When I was nine, I became best friends with Chubby Morgan to humor my mother, who was on the verge of taking me to a psychiatrist because I spent most of my time alone or with imaginary playmates.
I met Chubby on a summer Sunday that was extremely hot and humid, even for New Orleans. My parents and I had just moved to the neighborhood. My mother, liberated at last from years of cramped apartment living, was proudly watering the tiny patch of lawn in front of what she considered to be her first real home as a married woman. I was sprawled on the cool cement porch floor, comfortably barefoot, wearing shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt.
I looked up for a moment from concentrating on the travels of a doodlebug and saw Chubby and her mother hand in hand, walking home from Boulevard Presbyterian Church. Chubby looked miserable in her long-sleeved plaid dress that hung below her knees, opaque white stockings and black patent leather Mary Janes. I felt sorry for her. On the other hand, I was awestruck by Mrs. Morgan, beautiful and vibrant as a hummingbird in a spring garden. She wore a fitted silk suit of iridescent blue and green, colors that highlighted her red hair, which was cut pageboy style and topped by a matching hat. Her slightly damp red cheeks sparkled with light reflected from her diamond earrings. A diamond cross glittered on the gold chain around her neck. I stared hard at the doodlebug, hoping it had the power to make me invisible and relieve me from the embarrassment of how shabby my own mother looked, dressed in one of my father’s faded Hawaiian shirts and soggy white shorts that stuck to her in all the worst places.
“I’ve been meaning to stop by and say hello,” Mrs. Morgan said. “Perhaps our daughters could get together sometime.”
“That would be lovely,” my mother said.
“Are you allowed to wear shorts to your church?” Chubby asked me, looking envious.
“I don’t go to church,” I said. “I’m Jewish.”
“Oh, my,” Mrs. Morgan sputtered. “My daughter has never had any Jewish friends.”
“She does now. My name is Esther Baker, and this is Amy Lynn,” my mother said.
Mrs. Morgan closed her eyes and took a deep breath before accepting my mother’s extended hand.
“Well, I suppose it will be all right. I’m Theresa Morgan,” said Mrs. Morgan, “and this is Chubby.”
Leticia Louise Morgan, who was skinny as a stick, was nicknamed Chubby by her grandfather, because he liked the way her cheeks got puffy when she laughed. I was told she laughed a lot when she was a baby, but I came to know her as a much more serious child. She could be difficult and hard to like, and she often seemed resentful that her father’s money couldn’t buy fun. It did, however, buy lots of other things that helped me tolerate playing with her while being green with envy at the same time.
We played at Chubby’s most of the time during the three years we knew each other. She lived in the biggest and best house I’d ever seen, a two-story white Colonial that looked like Tara from Gone with the Wind. My mother said they could well afford it with the money Mr. Morgan made from his store, Morgan’s Fine Jewelry, downtown on Canal Street. All the New Orleans society women shopped there, including Garden District debutantes, brides and their mothers, who willingly succumbed to Mr. Morgan’s gentlemanly Southern charm.
When I visited Chubby, I felt wealthy by association, like when Annie Mae, who had worked for the Morgan’s since Chubby was a little girl, served us afternoon tea on Wedgwood China in the parlor. We had peanut butter and jelly finger sandwiches, miniature lemon tarts and sweet iced tea with mint picked fresh from the garden.
Sometimes Mr. Morgan, who often was home when I visited on weekday afternoons, serenaded us on their upright piano. A lapsed Presbyterian, as he called himself, he would take a sip from the glass of Southern Comfort he always carried “for inspiration,” then spin around once on the piano stool and dramatically land his fingers on the right keys to launch into “Hound Dog” or whatever was Elvis Presley’s number one record at the moment.
“This one’s for you, Miss Amy Lynn Baker,” he would say, imitating “The King” perfectly, and Chubby and I squealed the way all the teenage girls did on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
The concerts were over when Mr. Morgan left to get more inspiration, but not before he grasped my hand, kissed it and said in his creamy drawl, “I love playing for such an appreciative audience.” He was always delighted when I blushed and beamed at him in that special way reserved for a little girl who falls head over heels for her best friend’s father.
Mr. Morgan would bow with a flourish and “retire,” as he said, to his room. Chubby said her father worked hard and needed his rest, so I never questioned why the Morgans had separate bedrooms or why Mr. Morgan was home so much. I figured it was what rich people did. I wished my father could take more time off from his second-hand furniture business, which he kept open six days a week from seven in the morning till seven at night. My mother called it his glorified hobby because it took up so much of his time and never made much money.
After tea, Chubby and I washed our sticky hands with water cascading from the mouths of silver swans in the powder room downstairs before racing upstairs to the library to do our homework. We were inevitably seduced, however, by the dazzling display of books bound in burgundy, chocolate or forest green leather that smelled of cobwebs and glue.
“You’re so lucky to have a dad who comes home from work early to be with you,” I said, getting deliciously dizzy as Chubby gave me a tour of the uppermost shelves by pushing me on the rolling library ladder.
Chubby shot me her best I’ve-heard-it-all-before expression and said, “You’re the one who’s lucky, Amy Lynn. I wish my mother was a teacher like yours, so she would be around more, but she’s always busy with some charity or her church work or canasta club.”
I was surprised Chubby envied me anything, especially that. I loved my mother and was secretly proud of her profession, but I hated that she was home so much because it gave her time to get on my case about every little thing.
From the library, we would “repair” – Chubby’s word – to her playroom, where we would pull out the Monopoly game from a toy-filled closet almost as big as my bedroom. Chubby knew the rules of the game by heart and enforced them with the zeal of a prison matron, but I didn’t mind too much since I won most of the time.
I never enjoyed winning that much because Chubby was such a sore loser. Most of the time, we played until the spicy smells of Annie Mae’s red beans and rice or shrimp Creole signaled suppertime, but often our games ended early with Chubby knocking the board off the table, sending houses and hotels flying. She would order me out, swearing that she would never play with me again. I would tell her I wouldn’t play with her again if she were the last person on earth and stomp all the way home. When I got there, red-faced and furious, my mother would cheerfully tell me Chubby just called and asked if I could come over tomorrow. She would urge me to accept, and, of course, I did.
I gradually grew fond of Chubby despite our frequent storms and decided having a real friend was okay, much to my surprise and my mother’s relief. We continued our roller coaster ride for the three years, though our battles changed from the number of houses needed on Boardwalk before you could buy a hotel to whether Jeremy Collins or Michael Steiner was the cutest boy in seventh grade.
The last time I visited Chubby’s house was the Christmas we were twelve. She called first thing in the morning to tell me she got a grown-up bike, a sleek red Schwinn three-speed with hand brakes. It never failed. Every time I asked my parents for something, Chubby would ask hers for the same thing and always got the Grade A number one deluxe model. For Hanukkah, I got a hand-me-down coaster brake bike from my father’s store. The only way to change speeds on it was to change how fast I pedaled.
I spent breakfast complaining about everything that was right with Chubby’s life and wrong with mine, including being almost a teenager and still having to live in a place where I had to wait my turn to use the toilet in the morning.
“Well, maybe someday you’ll have a bedroom with a private bath, Amy Lynn Baker,” my mother said, “but you’ll have to buy that house for yourself.”
I was still grumbling that afternoon when we trooped to Chubby’s, stopping briefly to admire the brand new white Cadillac adorned with an enormous red bow in the carport, flashy transportation obviously being the Christmas gift of choice for the Morgan’s in 1959. We were three Jewish magi bearing gifts, the same every year – Whitman’s Sampler chocolates for Mrs. Morgan, Swisher Sweets cigars for Mr. Morgan and an outfit for Chubby picked out by my mother, who never liked what Chubby wore.
“Honestly, the way that child dresses you’d think she were a forty-year-old woman,” my mother said.
The Morgan’s living room was heavy with the scent of cinnamon candles, pine needles and roasted turkey, “a little like the school cafeteria at holiday time,” my mother said. It was also oppressively hot because of the roaring fire the Morgans insisted on keeping stoked all day in spite of the balmy weather.
“Next year they’ll have to cut a hole in the ceiling,” my father whispered as he always did when we got our first glimpse of the tree.
The verdant Scotch pine branches shimmered with the ghosts of Christmases past living in dozens of ornaments handed down through generations, their aging, tarnished finishes camouflaged by shiny cascades of gold and silver tinsel. Ribbons of lights bubbled and twinkled blue, green, red, white and yellow, creating a far more dazzling effect than nine measly Hanukkah candles in a brass menorah. And the delicate, soothing faces of the mother and child in the hand-carved wooden nativity scene, a souvenir from Mr. and Mrs. Morgan’s most recent trip to Europe, made me dreamily wonder for a moment if I would be happier if I converted to Christianity.
Chubby and her parents received us on the ornately carved Victorian sofa, upholstered in indigo velvet. Since they all were dressed formally in dark blue, I had trouble seeing where the sofa ended and the people began.
Bing Crosby crooned “Adeste Fidelis” and “Joy to the World” in the background while Chubby passed around her presents for us to admire, an annual event my father called the ritual of “Our Lady of the Perpetual Loot.” To make matters worse, I was taunted by the Schwinn next to the tree, decked out with a bow only slightly smaller than the one on the car. When we came at last to Chubby’s final gift, Crosby was singing, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” No one felt less merry than I did.
I sat uncomfortably on the loveseat and watched the adults toast each other with homemade eggnog, which Mrs. Morgan ladled from her Waterford crystal punch bowl. Almost before the first drop of butter-colored liquid hit the Waterford crystal cups, Mr. Morgan would spike each portion with a liberal pour of Southern Comfort, pretending not to hear his wife’s protests.
My mother announced shortly after the third toast that it was time for us to go. I started to make my escape, but before I had the chance, Chubby plopped down beside me, wedging me in, and gave me a conspiratorial poke in the ribs.
“Let’s steal some almonds,” she whispered.
I was flabbergasted by such a larcenous proposal from someone who was so strict about following rules, especially on this day of celebration of the birth of her lord Jesus.
“Are you …?” I was about to say “crazy,” but Chubby clapped her hand over my mouth.
“Mrs. Baker, can Amy Lynn stay a while longer?” Chubby asked.
“Of course she can,” my mother said, not thinking to ask me if I wanted to, “if it’s all right with your parents.”
“Please, please, please, Mother and Daddy. Please say it’s okay, ” Chubby begged.
“Well,” said Mrs. Morgan, “I’ve got to run to the Salvation Army soup kitchen, in my lovely present with automatic transmission, just like I asked for, to serve supper to our less fortunate brethren, and Annie Mae is off to visit her sister, but Mr. Morgan will be here, so I suppose it’s all right.”
“Of course it is. The girls and I always have fun together, don’t we, Amy Lynn?” said Mr. Morgan, giving me a wink that made me want to stay.
After Mrs. Morgan and my parents left, Mr. Morgan went upstairs to take a nap. Chubby dragged me into the kitchen, where Annie Mae was cleaning up the remnants of Christmas dinner.
“What sort of devilment you up to, Leticia Louise Morgan?” asked Annie Mae, who normally wore a plain gray uniform, was dressed for the holiday in crisp black satin and a ruffled white apron.
“Amy Lynn wants some mincemeat pie,” Chubby said quickly. “She’s never had any, y’know, being Jewish and all.”
“Well, all right, Miss Priss, but don’t muss up my kitchen, you hear? Y’all get your piece of pie and take it outside to eat. And stay out of my way or I’ll never finish what I have to do and get to my sister’s.”
“Thanks, Annie Mae,” Chubby said, hugging her tighter than I’d ever seen her hug Mr. or Mrs. Morgan. “I love you. Merry Christmas. Tell your sister I said so, too.”
“Merry Christmas, Annie Mae,” I said, following Chubby out the back door.
“You, too, baby,” said Annie Mae and went back to her chores, unaware that we left without any pie.
If Chubby’s house was the ultimate Southern mansion, then her backyard was the Garden of Eden. Even in December the azaleas, camellias and crepe myrtles were in full bloom, fooled like all the rest of us by the false promise of spring. The grass was unseasonably lush with clover, the kind we knotted into bracelets and necklaces to accessorize our warm weather clothes.
Standing majestically in the center of it all was a fig tree of biblical proportions, which every summer yielded fruit the size of ping-pong balls. Mrs. Morgan often said she left the gardening to Mr. Morgan because he had more patience and skill for growing things. I was convinced his ability to nurture such a fine specimen, surely a direct descendant of the tree that gave Adam and Eve the world’s first undergarments, was a divine gift.
Chubby lifted one of the stones that lined the walk, pulled out a key and unlocked the door of the guesthouse-sized potting and storage shed Mr. Morgan had specially built. He had warned us a million times the shed was off limits.
“Every mad scientist has a secret laboratory,” he said mysteriously, but Chubby told me the real reason he didn’t want us in there was because he was afraid we’d accidentally spill some terrible chemical all over ourselves and be disfigured for life.
“Are you crazy?” I hissed, finishing the sentence this time. “Your father will kill us.”
“He’ll never catch us,” Chubby said confidently. “I do this all the time when he’s sleeping it off.”
We slipped inside, and Chubby closed the door. I was immediately overcome by a powerful feeling of fear, helped by strong odors coming from open sacks of fertilizer and potting soil that were everywhere.
“It’s not so bad once you get used to it,” Chubby said.
She was right. In a few minutes, I breathed easier and began to relax. Rows of terra cotta pots on the shelves and tables were neatly arranged by size under tubes of fluorescent lights that gave off an eerie lavender glow. In some of the pots, tiny green shoots peeked out of the soil. An entire Sears catalogue of gardening tools hung on the pegboard walls. An easy chair and a table piled with well-read “Better Homes and Gardens” magazines were next to the only window. On the opposite wall was a cot covered with a flowered bedspread. I thought about Mr. Morgan needing his rest, so it made perfect sense.
Chubby hoisted herself onto a table in order to reach one of the overhead cabinets, which she opened to reveal the precious loot, extra large boxes of Jordan almonds, our favorite candy to buy at the movies. We held them in our mouths, savoring the pastel sugar shells, which slowly melted till nothing was left but the tender, slightly bitter nuts haunted by sweetness that tasted like the beginning of time. One box saw you through a whole film, plus the cartoon, newsreel and previews of coming attractions.
“Wow,” I said. “How many times did your dad have to go to the movies to get those?”
“None,” she said. “He gets them free from one of his customers who owns a bunch of theaters.”
“Why does he keep them locked up in here? Doesn’t he want you to have them?” I asked, remembering Chubby said we were going to “steal” the almonds.
“He’s afraid if he stashes them in the house, my mother and I will find them and gobble them up so fast that he won’t get any,” Chubby said. “So he hides them from us and doles them out on special occasions.”
There were twenty boxes in all, arranged in four stacks of five. We took the two bottom boxes from each stack and removed four almonds from each box, thus reducing the contents by a small enough amount to not betray the crime. The boxes were easy to open and close undetected in those pre-cellophane safety wrapper days.
“Hasn’t your father ever noticed some of his almonds are missing?” I asked, happily sucking a pale green morsel from my share of sixteen.
“Nope,” she said. “If a box feels a little light to him, he just shakes his head and says they’re not giving folks as much for their money nowadays.”
When we finished eating, we carefully put the boxes back. We were concentrating so hard on lining them up with the others exactly as we found them that we didn’t hear Mr. Morgan come in.
“What are you doing here, Leticia Louise Morgan?”
It was the first time I’d heard him call her by her real name, and it sounded frightening.
“Nothing, Daddy,” Chubby said flatly.
I could see her shaking.
“Amy Lynn, I think it’s time for you to go home,” he said, staring angrily at Chubby.
“Yes, sir,” I said, glancing helplessly at Chubby, whose eyes were locked with her father’s.
I slowly closed the shed door behind me and then broke into a run. I was almost home when I remembered I didn’t have my present. Rather than face a scolding for being scatter-brained, I went back for it.
I rang Chubby’s front doorbell a few times with no luck, so I retraced my earlier escape route and re-entered the backyard through a side gate. Too rattled to think of trying the back door, I went straight to the potting shed and knocked lightly.
There was no answer, but I was sure I heard someone inside. I stood on the cement park bench under the window, peeked through the slit in the curtains and saw Mr. Morgan sitting on the edge of the cot. Chubby was kneeling between his legs, her head face down in his lap. Suddenly, Mr. Morgan’s body shuddered violently. At the same time, he made a loud, unearthly noise.
Mr. Morgan leaned forward and kissed the top of Chubby’s head and held her to his chest a moment before pushing her aside. When she moved away, I saw that Mr. Morgan was exposed, an image that would invade my dreams forever.
Chubby, still sitting on the floor, remained expressionless as her father got dressed and smoothed his hair. He helped Chubby to her feet, took her chin in his hand and kissed her on her forehead. Then he hugged her. She was limp in his arms.
Mr. Morgan opened a box of Jordan almonds, took some for himself and popped one into Chubby’s mouth. I wanted her to spit it out onto the floor or into her father’s face, but she chewed and swallowed it, then held out her hand for more.
Shocked and terrified, I fled again, this time not stopping for anything. My parents were waiting for me in the living room when I go home, but I raced past them down the hallway, where I threw up before I could reach the bathroom. My mother put me to bed without asking questions, and I fell asleep with the faint memory of bittersweet Jordan almonds lingering in my throat.
I didn’t see Chubby the rest of Christmas vacation and wouldn’t speak to her when she called.
“Is something wrong between you and Chubby?” my mother asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” I said.
I felt the only way to cope with what I had seen was to try and forget it. Speaking of it would make that impossible. I hoped that my mother would understand my silence. Thankfully, she left me alone.
I couldn’t avoid Chubby any longer, however, when she ambushed me in the lunch line on our first day back at school and said, “I have your Christmas present in my locker. Why didn’t you come over to get it?”
“I didn’t have time,” I lied.
“You don’t have time to talk to me either, I guess,” she said.
“I need to be by myself right now and think about stuff, that’s all. You know how mixed up we pre-teens are supposed to be,” I said, giving her a playful nudge with my tray.
Chubby didn’t get the joke.
“What’s the matter, Amy Lynn?” she asked earnestly, looking sadder than I’d ever seen her, like the tears of a lifetime were dammed in her eyes. “Don’t you like me anymore?”
“Of course I like you, Chubby, but ever since your dad caught us stealing almonds, I haven’t felt much like coming over.”
“I could come to your house,” Chubby said.
“My parents don’t want me to have friends over during the week now that I’m in junior high school. Takes too much time away from studying,” I said.
I prayed she wouldn’t ask about weekends, but was completely unprepared for what happened next.
“I hate you, Amy Lynn Baker,” Chubby yelled, then knocked my lunch tray from my hands onto the floor, ending our conversation like a game of Monopoly. She ran out of the cafeteria, accompanied by catcalls and laughter.
I was unable to move. Mrs. Redmond, my math teacher, brought me another tray of food and guided me to a table, where she sat with me until lunch period ended. I sleepwalked through the rest of the day.
When I got home, my mother said Mrs. Redmond had called.
“What’s the matter, Amy Lynn?” she asked gently.
My mother held me, rocking me softly while I told her what I had seen at Christmas. My words spilled out and tumbled forward, watered with tears of relief. When I was finished, she held my face close to hers and looked at me with all the love and wisdom of the world.
“You did absolutely the right thing by telling me, Amy Lynn. I’m proud of you.”
She was so kind, so understanding, that I began to cry again. Later, when I heard my mother talking to my father, she sounded angry.
“It’ll be okay, Esther,” my father comforted her. “I’ll take care of phoning the authorities.”
They came to tell me good night together, and as they were leaving, my father said, “You’re a brave girl, Amy Lynn Baker, and I love you very much.”
“I love you, too, Dad,” I said, but when he tried to hug me, I didn’t hug him back.
Chubby wasn’t in school the next day. Finally, I asked Bobby Singerman, a boy she liked in her homeroom, if he’d heard anything. He said Chubby’s mother had come in the day before to return Chubby’s books. The teacher told them Chubby would no longer be attending our school.
A few weeks later, I saw a moving van in front of Chubby’s house. Chubby, her mother and Annie Mae watched the movers load the final piece of furniture, the old upright piano, then climbed into Mrs. Morgan’s white Christmas Cadillac and drove away. I watched them sadly, wondering if I’d ever see them again.
I waited to see if Mr. Morgan would come out to wave goodbye, but he didn’t. I don’t know if he was still there. My mother said it didn’t matter where he was, as long as it was nowhere near Chubby.
The next day, a man in a gray suit was pounding a “For Sale” sign into Chubby’s front lawn. Eventually, the house was sold to a couple with no children, and the next time I went downtown, I noticed the sign on Mr. Morgan’s store had been changed to one that read Berman’s House of Jewels.
I returned to my solitary ways. My mother and father tried to cajole me into making new friends, but I remained defiant. In fact, I hardly spoke to them at all, becoming alternately belligerent and sullen, staying in my room as much as possible. When I began regularly faking illnesses to keep from going to school and refused to leave the house at all, they decided it was time for professional help.
Dr. Peters, my psychiatrist, was gaunt, soft-spoken and wore oversized bowties that looked like polka-dot butterflies. I was having a hard time seeing past his ridiculous neckwear, but when he shined his piercing blue eyes at me and calmly, sweetly, asked what was going on, I finally felt safe again.
I told him everything, first angrily and then with torrents of sadness. After a few months, Dr. Peters told my parents he didn’t need to see me anymore.
“Children are remarkably resilient,” he reassured them.
I thought about Chubby a lot for a while and looked for her in every 1959 white Cadillac I saw. I imagined phoning the information operator to get Chubby’s new number and fantasized what I would say when I called her out of the blue to tell her that I was still her friend and chat as if nothing had happened. But the longer I waited, the harder it got, until finally it became impossible.
As Dr. Peters predicted, I eventually made other friends. I went to college, got married and had two daughters. Chubby still crept into my mind, especially when my girls had friends over or when I took them to the refreshment counter at the movies. And I felt her presence every Hanukkah and Christmas. I stopped thinking about getting in touch with her altogether, that is, until I saw the obituary for “former New Orleans jeweler Harold Stanley Morgan.”
I made up my mind I wouldn’t attend the funeral but would watch from a respectable distance and approach Chubby when it was over. Even though almost thirty years had gone by, I imagined us falling into each other’s arms. We would cry a lot, laugh through our tears and swear to never let anything come between us again.
The large crowd at the cemetery surprised me, but I remembered most were there to honor the silky salesman they knew. Among the mourners, I noticed one especially lovely teenage girl, tall, thin, with a familiar face, standing next to the beautiful middle-aged woman whom she would no doubt become. I had found Chubby.
After most of the others had gone, Chubby and her daughter lingered graveside. Feeling a little shaky, I took a few tentative steps forward, but froze with fear when Chubby saw me. At that moment, a man I assume was Chubby’s husband came over and put his arm around her. I was about to retreat when Chubby’s stare softened into recognition.
I melted and hurried toward her, wanting nothing more than to embrace her and say, “I’m sorry.” But before I could get to her, she looked anxiously at her husband, then her daughter and hurried them toward the waiting limousine.
I was close enough to hear the girl ask, “Who’s that, Mom?”
“Someone who knew my father,” Chubby said.
Chubby looked in my direction one last time. I smiled at her hopefully. She hesitated for a moment, turned away and disappeared into the car. Then, she was gone.
Not long after that, my husband and I attended a wedding at our synagogue. On every table were bowls of Jordan almonds, considered to portend good luck for a Jewish bride and groom. In the spirit of the occasion, I popped a pink one into my mouth, the first I’d had in thirty years.
Overwhelmed by memories, I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of melting sugar give way to the delicate flavor of almond. It was comforting to know that the sweetness still lingered long after the bitterness was gone.
Ria Parody Erlich, a proud New Orleans native, is a retired educator and public relations professional, who is delighted she now has time to pursue her lifelong passion for writing. Ria has had several short stories published, including in “The Paddle Wheeler,” the alumni literary magazine published by her alma mater, Benjamin Franklin Senior High School. Most recently, Ria’s short story “The Goodman Girls,” published in the September 2021 edition of “Halfway Down the Stairs,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Ria and her husband Shel live in Santa Monica, California.