Authors: Jennifer Weiner
Jo rolled onto her side. “What do you mean? We’re going to tell them that he died. If they don’t know already.” On Monday morning, they would pin black ribbons to their dresses and the rabbi would cut them, to signify their loss. When they got back from the cemetery, Sarah would set out a bowl of water and a roll of paper towels beside the front door, for mourners to wash their hands before they entered the house. The Jews in the neighborhood would know what that meant, and would explain it to any neighbors who didn’t.
“No. I mean about where he died.”
The bedsprings creaked as Jo rolled over again. “Do you think people are actually going to ask where it happened?”
“They might.” Bethie had already given some thought to the question of how her classmates would react if they learned that her father had died on the toilet. It was shallow, she knew, but Bethie cared about people’s opinions in a way that Jo didn’t. Maybe it was fine for Jo to just have Lynnette and her friends on the basketball team, and to wear her sloppy jeans and their father’s old button-down shirts, not paying attention to what anyone thought of her, but Bethie was different. Bethie did care. And if people found out that Ken Kaufman had died on the toilet, they would laugh. “How about we just say the floor? It’s not technically wrong. Because he was on the floor.”
“He was on the floor, after the ambulance people pulled him off the toilet.”
Bethie sighed, wondering where Jo’s unwavering commitment to the truth had come from, and why she herself hadn’t gotten it. “Well, I’m telling people that we found him on the floor.”
“Say whatever you want,” Jo said. “I don’t care.” Her voice wobbled.
After a moment, Bethie asked, “Do you think we’ll be all right? With . . . with money and stuff?” Bethie only had a general awareness about financial matters. Certainly, there were kids whose families had more money than hers did—Cheryl Goldfarb came to mind—but Bethie and her family had enough. They went to Lake Erie for a week every summer; they replaced their Ford sedan whenever the new model came out. With their father dead, without his income, would they still be all right?
The pause stretched out for so long that Bethie wasn’t sure she’d be able to stand it. “I guess,” Jo finally. “I guess we’ll have to be.”
* * *
At the shiva, their father’s mother, Grandma Elkie, and his brother, their uncle Mel, were the first to arrive. Uncle Mel and his wife, Aunt Shirley, their daughters, Audrey and Joanne, and son,
Donnie, ages ten, eight, and six, paused at the front door, passing a deli platter the size of a wagon wheel from one to another as each of them washed their hands. Inside, Aunt Shirley hugged their mother and asked her, “What can I do?” while Uncle Mel helped his mother get settled in the living room. Elkie was tiny, frail, almost bald, mostly toothless. That day, she wore a loose, dark-blue dress and a small round hat with a veil covering her sparse white hair. Like Bubbe, she spoke only Yiddish. That afternoon, she didn’t speak at all, she just sat there and cried, while the cousins stared at Jo and Bethie, like the two of them were animals in a zoo.
Uncle Mel was eight years younger than their father had been. Ken’s parents had left their shtetl in Poland, running from the pogroms in 1908. They’d taken a ship to New York City, then made their way to Detroit because a cousin’s friend had promised Chaim Kaufman a job. The part that Bethie could never understand was that they’d left their son behind. Ken, whose name was Kalman then, had stayed with Elkie’s parents, whose shtetl was, Bethie supposed, a little safer than the one they’d left, while his father found work as a day laborer moving furniture in Detroit and, eventually, saved up enough money to move out of their cousin’s apartment and into one of their own.
Seven years elapsed before they were able to bring Ken to the United States. By the time he arrived, a new baby had been born. Melvin had an American name, and he spoke perfect English, without the greenhorn accent that plagued his brother. Bethie understood that her father had grown up loving his brother and resenting him, too. His parents had pinned all of their hopes on Mel, and Ken had been more like a parent than a sibling, dropping out of school at sixteen to help support the family. Even though he’d been smart enough to go to college, only Melvin had gotten the chance. Bethie’s father had worked on the line at the River Rouge plant, taking accounting classes at night, while his brother had finished high school and college, before going on to medical school. By the time Bethie had been born, Uncle Mel was an ophthalmologist. He lived with his wife and three
children and his mother in Southfield, in a split-level ranch house with a vast master bathroom, with two sinks with golden taps shaped like swans and a sunken tiled tub that looked as big as a swimming pool. Bethie could remember her mother telling her that she mustn’t use the fancy, plush-looking pale-green towels laid out beside the powder room sink, even though Bethie, who had just learned to read, could see the word
embroidered at the bottom. Sarah showed her how to dry her hands on a piece of tissue instead.
Jo and Bethie and their parents visited the big house twice a year, once for the Passover Seder, where they joined their grandmother, their cousins, and relatives from Aunt Shirley’s side of the family for the traditional meal, and again for the first night of Chanukah, when they’d eat brisket and fried latkes, and the children all received gifts.
At dinnertime at Uncle Mel’s, a silent Negro girl, short and slim, wearing a black dress with a white apron on top, would carry the roast or the turkey to the table, holding the heavy platter in both hands, bringing it first to Uncle Mel, who’d inspect it and nod his approval before starting to carve. Aunt Shirley had a little silver bell beside her plate, and she rang it to summon the girl, whose name Bethie had never heard. “Where does she eat dinner?” Bethie had asked, as they drove home. “In the kitchen, I imagine,” Sarah had said, and Jo had said that she wished she could eat in the kitchen, too, and listen to the radio and not have to sit still and worry about using the right fork, but Bethie had adored her aunt and uncle’s dining room. She would smooth her hands over her starched napkin, brush her fingertips against the heavy half-moon-shaped glass paperweight that sat on a side table in the living room, gazing at the branched piece of coral it contained, letting her breath mist its surface, and dream about living in a house like this, with servants to bring her the food and take away the dirty dishes when she was done.
That morning, Mel’s eyes were watery and red, and his face was scratchy. Close relatives of the deceased didn’t shave during
the mourning period. “Bethie,” Uncle Mel said when he found her in the kitchen, gathering her into a hug. Bethie had worn the nicest clothes she had to her father’s funeral, the navy-blue dress her mother had bought her for eighth-grade graduation, and it had gotten short, and tight under the arms, but, of course, she hadn’t wanted to bother her mother to say so. She could feel it straining against her bust as her uncle hugged her. “I’m so sorry.”
Why are you sorry? You didn’t kill him
, Bethie thought. Uncle Mel held her, and she felt his hand drift down her side until it rested on a part of her body that was no longer technically her hip. Bethie froze, almost too startled to breathe. Uncle Mel had never touched her like that before. No one ever had.
Before Bethie could figure out what to do, Uncle Mel removed his hand, kissed her cheek again, and retreated to the living room, where whiskey and schnapps had been set up on a card table. Bethie went to the backyard with Barbara and her other friends, Laura Ochs and Darlene Conti and Patti Jamison, who’d all stayed home from school for the day. She wondered what had just happened and if she’d imagined his hand on her bottom, hoping that if her friends noticed her pale face and her silence, they’d ascribe it to grief.
Barbara asked how she was doing. Laura and Darlene said how sorry they were. Patti said, “If there’s anything you need, just tell me.” Bethie thought about how nice it would be if, instead of saying
What can we do
I’m here for you,
people would just offer to do something specific.
I will wash the dishes
I will fold the laundry
I will take your Introduction to Biology final so that you don’t have to study.
But, instead of making her friends feel uncomfortable, she just said, “I saw the prettiest formal in the window at Kern’s,” and the girls seemed relieved to change the subject.
As the day went on, Bethie pushed the memory of what Uncle Mel had done out of her head, telling herself that it had been a mistake, or that maybe she’d imagined it. Uncle Mel disappeared for a while, to take his mother, wife, and children home, but then
he came back in the late afternoon and hovered by the schnapps until the rabbi arrived to lead the minyan, the group of ten men who would recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
Her mother stood in the doorway to the living room, clutching a handkerchief, as the men stood, chanting the Hebrew words. Jo stood behind her, somber and still. “Dear, can you get me a sweater?” Sarah asked Bethie, once the service was over. Bethie went into her parents’ bedroom—just her mother’s bedroom now, she thought. She’d just closed the dresser drawer when the bedroom door opened, and there was her uncle, red-faced and unsteady on his feet.
“Bethie.” His voice was thick. He’d taken off his suit jacket and loosened his tie.
“Hi, Uncle Mel.” She tried to edge past him, but he grabbed her elbow and held her tight.
“Do you know Robert Frost? ‘The Road Not Taken’?”
Bethie nodded. They’d read the poem in English class the year before, and she thought it was called “The Road Less Traveled,” but this didn’t seem the time to point it out.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” her uncle said, and started to cry. He wept and clutched her, enveloping her in his arms and the fetid mist of his breath. She thought that he was saying
My poor brother
, but it was hard for her to understand, because Uncle Mel had buried his wet, scratchy face against her neck and had pressed his whole body against hers. This time, one of his hands brushed against the side of her breast.
Without thinking, Bethie shoved him away, so hard that his back banged into the wall, dislodging a framed photograph of her parents that had been taken on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. They looked impossibly young, standing on the deck of the
Maid of the Mist
, her father with his arms around her mother’s shoulders, and Sarah, in a neat navy-blue suit with a pleated skirt, smiling a dreamy smile.
Breathing hard, speechless with shock at his actions and her
own, Bethie stared at her uncle as he bent over clumsily, picking the picture up off the floor. It took him two tries to hook the wire over the nail, and when he let go the picture was crooked. Without a word of apology, he turned and walked out into the hall. Bethie watched him go, breathing hard, wishing she’d grabbed the hand he’d groped her with and slammed it through the nail. She locked the door, then sat down on her parents’ bed—her mother’s bed, now—and made herself take deep, slow breaths until she stopped shaking. In the bathroom, she ran cold water over her wrists, put a pleasant expression on her face, collected the sweater her mother had asked for, and went to help clear away the uneaten food and pile up the prayer books that they’d use again the next night.
* * *
When the house was finally empty, the Kaufman women gathered again around the kitchen table. “So much food,” Sarah said. She sounded dazed. Before the minyan, Bethie had overheard Larry Fein, a cousin in his first year of medical school, telling Aunt Shirley that an artery that led to her father’s heart had gotten clogged. “The widowmaker, they call that one,” he’d said, looking puffed up and proud of himself, before noticing Bethie watching him and quickly looking away.
Jo bustled around the kitchen, covering leftovers in cling wrap—deli platters, plates of pastries, the pan of corn bread that Mae had brought. One of the other cleaning ladies on the street must have told Mae what had happened, because she’d come to the house in a black dress and a hat with a short black veil.
Your daddy’s left this world of pain and sorrow,
Mae had said, embracing both girls, and Jo, who’d barely shed a tear, even at the graveside service, had started to cry. Mae had held her, patting her back.
He’s gone home to glory
. In her black turtleneck sweater and pleated gray skirt, with hollows under her cheekbones and her new pixie cut exposing her long neck, Jo seemed older, and almost glamorous. Bethie wondered for the thousandth time why her sister didn’t do more with herself, why her only makeup was
a little bit of lipstick, why she preferred to slop around in jeans and button-down boys’ shirts and spent more time with her best friend, Lynnette, than with any of the boys who’d asked her out.
“So,” Sarah began, when Jo had finally finished and was sitting at the table. “I should tell you girls a few things.” She looked down at her hands clasped on the oilcloth, with its print of red and yellow roses. “Your father had a life insurance policy. Not a lot, but enough so that we won’t be out on the street. But you can forget about those East Coast colleges, those Six Sisters,” she said sharply, as if Jo had argued with her when, for once in her life, Jo had not.
“Seven Sisters,” Jo said. “That’s okay. The U of M is fine.”
“It’ll have to be. And you’ll study something practical. Nursing or education, not literature.” Sarah shook a cigarette out of the pack on the table and picked up the heavy gold lighter. “I should quit these,” she said, looking at the cigarette between her fingers. “And I’ll have to get a job. There’s the mortgage, and the water and the gas,” she said, looking increasingly hopeless. “And property taxes . . . and the heating oil . . .”
Bethie swallowed hard. Some of her friends’ mothers worked. Kaye Greenfield’s mom did bookkeeping at the grocery store her father owned, and Laura’s mom taught nursery school at the synagogue, but none of them had what you’d call a career. Then again, none of them were supporting a family the way she guessed Sarah would be.