Authors: Jennifer Weiner
“But Uncle Mel’s going to help,” Sarah said.
At the sound of his name, Bethie flinched, as if her uncle had reappeared in the kitchen and grabbed at her again. Her mother didn’t notice. Sarah’s lips were pressed so tightly together that they were in danger of vanishing. She breathed deeply, sighed, and said, “Dad and I never told you about this, but once, years ago, your father had a chance to go in on a business opportunity. He and two of his friends were going to buy a Laundromat. Just one at first, and if it worked out they’d buy more. Henry Sheshevsky was one of the fellows. Your father would have been
Jo was nodding. Bethie could vaguely remember Henry Sheshevsky, who was short and portly and almost as wide as he was tall, with a bald head and small, even white teeth and cheeks that always prickled with stubble. He had been a regular guest, right after they’d moved to Alhambra Street. “Country living!” he would say, climbing out of his car, which would rise a few inches once he’d exited. Henry would raise his head and his nostrils would flare as he took a comically deep breath, remarking on the freshness of the air, the green grass, and the wide-open space. He carried quarters and butterscotch candies in his pocket to give to Jo and Bethie, because he was a bachelor with, as he said, “no little girls to spoil.” Sarah would set an extra place, and Henry would join them at the table, sharing whatever they were having—whitefish baked on a bed of onions, or meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or roast chicken and stuffing. Henry Sheshevsky ate daintily, holding his silverware with the tips of his fingers, cutting his food into small pieces and chewing each bite thoroughly, and he never took seconds, not even of mashed potatoes and gravy, Bethie’s favorite, which made her wonder how he had gotten so stout.
“All of the men were going to invest some of their own money. Your father didn’t have a lot of savings—we’d just bought the house—so he asked his brother for a loan. Not a gift, a loan. He’d pay it back, with interest, but Mel wouldn’t agree.”
“Why not?” asked Jo.
Sarah looked down at her cigarette. “He said his responsibility was to his mother, that he had to be conservative with his money, so that he could take care of her.” Bethie thought about Elkie, who had her own bedroom and bathroom in Uncle Mel’s house, and wondered how much care she required. “But he said he wants to do something for us now,” Sarah said. She turned to Bethie. “He asked if you could come once a week and help Shirley out. Babysitting, and helping around the house. He’ll pay you ten dollars every week. What do you think?”
Bethie knew that she must have looked stunned and stupid. Ten dollars a week was a fortune. Most girls only made twenty-five cents an hour babysitting. And she knew they needed the money. Her mother had made it clear. Bethie turned to her sister, hoping for help, but Jo had gone back to the sink, and was standing with her back to Bethie, and Sarah was looking at her with her eyes wet and her mouth curved in a tremulous, hopeful smile. “Sure,” Bethie said, and made herself smile at her mother. “Sure.”
* * *
The buses in Southfield didn’t run as regularly as they did in their neighborhood—probably because everyone there had their own car, Bethie thought—but they did run. After school on a Wednesday afternoon a week and a half after her father’s death, Bethie took the bus to the corner of Lahser and Quarton Road and walked up the street to her uncle Mel’s house, a single-story ranch-style house that sat on a big lawn on top of a rise halfway up the block. She tucked her schoolbooks under her arm and knocked at the door.
“Bethie!” Aunt Shirley sounded like she was happy to see her. “Come on in!” Aunt Shirley led her past the living room, where her cousins were watching Soupy Sales, and into a kitchen that was big and gleaming and easily twice the size of Bethie’s family’s kitchen and living room combined. A new pale-yellow Mixmaster stood on the Formica counter. There were potted orchids on the windowsill that looked out over the backyard, and the green linoleum on the floor looked brand-new. Bethie smelled chicken baking. Through the window, she could see the new in-ground swimming pool she’d overheard Uncle Mel bragging about at Passover a few months ago, in the world where her father was still alive. In the dining room she could see the Negro girl setting the table, wiping each fork with her apron before setting it down. In Bethie’s neighborhood, there were a few Negro families, with kids who went to Bethie’s school, unless they were Catholic and their parents sent them to Our Lady of the Angels, but in Southfield, she suspected
that the only Negro people were the ones who worked here and who took the buses back to their own neighborhoods at the end of the day.
“Can I get you a snack?” Aunt Shirley asked. “Something to drink?”
Bethie thought that was strange, because she was there to help Aunt Shirley, not to be waited on, but she was thirsty after the ride and the walk on a warm afternoon. “May I have some water, please?”
Aunt Shirley filled a glass at the sink. She wore a yellow blouse, a few shades darker than the Mixmaster, and a gray-and-cream-colored tweed skirt. Her brown hair looked freshly washed and set. Bethie sipped, wondering what, exactly, she was supposed to be doing, because it seemed like dinner was in the oven, the Negro girl was setting the table, and the TV set was babysitting the kids, but Aunt Shirley was ready with the answer.
“I wonder if you’d mind helping me go through the children’s clothes. We can put away all of their winter things and separate the things that they’ve outgrown.” Aunt Shirley led Bethie to the bedrooms, where brightly colored cardboard storage boxes sat empty on the kids’ beds. The two of them worked together, emptying the dresser drawers, sorting through the clothes, which took all of thirty minutes. They proceeded to the linen closet in the hall. “We’ll put things in three piles: things that are so worn we can just throw them out, things that might have some wear left in them, that can go to the clothing drive at the synagogue, and anything that’s a little worn, but still in good shape . . .” Aunt Shirley paused. Bethie knew that those items went to her family. She and her sister had spent their lives sleeping under Audrey’s and Joanne’s discarded comforters, on top of their cast-off sheets.
“It’s fine,” she murmured. She carried a stack of washcloths to the girls’ bedroom. Aunt Shirley watched from the doorway as Bethie began to sort them, then said, “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.” That project took just ten minutes, with Bethie
maliciously slipping a few new-looking towels into the stack that would go to her family. When she found her aunt in the kitchen, Shirley was smoking a cigarette, reading
, and she looked surprised to see her niece. “You can just wait in the TV room,” she said, nodding in that direction. “Mel will take you home.”
Bethie hoped that her flinch wasn’t visible. “Oh, I’m happy to take the bus.”
“Oh, no. And you’ll have all of those sheets and towels to take with you. I wouldn’t dream of it!”
, thought Bethie, as her numb legs carried her into the TV room, where Soupy Sales had given way to the five o’clock news.
Crap, crap, crap.
She sat on the couch, barely moving, as her three cousins turned their heads to look at her, then turned back to the screen. Her mouth was dry, her heart pounding, as she heard the automatic garage door roll up, the door into the house open and close. “Kids!” her uncle called, and her cousins ran to greet him. Bethie listened to the girls say, “Daddy, Daddy,” and the sound of Aunt Shirley’s quieter voice. Finally, Uncle Mel came into the living room. “There you are, Bethie!” he said, and opened his arms for a hug. He wore a white lab coat, with his name stitched in blue on one side. His hair was cut short and combed neatly. His face was clean-shaven, and both his glasses and his bald spot gleamed, but when he kissed her, his breath was still foul. She wondered how his patients endured it, how Aunt Shirley did.
“Hi, Uncle Mel.”
“Ready to head home?”
Bethie gathered her pocketbook, her schoolbooks, the box of sheets and towels Aunt Shirley had given her. When she climbed into Uncle Mel’s boat of a Cadillac, she piled everything on her lap, but when Uncle Mel said, “Let’s put those things in the trunk,” she didn’t know how to refuse. She felt naked, even though she’d worn her least-sheer cotton blouse over her most heavily padded bra, with a sweater on top, even though it was June, and warm outside.
Bethie was worried that her uncle would want to talk, but all he did was whistle along to the radio while he drove through the late-afternoon sunshine, bobbing his head and bouncing the palms of his hand against the steering wheel in time to the songs. “I’ll never let’cha go, why, because I love you,” he sang, when Frankie Avalon came on.
My father used to sing like that
, Bethie thought, and her heart gave a great, miserable twist. At a red light, Bethie felt Uncle Mel looking at her. She crossed her arms over her chest, turned her head toward the window, and clenched her jaw hard. When they turned onto Alhambra Street, Bethie’s right hand was on the door’s handle almost before Uncle Mel had put the car in Park, and her left hand was grabbing for the house key she wore on a ribbon around her neck. “Thank you, Uncle Mel,” she was saying when Uncle Mel reached across her, pulling the door shut.
“Hold on, now! You don’t want to run off before I’ve paid you!”
, Bethie thought. Her stomach twisted. Her mother had sold the Old Car and taken her father’s car as her own, and it wasn’t in the driveway, because Sarah had gone for a job interview at Hudson’s, and Jo was still probably at tennis practice, or at her friend Lynnette’s. Her uncle pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and handed Bethie a ten-dollar bill that was still warm from his body. She wanted to pinch it between her fingertips. She wanted to drop it on the floor of the car. She wanted to leap out onto the driveway and run for the front door. Instead, she made herself fold up the bill, slip it into her pocket, and say, “Thank you.”
“Bethie,” said her uncle. “Poor little Bethie.” Once, at a picnic, Bethie had spilled lemonade on her arm. She’d mopped up the mess with a paper napkin and had forgotten all about it until Laura had pointed at her, squealing, and Bethie had looked and seen the tiny black ants seething over the sticky spot, so many of them, packed so densely that her skin looked black, and she’d screamed and screamed and rubbed her arm against the grass, scraping the
ants into mush. “How are the three of you holding up?”
“Fine,” Bethie said, in a small voice. “We’re doing fine.”
“Oh, you don’t have to be brave with me. I’ll bet you miss your daddy, don’t you? Poor Bethie. Poor little thing.” His voice was thickening. He stretched out his arm. Bethie cringed, leaning away from him, trying to disappear into her car door, but Uncle Mel wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her across the bench seat, until the side of her body was smashed right up against his. “Poor Bethie.” He pressed his cheek against the top of her head and held her even more tightly. From the outside, it might have looked like an uncle comforting his niece. That wasn’t how it felt. Not with his cheek pressed against her scalp and her cheek squished against his chest, and his horrible stinky breath filling the car with its smell. His hand meandered along the side of her breast, and the point of his chin dug into the top of her head. “Poor little Bethie. I’m so sorry. You must miss your daddy so much. But don’t worry. I’m here for you.”
“I have to go.” She tried to wriggle free, but his arms felt like bars of iron. “I need to start dinner . . .”
“There’s no rush. I’ll bet you’re lonely. And, look, no one’s home yet. We have time.” He was using his knuckles to rub at the side of her breast, and he had lapsed into a horrible, lisping baby talk. “I don’t want my poor widdle Bethie to be all alone in the big dark house.”
Bethie hated that the house was empty, that Mel was right, that she would be all alone. She wished, with a panicky desperation, for her mother to come driving down the street, or for her sister to ride up on her bike. She tried to shrink, to make her body smaller. “Please, Uncle Mel, I need to go do my homework.”
“My Bethie’s a scholar!” He sounded proud of her as he rubbed his chin up and down against the part in her hair.
“Uncle Mel, I need to go now!” With a great wrench, she pulled away from him, hopped out of the car, kicked the car door shut, and raced for the front door, yanking her key out from underneath her blouse. For a minute, she imagined that she could
feel his breath on the back of her neck. Her hands were shaking, and it took her three tries to fit the key into the lock, but she finally got it there, just as she heard the sound of Uncle Mel’s footsteps behind her, like a monster in a horror movie. Bethie turned, reluctantly, and saw that he was holding her books and the cardboard box of towels. “Don’t want to forget these!” His voice was cheery, and his expression was pleasant, like he hadn’t done anything wrong. And maybe he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d hugged her, rubbed the top of her head, brushed the side of her breast, but maybe by accident? Or maybe she’d imagined it? Bethie examined her memories, hearing Uncle Mel whistling again as he strolled back to his car. As he drove past her, he tapped the horn, giving two cheery honks—beep, beep! Bethie jumped and turned, just in time to see him waving and hear him call, “See you next week!”
She walked into the empty house, setting the towels by their own, far less spacious linen closet, dumping her schoolbooks on her bed. She left Uncle Mel’s money on the kitchen table. In the bathroom, she stripped off her clothes and stood under the hot water and she scrubbed until her skin was bright red. She still felt dirty, like there was an oily residue all over her skin, sticking to her like cling wrap, like she would never be clean again.
In the kitchen, she seasoned a chicken, feeling her stomach roll as she touched its pimply skin and pulled the pinfeathers out of its wings. She and her mother and her sister would have roast chicken for dinner, chicken salad for lunch, and chopped-up cooked chicken baked under a coating of Velveeta cheese or cream of mushroom soup for dinner the following night. Bethie scrubbed two baking potatoes, pricked their skins with a fork, and put them in the oven, and she cut up the remaining quarter head of iceberg lettuce that Sarah had left in the crisper. In the very back of the refrigerator was a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough. This was Jo’s treat. Jo loved chocolate chip cookies, and on weekends she’d make a double batch of dough at Lynnette’s house, bring it home, and bake a few cookies every night. With
all the exercising she did, Jo could eat all the dessert she wanted and not see it show up on her thighs, but Bethie and Sarah both watched their weight, and the most Bethie ever ate was one.