall to my right was a crucifix. I had certainly seen crosses before, but this one grabbed my attention. Jesus was nailed to this cross in a state of wretched agony, with blood dripping from several wounds. Extending from the the front of this scene was a small shelf that held a lit candle; a dim light flickered on the savior’s writhing face.
I brought the sack of clothing and laid it down on the rug in front of Maria. There was an exchange of “Gracias” and “de nada” and “salud” as I sidled back to the door. Jesus’s bloodshot eyes peered at me as I opened the door and headed back to the stairs.
* * *
A few weeks later I was in the store on a long, tedious afternoon. I was sitting on the stool near the counter. Maria was at her sewing machine. Her stitching didn’t sound like Walter Mitty’s “tapocketapocketa,” but more like a raccoon’s “dig-agid-agid-agid-agid-agid.” The presser had finished his day’s work and gone home. Dave was out making deliveries.
It was around 5:30. I was fighting to keep my eyes open. I would have been happy to see a customer, but there was none. I would have made hangers, but there was already a full stack sitting on the frame.
I was sifting through a box of safety pins when Maria’s voice punctured the boredom.
“Caramba!” she screamed. “Jesucristo!”
Maria jumped up from her chair and came toward me, her face blanched in agony. She held up her right index finger; it was pierced through the nail by a sewing-machine needle. The needle stood straight like a pole.
“Caramba! Jon, pool eet out, pool eet out! Davey hev plier.”
Maria was right. There was a small pair of pliers on the table in front of me.
There was no time to be timid. There was no one I could pass the buck to; Maria and I were alone.
I clamped the plier onto the needle and pulled up hard. The needle came out. Blood began to flow from underneath Maria’s fingernail. She stamped the flow with some tissues.
“Gracias, Jon. You save me,” Maria cried.
* * *
“You saved me,” she said? Was I a savior? As James Thurber might have said, I looked like Maria’s bleeding savior as much as Calvin Coolidge looked like the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer lion.
But I had saved Maria from excruciating pain. I don’t know how I had found the courage; it was something deep and hard to explain. But I had done it. One of the greatest things I’ve ever done.