One April evening in 1973, many years ago now, Matilda discovered that her husband Leo had been cheating on her. (“But it’s just hookers,” he had said, giving her one of his indecipherable smiles.) Nevertheless, the next day she persisted in fixing a very grand seder. Both their children would be coming that night, both Wendele and Max, and all the grandkids.
All day long she wandered around in her little Brooklyn kitchen, weeping, bumping into counters, chopping apples and nuts, broiling chicken livers, boiling chicken necks, marrow bones, dropping matzah balls into gently bubbling broth. The chopped liver ended up just as tasty as always, and the chicken soup’s aroma filled the tiny kitchen with the same lush vapor as usual, and it seemed now to Tillie that in reality the world was dust and ashes, nothing more; not even evil; and worse, that she had always known this but had refused to admit the truth to herself. All, all was nothing—the fire escape outside the kitchen window with the jungle of her favorite potted plants on the metal mesh, the asphalt roof of the familiar junk car shop across the way, her beloved grape vines out in the garden at back, the swish of the stream of cars up and down Coney Island Ave. three stories below, the kitchen and its yellow wallpaper she detested but which her children loved since they’d grown up with it, and which she therefore kept for the sake of their nostalgia. And she too was nothing; and this thing of nothing, herself, kept on cooking and cleaning and shuffling around her kitchen, like a very stupid animal.
And yet she had not loved him, at all.
She had stopped loving him long ago, perhaps even before she had eloped with him as a girl of seventeen, 49 years ago; perhaps she had never loved him, though at the time, how terribly in love she had been; “she would give her life for him!” she had told him once—hadn’t she? What a good-looking man, everyone had said, even her mother. What a catch! Like Rudolph Valentino. And it was true, he had looked remarkably like Valentino, once, more beautiful even, with limpid deep-set eyes and red lips. His eyes were still beautiful, now.
So tell me, if you don’t love him (she asked herself in her mother’s voice, the ghost of her mother’s voice, as she chopped off the duck’s neck), then why are you carrying on about the hookers?
Because, my darling, there’s more to life than love, Tillie answered back automatically, and stuffed the duck cavity with a peeled onion, some garlic.
She dragged three tables together, two from the empty apartment Leo kept next door – he was always going to rent it out, but instead kept all their discards in it, luggage, broken radios, old couches, tables, armchairs with ripped silk covers and white stuffing bursting out, discarded paintings in darkening tints with huge gilt-and-dust frames, the entire echoing flat like a huge haunted house. Tillie’s hose kept slithering down into her black mannish orthopedic shoes as she walked purposely from one side of the table to the other, sliding and heaving the tables into a large L so that no spot was too close to the wall and God forbid made anyone uncomfortable, and no chair was too close to a table leg. But no matter how many times she tugged the hose up, it simply slithered back down.
“How many? I have absolutely no idea, Matilda,” he had said last night, peeling an apple, half-closing his eyes in a wearied, unmistakable accusation, that she was at fault for not letting him sleep.
The three tables she scrubbed clean and covered in white embroidered plastic cloths she thought very fine, and for chairs she used the crushed yellow velvet ones covered in plastic for Leo and the other men, the cast iron kitchen ones for Wendele and Max’s wife Rae, and for the children and herself – she was so tiny she was like a child! she needed nothing! – some folding metal chairs from their paint store downstairs. She even managed to cut some flowers from the lilac bush from the garden out back. But when she brought the bunch inside she noticed that her thumb was sliced open at the meaty part. How had that happened? Why hadn’t she felt it? She put the lilacs in a glass vase and set it in the middle of the finely set table and blotted her bent arthritic thumb with a hand towel and watched, astonished, as the red blood soaked into the white and blue check cotton. How could he have done this to her? How? How could the man who had sat at the edge of the bed every night for the past forty-nine years and rubbed the dirt out from between his toes (and not once had she criticized him for this, though the sight of the worm-like rolls of dirt dropping to the carpet nauseated her each and every time), then crawled into bed and cupped these feet against her feet, his hand on her belly, her hip—how could this be the same man who snuck out from work, from his home, in the middle of the night, in the early morning, and visited whorehouses? And always before her rose the vile image of the shirt with the pink lipstick imprint on the collar. The clichéd cheapness, the filth, of it. That shirt had been so entirely preposterous – a perfect lipstick kiss, on the collar yet! – that yesterday, Tillie, finding it in the pile of dirty laundry along with his underwear and her brassieres, had been unable to believe its implications. It seemed to follow that since the evidence was both clichéd and unconcealed, then the act too must be clichéd and innocent, and therefore false. “It’s not true! It’s not true!” she had said over and over to Leo, sobbing.
Her daughter Wendy was the first to arrive for the Seder. “Ma, sweetheart,” she said and kissed her, “Ma, Ma, “ Wendy said, “Ma, listen to me—“
“Is Paul better now from his what-do-you-call-it? His strep?”
“Yes sweetheart, he’s doing fine thank God—“
“Thank God. Ma. Listen. Ma. I brought some gefilte fish—“ Wendy set down a shopping bag from Pathmark and started to take out bottles and cans and jars and set them on the heavy plastic and gilt of the table. “And macaroons. And Elliot wanted the chocolate covered matzah that the kids—and the kids–And the fruit gels, Elliot loves them, but he says—“
“Darling, darling,” Matilda was saying, waving her arms. “How are you, darling? Happy keinahura?”
“Thank God, I’m happy, we’re happy.” And Wendy gave one of her timid, pleased-with-herself smiles, rather like a very good girl who is praised for writing cursive neatly. “Very very happy. You know what Elliot surprised me with today?”
“This,” Wendy held out her hand; on her right hand was a huge emerald set in an art-deco style band. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper for some inexplicable reason.
“Gorgeous,” whispered Tillie, momentarily dazzled. She forgot about Leo, in the green electricity of her daughter’s jewel. And what was the big deal, really? Shikseh whores! He was welcome to them and their diseases. So what? She was sixty-six. She had her family. She was a mature woman. She had a daughter married successfully. Whereas her older sister Rose – Rose who hadn’t spoken to her for twenty-four years because Tillie had eloped before Rose was married – what did Rose have? One daughter who had God forbid killed herself and another who was retarded. “Beautiful, Wendele,” she said again. “Just beautiful.”
“What are you two broads cackling about?” Elliot said, a huge cigar in his chubby hand (he’d had a heart attack already, once). Like a sultan, he draped his expansive arm around Wendy’s shoulder, tucked his hand inside her shirt, and gently squeezed her breast, once, expertly, like a ripe fruit he was testing. “Not bad, not bad at all,” he said, and puffed on his cigar. He kept his hand there, massaging the breast; the kneading motion of his fingers could be seen through Wendy’s Huckapoo polka-dot blouse.
“Oh, El, El, El,” Wendy whimpered, not moving away, smiling, blinking, wringing her hands. “El…Please…”
“What? What?” Tillie said, not wanting to understand. Then she rallied, because despite everything, she had to make everyone happy. She heard herself gush out in that old-lady’s voice of hers she detested:
“Oy, look at you darlings, look at you. Soon you’ll be bigger than your tiny grandma!”
Claudia, the seven-year-old, folded her arms and said deadpan: “That won’t be difficult.”
“Oy! Oy!” Tillie and Wendy laughed together.
Even the girl seemed to not take account of her father’s hand on her mother’s breast. It was apparent to Tillie (as she laughed fondly at Claudia) that he did this sort of thing all the time – in fact, now that she thought of it, hadn’t she seen, and put out of her mind, this sort of thing before? Had she? Hadn’t she?
Tillie clapped her hands once, gaily. “I have duck tonight, Wendy. Your favorite. Remember? Remember?”
“Isn’t that great? Isn’t that great?” Wendy said absent-mindedly, as she ducked under Elliot’s arm, twisted away, and unwrapped the gelled fruits in agitation. “Kids, kids the fruit candies. Take. Take some fruit candies.”
“Mommy,” Paul said. He had been squatting in the corner picking out the dead leaves of an abandoned potted plant. A little pile of brown curled leaves lay at his feet. “I want sweet potato. You said: Yes, sweet potato.”
“Wendy,” hissed Tillie. “Candy is not the meal. What are you thinking? That’s not the seder! That’s desert.”
“Kids.” Wendy pretended not to hear her mother. “Pesach candy.”
Soon Max and Rae and their daughters Stacy and Marcy came in the door. Rae looked, as usual, as though she were a wax figure, partly melting. Her nose was drooping, her lips, her skin, with pores that had swollen to golf-ball proportions, seemed to be partly sliding off, as she stood next to Max, shuffling, her hands together, her eyes black pits of confusion. Her black hair stood out around her head like flames. She had been put in a mental hospital already several times. And fifteen years ago, Max had brought her home from his station in Alaska; Rae had been wearing red lipstick and a checked dress with a wide sash and a dazzling smile on her open, plain face. She had been an elementary school teacher. Then after Marcy had been born, everything had changed, and Rae had turned crazy – the fires (she burnt down their first house), the slit wrists, the violent rages, and then holing herself into her bedroom with the TV on for weeks, never coming out – and poor Max only became more and more devoted, like a dopey dog. Max was an intense disappointment to Leo, and to her. He had always been a disappointment, since he was a baby; Tillie didn’t know why. She didn’t like to think of it.
“Go lie down on the couch, Rae,” Max said gently, and kissed her on the top of her head. Rae shuffled over to the darkened living room.
Rae’s daughter Marcy smirked at her mother, then without warning pinched her sister Stacy hard, on her neck, a look of intense satisfied cruelty coming over her face. Stacy flushed and blinked back tears. Only Claudia, the seven year old, noticed. “Come on,” she said, taking Stacy’s hand. “Let’s go.”
Stacy said, “Let me show you a magic trick.” They went over to the candles on the buffet in the darkened hallway, and Stacy said, “I will now show you a magic trick.” She ran her finger through the candle flame. “See? It’s not burnt. It went through fire but it’s not burnt.”
“Oh,” Claudia said, shrugging. This was a pivotal event for Claudia, though she didn’t reveal this fact to Stacy at all. It seemed true magic to her, passing through fire and remaining unscathed, even when she got older and understood it was not magic. The girls wandered into the back bedroom, in deep conversation.
“How was your cruise trip, darling?” Tillie was saying to Max.
Max said, “Rae always wanted to go to Bermuda, so I booked the ship for her, the best, top of the line, but when we got there—“, but as he spoke, Tillie was distracted, out of the corner of her eye, by a delicate hand reaching out for a slice of the green gelled fruit candy. Tillie saw the manicured nails, the particular web-like pattern of veins and wrinkles, the gold ring with the serrated edge, and before she could formulate any thought, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled, and she was saturated with dread, fear, and something else she couldn’t tell, something bad.
Then she understood. It was Leo.
Max was still talking about their vacation: “So then when we disembarked, Rae said she wanted—“
Leo said, “When do we eat, Matilda?”
“The king of the roost has arrived!” Tillie said.
Max turned around and smiled timidly at Leo. “Hiya, Pop.” Leo nodded acknowledgment.
“Grandpa, Grandpa,” Paul said, tossing his dead leaves and running over on his small legs to hug one of Leo’s legs. Leo absently patted his head. Paul was the baby, the only male, the most loved grandchild. “Do your popping trick, Grandpa!” Paul said.
“Is the duck ready?” Leo said, flicking his heavy eyelids, his limpid hazel eyes, up toward Matilda. He held the gaze for a fraction of a second.
In that second, Tillie immediately read in these eyes: I refuse to stop, I will continue with the whores– do whatever you want.
“Shall we commence momentarily?” Leo said, nibbling on the faux rind of the fruit gel. He curled himself like a cobra into the gold armchair in the corner by the plant, took a book out from the bookcase and set it on his lap unopened. Paul sat on the armrest and traced the silk embroidery with his finger. Leo made a rustling noise, rose up from his chair, and then curled himself back into the chair again.
“Yes, of course,” Tillie said, and ran into the kitchen, where she stared, swaying, at the yellow wallpaper she detested. She didn’t know what to do.
“Lois invited me for lunch tomorrow,” she heard Rae’s drug-slurred voice boom out from the darkened living room. “But I know what she secretly wants. She secretly wants to hurt me. She’s going to attack me at lunch.”
Max said. “Oh Rae, she’s doing it to be nice. Why would she want to attack you?”
“You always take other people’s sides! You’ve always been against me.”
Tillie could hear Max’s low voice entreating Rae, the soft soothing sounds. She wanted to pull Max away from Rae and slap him, and she even left the kitchen with this image in her mind—She would. And he would finally come to his senses, and be a man. But as soon as she stepped into the dining room, she was drawn back to Leo, on his armchair, and she stood in front of Leo, swaying and half-spinning like iron that is too close to the source magnet.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Rae was whimpering to Max.
“Shh, kid, you didn’t mean it, you didn’t mean it,” Max said.
Leo put his finger in his mouth, puffed out his cheek, and made a loud popping sound. Paul threw back his head and giggled. “Grandpa, do it again, do it again!”
Wendy said, “Ma, can I help you? Let me help you. You have too much to do.” She made a move to come into the kitchen, but Elliot grabbed her arm.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” Elliot said in a sing song that mimicked the Talmudic chanting. He raised a finger: “Rabbi Eliazer sa-ays: On this night we eat one overcooked duck that cannot conceivably – it’s a physicalogical impossibility – feed six adults and four children. Whereas on all other nights, we eat only overcooked chicken.”
Wendy giggled. “Shh, El!”
Elliot took her hand and kissed her finger with the emerald. “What a piece of work is a woman. How infinite in– In form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!”
Tillie went back into the kitchen, not understanding herself. What was she doing? Why was she going into the kitchen?
Outside, it had begun raining. She could hear the pling! pling! of the rain, like bullets, on the fire escape. The plants would be getting their water. She opened the window just to see the plants getting their water. But it was too dark to see. She hitched up her girdle and hooked her veiny leg over the sill and climbed out onto the fire escape.
In the street three stories below the red and white lights of the cars swooshed and blurred in the rain. The cool rain drizzled on her head, her face. And should she do whatever she wanted, and leave him? But was this what she wanted, to leave him? But didn’t self-respecting women do that, leave their husbands when they slept with whores? Or did they kick the husbands out? But how did they pay for the rent? And then what? She imagined moving in with Wendy. No, Max. No, no, certainly not Max—he needed his mother like a hole in the head. Wendy then. But then she thought of Elliot’s cigar, the way he placed it between his plump lips, bits of his white teeth gleaming. No, not Wendy.
From the street below, around the corner, out of sight, she heard someone, a man, not Leo, say: “Matil-da-a! Matilda!”
She couldn’t get her whole leg over the rail, so she dragged the potted plant over and stood on the edge of the clay pot. Then she reached up tippy-toe and straddled the rail. “What do you think you’re doing?” her mother’s voice said sharply. Tillie’s pantyhose had slid all the way to the bottoms or her shoes, but she didn’t have the energy to pull it up. The tops of the cars glistened in the rainy streetlights. “Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother’s voice said. “You have to fix the seder!” Down below, a woman crossed the street with her dog on a leash. Tillie observed herself as though outside herself: there she was, a tiny old woman with curly hair and wrinkled pantyhose, ridiculously about to annihilate herself over a man she didn’t love.
“Matilda! Matil-il-il-da!” the man’s voice called. Tillie jumped.
In the bedroom at the back of the house, Cousin Marcy was sitting on the foot of the bed, stabbing the back of her hand with a pin. “Look,” she said, pointing to the drop of red blood that pearled from the puncture.
“I’m gonna tell Daddy,” Stacy said, but even to her own ears it sounded unconvincing.
Marcy smiled. “I’m gonna make an M.” She drew the pin in a vertical line across her skin so that tiny bits of red bubbled up.
Claudia was so appalled that it felt like fascination to her, in the same way that too-hot water feels icy cold, and she could not take her eyes off Marcy’s hand. On one side of room, between two narrow windows that looked out into the rainy night now, was an enormous mirror over an ancient chest of drawers; on the back of the door on the opposite side of the room was a full-length mirror. It was therefore possible, by leaving the door partly closed and sitting in between the two mirrors, on the bed, to gaze at a series of infinite magical reflections of yourself. In that corridor now was Marcy and her reddening M.
She jumped on the bed, jumped off, jumped on, not knowing what to do in her agitation.
“Stop it, you’re disturbing my concentration,” Marcy said.
Paul came running into the room and the three girls immediately felt the alien little-boy energy, the harmless physical energy, very like a puppy dog. He was in fact panting. “Let’s go to the attic,” he said.
Claudia took Paul’s hand with relief. How she loved her little brother. “Yeah, we can play Spy.”
The attic was actually the deserted apartment next door, but they called it the ‘attic’ because the name went along with the white sheets covering the furniture, the dust, the creepiness, the boxes and boxes of abandoned treasures the adults had inexplicably discarded. There was one working lamp in the room, on the floor by the door, and it cast an appealingly dim yellow light casting long creepy shadows of various shapes.
They each set to sorting through the boxes, or chests of drawers, and soon Marcy called to them, sitting cross-legged in a particularly shadowy corner: “Look what I found, look what I found! Ew! Gross!” In the attic, Marcy always became normal, one of them. They ran over.
She was holding out stacks and stacks of playing cards with pictures on the backs, and at first, in the dim light, they couldn’t understand what they were seeing. They were dark forms, shapes; then these coalesced into airbrushed old-fashioned photos of people; some people were alone; some were side by side, or one on top of the other; then these clarified further into naked people. Men. All men. Naked men! Doing—
“What are they doing?” Paul said.
The girls stared. The red penises stuck out like monstrous weapons.
And these old-fashioned photos, with their fake coloring and unclear contours and unsmiling people, were in the exact same bourgeois style as the framed photos of the upright Grandma and Grandpa on the chest of drawer in their bedroom.
Paul wandered away from the cards and took the sheet off one of the chairs and hid under it, sneezing in the dust, and played Adventure. This was expected; he was no longer one of them. All three girls gravely studied the cards, one by one, passing them to each other. There were hundreds. So these were men, with their penises grotesquely attached to the civilized body, sometimes toward each other, sometimes alone. This was the truth that adults hid from you. Men could trick you, they could hurt you; they were not quite human. At the same time, you had to be careful with men, or they could snap off and die.
The children never heard the commotion or the ambulance siren, or even their parents calling for them. It was only when Uncle Max came in (they threw the cards into the drawer with experienced nonchalance), and took their hands in a calm, commanding way, so unlike his normal self, and told them it was time to go home, that they realized something must have happened.
“Nothing,” he said in his easygoing manner. “Nothing happened. The seder’s just over.”
“But what about the food?” Claudia said, holding her uncle’s hand as he led them out the apartment and into the corridor. She liked Uncle Max. He wasn’t dangerous at all, unlike her father. “What about the seder?”
“You kids were having so much fun,” Uncle Max said, “that we decided to let you be, in there. Seders can be so boring for kids, right? Am I right?”
“But what about the afikomen?” Stacy said, trying not to cry. She was the only one who could see at once – from her father’s very assurance – that something terrible had happened. She thought it must be her mother.
“Oh, don’t cry, Stacy. Here. Don’t cry. Here’s the afikomen prize,” Uncle Max said, squatting in the hallway. He reached into his wallet and pulled out the money. “Here’s ten bucks for each of you. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty. That’s a good afikomen prize.”
They stood staring at the miraculous money; the prize was usually fifty cents. Stacy and Marcy understood perfectly well it was a bribe; Claudia thought Uncle Max was being his nice, generous self and loved the cavalier way he said ‘bucks’; Paul was overcome with exhaustion (it was now past 10:00 pm) and in his confused state associated the money with treasure from his Adventure game in the attic.
“Thanks, Uncle Max,” Paul said, his teeth chattering in exhaustion. “Now the bad guys can’t get me.”
Tillie stayed in the hospital for a week and a half, and was soon a favorite with all the staff, with her unfailing cheerfulness and sense of humor. “A miracle,” the doctor said each time he saw her. “I christen you the Indestructible Lady!”
“No, doctor. You must call me Rubber Lady. I don’t fall—I bounce!”
Tillie had been moving the plants to get full benefit of the rain – “My wife never stops working,” Leo told the staff affectionately – and had accidentally slipped while standing on one of the plants to…Here the story became murky, but no one cared to look too closely anyway.
From a fall of three stories, Tillie had gotten only a broken leg, a few broken ribs, some bruises. That was it. A miracle.
“Mrs. Rosenzweig,” the nurse said with deep feeling, “God has some purpose for you.”
The evening before she was to be released, Leo sat by Tillie’s bed peeling an apple while she slept. Her face, while she slept under the green fluorescent light of the hospital, revealed all the wrinkles and ravages of age, disappointment, and his lack of love for her that she hid so well in front of everyone else. He felt extraordinarily guilty and at the same time he despised her for imprisoning him, he knew, for life. They would be married for another 26 unbearable years, and would bury their daughter Wendy (cancer). When he and Tillie finally died, in their nineties, a year apart from the other, they would be buried side by side, and the rabbi, who knew neither of them, would speak of their resting eternally together in heaven, “in peace,” while their grown grandchildren – Claudia, Stacy, Marcy (not Paul—he had refused to come, having cut ties with his entire family for reasons everyone pretended to not understand) – the cousins would weep and speak of how their grandparents had loved each other “so much—so much.”
Leo couldn’t know all this, but he could sense the years of entrapment and agony. And now, nibbling the apple, he couldn’t understand why he had married her, except that she had been a pretty, plump, happy American. He himself had been a runaway from Lodz, Poland; his stepmother had beaten him and his brother and sister for years – she was careful to bruise only their trunk, never their arms or legs, so that the cheder wouldn’t see – while his father had looked the other way. Leo had run away at fourteen and eventually made his way alone to America where he taught himself English at nineteen by reading the New York Times. “A true American success story!” everyone said. His entire family had ended up getting shot at the Lodz Ghetto. He never talked of this and did not like to think of it either.
In bed, asleep, unaware of the future and even the present, Tillie was dreaming. She dreamt she and Leo were walking on the Coney Island boardwalk, arm in arm. This was before they were married, when she had been in love with Leo, or more precisely, with the idea of love and beauty, the myth of rescuing. In the dream, she could smell the salt of the sea, and Leo had bought her a vanilla ice cream cone. Out on the pier, people clapped, the giant Ferris wheel turned, and far toward the east a stream of ships sailed. Her daughter Wendy came running up to her. Tillie was married now. She was in Brooklyn. “An uppie, Daddy, an uppie!’ Wendy was saying in her high little-girl’s voice while they were walking one winter afternoon, on the sidewalk outside the apartment. “An uppie!” Wendy was begging, trotting to keep up with Leo. Leo had no patience for weakness of any sort, and Tillie thought he would walk away. He took a couple of strides, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, shopped short and lifted Wendy up high, over his head, while Wendy had opened her mouth wide to reveal her white baby teeth. And Leo was particularly beautiful, in the dream, with his full lips, his face flushed with the cold, his head tilted back, his deep-set eyes half-shut, two slits of a burning, distilled joy, as he gazed up at his only daughter. And Tillie, looking at Leo in the dream, loved him.
Originally published in Stand Vol 10 No. 4, 2012