The Tin Horse A Novel - By Janice Steinberg

I shoved on back into the store, passed through a partition and found a small dark woman reading a law book at a desk.… She had the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.


We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

JOAN DIDION, The White Album

“ELAINE, WHAT’S THIS? POETRY?” HE SHOOTS A GLANCE AT ME, HIS face so young, so eager. Then his eyes return to the folder he’s opened on the dining room table.

“Let me see it,” I say, but he begins reading aloud.

“ ‘Each fig hides its flower deep within its heart—’ ”

“Josh!” I reach out my hand and give him what my kids call the Acid Regard … even as I feel, against my back, the trunk of the fig tree in our yard in Boyle Heights; feel for a moment, stirring in my bones, the impossibly tender eighteen-year-old self who wrote those words.

“Sure, okay, if you want to look at them first.” He hands over the folder but adds, “These belong in the archive.” He’s well named, Joshua; didn’t he make the walls come tumbling down?

I thought it was a godsend when the library at the University of Southern California asked me to donate my papers to their special collections. I’d been considering moving to a senior apartment at Rancho Mañana, or, as I can’t help calling it, the Ranch of No Tomorrow, and I dreaded having to sort through all the papers and books accumulated during more than half a century of living in my house in Santa Monica. USC volunteered the assistance of a Ph.D. student in library and information science, an archivist, and I jumped at the offer.

I did have a twinge of misgiving. It’s one thing to expose my professional life to strangers, but USC doesn’t just want material from my legal career; they’re interested in my personal papers, things from my childhood and family. Well, I figured the library science student would be a docile young woman who wouldn’t put up a fight if I chose to keep something private, someone with whom the process of excavating my past would be a sort of surgical procedure: clean and impersonal. I of all people—after a lifetime devoted to fighting prejudice—fell into such hasty stereotyping. And I’m paying for it. My not-at-all-docile archivist, Josh, sees every scrap of paper as a potential gold mine, and if his abrasive curiosity pokes an old pain or anger, he’s delighted; my annoyance doesn’t intimidate him, it just makes him push harder.

Not that I can hold Josh responsible for the nostalgia that ambushed me as I opened a box of my kids’ childhood drawings, or the stab of grief when I came upon letters I’d exchanged with Paul—dead four years as of last month—when he was in the army in World War II. And now my teenage poetry. I suppose it’s just as well that Josh isn’t a sensitive, bookish type who’d try to comfort me every time some piece of my past touches a nerve. I prefer sparring to sympathy.

“Is that everything from my office?” I ask briskly. That’s who I am, Elaine Greenstein Resnick, a brisk, no-bullshit woman, not a girlish poet whom every memento leaves undone.

“Let me check.” He jumps up. He’s quick and efficient—thank goodness, since I did decide on the senior apartment. I put my house on the market, and I’m moving to Rancho Mañana in mid-December, just six weeks away.

As soon as he’s left the room and I’m alone, I peek at the first poem. “Each fig hides its flower deep within its heart. I have no such art of concealment. The flower of my love …” Could I ever have been so young and vulnerable? Where did that girl go? I can look back at the Elaine who wrote her first idealistic letter to a newspaper at eleven and draw a line to the crusading attorney I became. The seeds were there, even if it does astonish me that the quiet, reflective girl I was learned to be such a fighter—what did the Los Angeles Times call me, “the city’s go-to progressive attorney for decades, from the McCarthy witch hunts to the civil rights, anti–Viet Nam War, and women’s movements”?

But the gentle poet who once lived in me, what became of her? I can name the date I stopped writing poetry: September 12, 1939. I was eighteen. Whether or not I kept writing, however, what happened to that gentleness? Did I just outgrow it? Did I wall it off?