“Come back at four thirty,” Ira told the Limo driver. “That’ll give me a half hour before my plane is scheduled to land.”
“I’ll be here, Sir,” the driver answered.
Ira left the Limo; and using his walking stick for support, he looked at the white door of his sister Rose’s garden apartment. It was exactly like the doors of the apartments to the left and to the right. Two windows from her apartment faced the cul-de- sac; there were plants in each of them he couldn’t identify, but growing luxuriously.
This was his first visit to his sister in eighteen years. There were three other visits: after their sister Gail died, when Rose’s daughter, Beth graduated from medical school, and when Steven, her husband died.
At the door, he heard the strains of Der RosenKavalier. . Without removing his glove, he used his right forefinger to push the bell-button and hoped she heard it over the swell of the music. He waited for a response; when none came, he pushed the button again. This time he held it longer before releasing it. Impatient now, he knocked on the door with the bulbous head of his walking stick. That didn’t bring any response either; at least, none he could hear. It suddenly occurred to him something might have happened to her; after all, she was eighty four and – – Before he could finish the thought, he grabbed hold of the door knob, turned and pushed the door open. Rose was standing inside of the kitchen; she was on the phone and the De RosenKavalier continued to play.
She put her hand over the mouth piece, and yelled, “The bell and the phone rang at the same time.”
He pointed to the CD player and yelled, “It’s too loud.”
He went over to where it was, removed his gloves, and as he turned it off, he heard her say, “He’s here. . . You know I won’t promise anything, that I might not be able to keep … Good bye.”
She came out of the kitchen. She too used a cane and was smaller than the last time he saw her. He supposed she thought the same of him though he was taller than she by at least two inches. For a couple of moments, neither of them spoke. Since he was fifteen. theirs was a fractious relationship, at times not speaking to each other for years.
“Well, are you going stand there like a damn fool waiting another Godot, or are you going to take your coat off?
He smiled. “I was waiting for your kind invitation,” he answered, unzipping his coat and thrusting his gloves into one of its pockets.
She took his coat and said, “That was Beth on the phone. She calls every morning and every night just before I go to bed.”
“That’s good,” he said with a nod. “My boys touch base at least once a day.”
More moments of silence fell between them and grew into minutes. He felt she was studying him. Perhaps trying to figure out how two such dissimilar people could be so closely related. For him it was always the “roll of the dice,” like so many other things that happen in life.
“It’s nippy out there,” he said to end the silence.
“What did you expect? It’s late October. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we had an early snow; all the signs are there.”
“And you read them?” he asked, aware they hadn’t moved since she came out of the kitchen.
“Certainly, I can read them; and I’m almost always right.”
“It’s good to be ‘almost always right.’ It must make you feel full of confidence,” he said.
Without answering, she walked toward the living room.
He followed her, and said, “October follows September and comes before November.”
“So?” she questioned, dropping his coat on one of the two club chairs.
“October is notable for Columbus Day and Halloween,” he said, as he sat on the sofa and quickly saw four silhouettes that once belonged to his parents and a large painting of a forest scene that also belonged to them. He had nothing of theirs, except his father’s loupe.
“What are you talking about?” She sat opposite him on the empty club chair.
“That’s what we were talking about, wasn’t it?
“I dislike leaving topics of conversation up in the air, so to speak,” he said. “It’s the same as leaving a sentence unfinished, just twisting in the wind.”
Ignoring what he babbled about, she said, “I prepared lunch for the two of us…”
He rubbed his hands together. “Right now, I could use a cup of strong black coffee.”
“You shouldn’t be drinking any kind of coffee.”
“You’re right, of course,” he answered. “But, if you don’t mind, I’ll settle for a cup of tea and milk.”
“I’ll pass,” he said, rubbing his knees. They hurt whenever he stood in one place for more than a couple of minutes. His right hip too got into the act, but he couldn’t rub it. Besides, rubbing his knees didn’t alleviate the pain; it was more a nervous reaction, psychologically satisfying rather than physically palliative.
“I have hot chocolate, apple pie, ice cream and a few other goodies for dessert,” Rose said.
Ira chuckled. “With all those things that are really good for me, I can’t see how coffee would be bad for me.”
“I only have them on special occasions.”
He couldn’t deny it was a special occasion, and said, “The last time I saw you was at Steven’s funeral.”
“Eighteen years ago, come November fifth,” she said in a soft voice.
Ira saw the sadness overwhelm her face, and cause her eyes to glisten with unshed tears. He thought of his own demise, and how Cynthia would react to it, or her death and his reaction to it. Both would be bereft with the loss of the other. It was a melancholy thought; and to escape from it, he said, “Eighteen years and a few phone calls in between.”
Rose pushed back into the club chair, and said, “That wasn’t my fault.”
“Certainly not, since I made all of the calls,” Ira said. Her few moments of softness were gone.
“Don’t try to be funny,” she said tartly.
“Moi?,” he answered, rubbing his knees again. “I don’t try to be funny; I am either funny or I’m not funny. It’s spontaneous, like spontaneous combustion. It just happens.”
Rose didn’t answer, and again the silence between them grew. He could sense it growing. To stop it before it became dangerous, before it boiled over into one their vituperative exchanges, he asked, “When’s lunch?”
“You just got here?”
Clearly, her tone was belligerent; so, he explained, “I had an early breakfast, and not much of a one at that, just coffee and rye toast.”
She checked her fob watch against clock on the wall. “Not ’till one.”
“Let’s compromise at twelve-thirty.”
She hunched slightly forward. “And that’s another thing; how did you get up here so early. The bus from New York doesn’t get into Albany until eleven-forty-five; that’s if it’s on time, which it seldom is.”
“I flew up in a private plane, and a Limo picked me up at the airport.”
She looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean, you flew up?”
“I arranged for a charter flight. It makes life so much easier, and I have the money to do it; so, I did it.”
With her two hands, she grabbed hold of the ends of the club chair and pulled herself almost to its edge. “Oh, you don’t have to tell me how successful you’ve become; it’s in all the newspaper and TV.”
He shrugged. “I’ve been lucky these last twenty years; but before that, it was always a struggle.” He wasn’t going to explain what the life of a free-lance writer was like. She would not have understood.
“You don’t know what struggle is all about,” she said. “You always had it so easy.”
He rubbed his knees again, and asked, “How about lunch at twelve-thirty?’
“I’m used to eating at one.”
“Then one it must be of necessity.”
Still at the edge of the club chair, she said,” You haven’t told me why you’ve come here after all these years.”
“I told you on the phone: to talk about mom,” he answered. “There are things you know about her that I don’t.”
She took hold of her cane; and pointing it at him, she almost shouted, “Why? Why? Why now?”
Slowly he stood; and putting his weight on his walking stick, he said, “Because she was not only your mother, or the mother of Sylvia and Gail, she was also my mother. Because time is running out for – -”
“You’d never know it from the way you wrote about her in your novels,” she answered sharply. “You used your family to make your money. You made all of us look like – – like – – ”
“Characters in a book,” he snapped, “because that’s what they are. They’re not mom or pop or anyone else in the family; they’re the creation of the author.”
“And she loved you so much,” she said.
He shrugged. “That’s your take,” he answered and moved to the sliding glass door. Outside the foliage was stunning beautiful, full of reds, yellows, and browns. He saw her reflection in the glass in front of him.
The more he looked at her reflection, the dowdier she became. Except for full head of white hair, aging had not softened her looks, nor had it given her that dignity it sometimes gives to women and men who pass a certain age.
When his legs started to ache again, he returned to the couch, and asked her if she had anything planned for Thanksgiving to jump-start a conversation.
“If I have the strength, maybe I’ll fly to California and spend the holiday with Beth and her family.
“That would be good.”
“I suppose you’re doing something special.”
“Haven’t decided on anything yet. I don’t enjoy dinner parties the way I used to. I have to watch what I eat, and I can’t drink anymore; and that means if I’m cranky, I’m very cranky.”
“You always drank too much,” she said accusingly.
He laughed. “And you never drank enough to loosen up.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that?”
“To be Rosie, not Rose.”
“I’m sure, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said huffily.
“Thanksgiving,” he said, remembering how he and their father would go for a long walk. Once, when they were living on Linden Boulevard, they walked Sheepshead Bay and back to the house without exchanging more than a couple of words.
“So, what about it?”
“When I was with pop, if the weather was warm, we’d duck into a saloon, and have a couple of beers. He was a big fan of the free lunch counter. But two beers was his limit.”
“He’d never take you into a saloon,” she said, in a tone indicative of her certainty.
“It was a father-son thing, a guy thing,” Ira answered; and chuckling, he added, “Pop was strictly a two beer man.”
“So you say,” she said in the same tone. “But I never saw him drink anything, except a glass of wine.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t,” he said, wondering why she didn’t see or didn’t want to see that along with their father’s quietness, there was also his secretiveness. He certainly kept secrets from everyone the family; like to which one of the jewelers in the Diamond Exchange he entrusted his stash of diamonds. He left nothing other than the cash in a safe deposit box and a few brass settings in the small, black purse he always carried.
“You look – – ”
“I was thinking about the Thanksgiving dinners that mom made,” he lied, “when we had turkey instead of chicken, and the family rows about all sorts of things, including who was going to wash and dry the dishes.”
“For your information, we always had turkey.”
“I guess your memory is better than mine.”
“I know that you never did any work, none of the men did. The women did all of it.”
“But mom did make one hell of a roast turkey; she’d roast it one of those big brown bags that came with the food from the supermarket,” Ira reminisced. “Pop and I were the only ones who like dark meat. To this day, I like the drumstick best.”
“The family never appreciated her,” Rose complained.
“Does that include you too?”
She glared at him. “No. You, my sisters and even daddy, but especially you.”
He shrugged. “It depends on how you look at mom; you think she could have been President of the United States, or something like it.”
“You’re making fun of her again.”
“Not her,” Ira answered, “but your view of her; mom was nowhere near being president of anything.”
“And I suppose you think you are or were?” she challenged.
“It never entered my mind; all I ever wanted to do was to write. Besides,” Ira added, “I’m too honest to be a politician.”
“That’s a good one,” she laughed. “You and your mob connections, that’s how you made it big, through the mob.”
“And that’s what you think?”
“Momma told me all about it,” Rose said triumphantly.
He nodded and started to rub his knees again.
“Come on, you know you don’t have the talent to have done it on your own; you’re a terrible speller, and you have a god-awful handwriting for an author and a playwright,” she laughed. “And you need brains, and you don’t have any, at least not the kind that – – Maybe you didn’t write any of it.”
“They wrote themselves,” he answered, fighting back his anger.
“They could have been ghost written,” she said.
Slowly Ira stood. He was seething,
She smiled. “Did I touch a nerve, brother?”
Halting, he said, “You just destroyed my life’s work as easy as that.” And he snapped his fingers. “Only it didn’t play out that way – – the way mom and you concocted it.”
“I know what I know,” she shot back.
“Do you know that unless mom wrote the script, staged it and was its star, she was unhappy; then when she was unhappy, she was happy in her unhappiness because there she could concoct another wild scheme ,” he paused to breathe deeply. He feared his emphysema might kick up, then he’d have to fight to breath or he’d be wracked by fits of coughing. “Mom didn’t live to see any of my plays; but it wasn’t enough for her for me to be a novelist. I had to have mob connections to spice it up, to give her some sort of weird cachet.” He paused again for another deep breath. “Did I know mobsters? Yes. Remember, I worked as a longshoreman. You learned damn quick who the real bosses were, or you didn’t work. But I never told mom or pop anything about them. . . As for brains, Rose – – well, it took you years to accept the fact that I too was a college graduate even after you saw my diploma.
Rose no longer smiled. “It all came so easily to you. You were spoiled rotten,” she said bitterly. “Aribergechapt. The only son.”
“Do you know what Aribergechapt means?”
“It means spoiled, the way you were,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean that at all,” Ira told her. He was calmer now and breathed easier.
Quizzically, she looked at him. “Suppose you tell me what you think it means? After all, your command of Yiddish is so much superior to mine.”
Ira sat. “A claim I’d never make,” he said. “But one day, I Googled it.”
“I looked it up on the Internet.”
“It specifically means an overdressed woman.”
“Like I said, spoiled,” she declared.
“If you say so,” he sighed. It wasn’t worth another argument.
“I say so,” she said adamantly.
The dinning alcove was in front of the kitchen, a large enough space for a small table and four chairs. An elliptical mirror decorated one wall, and a rectangular painting of a fox feigning sleep hung on the other wall. One day his father brought it home, and it was placed on one of living room’s wall, a kind of center piece. Ira never liked the painting. What interested him more than the painting as he looked at it was that his father thought enough about it so many years ago to have brought it home. It was something for him to think about, perhaps to use it in one of his plays.
“Lunch is almost ready,” Rose called from the kitchen.
Ira offered to help. But she insisted on doing everything, while he sat in front of a setting opposite the other one.
“Lunch,” Rose announced, entering the alcove holding a plate in each of her hands and her cane dangling from her right forearm.
Ira stood, met her and took one of the plates from her and placed on the table alongside of the setting opposite where he sat. “Goat cheese on a bed of lettuce surrounded by four wedges of tomato,” he said, looking at the plate in front of him.
“And carrot and raisin salad,” Rose said.
“Splendidly healthy food,” he acknowledged. “But you wouldn’t by any chance have some ham, salami or some other lunch meat around. Something I could sink my teeth into; those that are still mine.”
“Not for years and years.”
“Well this is more than nothing,” he chuckled. “But there was a time I survived on a lot less, on nothing.”
“You never went hungry; you always had it easy,” Rose answered.
Ira remained silent and picked at the food in front of him.
“All right, tell me when you went hungry,” she challenged. “Momma always made sure there was food on the table even if was herring and boiled potatoes or black bread with schmaltz on it.”
“Drop it,” Ira said tightly. “It happened a long time ago; it’s not worth going into now.” Suddenly, he felt the darkness gather inside of him. His throat tightened.
“You can’t tell me when it happened because it never happened; it’s another one of your fabrications, your stories.”
He put his fork down. “Korea happened, sister. I was there. It happened.” He was very angry. He felt the flush in his face.
“That wasn’t real,” she said, with a wave of her hand.
“It was real enough to me and my men and also real enough to the ChiComs,” he said in hard voice.
“Steven was on some stupid island during World War Two,” she commented.
He nodded and began rubbing his knees.
“So you were there,” she said.
“You only wrote to me once,” he told her. “I kept the letter. It’s a kind of talisman.”
“I thought you don’t believe in anything.”
“I don’t,” he declared. “Not God, not heaven or hell. But this letter is – -”
“Read the damn letter,” she yelled.
Ira reached into inside pocket and pulled out a black leather passport case and removed a folded piece of paper. “This came the day before we were going to make a run down the Slot and try break through the ChiComs lines. We had already been bloodied, and we knew this was the big one, the proverbial do or die,”
“Read the letter; I don’t need the damn background.”
“I won’t read the beginning; it’s the end that matters,” he said; and without looking at the letter, he continued, “‘As for the possibility of you getting killed, it wouldn’t really matter. You would be one of many. All of you are cannon fodder. It was stupid of you to enlist. Your sister, Rose.'” By the time he finished, his hands were shaking.
“What do you expect me to say? I wrote it and that’s that. It has nothing to do with anything, especially now.”
He breathed deeply and slowly exhaled. “Don’t you think it was a wee bit cruel?” he asked, as he refolded the letter and replaced it in the passport case.
“I was very angry at you.”
“Why? You were at my wedding a few months before,” he said, returning the passport case to his inside pocket.”
“You should have stayed with momma and daddy; you owed them that much. But you were spoiled, spoiled rotten,
Aribergechapt,” Rose said, her face red with anger.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Everyone knew you were sleeping with Cynthia, since you were getting what you really wanted, there was no reason for you to marry her.”
“No. Not true,” he protested and struggled to his feet.
“All the signs were there.”
“The signs,” she insisted.
He couldn’t face her and went to the glass sliding door. “You misread the fucking signs,” he growled. “She was a virgin.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Remember, I was raised with three sisters, and I knew what mom’s caveat to the three of you was, ‘Not an inch above your knees.’ ”
Rose remained silent.
He turned from the sliding door and looked at her. “Let’s try this,” he said patiently. “Do you remember the draft?”
“So, I remember, so what?”
So to avoid being drafted, I enlisted in the Marine Reserve; me and a friend of mine, Richard Rampel. Then our numbers came up, not in the draft but in the Corps. We were placed on active duty and sent to Korea.” He faltered and had to clear his throat several times before he could speak again; and even then then words came haltingly. “He was next to me when he was hit. One of his eyes and part of his brain landed on my cheek and neck…Korea was very real, very real.” And he wiped away the tears with the back of his hand.
“That’s cruel and ugly,” she told him. “I bet you made that you made that up just the way you make everything up.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t make that up, not in a million years. I never told anyone about what happened in Korea, not even Cynthia.”
“Momma got confused that’s all that happened; and now you’re making a big deal out of it…Maybe you were never there, like your story about the fellowship,” she said. “I still don’t believe you graduated from college.”
He began to whistle the waltz tune from Der Rosenkavalier. It was a mistake for him to be there; he knew that now.
She was intractable.
“Why are you doing that?”
“To calm myself,” he said, going back to the table.
“I’m the one who needs calming,” Rose responded. “You and your cockamamie stories. One day you’ll scare yourself to death.”
“No such luck . . . I don’t scare easily,” he said, suddenly aware of Rose’s fidgeting, and wondered if he caused it?
“I forgot to tell you,” she blurted out, “I invited two friends for hot chocolate and dessert.”
Surprised, he looked questioningly at her.
“Well, I can’t very well un-invite them, can I?”
Ira didn’t answer, and he too left the table to look at the books in living room book case.
“You won’t find any of your books there,” she commented from the kitchen. “I don’t read them, or keep them in my collection.”
“Lots of people don’t,” he answered, returning to the table. “If they did, I’d have more money than I already have; and that would be a shanda.”
Rose came out of the kitchen; and sitting opposite him again, she said, “I want you to behave when my friends come. I know how wild you can get.”
“I promise not to expose myself,” he chuckled. “But remember that’s what I did for the edification of mom, my three sisters and Cousin Fay, and all for a nickel or was it a dime.”
“It was absolutely harmless. You were a little boy.”
“Old enough to have memories of it,” he said, “memories that taste like ashes.”
“Someone must have told you,” she said.
“No one told me . . . Mom, pop – – one of them should have stopped it.”
“It was innocent fun,” she declared. “Beside, you enjoyed it.”
Ira laughed. “Sure I did. I was played with; I was erotically stimulated.”
“It certainly didn’t do you any harm,” she huffed. “You became sexually active when you were very young, thirteen or fourteen as I recall.”
“Younger than that . . . In grade school with a teacher, and there was always cookies and milk afterwards.”
“Oh my God!” she gasped. “You’re making it up, aren’t you?”
“What do you think?” he asked bitingly.
“I don’t know what to think,” she admitted.
“Think cookies and milk,” he told her, “cookies and milk.”
Before Rose could answer, the doorbell rang.
“Your friends are here,” Ira said.
For several moments, Rose didn’t move. She couldn’t.
“I’ll get the door, while you get yourself together,” he said.
“I’m together,” she snapped.
“Then you get the door, and I’ll compose myself,” he answered.
Using the cane for support, she opened the door and greeted the two women with, “I’m so glad you could come.”
Ira waited until Rose closed the door before he stood and approached them. “How do you do, ladies? I’m Ira,” he said, shaking each one of their hands.
“She’s Bea,” Rose said, gesturing to the smaller of the two. “And she’s Sally.”
He nodded to them and took their coats and hats.
“Put them on the chair with yours,” Rose told him.
“Well, you’re certainly one to keep a secret,” he heard Sally say.
And Bea added, “How long have you known him?”
Rejoining them, Ira laughed and said, “All of her life. I’m her brother.”
Both women looked confused. “I never knew you had one,” Sally said.
“Neither did I,” Bea added.
“I’m the green sheep of the family. That’s a lot worse than being the black sheep, you know. But why don’t we sit, and I’ll tell you all about our other siblings, two sisters, Sylvia and Gail.”
At the table, Ira said, “Silvia renamed herself Shirley, and Gertrude decided she wanted to be Gail. Shirley was the oldest of our sisters and Gail the youngest. I’m the baby in the family, an unhappy accident for our parents.”
As he spoke, he looked at the women. They were at least ten years younger than he or Rose. Both were bleached blonds, and wore stylish pants suits. Bea’s eyes were blue and Sally’s green. They were a sharp contrast to Rose’s dowdiness.
“We knew Gail had passed away,” Sally said.. “But is Shirley – – ”
“She’s gone too, about seven years,” Ira said.
“Rose, you never said a word about it,” Bea commented.
“Or sat Shiva,” Sally said.
Rose shrugged. “We didn’t get along, and there was no use in pretending that we did.”
“Honesty, ladies, is always the best policy,” Ira quipped.
Suddenly, Rose stood. “I like a drink in the afternoon and one before I go to bed,” she said and trundled to the kitchen without her cane to fetch the necessary glasses and bottle of whatever she intended to serve. “Blackberry cordial,” she announced as she made her way back to the table.
“I’ll pass,” Ira said, turning his glass upside down.
“What shall we drink to?” Rose asked, after she poured the cordial for her friends and herself. “Let’s make it bigger than ourselves.”
“World peace,” Bea offered.
“The brotherhood of man,” Sally said.
The three touched glasses and drank.
“THE ODE TO JOY followed by flatulence, a musical fart,” Ira said, “mixing the sublime with the ugly, the aspiration with the harsh reality.”
“I never heard of anything like that before,” Rose countered.
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t so . . . It was suggested in an article by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in The Times Literary Supplement about two years ago.”
“I hate gutter words, no matter how they’re used,” Rose said vehemently.
“Scratch much of literature,” Ira laughed, “including Shakespeare.” He stood on firmer ground than she; and he knew that she knew it.
“More cordial?” Rose asked, anxious to move the conversation in a different direction.
Both women nodded.
“I’m ravenous,” Ira announced.
“You look so familiar,” Bea said to Ira.
“Another toast,” Rose suggested before Ira could answer. “Bea? Sally? Any ideas?”
“I’ll offer one though I’m not drinking,” Ira said.
“Please do,” Bea responded.
He smiled; and looking at Rose, he lifted his empty glass and said, “Simply, L’Chaim, to life and all that it offers.”
They clicked glasses, and the women sipped their drinks.
Suddenly, Bea said, “Rose, you’re something else. You’re a sly old lady.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rose answered.
“What she means, is – – ” Ira began.
“Ira Grower, the author and playwright,” Bea announced proudly.
“You’re right,” Sally agreed.
“The last name threw me; I’m so used to you as Rose Lynn,” Bea explained
“My God, Rose, you might have warned us who your brother is,” Sally said.
Ira said nothing; he enjoyed the entire episode.
“Oh, he’s nothing special,” Rose told them, “though I’m sure he doesn’t think that.”
But he could see that Rose wasn’t happy; her eyes were full of suppressed anger that sooner or later would explode out and engulf both of them.
“Time for dessert,” she announced her words sounding more like a command than an invitation.
“I’ll help you,” Sally and Bea offered, following her into the kitchen.
Ira surveyed the desserts, and said, “I’ll help myself to a piece of apple pie, some ice cream and of course Mondelbrodt. I bet it’s just like mom made.”
“Better,” Rose said. “I don’t have to be stingy with any of the ingredients the way she had to be…She was a remarkable woman.”
She gave him an opening and he took it. “Most mothers are remarkable in their special ways. Mom was a good baker, but not much of a cook or housekeeper, for that matter.”
“You never understood how she had to struggle to raise a family on the twenty-five dollars a week that daddy gave her,” she said with furious emotion. “Daddy never gave her more.”
Ira put down his fork. “Pop never demanded much and never got much from mom,” he said.
“Never got much?”
“That’s what I said,” Ira answered, picking up the fork again.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Rose said.
“Let’s drop it,” he said, between helpings of apple pie. “You have guests, and that’s a family matter.”
“I bet you were a precocious child,” Bea said, looking at Ira.
And Rose quickly answered. “No. He wasn’t. He was slow, very slow. He couldn’t even tie his own shoes until he was five or six. And he was spoiled rotten . . . Aribergechept.”
Purposefully squinting at her and in a western drawl, Ira responded with, “Them’s a mighty fine recommendation, lady, fer an ol’ critter like me.”
“You were a vilder mentsh, a wild person.”
“I was really a remarkable child. I managed to spoil myself; a feat unknown up to that time, but one which I managed to accomplish.”
Bea and Sally smiled, and said, “I’ll have to remember to tell my sisters that when they tell me I spoiled.”
Venomously, Rose said, “For god’s sake you were left back twice, and if it wasn’t for momma you would have wound up in a un-grade class, a school for retarded children.”
They were in the white water now, deep in the past when he was full of anger and pain; the kind of pain that comes from being ridiculed by other children, from wearing a dunce cap and sitting in the last seat, in the last row, away from the rest of the class. The kind of pain that made it possible for him to look out of the classroom window and create his own world, spin his own stories. The memory of it and so much more forced him to clear his throat; that child belonged to him. That child became the man he was.
“What’s wrong,” she asked, “the cat got your tongue?”
He nodded and said, “I was a blot on the family’s escutcheon, a shanda. But we didn’t have escutcheon; only mom pretended that we had one. She came to my defense as well as her own. So there I was, self-spoiled, and to use the vernacular, slow as shit.” He paused before he said, “Now here I am, obviously not slow as shit. And as for being spoiled, at our age it’s called self-indulgence.” Again, he paused; but this time he smiled and said, “If not now, when?” And before Rose answered, he said, “I think I’ll have a crack at one of those Brownies.”
Sally handed him the dish of Brownies and he took one, but didn’t immediately bite into it. Though he was out of the white water, he was still in the past, a better part of it as far as his memories went; and he said, “The truth of the matter was and still is that my sister taught me to read and write, took me to museums, concerts and once to the circus when it was held in Brooklyn under the big top, a huge tent. And she even took me to the Griddle, a place that featured pancakes. I grabbed the stack on the plate with my hands; they were dripping with syrup and she was mortified.”
“What an odd thing to remember,” Rose commented.
“Every time I think about it, I smile as I’m smiling now . . . Just imagine a kid with a handful of pancakes dripping with syrup,” he said, finally biting into the Brownie.
“No memory of it at all,” Rose said.
“After the circus, we walked through the Holy Cross Cemetery and got lost,” he said.
Ira knew she was purposefully lying to deny their mutual past, to separate them as much as possible. “Then I must be more creative than I thought I was,” he responded, trying to smile but couldn’t because he felt the presence of an encroaching sadness and tried to push it away.
“Anyone for more anything?” Rose asked.
“Ice cream, my one grand weakness,” Ira said, helping himself to more ice cream.
“It’s not good for you,” Rose cautioned.
“Much isn’t good for me these days,” he answered. “It’s one of my gripes about getting old; all of the goodies are gone. But, of course, I realize it’s a ridiculous gripe. The body changes and so does its needs.”
“What I’d like to know is where you get your ideas from?” Sally asked.
“Almost everywhere,” Ira said, taking a spoon full of chocolate ice cream.
“Oh, that’s easy enough to answer,” Rose interjected, “he steals them.”
He chuckled. “That too as every writer does; all the original ideas were taken by the ancient Greek playwrights. But mainly I listen to what people say and how they interact with each other, or their dogs or cats, or their favorite monkey.
“Are you working on something now?” Bea questioned.
Ira nodded. “It’s a story about a grandfather who falls in love with his granddaughter.”
“No one will accept that premise,” Rose said. “It’s just too sick.”
As if to defend himself, Ira raised his hands with their palms out.
“Why don’t you write about beautiful things in life instead of the sordid?”
Ira put his spoon down; he gave up on the ice cream. “Most fiction lives in the belly of the beast because that’s where most of us live.”
“I don’t believe that for a moment,” she said with hauteur.
He started to rub his knees again. “I didn’t ask you to believe anything; I just gave you my opinion, that’s all.”
The white water was there again; he could feel its rush. This time it might hurl them against the rocks, bruise them without mercy.
“Did you ever write anything from a woman’s point of view?’ Sally questioned.
“If pigs had wings, they’d fly,” Rose said. “Write from a woman’s point of view? He couldn’t do that in a zillion years.”
“Several,” he said, still rubbing his knees, “under various names, women’s names.”
“That’s impossible,” Rose claimed.
“You think so,” he said, feeling better for the moment, “there’s one of them on the right side of the second shelf.”
“Elizabeth Godwin,” Ira explained, “but if you look at the page after the title page, you will see at the bottom of it in small that Elizabeth Godwin is a pen name for Ira Grower.”
“Remarkable!” Sally exclaimed.
“And you never knew it, Rose?” Bea questioned.
“How could you do something like that?” Rose asked, in a voice choked with anger.
“The how doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s not that remarkable or uncommon.” And with a chuckle, he added, “Mom might have gotten a kick out of it. She’d have enjoyed the joke. But pop wouldn’t have seen it that way.”
“He wanted you to be something better – – a professional.”
With his hand quivering, he reached for the hot chocolate. “I am a professional,” he said, giving voice to his anger.
“You’re a nothing,” she viciously snapped back. “An absolute nothing!”
Ira lost his hold on the pot of hot chocolate, and it splattered over the white table cloth.
“Oh you stupid man,” Rose yelled. “I wish you were dead.”
Her verbal blow sank Ira back into the chair. “Better go ladies,” he managed to say.
“Are you sure?” Bea asked.
He nodded, but remained silent.
“Will you be all right?” Sally asked.
Again he nodded.
“How could you do this to me,” Rose shrieked. “How could you do this to me?”
Ira heard the door close and welcomed the sound; they had smashed against the rocks and the both of them were badly bruised.
Ira stepped out of the kitchen; the sleeves of his shirt sleeves were pushed up, and his badly stained jacket was draped over the back of one of the chairs next to the table. He cleared the table and put everything on the kitchen counter, except the ice-cream, which went into the freezer. With all of that done, he returned to the table and pulled his sleeves down. His legs and right hip ached from standing too long, and he was happy to sit.
Rose hadn’t moved, nor had she said anything.
He glanced at the glass sliding door. The lighting was softer now because it was late afternoon. In a couple of hours he’d be gone. He looked back at Rose and said, “It’s a long time since I did kitchen duty.”
“I didn’t mean what I said,” she told him.
He shrugged. “Gail said something similar to me before she died,” he said, surprised that he mentioned it. Like Rose’s letter, he carried it with him; though not in his inside breast pocket, it was stowed inside of his head with the rest of his sad memories.
Weeping softly, Rose said, “The same thing happened to Steven; he spilt hot chocolate all over himself, and I said the same thing. He died the next day.”
“Coincidence,” Ira told her. “Nothing connects the two unless you believe you have some sort of supernatural power.”
“I was so overwrought,” she said, wiping her eyes and clearing her nose with a tissue, “That I didn’t know if I had the physical or psychological strength to continue to take care of him. I was the same way just before Gail died . . . You remember, don’t you?”
Ira nodded and started to rub his knees again. “Both our memories have been twisted by – – ”
“Maybe yours have, but not mine. Not mine; I remember everything as if it all happened yesterday.”
“Over forty years of yesterdays,” he said.
Suddenly, she straightened up. “I want to know what Gail said to you.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” he lied.
“Why she was dying and I wasn’t, since she was a good person and I was – – ” he couldn’t finish.
Rose nodded. “I understand,” she said.
“She was more than slightly out of her head from Morphine,” Ira explained, “more of a thing than a woman.”
“We were like twins. She was my other self; we thought the same way.”
“Not exactly,” Ira said, knowing Gail had told him before she became ill that she thought her sister “was a horse’s
ass.” But Rose created a mythos about their relationship.
“She didn’t deserve to die the way she did,” Rose sniffled and used the tissue again. “I sacrificed so much for her.”
Ira didn’t answer. That was part of the myth she created. To deny it would lead to another argument, more white water. More than anyone else, he was the one who cared for Gail; he gave her Morphine shots three times a day, washed her ever diminishing body and many times she had to be hospitalized he stayed with her until she fell asleep. He did it because no one else in the family could. His experiences in Korea, where he saw death and pain, hardened him, prepared him for what he had to do for Gail. And when it was finally over, he felt as if he’d been living in the depths of a poisonous sea and had surfaced and could breathe again. He did not cry when she died; he wasn’t even sad. Her ordeal was over, and that was reason enough for him to be happy.
“And her husband wasn’t much use to her,” she said. “Besides, he had other women.”
“Seth had other women?
“All the signs were there,” she answered.
“And you read them the same way you read the signs Cynthia and I was sleeping with each other before we were
“He couldn’t stand to look at her,” Rose said vehemently.
“Toward the end, could you stand to look at Steven,” Ira challenged.
“That was different.”
“Tell me how it was different?”
“It was just different,” she said stubbornly.
Ira left the table and went back to the sliding glass door. Without him looking at his sister, though he could see her reflection in the glass, he asked, “Was it also different when pop didn’t go to see mom after she had a hysterectomy and almost died because she hemorrhaged?
Rose didn’t answer.
“He sat on a park bench, fed the pigeons, and told me to go to see her.” Ira turned away from the window. “For Christ’s sake, I was twelve years old. But that was the first time I learned I could do something he couldn’t do. And what a revelation it was for me. It opened many doors, and allowed me to look at pop in a new way: he was a man like any other man, not Superman.”
Before his legs and hip would begin to hurt again, he returned to the table. The conversation between them lapsed. At first, Ira thought they needed the palliative effects of the silence; but as moments became minutes, the silence became oppressive and tinged with with a feeling of tenseness, and he softly whistled the waltz melody from Der RosenKaviler.
“You still can’t carry a tune,” she said. “If you want me to, I’ll put the CD on. ”
“I’d appreciate that,” he answered.
Rose left the table and worked at the CD player until the music came on. “Is that better?” she asked returning.
“Such wonderfully delicious decadence,” Ira said, as she hummed along with the music; and though there wasn’t any obvious connection to what he was hearing, he found himself remembering a family outing to Heckscher State Park and asked if she remembered it.
“In Cousin Sidney’s truck,” she said. “It was a blistering hot summer’s day. We were going to swim and picnic.”
“We broke down somewhere on the Sunrise Highway,” he added, “and mom decided to have a picnic right there on the side of the highway. I bet we looked like gypsies to the people in the cars that passed us.”
“She was a remarkable woman, a free spirt.”
“She was that,” Ira agreed, “a free spirit.” Then, as if he was speaking to himself, he said, “Yes, that was a good time. The picnic, I mean. But did we ever get to the park?”
“You know, I don’t remember,” Rose answered. “I only remember the picnic.”
Ira nodded. “I saw something like that many years ago on my way to Rimini.” And with a chuckle he added, “Mom would go anywhere, anytime at the drop of the proverbial hat. But pop wasn’t that way; he preferred to stay put. He was the quintessential home body.”
“Why does all that matter now?” Rose asked. “It’s all in the past, gone.”
“I want to write a play about it,” he said. “It will probably be the last one I’ll ever write. FAMILY MATTERS; that will be its title.”
She stiffened. “I don’t want to be a character in your play, and I don’t want momma or daddy to be characters in it either.”
He stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“No where,” he said. “I need to stretch my legs or they become cramped.” He walked around the table; then put his hands on the back of the chair and leaned slightly forward before he said, “It has nothing to do with whether you want to be or don’t want be a character in my play because you are already one, as I am in the play you’ll never write. Neither one of us can be erased by the wave of the other’s hand. The play has been running for eight decades, closer to nine for yours, since you’re old than I am. But the opening act began when mom and dad married.”
“If I’m still alive, I’ll sue,” she threatened. “And I’ll certainly see that Beth does it if I can’t.”
He moved to the front of the chair and sat. “That was mom’s favorite pastime; she always had a case pending and a shyster lawyer waiting to take his cut. The last one – Dawkin, was his name. He’d gotten pop off – -”
“It was for the money she hoped to get. We were always short of money because daddy squirreled it away.”
Suddenly, he was angry. “Did she also fuck for money?”
“Oh, how could you – – ”
“I saw her with Red, the laundry man, our boarder. She never loved pop,” he said, his voice choking up.
“How could you say something like that about her?”
“Easy,” he said. “She told me shortly after pop died. We were on the Belt Parkway; I almost lost control of the car.”
“He never understood her,” Rose said.
“Did she understand him,” Ira shot back.”Oh yes, she knew that he was weaker than she was, and took advantage of it.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and in that instant he was back in a small room. His father was on the floor dead, the victim of a stroke; and his mother was screaming, “Get up Max; get up. Why are you doing this to me?” And he said, “Ma, pop’s dead. He’s dead.” And she yelled, “He’s not dead. He’s got to tell me where the money is, in what bank?” Ira looked at his sister. “You don’t know,” he said softly. “You don’t know the whole story.”
“Do you?” she challenged.
“No,” he admitted. “But I know he loved her.”
“Daddy was a stubborn man,” Rose said.
He wanted to say that they were stubborn, but he was sure she’d deny it; so instead he said,”Pop wanted no more than to be left alone. He never asked for much of life, and always got less than he asked for.”
“I know for a fact he had other women,” Rose told him.
“Good for him!” he said; that was one of his fantasies. He imagined his father with another family that truly loved him and admired him, with a son he could be proud of.
“You know, of course, you’re sick,” she told him.
“Probably,” he answered. “But no sicker than you are.”
“And that’s what you intend to put on the stage and shame all of us?”
Ira didn’t answer immediately and when he did, he said, “I don’t know what I’ll write until I write it. But I have a lot of thinking to do before I begin to write. Though our family was a lot like a zillion other families, it has its own unique story and its own unique characters.” And then he looked at his watch. “My limo will be here soon,” he told her.
“Will you be truthful if I ask you a question?”
“As I can be.”
“Did you ever have mob connections?”
“Mom’s fabrications, but I did know men and still do know men who are connected to it,” he said, and with chuckle, he teased, “But I had other connections.”
She didn’t ask what they were; so he said, “Naval Intelligence.”
“Naval Intelligence?” she echoed.
“There’s much about me you don’t know. No one in the family knew.”
“I don’t want to know the details,” she answered sourly.
“I wasn’t about to tell them to you,” he said, “They’re still classified.”
“My God, you’re an impossible man,” she said in exasperation.
“I told you before,” he said with a smile, “I’m entirely possible and very real.”
Ira was at the glass door again. October twilight covered the garden. Rose remained at the table. Der RosenKaviler had finished playing several minutes before, and when he left the table they stopped speaking. The silence, though not oppressive, again contained underlying tenseness, or that was something he imagined. His mother loomed large in his thoughts.
Suddenly, he realized Rose was only a few steps behind him. He was so engrossed in his thinking that he hadn’t seen her reflection move.
“Why did you really come here?” she asked.
He faced her. “I told you on the phone: to find out more about mom.”
“And did you?”
“Nothing I didn’t already know.”
“Then it was a wasted effort,” she said deprecatingly. “I hate a wasted anything.”
Thoughtfully, Ira answered, “Not all that wasted. I was able to put certain things on the tish, the table, so to speak and look at them.”
“And what did you see?”
“Our family from your point of view and match it to my mine.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you had a point of view.”
He brought his walking stick in front of him; and resting both hands on top of it, he said, “As long as we’re alive, we have a point of view. It’s one the things that differentiates us from each other. When we lose it, we’re living but we’re not alive.”
Rose gave him a quizzical look.
“There’s always a problem when it comes to sorting memories. Each one has its own weight, its own importance.”
“You can’t reconcile – – ”
“I’m not trying to reconcile anything,” he said.
“If momma wasn’t the mother you wanted, maybe you weren’t the son she and daddy wanted. . . You broke their hearts when you ran away,” she said accusingly.
“I know I wasn’t,” he answered. “And believe me when I tell you knowing it has caused me much grief…But I had to do what I did. I was suffocating. I needed air; the kind of air I couldn’t get at home, or at school… I had four mothers, and a weak father. But when I came home, I was my own man. I came and went as I pleased. I made my own decisions; and when they were wrong, I took my lumps.” They were in white water again. Maybe they were never out of it. Maybe that was where they’ve always been.
“So, you got what you wanted; so now, what’s all the fuss about?”
“Understanding,” he said quietly.
“Momma played the Grand Dam because it was the only role she knew,” Rose responded.
He shook his head. “But she never understood that the role was just that, a role; and she wasn’t writing the script. One way or another, that’s something most of us come to realize. The script is not wholly ours to choose. We can act in our roles or not. If the choice is not to act, then to use Shakespeare’s words we can ‘our quietus make with a bare bodkin.’ Mom not only wanted to write, act and direct her script, she wanted to do the same thing with her children’s scripts and those of other people as well.” His legs ached, but he wasn’t going to give into the pain and ask that they sit.
“She was a dreamer,” Rose said.
“She was a manipulator,” he answered. “The dreamer who wants to control the dream is no longer the dreamer.”
“So what does it matter now?” Rose asked. “She’s gone a long time; can’t you let her rest in peace?”
“I’m trying to – – ”
“Recover your mother,” she interrupted angrily. “To make amends for the son you never were?”
The pain in legs forced him to back to the chair at the table. “I have nothing to make amends for,” he said, rubbing his knees. “I was the child, she was my mother. At the end of her life, I was her father and she was my child. I took care of her, not the way I would have wanted to; I didn’t have the money then that I have now.”
“But you never loved her the way I did and still do,” Rose sitting opposite him again.
“I did and do love her,” he answered. “It took me five years with an analyst to discover how much I love mom and pop. But not blindly, not fucking blindly,” he said intensely. “I saw what she did to pop, and know what she did to Sylvia and tried to do to me … She went to Cynthia’s father and asked for a ten thousand dollar dowry.”
“That’s too absurd to believe,” Rose told him.
“Believe every word of it,” he said harshly. “Every fucking word because they’re true. That was the mom she was: brash, and unthinking about the consequences of her brashness.”
“Momma wouldn’t have – – ”
“She did,” Ira said. “Can’t you see the fucking forest for the trees?”
“There’s no need for you to use that kind kind of language,” she told him.
“Maybe it will hammer through your thick skull,” he said. “Can’t you see – -”
“Only your hate for her.”
“I don’t hate,” he said defensively. “I’m not the hating kind of man.”
“You’re trying to turn back the clock and write a different script. You can’t change it.”
“I’m not trying to change anything,” he said, softening his voice. “I know the script has been written as well as you.”
“What are you trying to do besides raking up the past?”
“Create a character in a play, our mother,” he said. “To do that, I need to understand – – ”
“‘I heard that song before; it’s an old familiar tune,'” Rose sang.
“I don’t want to ‘short change’ her as you think I have have done in the past.”
“You will,” Rose told him, “because you won’t acknowledge that with all her failings she was still remarkable.”
With a deep sigh, he said, “You see her as being remarkable because she raised a family on so little money.”
“No. Because she was.”
For a few moments, Ira remained silent as he weighed the word “remarkable” against his mother’s greed, duplicity and cunning. “When I was kid,” he said, speaking slowly, “I always imagined that I was in the wrong family; that somewhere out there, there was another family trying to find me. I felt as if I didn’t belong.” His voice became shaky, but he continued with long pauses between each of his spoken words. “Maybe it was because I learned at a very early age that mom tried to abort me with knitting needles. The feeling of not being wanted came early. For all of the hubbub around me, I felt I was alone. And that’s a terrible feeling for a youngster to have,” he said, clearing his throat twice before he finished.
“You were never alone,” Rose declared. “There were always people – – cousins, aunts, uncles at all hours of the day or night. Some of them lived with us for a while.”
Ira nodded. “I remember some of that.”
“And we were never on welfare during the depression. Momma was too proud to go that way.”
“Too proud or too stubborn,” Ira answered. “The Grand Dam – – ‘See, I don’t need.’ But we did need; we needed another kind of nourishment. We desperately needed love, and we got very little of that.”
“Momma was – – ” she started to say, stopped and asked, “When will your Limo be here?”
“I guess we’ve said everything we wanted to say to each other,” Rose commented.
“I guess we have,” he answered, adding, “I better get my things.”
“Yes,” she said.
Ira left the table, and in a matter of minutes returned wearing his coat and hat, pausing for a few moments to look out into the garden. “There’s a deer out there,” he announced.
“Daddy liked to feed them apples; some of them ate out of his hand.”
“Pop loved to feed the pigeons,” Ira reminisced. “He’d buy a bag of peanuts, crack the shells and drop the nuts on the ground so the pigeons could get them. . . He was such a placid man no one would ever suspect him of being a fence.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He was a fence for stolen jewelry; that’s what got him into trouble. That’s why mom needed Dawkin . . . Remember Pop went missing for several weeks. He was hiding in Pittsburgh with his brother, Sam. Don’t you remember the night the detectives came?”
“No,” she answered emphatically. “You made it up.”
“I didn’t. Mom told me after pop died that he was a fence,” Ira said. “And it made sense the more I thought about it. Pop never had a counter in the Diamond Exchange. Whenever I went there to see him, he was either standing around or playing Pinochle or Poker with one of his cronies.”
The sound of the doorbell startled them.
Ira went to the door and opened it. “I’ll be out in a couple minutes,” he said.
“It’s getting cold and a strong wind has come up,” the driver answered.
With a nod, Ira closed the door and turned to Rose, who was between the kitchen and the dinning alcove. “I guess we won’t ever see each other again,” he said.
“No need to,” she answered stiffly.
He went to her and tried to hug her.
“No need for that either,” she said, pushing him away.
“No need,” Ira echoed disconsolately, turned and said, “I’ll let myself out.”
As soon as he was in the Limo, he looked back at the closed door. The old cliché that blood was thick than water came back to him; but theirs, he realized, was water, white water at that, and it saddened him; they had wasted a life time of possibilities. Turning away from the window, he knew the real reason for his visit was to say goodbye; he owed her that much. And it never happened.
* * *
Irving A. Greenfield’s work has been published in Amarillo Bay, Runaway Parade, Writing Tomorrow, eFictionMag and the Stone Hobo; and in Prime Mincer, The Note and Cooweescoowee (2X); and in THE STONE CANOE, electronic edition. My wife and I live in Manhattan.
He has been a sailor, soldier and college professor, playwright and novelist. He has also had 10 OFF OFF Broadway and Regional Theatre productions and won several awards for them.