Shadow Puppets

By Marlene B. Samuels

My father had grown somewhat soft and lazy during the two years since our family had emigrated to the United States, a laziness that began to blossom the Saturday he pulled into our driveway with the first new car of his life. At Sunday dinner, he announced his plans to drive to and from his tailoring shop beginning the following day, “Because saving the time from walking will give some extra hours for me working in my shop, no?” He explained to us in Yiddish.


That October Saturday, my senior year in high school, would prove especially significant.  Is was the day my father drove his new aquamarine Cutlass Oldsmobile home from the dealership, his ecstasy enhanced when he noticed that the car’s odometer registered a mere twelve miles. But before driving it home, he’d scheduled one stop — to his tailoring shop in the suburban village of Winnetka, where we lived. His critical mission: rearrange all the sewing machines and furniture inside Meyer’s Tailoring Shop so everything would be parallel to the massive picture-window facing Oak Street. The purpose wasn’t for him to face the street but for him to be able to observe his car. He’d already planned to park it in front of his shop, a guarantee for day-long pleasure. 

 My father’s shop was situated directly across from the Winnetka Police Department. He’d befriended every officer on the force, all-American guys who never seemed to tire of hearing his harrowing tales of surviving the Nazis. Consequently, he never had to move his behemoth automobile to comply with strictly enforced two-hour parking ordinances other than when he drove home at 6:00 p.m.  

Each workday, my father sat stalk-straight behind one of his sewing machines. His work-boot clad feet, like stone blocks, commanded the steel pedals of factory-model Singer machines. Throughout the day, he’d glance up over the frames of magnifying glasses that threatened to conquer his face. His bushy black eyebrows rose with every view of his car, adoringcontinuousglances: when he stood ironing, cutting English woolens for trousers on the padded table in the workroom’s center, or pinning customer’s jackets for fittings on the mannequin.

 My father’s ecstasy was profound. The Cutlass Oldsmobile —his joy, was the ultimate symbol of his Americanization, fueling his emerging sense of modernity. On weekdays, in warmer months he could be found, during lunchtimes, perched on the sidewalk’s edge. A clean towel grasped firmly in his left hand, gripping the roof-trim for balance with his right, my father polished his way rhythmically around the car until it shone like sapphires.

One brutally cold February afternoon, I’d begun my walk home from studying at the Community Library. It was five-thirty, the time my father always commenced his “closing-the-shop” routine. Four blocks from the library,  Meyer’s Tailoring was on my route home. If I carefully timed my departure, I was assured a ride home with him. Each day, on my approach, I observed him through the window rushing about, turning off lights, unplugging machines and always checking that one extra time to be absolutely certain he’d turned off the iron.

I crossed Oak Street to face the squat Tudor building housing his shop. A moonless night had descended upon the village and in that darkness, no light from the shop’s window illuminated the street, nor did I see my father performing his routine. The street lamps hadn’t yet turned on so I stood, in blackness of the sidewalk, watching. It seemed he’d already turned everything off so I decided to wait out front, positive he’d appear outside momentarily to lock up. But while I waited, a narrow light-beam burst alive in the shop’s back fitting room, shining through blackness like a star thrown off course.

That single light emanated from an industrial clip-lamp affixed to the rod of the fitting-room the two of us had created together with sheets and curtain rods. The powerful beam cast elongated shadows across the workroom’s linoleum flooring. I continued to stand outside, motionless, continued to stare through the massive window perplexed by that single light aglow. But as I waited, the village street lamps came alive and light beams danced from the Oldsmobile’s hood. The car was still parked in its space. 

Like a moth lured toward a lightbulb, my eyes riveted to the brightness emanating from the shop’s back room. The moments passed. My pupils adjusted and as they did, silhouettes of two intertwined figures took shape behind the fitting-room’s curtains —  a short man, a tall curvaceous woman. Together, in the back room of Meyer’s Tailoring Shop, they swayed like carnival shadow puppets.Their rhythmic performance simultaneously mesmerized and perplexed me, hypnotizing me with their slow-motion dance. I was utterly enthralled when an arctic February wind of brutal ferocity, stung my cheeks. My spell was broken.

I abandoned waiting for my fatherthat night. I also never again waited for him after that night. I began my walk home. To my amazement, the wind’s brutal bite had energized me; my steps quickened, my strides grew longer, a new realization grew inside my heart with every block toward home. As I moved farther from the village, the wind dissipated but the cold grew ever more bitter.  

©  2021 Marlene B. Samuels

Marlene Samuels earned her Ph.D. from University of Chicago where she serves on the Advisory Council to the Graduate School, Social Sciences Division. A research sociologist and instructor, Marlene is conducting research, with partner Pat LaPointe, for their anthology about female-to-female relational aggression. Marlene edited and coauthored The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, is author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers, and is completing her book, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. Marlene’s essays and stories have been published widely including in Lilith Magazine, Our Echo, Story Circle Network Anthologies, Iowa Summer Writers’ Anthology and others. Marlene divides her time between Chicago and Sun Valley, Idaho with her amazing, emotionally-supportive Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Ted and George. 

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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