Someone with a good heart, who could have easily gone on through the EZ-Pass lane and washed his hands of the affair, went out of his way to stop at the cash toll booth and report the old woman wandering up the right-hand lane of the Marine Parkway Bridge. The policeman who responded to the booth attendant’s call assumed the woman was drunk by the way she staggered along. Also, there was that Buick off into the weeds where Beach Channel Drive curves around on its approach to the Rockaway side of the bridge, engine still running, driver’s door open. Obviously, the old woman had missed the turn, abandoned the car, and was hiking it across the bridge. The officer helped her into the patrol car and asked for her driver’s license. She dug through her purse awhile, then handed him the license, saying, “Here it is, but it won’t do you any good. I’m not who I was.”
She refused to say another word. The officer extracted a cell phone from her purse, found a number for “son” in the contacts, called it. A man answered, and the officer explained that he’d found a woman, Pearl Spiegel, walking across the Marine Parkway Bridge.
“That’s impossible,” the man said. “My mother is upstairs right now looking for something in the attic.”
“Is Pearl Spiegel your mother?”
“That’s my mother’s name, but—”
“Older lady, frosted hair, old-timey glasses with rhinestones on the frames?”
It was the glasses that clinched it. “Yes, that’s my mother,” Zack said, then covered his mouth with his hand and stifled a sob. Mama!
When the call came, they had all—Zack, his wife Lena, his sister Naomi and her two daughters, Stephanie and Ruthie—been in Pearl’s house in Neponset for their Wednesday dinner (or the “audience with the queen,” as Naomi put it).
Fortunately, Zack had been in the pantry getting another bottle of wine—money up to her tuchis and still the old lady refused to serve anything other than Mogen David!—and he had time to try to get himself under control before he came back to the table and told the others the news. Be a man, he’d said to himself, brandishing the wine bottle like a cudgel. (“You’ll never be a man until you cut the apron strings,” his first wife had told him, over and over. Well, he was fifty-nine now. There didn’t seem to be much reason to fight that battle anymore. Generally speaking, he didn’t.)
Back in the dining room, he had a hard time convincing the others that he hadn’t somehow gotten the message wrong. It would be typical of Zack, who’d failed to get into any U. S. medical school despite all his parents’ pull, had settled for Grenada, and flunked out there. His father had died later that same year—no connection (he’d had liver disease for years) but it was “in the air” that his son’s repeated failures had done him in. Since then—over thirty years ago now—that Zack couldn’t get things right was assumed by everyone, especially Zack.
“But she’s upstairs somewhere,” Ruthie said.
“Maybe she was going up on the bridge to jump off. You think, you think?” Stephanie said hopefully.
“Stephanie!” Naomi shrieked and threw what happened to be at hand—an overcooked red potato—at her daughter.
As the potato whizzed by her older sister’s ear, Ruthie, who’d been trying to hold it in since the “You think?”, collapsed onto the table in laughter. She immediately straightened back up, though, and scowled. She hated the way she and Stephanie automatically assumed their old roles of giggly teenagers the instant they crossed the threshold of Pearl’s house. Ruthie was twenty-nine and Stephanie thirty-four. They were goddamn long in the tooth for adolescence.
Their mother couldn’t have agreed more. Her daughters were old enough that she shouldn’t have to worry so much about them anymore. Especially Stephanie, going on middle-aged, single, no man in sight. She might have better luck with men if she took things more seriously. Still, Naomi regretted throwing the potato at her. Hard to accuse your daughter of being childish after a stunt like that. (“The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” that ass Zack had once said to her, eyeing Stephanie knowingly. “Yeah, well, at least I’m not still living in my mother’s tree, brother of mine,” she said, Zack at the time living with Pearl.)
Zack realized he was still holding the bottle of Mogen David. He set it down on the table, sighed, and said, “Well, I guess I’d better go get her.”
Naomi pushed her chair back. “I’ll go with you.”
Zack gave her a look. Did she think he couldn’t handle it himself? Then he considered his mother—whatever it was going on with her—the cop, the abandoned car. “OK,” he said.
“I’m going, too!” Stephanie said like a little girl not wanting to be left behind when the others went to the circus.
“I guess I’d better go, too,” Ruthie said. She tried to say it solemnly, as if it were hardly pleasant but one of those tasks the responsible adult accepted. But it was no good. One look at Stephanie with her wild grin, and she had to put a hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle.
They filed out of the house and headed for Zack’s asthmatic Saturn, leaving Lena behind to clean up the dinner dishes. “I’ll say a prayer,” she called after them from the door.
“Yeah, and if her prayer gets answered,” Stephanie whispered with an exaggerated leer that sent her sister into paroxysms once more, “none of us will make it back alive.”
By the time they got there the officer had already decided that Pearl wasn’t inebriated but only old and confused. “Maybe you shouldn’t let her drive anymore,” he said to Zack.
It provided Zack his one laugh of the night. “Let? Let?” He sent a single bark of laughter up into the night sky.
When they were all in the car, with Pearl squeezed between Stephanie and Ruthie in the back seat, Naomi turned and said to her mother, “So what was that all about, Pearl? One minute you’re up in the attic looking for something, and the next you’re busted by a cop on Marine Parkway Bridge.”
When Naomi was pregnant with Stephanie, Pearl had one day announced, “I will not be called Grandma or Grandmother. That child will call me Pearl.” So Naomi and Zack began calling her Pearl, too, because they thought it’d irritate their mother enough that she’d relent and accept the “Nana” that Naomi fancied. But Pearl not only didn’t seem to mind, she hardly seemed to notice. Really, it didn’t matter to Naomi what she called her mother. Zack, though, even thirty years later, when he says “Pearl,” in his heart he thinks Mama. He can’t help it. There is nothing much he can help, at his age nothing much he can change.
Pearl refused to say where she had been going when she wound up on the bridge. In fact, she didn’t say a word on the drive back to her house.
They all went into the dining room and found that Lena had cleared the dinner dishes and set out cups and saucers for coffee, plus dessert plates. Dessert, as it had been for weeks, was the enormous box of marzipan cookies someone had given Pearl over the holidays. She wasn’t going to the trouble and expense of providing another dessert when there were perfectly good cookies to be eaten. (And her with all that money.)
Lena came in with a pot of coffee and began to serve the others as Zack scowled. He didn’t like his wife acting like unpaid domestic help. What she didn’t tell him was that on these Wednesday evenings she’d do anything to get away, even as far as the kitchen, from that “nest of vipers.” After Zack’s first wife left him, he lived with his mother for twenty years before he met Lena, a divorcée with two grown children, whom the others almost never saw because they had their own lives in New Jersey. Pearl and Naomi thought she wasn’t good enough for Zack. Clearly, they looked down on her. The girls, Stephanie and Ruthie, said they didn’t look down on her, but they did, too. That New Jersey accent, and the way she said, “He don’t” and “She don’t.”
She got to Zack with the coffee last, but just as she was starting to pour, he said, “My God, I forgot the Buick. Pearl’s car is still out there in the weeds by the bridge. Come on, Naomi, we’ve got to go get it before it gets towed.” He looked around. “Where’s your purse, Pearl? I need the car keys.”
Stephanie, with an innocent little smile, said, “Uncle Zack, why does Pearl have a key to your car but you don’t have one to hers?” They all knew that Pearl bought Zack’s cars for him—and kept the title herself.
Stephanie turned to her sister expecting a grin in return, but Ruthie looked away. She didn’t like to see her uncle teased. He hurt too easily, had no defenses. Pearl’s fault. Because of her, Zack had just never learned to take charge of his own life. She always came to his aid, bailed him out of jams economic and domestic—and there was the time she went hat in hand to Judge Fleishman (she played bridge with his wife at the country club) when Zack faced charges over some shady business deal. She, not his father, was the one who made him keep taking the MCATs, made him go to Grenada when he hated it, had no interest in or capacity for medicine. He’d wanted to study art history. The one possession that always stayed with him on the many moves over his life was his set of Thames and Hudson World of Art books. Ruthie pitied him. She knew, though, that pity wasn’t love. She wasn’t always sure what was.
Zack found Pearl’s purse on the ottoman in the living room. He opened it, removed some papers, and pawed through the combs, eyeglass cases, hard candies, and whatnot looking for the keys. He found them and started to put the folded papers back in, and then with only mild curiosity opened them. He read quickly through them, then very slowly and carefully read them a second time.
He walked back into the dining room. He held the papers up like some prosecuting attorney raising toward the jury the damning evidence.
“Pearl, what are these?”
The others turned to her. She’d said nothing since they’d retrieved her from the bridge, but now without the slightest hesitation, though in the tiniest voice, hardly recognizable as hers, she said, “They’re adoption papers. It seems I’m adopted. I guess I’m not who I thought I was.”
Zack sat down and folded the papers and covered his mouth with his palm.
“Does this mean we get to be someone else, too?” Stephanie said. Then, predictably, she slapped the table and brayed laughter in all directions. She laughed at everything. Ruthie generally got in the spirit of things on these Wednesday evenings, but otherwise she found her sister mightily irritating. “You don’t really think everything is funny, Stephanie. You don’t fool anybody. It’s a defense mechanism.” “Oh, but I do, I do, Ruthie. I think everything is funny.”
What could be funnier than Uncle Zack, sixty years old or whatever, still doing his mother’s bidding even though all that had ever done for him was make him a pathetic, miserable wreck of a man? Man? Oh, lord, that was rich. But was that any funnier than Stephanie’s mother, Naomi, who held her brother in such contempt even though Uncle Zack at least had the courage to marry a second time, surely against Pearl’s wishes since the old bitch obviously hated Lena, and, true, she had made him pay for it every day of his life, but by God he’d at least done it. Naomi, though, after divorcing the Jewish doctor that Pearl had so desired for her daughter (and who was the only human being Stephanie had ever loved and who had the good sense to die and be buried in Florida so he’d never have to be within six states of the Spiegel family) had had a succession of lovers without having the courage to marry any of them. What, incur Pearl’s wrath and be cut out of the will? There it was, the money—inherited from her podiatrist husband and even more from her rich daddy—that’s what all of them wanted, kept them tied to the old woman, kept them coming to these wretched Wednesdays-at-Pearl’s, Stephanie and Ruthie, too. Ruthie and her fiancé, that red-faced Mick, Pat O’Malley, had even set a date until Naomi told her she couldn’t afford to pay for the wedding—Hell, she couldn’t afford to pay for a reception at McDonald’s—because Pearl wouldn’t give her a penny. (“What, for my granddaughter to marry a shaygetz? Pardon me while I laugh.”)
So, yes, Stephanie laughed. She laughed for perhaps fifteen seconds until it began to sound hollow and absurd even to her and then stopped laughing, and they all sat there in silence. They sipped coffee. Naomi, who hated marzipan, ate a cookie. Zack, who liked them, picked one up and then set it back in the box.
Then Lena spoke up. “You know, Mother Spiegel,”—she was the only one who never called her mother-in-law Pearl—“it might be fun to find out who your real parents were. Just think, you might have some very interesting relatives you didn’t know about.”
Zack, who loathed these Wednesday nights and thought he might not survive this one, tried to grin and said, “Yeah, maybe we have a famous serial killer in the family.” He raised his coffee spoon like a dagger and snarled in mock-menace but realized he was staring at his mother’s throat. Blushing, he dropped the spoon.
Naomi tried to get in the spirit of things: “Our family? Come now, you just know with our family it’d have to be someone brilliant. Spinoza. Einstein.”
“Hey, I’ll bet Pearl’s parents were gentiles,” Stephanie said, winking at Ruthie.
Pearl finally spoke up: “Maybe when word gets out, there’ll be all kinds of relatives, dozens of them, coming out of the woodwork, lining up for a piece of the pie.”
“Piece of the pie?” Lena said.
“Of course. My money.”
Yes, it’s true, Pearl said to herself. It’s true. They only come because of my money. She had been sitting still as an idol, but now she lowered her head until her chin was resting on her bosom. Then she began to cry.
“Mama!” Naomi said. But she didn’t know what to say next, what to do.
The others thought she was the strong one, that she could “handle” Pearl, but that was only because she’d badger Pearl into taking her medicine and would make periodic raids on the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, throwing out anything with an expired use-by date. That was “handling” her?
Besides, what the others didn’t understand, probably even Pearl never understood, was that her mother wasn’t the issue. Pearl never disapproved of her lovers as everyone seemed to assume. “They are all good Jewish boys,” Pearl had said to her once. “Marry one of them. You’re going to wind up old and alone.” But Mama, Naomi wanted to wail to her mother but didn’t have the courage, it was too humiliating, they won’t ask me. None of them had ever asked her. They’d be with her a few weeks or months, three living with her over a year. She forced the issue with two of them and proposed herself. Hoo boy, didn’t they head for the hills! She’d lived with her present beau, Adam, six years, longer than any man except her husband, and every day when she came home from her job as a buyer for a smallish chain of women’s boutiques, she expected to find the apartment empty, Adam gone. (She had flabby breasts, fat thighs, and varicose veins. And she was developing an old-woman smell. She’d hose herself down with cologne, fog the air with feminine hygiene spray, powder her feet and the crack of her ass, and still she had that smell. She would die old, alone.)
Zack couldn’t bear to look at his mother crying, couldn’t look away. He loved her. Laugh at him, call him pathetic (he knew what they all said), so be it. A boy must love for his mother. He has no choice.
He’d stood up to her once, though, yes by God he had. He’d married Lena when he sensed Pearl’s disapproval. (She’d never actually said a word against Lena, not to his face, anyway. What, though, if she had? What if she’d said, Isaac, it’s me or that woman? No no, he refused to contemplate it.)
She was crying now, and he didn’t know what to do for her. He started to say, Somebody help her, but got only as far as “Somebody” and then became confused when the eyes all at once swung round to him. He lowered his head and stared at his coffee cup.
Stephanie leaned over and whispered to Ruthie, “Watch. I’m somehow going to get blamed for this.”
Ruthie, exasperated, hissed back, “What are you so angry at, Stephanie? Just what in the hell are you so angry at? It’s not our fault you’re not married.”
Stephanie covered her mouth to keep from laughing. What a great, glorious joke. Because she was married. She and Terri Stallings of the long blond hair, her shiksa babe, had been one of the hundreds of couples who married the first day gay marriages were legalized in New York. She wasn’t sure she loved Terri. She wasn’t in fact absolutely sure she was gay. She cared nothing at all about sex. If she finally decided the marriage thing wasn’t for her, well, she could always get divorced. Until then, she’d fantasize about announcing the fact of her marriage some Wednesday as the marzipan was being passed around. She’d describe in hilariously horrifying detail what she and Terri did in bed. Then she’d tell them all to burn in hell. She’d heap on the coals.
The only thing that stopped her was that, having invested her life in that family, she wanted her slice of the pie. Why else would she or any of the others keep coming?
The really funny thing was that Stephanie was the only one with more than a sort of academic interest in Pearl’s money. (No use worrying too much about it since Pearl would outlive them all, anyway, just out of spite.) Zack didn’t care about the money, even Stephanie realized that. He only cared about his mama. On the other hand, all of them would have said that it was the money that Naomi was after. Had she known this, Naomi would have been very hurt. She liked to think of herself as the glue that held the family together, at times a stalking horse between the others and her powerful, willful, and ultimately frightening mother and other times very nearly a mother herself: wise, comforting, nurturing. That she was in reality none of these things Naomi was agonizingly aware. Perhaps one day . . . but probably not. As for Ruthie, she cared least of all for the money. She wasn’t at all certain what kept her coming back to Pearl’s Wednesday nights. When she finally figured that out, she’d marry Pat, and her mother’s and grandmother’s blessing be damned. “Marry me now,” Pat kept saying. “We won’t marry Jewish, we won’t marry Catholic. We’ll just marry each other. We’ll be our own religion.” It was a beautiful thing to say, but still Ruthie waited and Pat waited, but he wouldn’t wait forever, she knew that. She could sense the impatience in his voice now when he said, “Marry me.” Soon he would leave her, and she’d be alone then, alone forever.
Pearl cried. Her children and grandchildren sat there.
Finally Lena stood up and went around the table to where Pearl sat. She bent over the old woman with her hands on her shoulders. She kissed her on top of her head and cooed to her, “Shh, Mother Spiegel, shh. It’s all right.” (She was thinking of her own mother, dead these twenty years, a stoop-shouldered, arthritic woman who made the best kielbasa but who never did learn enough English to read the labels in the supermarket. “Mother Spiegel,” she cooed, but in her heart Lena said, Mama, my Mama.)
Pearl cried. To distract her from her crying, Lena said, “Tell me, what were you going to get? I never did understand what it was you left to get.”
It worked. Pearl stopped crying and looked at Lena a moment, snuffled once, and then shrugged, “I don’t know. I was just driving. I wanted to be anywhere but here.”
“No, I didn’t mean that,” Lena said. “I mean earlier—when you left the table. You went up to the attic, I think, to get something. Then you found those papers. But they weren’t what you went up there for. What was it?”
“Oh yes,” Pearl said. She actually smiled a thin little smile. She reached into the pocket of her dress and took out a small picture frame. She ran her fingertips gently over the glass. “It was this. Stephanie said I was a selfish old woman—something to that effect. A selfish old woman because I was an only child. A spoiled only child. Something she learned when she was a psychology major one week, no doubt. But never mind. I am old, and I suppose I am selfish. But all I ever wanted was to have my loved ones around me, at least once in awhile. But I was afraid you wouldn’t come anymore if I gave you the money you wanted.” Here Pearl started to cry again, but then she managed to get herself under control. “I’m sorry. This, Lena, this is what I went to get from the attic.”
She handed the little photograph in its tarnished faux-gold frame to Lena, who looked at it and frowned uncomprehendingly. Lena passed it on to Ruthie, who looked at it a long time before passing it on to Stephanie. The others waited for Stephanie to laugh, but she didn’t. She stared at the photograph, with Ruthie on one side of her still peering at it and Naomi on the other craning her neck to see. Then Naomi took it and held it until Zack, impatient, held out his hand, and then he looked at it and frowned.
It was a little boy, maybe three or four. He was evidently lying on some flat surface with his legs stretched out straight and his heels together and his arms straight down at his sides. He wore a dark suit, the pant-legs too short because two or three inches of his pencil-thin ankles could be seen between the trouser-cuffs and his shoe-tops. The shoulders of the jacket, though, were a bit too wide, which somehow accentuated how very slender he was. His black hair was parted precisely in the middle. His eyes were closed.
Zack looked at his mother. “Who—?”
“That is Solomon Abrams, my older brother. I never knew him. He died. I think they must have adopted me to make up for his loss. . . . That’s the only photograph I’ve ever seen of him. It was something they did back then when a child died very young—took a photograph, something to remember them by, I guess. I’m sure they loved him so.”
They passed the photograph back to Pearl, each one holding it a long moment, then passing it on reluctantly. When Pearl had it again, the others looked across the table longingly. Then, one after another, they got up and went around the table, crowded around behind Pearl and looked over her shoulder at the little boy.
He lay there with such dignity, so calm and accepting of his brief life and then death. He made them feel ashamed of themselves, with their pettiness, their bickering and selfishness. As they stood gazing at him, though, they began to take heart. He was, after all, one of them—brother, uncle, great-uncle. At least one of them had been so very loved.
Huddled around little Solomon, on that Wednesday, for a few moments at least, they did not feel so very alone.
About the Author
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.