The letter arrived in a broad Manila envelope. The postmark read Battery Park City-- no return address. Lillian sliced through the top crease with the letter opener. Out slid a creamy, pale yellow certificate. It professed that she, Lillian Schwarzkopf, was declared dead at the age of 46. (She was currently 43).
The cause listed: heartlessness.
She rang Morton right away.
“Morty, dear, I know our breakup has been difficult for you, but this is really quite over the top.”
And, as if on cue, Morton burst into tears. In the background, she could hear Lucille complaining about the jam in the photocopier, “Every damn day now!” she said.
“You just don’t know,” he blubbered, “What you’ve meant to me. What you mean to me.”
Lillian looked at the death certificate again. A prominent red wax seal marked the bottom. Above it, read Morton Black, Head Mortician for the City of New York.
“I’m ready to tell her,” he said.
Something boomed in the background. Lucille squeaked.
“Morton,” Lillian sheathed the death certificate. “You can’t tell her this. How could you tell her this? She doesn’t even know that you don’t keep kosher.”
“That was one cheeseburger!” Morton said. “Two years ago!”
Lillian opened the junk drawer and tossed the envelope inside. Ah, there was her checkbook. And her spare set of keys. The drawer slide back on its rollers.
“The news would kill her,” she continued. “And then whom would be asked to read the poetry at her funeral? Me! Could you imagine? I’d rather be dead myself.”
Morton paused. “You know, you’d be surprised at how good she’s become. She’s been taking composition classes at the Y. I tell her she’s a regular Emily Brontë.”
”Dickinson,” Lillian corrected.
“Although I’ve never had a head for poetry myself,” he finished, unrepentant.
Lillian sighed, “I’ve got to go, Morty”
“Listen,” he lowered his voice. “Lucille just left the office for the day. I can swing uptown for a bit and we can--”
Lillian hung up. After a pause, she took the phone off the cradle and set it next to the empty fruit bowl. If she didn’t leave now, she’d be late for class.
The doorman held open the door to an unseasonably warm spring day. Lillian crossed the street toward the Art Students’ League. Morty had bought her figure drawing classes last year as a belated Hanukkah present. (He had found himself with much to make up for once she learned that he had indulged Myrna in several rounds of small group poetry sessions at the Y.)
“Switch,” the teacher called, and the man flung off his cloak and sprawled broadly across the velvet.
From this angle, however, his legs blocked everything. It was a shame, really. It wasn’t often that Lillian had a chance to see a naked man who wasn’t Jewish.
A Few Dinner Rolls
For the next week, Lillian kept the phone off the hook. It made life easier that way. No phone calls from Morty. No phone calls from her father. But Myrna, ever the sly one, had began calling her neighbor. Said neighbor would slip “While you were out” messages under her door. Lillian tucked these notes in the junk drawer as well. She was officially incommunicado: she needed the silence to focus. And it was working. Her art was developing steadily. Several works were in progress now. That Sunday afternoon, Lillian readied herself to run down to the bakery to get a few half-priced rolls before closing time. She rarely wore flats, but Morty had recently purchased her a pair of royal blue ones. She slipped them on and opened the door.
Myrna stood on the other side of the threshold. She was dressed head to toe in black and held a bag of bread in her outstretched hand.
“I assumed you had died,” Myrna said. “I was coming to discover the body.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Lillian said.
Myrna doffed her beret. Her black hair glinted in the kitchen light. “It’s alright, I forgive you. I bought these as a peace offering.”
“You didn’t call before you came,” Lillian said
“How would you know?” Myrna said. “Your phone’s been off the hook all week.”
I’ve been busy,” Lillian said. “I’m entering a few pieces in the Washington Square art exhibition. And I was just about to head to the store.”
Myrna waggled the bag at her. “Were you about to head to Stein’s?”
“No,” Lillian lied.
“Well,” Myrna said, “I bought the last pumpernickel rolls. If you’re nice to me, maybe I’ll share.”
Lillian nodded. How had Myrna made it past the doorman? She made a mental note to berate the man later on that day.
“Manners,” Myrna shouldered past her. “Have you got any Sanka? I’m off caffeine again.”
Lillian closed the door. Myrna flicked on the table side lamp and settled the phone back in the cradle.
“Tilly said she ran into you at Duane Reade. Small world, isn’t it?”
“Too small, sometimes,” Lillian said. She stood in the middle of the kitchen. It would be important to determine a strategy for this conversation. There were many areas to protect in the house - the junk drawer, the phone, her nightstand with the phone book and condoms. She needed to keep Myrna distracted and to get her out of the apartment as quickly as possible. “Have you seen my new watercolors? They’re in the studio.”
Obediently, Myrna trotted off for a look. Lillian gently lifted the phone off the cradle. What if Morty called? With her right hand, she eased open the junk drawer to fish out the While You Were Out messages. Myrna’s head poked out from the corner.
“These are lovely!” she said.
“Thank you,” Lillian said. Once Myrna’s head disappeared again, Lillian placed the messages in a freezer, behind a frozen leg of lamb. “I’ll get that coffee started right now.”
“Sanka!” Myrna called out.
“Yes, Sanka” Lillian said.
Lillian put the kettle on to boil. Myrna chatted at her from the other room. Lillian half-listened. Saucers trembling, she brought the drinks over to Myrna in the studio. They stood before one of Lillian’s works.
“It looks like a Baked Alaska,” Myrna said, not unkindly. “Is that what-”
“No,” Lillian said. “It’s a mountain.”
“Hmmm.” Myrna said. “Well, your shading’s a bit off.”
Lillian bristled, “That was the look I was going for.”
“I’ve brought you an invitation to TiIly’s bat mitzvah,” Myrna said ”I know you’re hiding the first one somewhere.”
“I am not!” Lillian said.
How did her face look? Was she believable?
“It’s just a bat mitzvah,” Myrna said. “You get so strange about parties. It’ll be small, just my family and Morty’s.
This, of course, was not true. Myrna had just requested a larger hall from the venue, as the number of RSVPs was much larger than she had anticipated. This was not to mention the fact that her mother had called her only yesterday with another list of long lost cousins that would be crushed if they were not invited.
“I’ll be out of town that weekend,” Lillian said.
“You’re a terrible liar,” Myrna said. “You and Morty both.”
Myrna glided in her espadrilles toward the studio settee. After re-adjusting her cotton skirt over her knees, she sighed and said, “At a certain point, we must all take stock of our lives. I’m 43. I’ve got a husband and two girls. And I’ve surrounded myself with liars.”
Lillian twitched. Unbidden, her heart began to race. “Liars?”
“And I’m not...fuzzy about things,” Myrna said. “I’m sure this time.”
How Myrna figured it out? Impossible. They had been so careful. Never in the daylight. Never on the weekends. Morty had even sublet a dilapidated studio downtown for the two of them. It had the barest of furnishings. A mattress, a box spring, and a brilliantly red velvet blanket (Lillian had bought this). Their nightstand was a wobbly Shaker-style chair. The fuses kept blowing, so they tossed the floor lamp. Lillian lit the space with candles instead. To her, they gave the room an artistic, romantic glow. Morty, however, was reminded of familiar Sabbath dinners and the clinking of dinnerware. These images sent an illicit tingle down his spine and prompted much of his bedroom bravado.
Lillian’s mind raced. Confess? Deny? Beg for mercy? No, she never begged.
Squaring her shoulders, she prepared herself for the onslaught.
“I think Morty’s cheating on me,” Myrna said.
“No!” Lillian said. She set her coffee cup down on the counter. Her hands would surely give her away. “You’ve always said Morty is as steady as they come. Are you sure?’
Myrna drifted to the window. The cup and saucer balanced in her left hand. She peered across the way. “Have I told you about the poetry class I’m taking?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. “Do you like it?”
Myrna cocked her head to the side. “Morty bought me the class to make amends.”
“Amends for what?” Lillian said.
“Mt. Fiji” she said. She traced her finger along the edge of the watercolor’s mountain form.
Lillian stood by the watercolor. From this angle, it looked more mountain-like but she could see the swirly promise of Baked Alaska lurking just below it.
“It’s the shading,” Myrna said. “That’s where the form gets lost.”
Lillian nodded. Myrna had always had a discerning eye for light and shadow. Between the two of them she was the natural art protege, skilled in watercolors, acrylics, and oils. It had surprised both of them when she stopped painting after college.
“Fiji?” Lilian echoed. Morty hadn’t left the state since they had been together. She wondered if there was another, other woman.
“No,” Myrna said, “Your watercolor. It looks like the north slope of Mt. Fiji. Morty’s always had it in his head to climb it on a gentleman’s adventure,” she snorted. “Can you imagine?”
Mortification took Lillian and gently massaged her cheeks. Morty had given her a faded photograph of Mt. Fiji the third month into their affair. “This is what you are to me,” he had said. “My Mt. Fiji, insurmountable.” Lillian had beamed toward him and the spindly grey hairs on his chest. Her heart had melted, just a little, sending beads of nervous sweat into the hollows of her armpit. Morty’s photograph had been the inspiration for this watercolor.
“My father had a photograph of it,” Myrna continued. “One of his college friends climbed it once….Who knows where it is now.”
Fucking Morty, Lillian thought. He was at his best, derivative, and at his worst, criminally obvious.
It would be important to maintain a neutral, but quizzical countenance while she plumbed Myrna for information. She had taken an acting class once in college. One day they spent a whole hour constructing a quizzical expression. The teacher had implored them to activate their eyebrows, their cheeks, and to wrinkle the smoothness of their temples. Lillian had struggled valiantly, she thought, but her entire face moved in one judgemental unit. It had always been that way. It was too difficult to deconstruct it. Now, she tasked herself to think of something mysterious, but not too mysterious. Radio waves. Radio waves. Radio waves.
Myrna looked out the window. There wasn’t much of a view. Lillian had a side unit and her apartment looked out onto another apartment. Across the street another woman sat on the couch, smoking. There was an ashtray in her lap.
“I haven’t smoked in 13 years,” Myrna said.
“You smoked?” Lillian asked. Myrna had always been such a straight arrow. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs.
“I started after Rachel died, right before I got pregnant with Tilly. The last thing I wanted to do was pick up a paintbrush.” Myrna said. “So I smoked. It gave me something else to do with my hands.”
Lillian took the empty coffee cups into the kitchen. “Well, I don’t have cigarettes, but I do have a few cigars. We can take them onto the balcony.”
Myrna leaned back on the couch. Across the street, the woman did the same.
“What do you think her story is?” Myrna asked. “Do you think that robe is satin?”
Lillian pushed open the sliding glass door. “She’s a kept woman. That whole building is full of them. They do nothing but smoke and drink and watch tv all day.”
“I could use a few weeks of that,” Myrna said.
Lillian harrumphed. “Trust me, it gets old.”
Myrna laughed, “So you are a kept woman! I was wondering how you managed to paint full-time!”
Lillian flinched: tiny, quietly.
“And look at these cigars,” Myrna said. “Where are they from?”
“Cuba,” Lillian said. Her face stretched into a wide smile. The curtains lifted for showtime. She hoped she could maintain this. “Haven’t I told you about Alberto?”
“Oh!” Myrna said. “A Latin! Is he Jewish?”
“Not yet,” Lillian quipped.
They both laughed. Lillian held forth. Act I had begun.
Although Lillian never made it anywhere on time, Morty was a stickler for punctuality. He materialized at his front door exactly fifty minutes after leaving work. In the mornings, he left at 7:25am for a brisk five minute walk that had him on a 7:35AM subway train. Ruthie had once choked on a bagel at 7:24 am, and Myrna swore she saw the battle play across his face--to Heimlich or to hurry? In the end, ever the dedicated father, Morty Heimlich’d little Ruthie and caught the 7:45 am. This delay, however, left him rattled for the first hour of work.
Myrna typically called the office at 2PM. Lucille knew to expect the call and was prepared to relay the lunch Morty had eaten that day. He never wanted Myrna to pack one and preferred to eat at a small kosher restaurant catty-corner to the city morgue. Depending on his lunch order, Myrna chose a different protein to cook for dinner.
“Mortician’s office,” Lucille said.
“Hello, Lucille,” Myrna said. Over the kitchen counter, she could see Ruthie and Tilly
squabbling over the remote. “What was on the plate today?”
“Whitefish chowder,” Lucille said.
“Chowder? Myrna asked. “It’s 90 degrees outside.”
“I know,” Lucille said and was silent.
The remote flew out of Ruthie’s hand and clunked against the glass of the television screen.
“Girls!” Myrna snapped. The girls looked up, guilty. They pointed at one another.
“Chowder?” Myrna asked again. “Are you sure?”
Her stomach began to tingle. Morty hated whitefish. It didn’t make sense. Was he trying
to make himself sick?
“Well,” Lucille said, “That’s what he said. But I found a cheeseburger wrapper in the
“Cheeseburger!” Myrna said, indignantly.
The girls looked up.
“Dad ate a cheeseburger?” Tilly said. “No fair!”
“No fair,” Ruthie echoed and dived for the remote that was hidden behind Tilly’s back.
“I have concerns,” Lucille said. “But it’s really not my place to talk.”
“Thank you, Lucille.” Myrna said and hung up. “Good bye,” she said, as an afterthought.
Her face was numb. What would possess Morty to eat a cheeseburger? He had been kosher
Ever since they married.
“Girls, stop that that roughhousing,” Myrna took out the ground beef. There must be
some mistake. “Tilly, help me chop these onions.”
Tilly ceded the remote to Ruthie. “Did dad really eat a cheeseburger?” she asked.
“No,” Myrna said. “He was playing a joke on Lucille.””
“Oh,” Tilly said, mollified.
Myrna shaped the meat into fist-sized patties. She would bake them for 20 minutes and then broil them until they developed a deep brown crust. Morty always ate his hamburgers that way.
Myrna stared expectantly at her. Lillian wasn’t quite sure how to react. She sent her eyebrows up in a gesture that she hoped indicated camaraderie, but could quickly transform into confusion if necessary.
“A cheeseburger,” Myrna repeated.
“Oh, Myrna,” Lillian said. She furrowed her brow, but allowed her heart to decelerate. “Lucille had no idea who ate the cheeseburger. She just saw the wrapper. It could have been anyone.”
“No,” Myrna said. “It was Morty.”
“How do you know?”
“There are some things a wife knows,” Myrna said. “In her heart of hearts.”
“Fine,” Lillian said, exasperated. “ In your heart of hearts, you know he didn’t keep kosher. What does that have to do with adultery?”
Myrna cradled Lillian’s wrist. “Lillian, If a man eats a cheeseburger, what won’t he do?”
The Other Woman
Lillian slid into the booth. Morty sat across from her. The waitress delivered the menus.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” Lillian said. “You look very distinguished.”
Morty beamed. Sunlight glowed off his balding pate.
“This is my favorite place,” he said. “The burgers here are fantastic. I always bring one home for the girls.”
Lillian stared at him
Morty flushed. “Sorry,” he said.
Lillian flagged the waitress down.
“Two hamburgers, please,” she said.
“Cheese?” the waitress asked.
“Yes,” Lillian said. “On both. And one side salad and one order of fries.”
The waitress scribbled. “Sure thing,” she said.
“So,” Lillian slid her hands across the table to tap Morty’s. “What’s new with you?”
Morty looked at the waitress’s retreating back. He waved. She didn’t turn around.
“Oh hell,” Morty said.
Lillian waited a beat. “So,” she said. “Myrna tells me that she is taking some poetry classes at the Y. She made me listen to one over the phone.”
“The bird waits?” Morty said.
“On the telephone line,” Lillian continued. “Waiting, waiting”
“Trilling, waiting,” Morty finished. “She’s quite proud of that one. Ruthie likes it too.”
On cue, Ruthie rose in Lillian’s mind, tugging on a skirt hem, chirping indignantly. “Makes sense,” she said.
The waitress arrived then to set down the plates of food.
“Sorry,” Morty said. “I meant to tell you no cheese on the burger.”
“You want me to scrape it off,” the waitress said.
“No, no,” Morty said. “ Can I just get another one - plain?”
“I can’t comp it for you,”the waitress said. “You sure you don’t want me to scrape it off?”
Lillian stared at the waitress’s fingernails. They were painted a dusky rose. The edges
had chipped to expose the jagged white border of her nails.
“It’s alright,” Morty said, “I’ll give the cheeseburger to someone at work.”
The waitress nodded, “I’ll wrap this up to go then.”
She looked at Lillian, “What about you? Everything good?”
Lillian cut her cheeseburger in half. The middle of the patty was a heavy pink. “Everything’s perfect,” she said.
Of Mountains and Molehills
“Myrna,” Lillian said.
“Myrna burned her face in her hands. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. “Mountains out of molehills.”
Myrna snorted. “Fijis out of molehills,” she said.
Myrna’s heavy bangs covered her forehead. Lillian patted her bangs, patted her temple. “Are you having any other thoughts?”
“No,” Myrna sniffed. “Most of the time I’m all right, if I can just focus on the girls. I get so busy with them that I don’t have time to pay attention to my thoughts.”
“Well, keep staying busy,” Lillian said. “The girls are best when you’re at home.”
Myrna’s hands twisted around themselves. “Should I call Dr. Kleiner? I don’t want---”
“Relax.” From somewhere deep within her, Lillian found a flicker of something. What was
it --- empathy? Understanding? It told her to hold Myrna’s hands and pat them. She patted them in short bursts: 1,2, 1,2. “You’re absolutely fine. Just a little tired, just a little lonely. Tell Morty to take you on a trip. Go back to the Berkshires, you love it there.”
Myrna held Lillian’s hand, “Tilly’s bat mitzvah is in two weeks. We can’t go away now.”
“Of course you can,” Lillian said. “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“You sound like Morty,” Myrna said.
Lillian kept her face still, but her hands troubled the pattern.
“I don’t know who will watch the girls,” Myrna continued. “They’re quite a handful, especially Ruthie. But she minds you.”
Oh no you don’t, Lillian thought. Not in a million years.
“Do you think you could?” Myrna asked. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
No, Lillian said to herself. No, no, no. But that strange feeling took hold of her again, seizing her tongue and speaking for her.
“Of course,” she said aloud. “But just for Friday and Saturday.”
Myrna squeaked and threw her arms around Lillian. “You’re absolutely perfect!”
Lillian packed Myrna up and sent her off her within the next half hour. As she closed the door, she recognized that strange feeling, the one that had possessed her: Indigestion.
She was sick for the next two hours.
The Cleaning Lady
The cleaning lady has been at it again. Lillian couldn’t find her spare keys and she didn’t know where she had placed her actual keys. That woman was constantly meddling with her drawer. It was a junk drawer for a reason. The phone rang. Lillian froze, startled. Had she put it back on the hook? No, she hadn’t.
“That woman,” Lillian said.
The phone rang and rang and rang and rang as Lillian opened all the drawers in her apartment. No keys anywhere. She banged them shut, one by one. The phone trilled after her.
“Go away,” she said.
The phone rang, petulantly, in response.
Lillian walked toward the phone. She placed her hand upon, willing it to stop.
“Go away,” she repeated.
It vibrated beneath her hand.
Lillian picked up the phone, “Hello. I’m busy and uninterested in what you have to say. Please do not call here again.”
“Lillian,” a familiar voice said. “I’m on the corner of 89th and Amsterdam. Can you see me?”
“Morty,” Lillian said. “I told you not to call here anymore. What are you doing here?”
“I’ve got a big problem,” he said. “May I come up and see you?
“No,” Lillian said.
“Then come down and meet me then. I’ll be at Rosamund’s. We’ll have a drink.”
“No,” Lillian said.
“My treat,” he said. “And ice cream after.”
“Well,” Lillian said. She did love ice cream.
“See you in ten,” he said, and hung up.
Lillian put on her spring jacket. She would have to leave the door unlocked. A familiar jangle met her ears. Peering into the left pocket, she found her keys. As she slipped her coin purse into the right pocket she found her spares.
“You’re getting old, old woman,” she said and walked out into the dusk.
Morty waved from the back of Rosamunds. Lillian walked toward him. The bar was full, but most of the tables were empty. The overhead lamps threw pools of yellow light on the floor. She stepped through the darkness and light to arrive at Morty.
“You’ve let your beard grow,” she said.
“And you’ve shaved yours,” he said.
Lillian laughed. The waitress came by then and he ordered them two glasses of wine.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
“Well,” Lillian said. “I’ve been busy. Painting, you know.”
“I know, you’ve been accepted into Washington Arts,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“Who told you that?” Lillian asked. “Myrna?” Her voice went up a bit, unbidden, at the end. Lillian cleared her throat.
“Yes,” Morty looked down at his glass. His eyelashes were as long and thick as a girl’s.
They sat in silence for bit. Lillian examined his fingers. Morty always kept his nails trimmed short. They were fat and square with wide cuticle bands around each nail.
“I’m glad you’re moving on,” Morty said. “Focusing on your art and all.”
“Yes.” Lillian said, quiety. “It helps pass the time.”
“I would think you would find it hard to find the time to paint,” Morty said. “What with Alberto and all.”
“Alberto?” Lillian said.
Morty looked at her uncertainly for a moment. “Aren’t --”
“Yes, Alberto,” Lillian said firmly. “I drifted off for a moment.”
Morty relaxed, “Well, that’s good. We should both have a chance at happiness.”
Lillian’s lips were numb. “Yes, yes. Everyone deserves that.”
Morty continued, “And with Myrna and the baby. Well, she’s a bit older, so these things can be rocky, but I think it’s a good sign, you know. New beginnings and all.’
Lillian thought she said something positive and affirming, but really, her mind had stopped somewhere after the word baby and was stuttering in the darkness.
When she arrived at the house, Morty was loading the suitcases into the car. Lillian maintained her composure.
“Morty,” she said.
“Lily,” he said.
Ruthie threw open the front door. She blasted toward Lillian in a flurry of green fabric. Lillian braced herself for impact. At the last minute, Ruthie pulled up short.
“Your hair looks funny,” Ruthie said. “What did you do to it?”
Lillian patted her chignon. “I put a rinse in it. Do you like it?”
Ruthie walked a few paces backward to take in the full look. “Not really,” she said. “But if you like it, I guess it’s ok.”
“To each his own,” Morty offered from behind the open trunk.
“To each his own,” Ruthie echoed and dropped into an impromptu curtsy.
Lillian shook her head and walked toward the front door.
“Where is your suitcase?” Ruthie asked. “I can carry it for you.”
Lillian pointed toward the inside of the gate. Ruthie walked over. With a big grunt,she attempted to pull the suitcase up. It didn’t budge.
“I put rocks in there,” Lillian said.
Ruth muttered and braced her shoulders against the suitcase. It tipped, precipitously, then righted itself.
“Dad!” she bellowed.
Morty shut the trunk. “I’ll get it,” he said.
“Be careful of your back,” Lillian said. “I put rocks in there.”
“What for?” Morty said.
Myrna opened the front door. “For a rock garden, for the girls. It’s supposed to be meditative. I saw it in Better Homes and Gardens. Why did you put them in a suitcase?”
“It was easier than hauling them in bags,” Lillian said. “But I left my overnight bag in the cab.”
“Oh,” Myrna said. “Do you know the cab number?”
“No,” Lillian said. “Hopefully he’ll find the bag and drop it off here.”
Myrna guided her by the crook of her arm. “Well, in the meantime, you can wear some of my things. They’ll be a bit short on you though.”
Lillian thought of the bright colored caftans she had packed. Jewel tones, iridescent, her look was that of a proud male peacock. Myrna’s clothes, in contrast, were those of a poet in mourning: black, navy, and occasionally, an introspective grey. No wonder she was mired in paranoia and mistrust. Who could feel joy with those colors?
Tilly sat at the dining table. She was scribbling something in a ledger.
“What are you writing?” Lillian asked.
“I’m writing a story in code,” Tilly said. “It’s all in numbers.”
Lillian leaned over. The page was filled, painstakingly, with numerals.
“I started a few months ago,” she flipped back the pages. “And now I’m here.”
“Who has the key?” Lilian asked.
“Just me,” Tilly said. “It’s a private story. I’m a very private person.”
Lillian nodded. Myrna materialized in the hallway. She had shrouded herself in a long black scarf with fringe.
“We’re off,” Myrna kissed the top of Tilly’s forehead. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
“I’ll be counting the hours,” Lillian said.
Myrna grinned. Morty nodded from the doorway. Then the front door closed and Lillian looked anew at her charges.
Lillian sat on the couch with the girls. They weren’t supposed to watch more than an hour of television, but Tilly had threatened Lillian with a 1,000 piece puzzle, so she headed off the parry with the promise of an additional hour of tv. The girls sat raptly in front of a variety show. Ruthie’s mouth was parted and open. With each exhale, she whistled through a gap in her front teeth. Tilly watched the show in between scribbling new numbers in the ledger. She caught Lillian looking at her a few times and waggled her eyebrows each time their eyes connected. Lillian smiled a little; Tilly was a strange bird. As if hearing her thoughts, Ruthie’s left leg kicked ecstatically. The drinking glass on the coffee table thumped over. Water splashed over Lillian’s feet. Ruthie bolted to the kitchen for a dishrag.
“I’ll fix it,” Ruthi said. With gusto, she swabbed the tabletop. Water smeared onto a stack of Wall Street Journals.
Tilly tucked her feet between the body. Ruthie swatted her knees.
“And here,” Ruthie dabbed the damp towel on Lillian’s feet.
Lillian looked down at the top of Ruthie’s head. Her part was mostly straight, but veered left before petering out. The young girl huffed, joyously.
“Do you know about Baptists?” Tilly asked.
“A little,” Lillian said. “Why?”
“What’s a Baptist?” Ruthie asked.
“You are,” Tilly said.
Lillian looked down at the young girl again who was now rubbing the wet towel between her toes.
“I am not, right, Lillian?” Ruthie asked.
“No,” Lillian said, “You’re Jewish.”
“See, Tilly” Ruthie said. “Shows what you know.”
Lillian sent the girls to bed after an extra 30 minutes of television. Ruthie fell asleep immediately, but Tilly lingered awake, sitting up when Lillian went back in the room to check on them
“Can I stay up with you a bit longer?” Tilly asked. “I can’t fall asleep.”
Lillian had little of the discipline required for long-term child care. “Ten minutes,” she said. “And then you’re back in there.”
Two hours later, the two of them were near the end of Shane. Tilly dabbed her eyes as he rode off into the sunset.
Ruthie appeared then, at the end of the couch.
“Tilly’s crying,” she said. “I want to cry too.”
“You missed the whole story,” Tilly said.
“Tell it to me,” Ruthie demanded.
So Lillian did, until both girls were asleep beside her.
The guest bedroom was sparse. A few of Myrna’s old college paintings dominated the wall. A pale celery-colored bedspread had been folded neatly at the foot of the bead. Lillian fell asleep instantly. She awoke to Tilly’s hand on her forehead.
“You have a slight fever,” Tilly said. “And your suitcase is here. He dropped it off on the steps.”
Lillian felt her forehead. It felt fine to her. “What time is it?” she asked.
“12PM,” Tilly said. “I made breakfast hours ago. What are we having for lunch?”
“Lunch?” Lillian squinted at the alarm clock. The hands pointed doubly to 12.
“We could go out to eat,” Tilly said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to eat out, Ruthie?”
“Yes,” Ruthie piped from behind Lillian. Lillian turned over. Ruthie was perched in the armchair, legs swinging, while rifling through Lillian’s purse. She pulled out a beaded compact. “What’s this?”
“None of your business,” Lillian said.
“A makeup compact,” Tilly said.
“Put it back,” They said at the same time.
Ruthie placed the compact in the purse. Shoving herself off the arm chair, she deposited the bag on the nightstand. Her small hands braced against the bed. Lillian sat up.
“I’m getting up” she said, expertly moving from beneath the covers before Ruthie reached her. “Let’s get ready.”
“To eat?” Tilly asked.
“Sure, sure,” Lillian said. “Just give me time to collect myself.”
“Sure,” Tilly beckoned for Ruthie. “We’ll wait for you in the sitting room. C’mon, Ruthie.”
Lillian walked to Morty and Myrna’s room to pick out an outfit. Myrna kept her closet divided by color. It was a smooth ombre transition from white to black. She picked a white, long sleeved silk blouse and a narrow black skirt. Myrna had knotted a few scarves on a rack, and Lillian picked a dark green one with crisscrossing gold lines. She folded it long and thinly and then wrapped it around her hairline. She used to wear her hair much like this when she as a teenager. Those were her hippie days.
The girls were both seated on the settee when she walked out. They had matching blue purses with gold-colored clasps.
“Where are we going for lunch?” Lillian asked.
“The diner!” Ruthie said. She held up her purse in affirmation of her statement.
“Which diner?” Lillian said.
“It’s called Ethel’s,“” Tilly said. “It has a fish tank in the window. We have to take the bus to get there.”
It had been some time since Lillian had been to Ethel’s. While it was Morty’s favorite, Lillian found that it made him wax nostalgic about his own family. And she found that it made her snippy in return. It would probably be different with the girls.
The bells jangled above the door when they entered. Ethel’s was in full swing. Waitresses in pale blue dresses glided back and forth along the tiny black and white tiles. Two men played busy at the grill, flipping burgers and smashing grilled cheese sandwiches. Ruthie made a beeline toward a booth in the back. A waitress followed them to deliver the menus.
“I’m getting an egg salad,” Tilly said.
“Me too!” Ruthie said.
Tilly made a face, “Copycat. What about you Aunt Lillian?”
Lillian turned the menu over. Light was streaming through the plate glass window and it caught her hands, highlighting the stippling of the years. “Well, I thought we could all get egg creams. But you two can pick my meal.”
“And you’ll eat it, no matter what it is?” Ruthie asked. She shot a joyous look at Tilly.
Lillian saw her mouth ice cream and pickles.
Tilly shook her head.
The waitress came over. “What can I get for you ladies today?”
The girls ordered and the waitress looked at Lillian.
“Three chocolate egg creams,” Lillian said.
“And a hamburger,” Tilly said.
“WITH CHEESE,” Ruthie announced triumphantly. “And ice cream and pickles.”
The waitress jotted it down. “Ok, ladies.”
“You don’t have to eat the cheeseburger, Aunt Lillian,” Tilly said. “It’s just a joke.”
“Yes, you do,” Ruthie said. “You promised.”
“It’s all right, Tilly,” Lillian said. “I haven’t kept kosher in years.”
Both girls, paused, surprised.
“Are you going to get in trouble?” Tilly said.
“Jail!” Ruthie said, then clasped her hands over her mouth.
“You don’t go to jail if you don’t keep kosher,” Lillian said.
“Oh,” Ruthie looked disappointed.
“What does a cheeseburger taste like?” Tilly asked. “Dad ate one once, but he wouldn’t tell me.”
“No, he didn’t,” Ruthie said.
“Yes, he did,” Tilly said.
“No, he didn’t.” Lillian said. “And it tastes just like you think it would.”
“Horrible,” Ruthie breathed.
The waitress came then with the egg creams.
Myrna folded her chemise. Morty was sprawled out on the oak frame bed. His glasses were askew.
“Look at that,” he pointed at the ceiling. “Water damage.”
Myrna continued folding, turning her attention to the stack of identical navy shorts he had packed. They each had a complementary polo shirt - white, grey, yellow, and a light blue.
“You see that?” he repeated.
“I do,” Myrna said.
“We should talk to the front desk,” he continued.
“There’s nothing they can do about it now,” Myrna said. “Let’s just enjoy it for what it is.”
“That’s how they get you,” Morty said. “Water damage and beautiful views. Who chooses to talk about water damage?”
“Not me,” Myrna said. A few curls escaped from her head wrap.
Morty adjusted his glasses and blinked at her. “The concierge said they built a new restaurant in the main lounge. New American cuisine.”
“I brought sandwiches,” Myrna said. “And a few cold dishes.”
“Sandwiches?” Morty said. He shoved himself off the bed.
Myrna looked up from the socks. “Yes, sandwiches. Pastrami on rye. These places aren’t kosher, and we’ve always brought our own food. They’re letting us use the employee fridge.”
“Ah,” Morty wrapped his arms around her. “You’re such a stickler for the rules.”
“So are you,” Myrna said. “You like to pretend to be a wild, but you’re an old-fashioned stick in the mud. That’s why I married you.”
“The artist and the stick in the mud,” he said, kissing her neck. “You should use me as your paintbrush.” He waggled one bristly eyebrow, but Myrna missed this gesture.”
She turned and hugged him. “I’ve missed you.”
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” he said. “I’m always here.”
And for the most part, he was. Home every night by 6PM. On Thursdays, he brought flowers from a flower seller at the station. He helped the girls with their Literature homework and wrote notes in red back to the teacher’s notes, which were also penned in red ink.
“Such a hostile color,” he had said after the first note. “Tilly, always fight fire with fire.”
Maybe this whole vacation was spun from Myrna’s paranoia. Perhaps there was no other shoe to drop.
“Let’s have the sandwiches for lunch and then try the restaurant for dinner,” Myrna said.
Morty aimed a kiss at her temple, but caught a mouthful of fabric. He tilted his head back. “That’s my girl!” he said.
Myrna smiled. She would call the restaurant before dinner to see, what, if anything, she could bring herself to eat. She wondered if they would be willing to replate her brisket.
Surprisingly, the restaurant had one lone bottle of kosher wine. It was grapely sweet. And they did agree to replate Myrna’s brisket. They served it alongside some new potatoes and steamed asparagus. Morty ordered the salad Nicoise and a full cherry pie. While they waited, Morty looked around the room, making commentary on the other guests.
“What do you think of that pair?” He nodded his head toward a a greying couple. The woman had cropped silver hair. The man had a thin crown of brown hair that ran the circumference of his head.
“Successful art gallery owner and third generation lawyer,” Myrna said.
“How many years married?”
Myrna squinted. The woman had adorned her hand with four sparkly rings. They twinkled as she spoke.
“Fifteen years. Second marriage for him, first for her.”
Morty rubbed his nose. “I say seven years, second marriage for both. Look at that smile. They still like each other.”
The waiter came by with the first course.
“That couple over there,” Morty said. “How long have they been coming to this place?”
“Oh, I’ve only been here two years,” the waiter said. “But they’ve been here at least that long. They come every summer and stay for two weeks. Nice enough folks.”
The waiter rolled the cart away, and the two began eating.
“Two weeks is a nice, long time for a vacation,” Myrna said.
“It’s a nice option, for some people,” Morty said. “But the dead can’t wait.”
“Strange,” Myrna said. “I thought that was the only thing they could do.”
Morty smiled. “Ah ha, now’s she’s on vacation!” He waved his arm. “Waiter! Bring us another bottle.”
He grinned, looking his old teenage self. “Should I ask for two?”
Myrna laughed. The waiter came by soon after with the entrees. They ate quietly. Myrna felt the pleasant buzzing in her chest, a combination of the wine and happiness. Morty was in good humor as well. The alcohol made him sweat, so he dabbed at his forehead as he told her about the latest dramas at the mortuary office. Lillian, apparently, had a thing for the janitor. She had purposely been creating messies in the office to attract his attention. Her methods, however, had yet to produce more than a brief, irritable conversation.
“Lillian?” Myrna asked. “Do you mean Lucille?”
Morty paused, startled. “Ah, yes, Lucille. She really is something else.”
The buzzing feel traveled down to her stomach and up to her neck. This was shaping up to be a lovely evening. The couple they had discussed earlier was packing up to go. The woman took one more swallow of water before standing. Her partner got up more slowly, favoring one leg. They walked out together, the woman propping him up and guiding him toward the exit. Their heads touched, and Myrna realized that the woman was just a bit taller than the man. The waiter came by with the dessert order.
“Two coffees,” Morty said.
Myrna pleated the napkin. Morty’s eyes blinked, brown and trustworthy, behind his glasses. A thousand thoughts crowded her mind. It could be such a lovely weekend. She had brought her summer capris, and was looking forward to sitting at the lake and sketching for a few hours. Morty would probably sit beside her and read a detective novel. She wondered how the girls were, how Lillian was, what they were doing right now.
“What are you thinking about?” Morty asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Myrna said. “This is such a nice night.”
Morty smiled. “Yes, this is just what we needed.”
Myrna felt her eyes tear slightly. “You’ve felt it too?”
Morty leaned across the table. “The city is such a rat race. It’ll burn anyone out in time.”
Myrna nodded vigorously.
“Morty,” Myrna said.
“Yes, dear,” Morty said.
“I’ve been thinking, lately, you know, about whitefish. Tzipora gave me a recipe for a whitefish chowder that I’ve been meaning to try.”
“Whitefish,” Morty repeated, confused.
“Would you try it?” Myrna asked. Her heart beat raggedly. “I know you haven’t liked it in the past.”
“Well,” Morty shrugged. “I’ll try a taste, for you. What’s the harm?”
Myrna smiled. The buzzing coursed down her appendages. This was the feeling of profound proof: this was the feeling of trust.
“Nothing,” her tongue muddled the syllables. “No harm at all.”
They spent the next day at the water. Morty painstaking applied sunblock to the top of his head, face, and torso. Myrna applied more to his back. She was dressed in a loose fitting caftan (green) and a yellow head scarf. Her capris ended just below her calves. She felt a bit - well, free - and was trying her best not squash this small joy by looking at it too closely. The couple from the restaurant was in a canoe in the middle of the water. The woman dangled her arms on both sides of the boat while the man steered them in slow circles.
Morty leaned back in his chair, a copy of Life magazine in one hand.
“I used to hate the swims at summer camp,” Myrna said. “The water was so warm and silty. I alway found a way to get out of them.”
“Charley horse,” Morty said.
Myrna smiled, remembering the first faked Charley horse that had left her sprawled somewhat near a very sunburnt, scrawny Morton Rabinnowicz. He had helped her limp out of site of the camp counselor and then watched her sprint, cheerfully, across the way to the arts and craft cabin. Lillian had been in there, with a sprained ankle, beading a long necklace.
“I still can’t really swim,” Myrna told Morton.
Morton looked up from the magazine, “Well, if there’s any day to learn, today’s it.”
Myrna hugged her knees to her chest, “I’m an old dog. I’d rather save the new tricks for the girls.”
Morton hooked his hands beneath her underarms and gently lifted her up.
“C’mon, old girl,” he said.
They picked their way down to the water. Myrna abandoned the capris, but still wore the caftan and turban. Goosebumps traveled up her leg in anticipation of the water’s rise. When the water was about mid-back, she started to lean back. She could float, but just barely. Morty moved behind and held his hand beneath her shoulders.
“Kick your feet,” he counseled.
So she did.
Arts & Craft Cabin
Lillian swirled the paintbrush in the cup. The Art Counselor had given them free reign to be creative today, so that’s what she would be. A layer of blue acrylic covered the paper. With a small sponge, she prepared to dot tiny circles around the perimeter. But what would she put in the middle?
The door swung open to frame Myrna in the doorway. She was wearing a damp camp t-shirt and yellow shorts. A tall, slender boy followed her.
“I knew I would find you here,” Myrna said.
“It’s too hot to do anything else,” Lillian said. The cabin wasn’t air conditioned, but it did stand beneath a few trees, which made the temperature inside slightly more bearable.
“Hey,” the boy said.
“Hay is for horses,” Lillian said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Morty, one of the senior swimmers,” he said.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on the lake then?” Lillian asked.
“I’m not a lifeguard,” he said. “I just stay on the lake to help out. I can leave when I want.”
Lillian looked down at his feet. They were freckled. Myrna was opening a drawer to pull out oil pastels.
“Do you like art?” Myrna asked. “You can sit with us and work too if you want.”
“Well, I’m not much of an artist,” Morty said. He pulled out a stool and sat opposite of Lillian. “But I can offer constructive feedback. My mom owns an art gallery.”
Lillian daubed the edge of her painting. Myrna sat alongside her with a long piece of butcher paper. She placed the pastels in the middle of the table. Morty took a stubby orange one and scribbled on a bit of scrap paper that someone had left behind. They worked in silence for a while. Then Morty paused, mid-stroke, and held up the paper.
“What does this look like to you?” he asked.
“Scribbles,” Lillian proffered.
“Hair?” Myrna said.
“Right!” Morty was excited. “I was drawing you too. See, this is her head” and pointed to a oblong shape, “and this is you - and pointed to a similarly abstract loop.
Myrna took the picture from him, “Oh boy, do I look terrible. Is my hair really that frizzy?”
Morty was apologetic, “No, it’s an abstraction. And part of that frizz is your earrings.”
And it was true, Myrna was wearing zigzag earrings that she made earlier that summer.
“I can fix it,” Morty said. “Tame the hair a bit.”
“Oh no, I like it,” Myrna said. “What do you think, Lillian?”
Lillian still hadn’t found herself in that maze of scribbles. “It’s nice enough, I guess.”
Myrna took an ink pen out of the metal can and drew two sets of pupils in the mass of scribbles.
“How do you feel?” Myrna asked.
“I don’t know, hot?” Lillian said.
Myrna drew a straight horizontal line below one set of eyes. Lilian supposed that was her. Underneath the other set of eyes she drew a tiny smile.
“Here,” she handed the picture back to Morton. “Now add yourself.”
Morton drew in silence for a few minutes more. His scribble was equally indistinguishable from the rest of the mess, but was significantly taller than the two other forms.
“Now you have to draw how you feel,” Myrna said.
Morty nodded and sketched a quick facial expression.
“What face did you make?” Myrna asked.
He folded up the picture and stood up. “I gotta get back to the lake.”
“It was an unhappy face,” Lillian supplied.
Morty shook his head. “It’s for me to know and for you to find out.”
“Constipated!” Lillian said.
Myrna laughed. Morty shot Lillian a dirty look. She shrugged.
“I was going to say see you two ladies later,” Morty began.
“Sorry,” Myrna said, grinning. “We haven’t been the same since they closed down our charm school.”
“Charm school,” Morty repeated.
Lillian picked up a paintbrush. The blue looked flat now and boring. The white daubs marched around the edges, mockingly. She would have to start over.
“See you later, Morty.” Myrna said.
“See you,” he said. He looked back once more from the doorway, but both girls had their heads bent over their art. Neither one noticed.
It was some years later, and Morty was at Schwarz dinner table. Myrna’s parents sat together at one end. Her brothers and sisters filled the rest of the long bench. Her two youngest sisters had taken up the habit of poking each other every time Morty spoke. He had a passionate way of speaking that meant that many of his pronouncements often ended with a bit of spittle on his mouth. He and Myrna’s father were talking about the political turmoil somewhere. Myrna wasn’t really following the conversation. Instead, she was carefully watching her mother’s face to see her real opinion of Morty. He was the first serious boyfriend that she had invited over, and she was almost finished with her junior year of college. This was a relationship with marriage potential.
The brisket was chewy. Overcooked. Myrna cut it into tinier pieces and buried these under her potatoes. Out of sight, out of mouth. Her mother watched the conversation between the two men, eating in small forkfuls. There was little expression on her face. Myrna couldn’t tell if this was a good sign or a bad sign. Then her mother’s eyes caughts hers. Myrna blushed and looked away.
“Fiji?” Morty was asking.
Myrna tuned back to the conversation. Somehow, like always, her father had managed to shoehorn the tale of his Mt. Fiji climb into this conversation. No guest had ever left the home without a fresh retelling. Her mother shook her head, almost imperceptibly, and stood. This was a silent signal to the girls to help clear the table. A few moments later, they walked in a steady line to the kitchen. Myrna took the dishes from the others and piled them into the sink.
“That poor boy,” her mother said. “How long should we give them before we come to his rescue?”
Myrna smiled. Normally, her mother’s wait time was inversely proportional to how much she liked a house guest. If she favored them, she would return quickly with dessert. If not, then the poor guest had to endure her father’s travel diary, no questions allowed, until her conscience got the best of her.
“Can we go back now?” Myrna asked.
“May we,” her mother corrected. She handed Myrna the dessert tray. “Let’s put poor Morton out of his misery.”
Morty was nodding vigorously at whatever her father had just said.
“Have you heard this story?” he asked Myrna. “It’s incredible!”
He stood up to pull out her chair. Myrna sat down and scooted forward.
“Now, dad,” she said.
“Now, Myrna” her father said.
They smiled at one another.
Swimming Lessons, II
With Morty’s help, Myrna swam in slow circles around the lake. She was on her back (it felt safer that way) and tracked a tiny white cloud across her field of vision. This helped keep her mind steady. It wanted to rummage through her filing cabinets, to spill out old memories and old hurts. She wasn’t going to let it, not today.
The couple in the boat waved to Morty.
“Swimming lessons!” the man announced. He had a slight accent. German, maybe? His partner sat up languidly and lifted her water bottle in apparent agreement.
“Yes,” Morty called back. From Myrna’s vantage point, she could the freckles that blossomed on his chest in the summertime. His arms were muscular and ropy. She remembered the smooth arcs of muscles from his youth. He used to rub his biceps as he watched her paint, leaving white fingerprints that filled in red moments later. She had tried to paint him a few times, but found that none of the portraits every truly resembled him. The sparkle that captured her eye in real life was impossible to translate to canvas. That sparkle was her own Mt. Fiji. And then she thought of her father, of the thickness of his beard and the warm roughness of his hug. A thread of something spooled from her unconsciousness. Something was rising up, cold and jagged. Myrna parried, ducked, but it knew she knew and started to spread across her face. Her legs tingled in recognition. And then, just then, a cool slap of water coursed over her face. Myrna let her limbs go. Willed the certainty that was blooming in her stomach to go far away.
“Morty,” she said.
Morty lifted her shoulders out of the water. Dazed, Myrna sat up. The couple in the boat clapped politely.
“Good job!” The woman called.
“It’s time to go home,” Myrna said.
“Check out’s tomorrow at 12PM,” Morty said. “We’d forfeit today.”
“I know,” Myrna cut her way through the water. Something was building up behind her eyes. She had to get to the bathroom before it escaped her. “But I left the oven on.”
“Lillian’s there,” Morty said. “I’m sure she’s cut it off by now.”
Myrna paused, something clawed in her stomach. The baby.
“Lillian’s there,” she repeated.
This was the refrain that carried her back to the cabin - she was running by this point. She made it to the toilet, just in time.
The ride back was fine, Morty thought. But Myrna was uncharacteristically quiet. She held her head at a sharp angle and responded to his comments with grunts of her own. He soon gave up on drawing her into conversation, but he did think about he would need to give the doctor a ring once they got back to Brooklyn. He hoped she wasn’t having another episode. Tilly’s bat mitzvah was only a few weeks away. She would be crushed if her mother wasn’t there. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Myrna watch the passing landscape. The trees were a green blur below a blue expanse of sky. It really had been a perfect day for swimming. He wished the girls had had a chance to swim in the lake. Next summer, he decided, they would all come back. He would sign Ruthie up for swimming lessons. Tilly could try archery. He and Myrna would sit in the Adirondack chairs to watch them play. The baby would toddle on the porch. They would all be at peace.
Lillian sat on the edge of the deck chair. Tilly was finally displaying her talent - a series of tumbling passes that sent her careening back and forth across the back yard. Ruthie chased after her, touching her own toes at the end of each pass. It was a surprisingly nice day. A faint wind stirred the branches of the tree and up above, the sun glowed behind a mass of white clouds. Lillian stretched languidly.
“Girls,” Myrna called.
Lillian jumped. How was Myrna home? It was only Saturday morning. They weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow night.
“Hi, Mom!” Tilly said. “Watch this!”
In a flurry of arms and legs, she tumbled across the grass.
“Wonderful,” Myrna said. “Now come inside for a bit. You look dehydrated.”
“Did you bring us souvenirs?” Ruthie said.
“Yes, they’re in my bag,” Myrna said. “Go see if you can find them.”
The two girls bounded toward the back door.
“I’ve got your suitcase and things by the door,” Myrna said.
“Oh,” Lillian said. “I thought the two of you wouldn’t be back for another night”
“There was a change of plans,” Myrna said.
Lillian stood, smoothing Myrna’s navy blue caftan against her stomach.
“How was the trip?” she asked.
“Enlightening,” Myrna said.
“In what way?” Lillian said.
Something was off about Myrna, she thought. She was holding herself strangely, tightly. She remembered the way Myrna had looked after her miscarriage. That same lost, angry look.
“Is everything all right?” Lilian asked. “You look funny. Is everything ok with the - baby?”
“Go on and grab your things,” Myrna said. “Morty will call you a cab.”
Lillian felt her stomach plummet somewhere down below her ankles.
“Myrna?” she asked.
Myrna stepped back into the shadow of the house. She turned her face away.
“Morty, see if you can’t get a cab for Lillian,” she said. “She’ll be waiting on the porch.”
Lillian stepped through the doorway. The mat felt rough under her bare feet. Her toes tingled. She stuck her hands in her pants pockets to hide their tremble. Myrna watched her from a seat at the kitchen table, her fingers gripped tight around the top of the chair next to her. The air felt thick. Lillian knew she should say something. But what?
“Myrna,” she started.
“Wait on the porch, Lillian,” Myrna said, slowly, tiredly.
Lillian walked down the hallway. She passed by the study, where girls were rifling with Morty through a valise. Tilly looked up and waved. Morty looked up and away. Lillian kept walking. Her suitcase waited for her at the front door. She picked it up and walked outside and down the driveway to wait for her cab.
Lillian didn’t attend Tilly’s bat mitzvah. She retreated to her studio and painted poorly for several weeks. On the third such week, her phone rang.
“Hello?” she said.
“There’s been some trouble,” Lucille said. “I think you ought to sit down.”
Lillian leaned against the kitchen counter, “What’s happened?”
“I think Morty’s gone,” Lucille said. “And Myrna’s hysterical.”
“Gone where?” Lucille asked.
“They’re putting them both in the ambulance. Myrna came by the office. They were talking and boom! -
“He just collapsed. I had to call 911. I called 911 and his parents and Myrna told me to call you too.”
“Call me?” Lillian asked. “Why?”
“She didn’t say why,” Lucille said. “She told me to tell you and that’s all.”
“What hospital did you say they are taking them to?” Lillian asked.
“I didn’t say,” Lucille said. “But it’s the Jewish Medical Center.”
“Alright,” Lillian said. “Thank you.”
She hung up the phone and went to the bedroom to gather her purse. She would go to the Center. She would make amends. She sat on the bed. Her boots pointed toward the open closet door. Where were her socks? The dresser was behind her. Lillian turned her head, but found she couldn’t move her body to match. She tried again. Nothing. She felt as though she weighed a thousand pounds. A pressure began to build up inside her head. It thudded behind her eyes. She would make amends. She would stand. No tears, no tears. With her eyes closed, she felt her way around the edge of the bed. Her feet moved with tentative steps until she found the pulls of the dresser drawer. She plucked out a pair of socks and put them on, with eyes still closed. She felt her way back to her original spot. Slowly, she slid off the bed and moved in the boots. Slowly, blindly, she made her way across the apartment until she had everything she needed. When she finally opened her eyes, at the threshold, she took in her apartment with new eyes. She saw the dinginess of the old paint, the squatness of her lamps, and the threadbare nature of her throw pillows. It all looked so old and tired.
When she arrived at the hospital, she saw Morty’s mother across the cafeteria, getting a coffee. They waved and Morty’s mother signaled the room number with her fingers 5-5-3. Lilian nodded in thanks and took the stairs. At each flight, she paused for a moment. It was not quite a prayer; she had been away far too long for that, but it was some sort of plea. An outstretched hand. When she got to the door, she knocked once. There was another pause, and then Myrna opened the door. The two women stared at each other for a moment. Then Myrna stepped back and let her enter.
“What do the doctors say?” Lillian asked.
“Nothing” Myrna said.
“Nothing?” Lillian asked.
“Nothing that would change this,” Myrna gestured towards Morty’s prone body. “They think it was an aneurysm. He grabbed his head when it happened.”
“Did they sedate him?” Lillian asked.
Myrna shook her head. “It’s a coma.”
The women watched the beeps of the monitor.
“They don’t know how long he’ll be like that for. It could be a day, a week, a month,” Myrna said. “What will I tell the girls?”
Lillian felt the pressure return; this time it boomed in her chest.
“I don’t know,” she said.” I’m sure you'll figure something out. You were always the smarter of us two.”
Myrna continued on as if she hadn’t spoken. “He’ll require continuous care while he’s like this. I can’t be here every day and take care of the girls.”
“Well,” Lilian said, “His mother is just outside the city. She can help too.”
Myrna shook her head. “It would be too much for her.”
“A nurse?” Lillian suggested.
“I don’t want any strangers,” Myrna said.
Lillian paused. Silence spooled between them.
Myrna cocked her head to the side. For an instance, Lillian could see her as fourteen year old, hair cut in a sharp bob with a slash of marker on her cheek.
“We were talking about you,” she said. “The day before he started to feel sick. He said I shouldn’t blame you. That he sought it out.”
Lillian looked at her hands. She nodded.
“That year was a difficult time for all of us,” Lillian said.
“Yes,” Myrna said. “It was.”
They looked at each other.
Morty was encased in tubes. He looked small and childlike.
“What would you like me to do?” Lillian asked. The collar of her jacket itched her neck.
Myrna walked to the other side of the bed. She cupped Morty’s forehead with her palm.
“Go. Stay,” Myrna said. “Does it really matter at this point?”
Lillian nodded. There was a chair next to the bed. She sat in it. A book of Raymond Carver short stories was on the nightstand.
Myrna peered into Morty’s face. “Did he ever tell you why he chose you?”
“No,” Lillian said. “It never felt right to ask.”
Myrna nodded. “I bought that book in the gift shop the other day. He likes detective stories.”
“Yes” Lillian said.
“You both like those kinds of books.”
“They’re just trashy enough,” Lillian replied.
Myrna smiled down at Morty, rubbed his hand gently. “You can read to him for a bit. He might like to hear a familiar voice.”
The pain inside Lillian dulled to a tolerable ache. Nodding, she picked up the book and began to read. She read to him daily until he died two short weeks later, and Myrna tasked her with reading her self-published book of poetry at the shiva.
“The bird waits,” Lillian read to the those seated in the parlor, “on the telephone line. Waiting, waiting.”