Michael, the weekend guest, was to spend the night in one of the twin beds in Herbie’s old room, where the baseball pictures still hung on the wall. Lou Epstein slept with his wife in the room with the bed pushed catter-corner. His daughter Sheila’s bedroom was empty; she was at a meeting with her fiancé, the folk-singer. In the corner of her room a childhood teddy bear balanced on its bottom, a “Vote Socialist” button pinned to its left ear; on her book-shelves, where once volumes of Louisa May Alcott gathered dust, now were collected the works of Howard Fast. The house was quiet. The only light burning was downstairs in the dining room where the shabus candles flickered in their tall golden holders and Herbie’s jahrzeit candle trembled in its glass.
Epstein looked at the dark ceiling of his bedroom and let his head that had been bang-banging all day go blank for a moment. His wife Goldie breathed thickly beside him, as though she suffered from eternal bronchitis. Ten minutes before she had undressed and he had watched as she dropped her white nightdress over her head, over the breasts which had funneled down to her middle, over the behind like a bellows, the thighs and calves veined blue like a roadmap. What once could be pinched, what once was small and tight, now could be poked and pulled. Everything hung. He had shut his eyes while she had dressed for sleep and had tried to remember the Goldie of 1927, the Lou Epstein of 1927. Now he rolled his stomach against her backside, remembering, and reached around to hold her breasts. The nipples were dragged down like a cow’s. He rolled back to his own side.
A key turned in the front door—there was whispering, then the door gently shut. He tensed and waited for the noises—it didn’t take those Socialists long. At night the noise from the zipping and the un-zipping was enough to keep a man awake. “What are they doing down there?” he had screamed at his wife last Friday night, “Trying on clothes?” Now, once again, he waited. It wasn’t that he was against their playing. He was no puritan, he believed in young people enjoying themselves. Hadn’t he been a young man himself? But in 1927 he and his wife were handsome people. Lou Epstein had never resembled that chinless, lazy, smart-alec whose living was earned singing folk songs in a saloon, and who once had asked Epstein if it hadn’t been “thrilling” to have lived through “a period of great social upheaval” like the thirties.
And his daughter, why couldn’t she have grown up to be like—like the girl across the street whom Michael had the date with, the one whose father had recently died. Now there was a pretty girl. But not his Sheila. What happened, he wondered, what happened to that little pink-skinned baby? What year, what month did those skinny ankles grow thick as logs, the peaches-and-cream turn to pimples ? That lovely child was now a twenty-three-year-old woman with “a social conscience!” Some conscience, he thought. She hunts all day for a picket line to march in so that at night she can come home and eat like a horse . . . For her and that guitar-plucker to touch each other’s unmentionables seemed worse than sinful —it was disgusting. When Epstein tossed in bed and heard their panting and the zipping it sounded in his ears like thunder.
They were at it. He would ignore them, think of his other problems. The business . . . here he was a year away from the retirement he had planned but with no heir to Epstein Paper Bag Company. He had built the business from the ground, suffered and bled during the Depression and Roosevelt, only, finally, with the War and Eisenhower to see it succeed. The thought of a stranger taking it over made him sick. But what could be done? Herbie, who would have been twenty-eight, had died of polio, age eleven. And Sheila, his last hope, had chosen as her intended a lazy man. What could he do? Does a man of fifty-nine all of a sudden start producing heirs?
Zip! Pant-pant-pant! Ahh!
He shut his ears and mind, tighter. He tried to recollect things and drown himself in them. For instance, dinner . . .
He had been startled when he arrived home from the shop to find the soldier sitting at his dinner table. Surprised because the boy, whom he had not seen for ten or twelve years, had grown up with the Epstein face, as his own son would have, the small bump in the nose, the strong chin, dark skin, and shock of shiny black hair that, one day, would turn gray as clouds.
“Look who’s here,” his wife shouted at him the moment he entered the door, the day’s dirt still under his fingernails. “Sol’s boy.”
The soldier popped up from his chair and extended his hand, “How do you do, Uncle Louis?”
“A Gregory Peck,” Epstein’s wife said, “a Monty Clift your brother has. He’s been here only three hours already he has a date. And a regular gentleman...”
Epstein did not answer.
The soldier stood at attention, square, as though he’d learned courtesy long before the Army. “I hope you don’t mind my barging in, Uncle Louis. I was shipped to Monmouth last week and Dad said I should stop off to see you people. I’ve got the weekend off and Aunt Goldie said I should stay . . .” he waited.
“Look at him,” Goldie was saying, “a Prince!”
“Of course,” Epstein said at last. “Stay. How is your father?” Epstein had not spoken to his brother Sol since 1945 when he had bought Sol’s share of the business and his brother had moved to Detroit, with words.
“Dad’s fine,” Michael said. “He sends his regards.”
“Sure, I send mine too. You’ll tell him.”
Michael sat down, and Epstein knew that the boy must think just as his father did: that Lou Epstein was a coarse man whose heart beat faster only when he was thinking of Epstein Paper Bag.
When Sheila came home they all sat down to eat, four, as in the old days. Goldie Epstein jumped up and down, up and down, slipping each course under their noses the instant they had finished the one before. “Michael,” she said historically, “Michael, as a child you were a very poor eater. Your sister, Ruthie, God bless her, was a nice eater. Not a good eater, but a nice eater.”
For the first time Epstein remembered his little niece Ruthie, a little dark-haired beauty, a Bible Ruth. He looked at his own daughter and heard his wife go on, “No, Ruthie wasn’t such a good eater. But she wasn’t a picky eater. Our Herbie, he should rest in peace, was a picky eater . . .” Goldie looked toward her husband as though he would remember precisely what category of eater his beloved son had been; he stared into his pot roast.
“But,” Goldie Epstein resumed, “you should live and be well, Michael, you turned out to be a good eater . . .”
The noises snapped Epstein’s recollection in two.
Enough was enough. He got out of bed, made certain that he was tucked into his pajamas, and started down to the living room. He would give them a piece of his mind. He would tell them that—that 1927 was not 1957! No, that was what they would tell him.
But in the living room it was not Sheila and the folk-singer. Epstein felt the cold from the floor rush up the loose legs of his pajamas and chill his crotch, raising goose-flesh on his thighs. They did not see him. He retreated a step, back behind the archway to the dining room. His eyes, however, remained fixed on the living room floor, on Sol’s boy and the girl from across the street.
The girl had been wearing shorts and a sweater. Now they were thrown over the arm of the sofa. The light from the candles was enough for Epstein to see that she was naked, Michael lay beside her, squirming and potent, wearing only his army shoes and khaki socks. The girl’s breasts were like two small white cups. Michael kissed them, and more. Epstein tingled; he did not dare move, he did not want to move, until the two, like cars in a railroad yard, slammed fiercely together, coupled, shook. In their noise Epstein tiptoed, trembling, up the stairs and back to his wife’s bed.
He could not force himself to sleep for what seemed like hours, not until the door had opened downstairs and the two young people had left. When, a minute or so later, he heard another key turn in the lock he did not know whether it was Michael returning to go to sleep, or—
Now it was Sheila and the folk-singer! The whole world, he thought, the whole young world, the ugly ones and the pretty ones, the fat and the skinny ones, zipping and unzipping! He grabbed his great shock of gray hair and pulled it till his scalp hurt. His wife shuffled, mumbled a noise. “Brrr . . . brrrr . . .” She captured the blankets and pulled them over her. “Brrr . . .”
Butter! She’s dreaming about butter. Recipes she dreams while the world zips. He closed his eyes and pounded himself down down into an old man’s sleep.
How far back must you go to discover the beginning of trouble? Later, when Epstein had more time he would ask himself this question. When did it begin? That night he’d seen those two on the floor? Or the summer night seventeen years before when he had pushed the doctor away from the bed and put his lips to his Herbie’s? Or, Epstein wondered, was it that night fifteen years ago when instead of smelling a woman between his sheets he smelled Babo? Or the time when his daughter had first called him “capitalist” as though it were a dirty name, as though it were a crime to be successful? Or was it none of these times? Maybe to look for a beginning was only to look for an excuse. Hadn’t the trouble, the big trouble, begun simply when it appeared to begin, the morning he saw Ida Kaufman waiting for the bus?
And about Ida Kaufman, why in God’s name was it a stranger, nobody he loved or ever could love, who had finally changed his life?—she, who had lived across the street for less than a year, and who (it was revealed by Mrs. Katz, the neighborhood Winchell) would probably sell her house now that Mr. Kaufman was dead and move all-year-round into the summer cottage she owned at Barnegat? Up until that morning Epstein had no more than noticed the woman: dark, good-looking, a big chest. She hardly spoke to the other housewives, but spent every moment, until a month ago, caring for her cancer-eaten husband. Once or twice Epstein had tipped his hat to her, but even then he had been more absorbed in the fate of Epstein Paper Bag than in the civility he was practicing. Actually then, on that Monday morning, it would not have been unlikely for him to have driven right past the bus-stop. It was a warm April day, certainly not a bad day to be waiting for a bus. Birds fussed and sang in the elm trees, and the sun glinted in the sky like a young athlete’s trophy. But the woman at the bus-stop wore a thin dress and no coat. Epstein saw her waiting, and beneath the dress, the stockings, the imagined underthings he saw again the body of the girl on his living room rug—for Ida Kaufman was the mother of Linda Kaufman, the girl Michael had befriended. So Epstein pulled slowly to the curb and, stopping for the daughter, picked up the mother,
“Thank you, Mr. Epstein,” she said. “This is kind of you.”
“It’s nothing,” Epstein said. “I’m going to Market Street.”
“Market Street will be fine.”
He pressed down too hard on the accelerator and the big Chrysler leaped away, noisy as a hot-rodder’s Ford. Ida Kaufman rolled down her window and let the breeze waft in; she lit a cigarette. After a while she asked, “That was your nephew, wasn’t it, that took Linda out Saturday night?”
“Michael? Yes.” Epstein flushed, for reasons Ida Kaufman did not know. He felt the red on his neck and coughed to make it appear that some respiratory failure had caused the blood to rush up from his heart.
“He’s a very nice boy, extremely polite,” she said.
“My brother Sol’s,” Epstein said. “In Detroit.” And he shifted his thoughts to Sol so that the flush might fade: if there had been no words with Sol it would be Michael who would be heir to Epstein Paper Bag. Would he have wanted that? Was it any better than a stranger...?
While Epstein thought, Ida Kaufman smoked, and they drove on without speaking, under the elm trees, the choir of birds, and the new spring sky unfurled like a blue banner.
“He looks like you,” she said.
“No,” Epstein said, “him, he’s the image of Sol.”
“No, no, don’t deny it—” and she exploded with laughter, smoke dragoning out of her mouth; she jerked her head back mightily, “No, no, no, he’s got your face!”
Epstein looked at her, wondering: the lips, big and red, over her teeth, grinning. Why? Of course—your little boy looks like the ice man, she’d made that joke. He grinned, mainly at the thought of going to bed with his sister-in-law, whose everything had dropped even lower than his wife’s.
Epstein’s grin provoked Ida Kaufman into more extravagant mirth. What the hell, he decided, he would try a joke himself.
“Your Linda, who does she look like?”
Ida Kaufman’s mouth straightened; her lids narrowed, killing the light in her eyes. Had he said the wrong thing? Stepped too far ? Defiled the name of a dead man, a man who’d had cancer yet? But no, for suddenly she raised her arms in front of her, and shrugged her shoulders as though to say, “Who knows, Epstein, who knows?”
Epstein roared. It was so long since he had been with a woman who had a sense of humor; his wife took everything he said seriously. Not Ida Kaufman, though—she laughed so hard her breasts swelled over the top of her tan dress. They were not cups but pitchers. The next thing Epstein knew he was telling her another joke, and another, in the middle of which a cop screamed up alongside him and gave him a ticket for a red light which, in his joy, he had not seen. It was the first of three tickets he received that day; he earned a second racing down to Barnegat later that morning, and a third speeding up the Parkway at dusk, trying not to be too late for dinner. The tickets cost him $32 in all, but as he told Ida, when you’re laughing so hard you have tears in your eyes, how can you tell the green lights from the red ones, fast from slow?
At seven o’clock that evening he returned Ida to the bus-stop on the corner and squeezed a bill into her hands.
“Here,” he said, “here—buy something;” which brought the day’s total to fifty-two.
Then he turned up the street, already prepared with a story for his wife: a man interested in buying Epstein Paper Bag had kept him away all day, a good prospect. As he pulled into his driveway he saw his wife’s square shape in back of the venetian blinds; she ran one hand across a slat, checking for dust while she awaited her husband’s homecoming.
He clutched his pajama trousers around his knees and looked at himself in the bedroom mirror. Downstairs a key turned in the lock but he was too engaged to hear it. Prickly heat is what Herbie always had—a child’s complaint. Was it possible for a grown man to have it? He shuffled closer to the mirror, tripping on his half-hoisted pajamas. Maybe it was a sand rash. Sure, he thought, for during those three warm, sunny weeks, he and Ida Kaufman, when they were through, would rest on the beach in front of the cottage. Sand must have gotten into his trousers and irritated him on the drive up the Parkway. He stepped back now and was squinting at himself in the mirror when Goldie walked into the bedroom. She had just emerged from a hot tub—her bones ached, she had said—and her flesh was boiled red. Her entrance startled Epstein, who had been contemplating his blemish with the intensity of a philosopher; when he turned swiftly from his reflection, his feet caught in the pant-legs, he tripped, and the pajamas slipped to the floor. So there they were, naked as Adam and Eve, except that Goldie was red all over, and Epstein had prickly heat, or a sand rash, or—and it came to him as a first principle comes to a metaphysician. Of course! His hands shot down to cover his crotch.
Goldie looked at him, mystified, while Epstein searched for words appropriate to his posture.
At last: “You had a nice bath?”
“Nice, shmise, it was a bath,” his wife mumbled.
“You’ll catch a cold,” Epstein said. “Put something on.”
“I’ll catch a cold? You’ll catch a cold!” She looked at the hands laced across his crotch. “Something hurts?”
“It’s a little chilly,” he said.
“Where?” She motioned towards his protection. “There?”
“Then cover all over.”
He leaned over to pick up his pajama trousers; the instant he dropped the fig leaf of his hands Goldie let out a short airless gasp. “What is that?”
He could not look into the eyes of her face, so concentrated instead on the purple eyes of her droopy breasts. “A sand rash, I think.”
“Vus far sand!”
“A rash then,” he said.
She stepped up closer and reached out her hand, not to touch but to point. She drew a little circle of the area with her index finger. “A rash, there?”
“Why not there?” Epstein said. “It’s like a rash on the hand or the chest. A rash is a rash.”
“But how come all of a sudden?” his wife said.
“Look, I’m not a doctor,” Epstein said. “It’s there today, maybe tomorrow it’ll be gone. How do I know! I probably got it from the toilet seat at the shop. The shvartzes are pigs—”
Goldie made a clicking sound with her tongue.
“You’re calling me a liar?”
She looked up. “Who said liar?” And she gave her own form a swift looking-over, checked limbs, stomach, breasts, to see if she had caught the rash from him. She looked back at her husband, then at her own body again, and suddenly her eyes widened. “You!” she screamed.
“Shah,” Epstein said, “you’ll wake Michael.”
“You pig! Who was it!”
“I told you who, the shvartzes—”
“Liar! Pig!” Wheeling her way back to the bed, she flopped on to it so hard the springs squeaked as they rarely had in their last decade of love-making, “Liar!” And then she was off the bed pulling the sheets from it. “I'll burn them, I’ll burn every one!
Epstein stepped out of the pajamas that roped his ankles and raced to the bed, “What are you doing—it’s not catching. Only on the toilet seat. You’ll buy a little ammonia . . .”
“Ammonia!” she yelled, “you should drink ammonia!”
“No,” Epstein shouted, “no,” and he grabbed the sheets from her and threw them back over the bed, tucking them in madly. “Leave it be—” He ran to the back of the bed but as he tucked there Goldie raced around and ripped up what he had tucked in the front; so he raced back to the front while Goldie raced around to the back. “Don’t touch me,” she screamed, “don’t come near me, you filthy pig! Go touch some filthy whore!” Then she yanked the sheets off again in one swoop, held them in a ball before her and spat. Epstein grabbed them back and the tug-of-war began, back and forth, back and forth, until they had torn them to shreds. Then, for the first time Goldie cried. With white strips looped over her arms she began to sob. “My sheets, my nice clean sheets—” and she threw herself on the bed.
Two faces appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. Sheila Epstein groaned, “Holy Christ!”; the folk-singer peeked in, once, twice, and then bobbed out, his feet scuttling down the stairs. Epstein whipped some white strands about him to cover his privates. He did not say a word as his daughter entered.
“Mama, what’s the matter?”
“Your father,” the voice groaned from the bed, “he has—a rash!” And so violently did she begin to sob that the flesh on her white buttocks rippled and jumped.
“That’s right,” Epstein said, “a rash. That’s a crime? Get out of here! Let your mother and father get some sleep.”
“Why is she crying?” Sheila demanded. “I want an answer!”
“How do I know! I’m a mind-reader? This whole family is crazy, who knows what they think!”
“Don’t call my mother crazy!”
“Don’t you raise your voice to me! Respect your father!”
He pulled the white strips tighter around him. “Now get out of here!”
“Then I’ll throw you out.” He started for the door; his daughter did not move, and he could not bring himself to reach out and push her. Instead he threw back his head and addressed the ceiling. “She’s picketing my bedroom! Get out, you lummox!” He took a step toward her and growled, as though to scare away a stray cat or dog. With all her 160 pounds she pushed her father back; in his surprise and hurt he dropped the sheet. And the daughter looked on the father; under her lipstick she turned white.
Epstein looked up at her; he pleaded, “I got it from the toilet seat. The shvartzes—”
Before he could finish, a new head had popped into the doorway, hair messed and lips swollen and red; it was Michael, home from Linda Kaufman, his regular weekend date. “I heard the noise, is any—” and he saw his aunt naked on the bed; when he turned his eyes away, there was Uncle Lou.
“All of you,” Epstein shouted. “Get out!”
But no one obeyed. Sheila blocked the door, politically committed: Michael’s legs were rooted, one with shame, the other curiosity.
Feet now came pounding up the stairs. “Sheila, should I call somebody—” And then the guitar-plucker appeared in the doorway, eager, big-nosed. He surveyed the scene and his gaze, at last, landed on Epstein’s crotch; the beak opened.
“What’s he got? The syph?”
The words hung for a moment, bringing peace. Goldie Epstein stopped crying and raised herself off the bed. The young men in the doorway lowered their eyes. Goldie arched her back, flopped out her breasts, and began to move her lips.
“I want . . .” she said. “I want . . .”
“What Mama?” Sheila demanded. “What is it?”
“I want . . . a divorce!” She looked amazed when she said it, though not as amazed as her husband; he smacked his palm to his head.
“Divorce! Are you crazy?” Epstein looked around; to Michael he said, “She’s crazy!”
“I want one,” she said, and then her eyes rolled up into her head and she passed out across the sheetless mattress.
After the smelling salts, Epstein was ordered to bed in Herbie’s room. He tossed and turned in the narrow bed which he was unused to; in the twin bed beside him he heard Michael breathing. Monday, he thought, Monday he would seek help. A lawyer. No, first a doctor. Surely in a minute a doctor could take a look and tell him what he already knew— that Ida Kaufman was a clean woman. Epstein would swear by it—he had smelled her flesh! The doctor would reassure him: his blemish resulted simply from their rubbing together. It was a temporary thing, produced by two, not transmitted by one. He was innocent! Unless what made him guilty had nothing to do with some dirty bug. But either way the doctor would prescribe for him. And then the lawyer would prescribe. And by then everyone would know, including, he suddenly realized, his brother Sol who would take special pleasure in thinking the worst. Epstein rolled over and looked to Michael’s bed. Pinpoints of light gleamed in the boy’s head; he was awake, and wearing the Epstein nose, chin, and brow.
“Me too,” Epstein said, and then apologetically, “all the excitement . . .”
He looked back to the ceiling. “Michael?”
“Nothing . . .” But he was curious as well as concerned.
“Michael, you haven’t got a rash, have you?”
Michael sat up in bed; firmly he said, “No.”
“I just thought,” Epstein said quickly. “You know, I have this rash . . .” He dwindled off and looked away from the boy, who, it occurred to him again, might have been heir to the business if that stupid Sol hadn’t . . . But what difference did the business make now. The business had never been for him, but for them. And there was no more them.
He put his hands over his eyes. “The change, the change,” he began. “I don’t even know when it began. Me, Lou Epstein, with a rash. I don’t even feel anymore like Lou Epstein. All of a sudden, pffft! and things are changed.” He looked at Michael again, speaking slowly now, stressing every word, as though the boy were more than a nephew, more, in fact, than a single person. “All my life I tried. I swear it, I should drop dead on the spot, if all my life I didn’t try to do right, to give my family what I didn’t have . . .”
He stopped; it was not exactly what he wanted to say. He flipped on the bedside light and started again, a new way. “I was seven years old, Michael. I came here I was a boy seven years old, and that day, I can remember it like it was yesterday. Your grandparents and me—your father wasn’t born yet, this stuff believe me he doesn’t know. With your grandparents I stood on the dock, waiting for Charlie Goldstein to pick us up. He was your grandfather’s partner in the old country, the thief. Anyway, we waited, and finally he came to pick us up, to take us where we would live. And when he came he had a big can in his hand. And you know what was in it? Kerosene. That’s right, kerosene. We stood there and Charlie Goldstein poured it on all our heads. He rubbed it in, to delouse us. It tasted awful. For a little boy it was awful . . .”
Michael shrugged his shoulders.
“Eh! How can you understand?” Epstein grumbled. “What do you know? Twenty years old . . .”
Michael shrugged again. “Twenty-two,” he said softly.
There were more stories Epstein could tell, but he wondered if any of them would bring him closer to what it was he had on his mind but could not find the words for. He got out of bed and walked to the bedroom door. He opened it and stood there listening; on the downstairs sofa he could hear the folk-singer snoring. Some night for guests! He shut the door and came back into the room, scratching his thigh. “Believe me, she’s not losing any sleep . . . She doesn’t deserve me. What, she cooks? That’s a big deal? She cleans? That deserves a medal? One day I should come home and the house should be a mess. I should be able to write my initials in the dust, somewhere, in the basement at least. Michael, after all these years that would be a pleasure!” He grabbed at his gray hair. “How did this happen? My Goldie, that such a woman should become a cleaning machine. Impossible.” He walked to the far wall and stared into Herbie’s baseball pictures, the long jaw-muscled faces, faded technicolor now, with signatures at the bottom: Charlie Keller, Lou Gehrig, Red Ruffing . . . a long time. How Herbie had loved his Yankees.
“One night,” Epstein started again, “it was before the Depression even . . . you know what we did, Goldie and me?” He was staring at Red Ruffing now, through him. “You didn’t know my Goldie, what a beautiful beautiful woman she was. And that night we took pictures, photos. I set up the camera—it was in the old house—and we took pictures, in the bedroom.” He stopped, remembered. “I wanted a picture of my wife naked, to carry with me. I admit it. The next morning I woke up and there was Goldie tearing up the negatives. She said God forbid I should get in an accident one day and the police would take out my wallet for identification, and then oy-oy-oy!” He smiled. “You know, a woman, she worries . . . But at least we took the pictures, even if we didn’t develop them. How many people even do that?” He wondered, and then turned away from Red Ruffing to Michael, who was, faintly, at the corners of his mouth, smiling.
“What, the photos?”
Michael started to giggle.
“Huh?’’ Epstein smiled. “What, you never had that kind of idea? I admit it. Maybe to someone else it would seem wrong, a sin or something, but who’s to say—”
Michael stiffened, at last his father’s son. “Somebody’s got to say. Some things just aren’t right.”
Epstein was willing to admit a youthful lapse. “Maybe,” he said, “maybe she was even right to tear—”
Michael shook his head vehemently. “No! Some things aren’t right. They’re just not!”
And Epstein saw that the finger was pointed not at Uncle Lou, the Photographer, but at Uncle Lou, the Adulterer. Suddenly he was shouting. “Right, wrong! From you and your father that’s all I ever hear. Who are you, what are you, King Solomon!" He gripped the bed posts. "Should I tell you what else happened the night we took pictures? That my Herbie was started that night, I’m sure of it. Over a year we tried and tried till I was oysgamitched, and that was the night. After the pictures, because of the pictures. Who knows!”
“But what! But this?” He was pointing at his crotch. “You’re a boy, you don’t understand. When they start taking things away from you, you reach out, you grab—maybe like a pig even, but you grab. And right, wrong, who knows! With tears in your eyes, who can even see the difference!” His voice dropped now, but in a minor key the scolding grew more fierce. “Don’t call me names. I didn’t see you with Ida’s girl, there’s not a name for that? For you it’s right?”
Michael was kneeling in his bed now. “You—saw?”
“But it’s different—”
“Different?” Epstein shouted.
“To be married is different!”
“What’s different you don’t know about. To have a wife, to be a father, twice a father—and then they start taking things away—” and he fell weak-kneed across Michael’s bed. Michael leaned back and looked at his Uncle, but he did not know what to do or how to chastise, for he had never seen anybody over fifteen years old cry before.
Usually Sunday morning went like this: at nine thirty Goldie started the coffee and Epstein walked to the corner for the lox and the Sunday News. When the lox was on the table, the bagels in the oven, the rotagravure section of the News two inches from Goldie’s nose, then Sheila would descend the stairs, yawning, in her toe-length housecoat. They would sit down to eat, Sheila cursing her father for buying the News and “putting money in a Fascist’s pocket.” Outside, the Gentiles would be walking to church. It had always been the same, except, of course, that over the years the News had come closer to Goldie’s nose and further from Sheila’s heart; she had the Post delivered.
This Sunday when he awoke Epstein smelled coffee bubbling in the kitchen, and when he sneaked down the stairs, past the kitchen—he had been ordered to use the basement bathroom until he’d seen a doctor—he could smell lox. And, at last, when he entered the kitchen, shaved and dressed, he heard newspapers rattling. It was as if another Epstein, his ghost, had risen an hour earlier and performed his Sunday duties. Beneath the clock, around the table, sat Sheila, the folk-singer, and Goldie. Bagels toasted in the oven, while the folk-singer, sitting backwards in a chair, strummed his guitar and sang—
I’ve been down so long
It look like up to me . . .
Epstein clapped his hands and rubbed them together, preparatory to eating. “Sheila, you went out for this?” He gestured towards the paper and the lox. “Thank you.”
The folk-singer looked up, and in the same tune, improvised—
I went out for the lox
and grinned, a regular clown.
“Shut up!” Sheila told him.
He echoed her words, plunk! plunk!
“Thank you, then, young man,” Epstein said.
“His name is Marvin,” Sheila said, “for your information.”
“Thank you, Martin.”
“Marvin,” the young man said.
“I don’t hear so good.”
Goldie Epstein looked up from the paper. “Syphilis softens the brain.”
“Syphilis softens the brain . . .”
Epstein stood up, raging. “Did you tell her that?” he shouted at his daughter. “Who told her that!”
The folk-singer stopped plucking his guitar. Nobody answered; a conspiracy. He grabbed his daughter by the shoulders. “You respect your father, you understand!”
She jerked her shoulder away. “You’re not my father!”
And the words hurled him back, to the joke Ida Kaufman had made in the car, to her tan dress, the spring sky . . . He leaned across the table to his wife. “Goldie, Goldie, look at me! Look at me, Lou!”
She stared back into the newspaper, though she held it far enough from her nose for Epstein to know she could not see the print; with everything else, the optometrist said the muscles in her eyes had loosened. “Goldie,” he said, “Goldie, I did the worst thing in the world? Look me in the eyes, Goldie. Tell me, since when do Jewish people get a divorce? Since when?”
She looked up at him, and then to Sheila. “Syphilis makes soft brains. I can’t live with a pig!”
“We’ll work it out. We’ll go to the rabbi—”
“He wouldn’t recognize you—”
“But the children, what about the children?”
Herbie was dead and Sheila a stranger; she was right.
“A grown-up child can take care of herself,” Goldie said. “If she wants, she can come to Florida with me. I’m thinking I’ll move to Miami Beach.”
“Stop shouting,” Sheila said, anxious to enter the brawl whatever way she could. “You’ll wake Michael.”
Painfully polite, Goldie addressed her daughter. “Michael left early this morning. He took his Linda to the beach for the day, to their place in Belmar.”
“Barnegat,” Epstein grumbled, retreating from the table.
“What did you say?” Sheila demanded.
“Barnegat.” And he decided to leave the house before any further questions were asked.
At the corner luncheonette he bought his own paper and sat alone, drinking coffee and looking out the window beyond which the people walked to church. A pretty young shiksa walked by, holding her white round hat in her hand; she bent over to remove her shoe and shake a pebble from it. Epstein watched her bend, and he spilled some coffee on his shirt front. The girl’s small behind was round as an apple beneath the close-fitting dress. He looked, and then as though he were praying, he struck himself on the chest with his fist, again and again. “What have I done! Oh, God!”
When he finished his coffee, he took his paper and started up the street. To home? What home? Across the street in her back-yard he saw Ida Kaufman, who was wearing shorts and a halter and was hanging her daughter’s underwear on the clothes line. Epstein looked around and saw only the Gentiles walking to church. Ida saw him and smiled. Growing angry, he stepped off the curb and, passionately, began to jaywalk.
At noon in the Epstein house those present heard a siren go off. Sheila looked up from the Post and listened; she looked at her watch. “Noon? I’m fifteen minutes slow. This lousy watch, my father’s present.”
Goldie Epstein was leafing through the ads in the travel section of the New York Times, which Marvin had gone out to buy for her. She looked at her watch. “I’m fourteen minutes slow. Also,” she said to her daughter, “a watch from him . . .”
The wail grew louder. “God Almighty,” Sheila said, “it sounds like the end of the world.”
And Marvin, who had been polishing his guitar with his red handkerchief, immediately broke into song, a high-pitched, shut-eyed, Negro tune about the end of the world.
“Quiet!” Sheila said. She cocked her ear. “But it’s Sunday. The sirens are Saturday—”
Goldie shot off the couch. “It’s a real air raid? Oy, that’s all we need!”
“It’s the police,” Sheila said, and fiery-eyed she raced to the front door, for she was politically opposed to police. “It’s coming up the street—an ambulance!”
She raced out the door, followed by Marvin, whose guitar still hung around his neck. Goldie trailed behind, her feet slapping against her slippers. On the street she suddenly turned back to the house to make sure the door was shut against daytime burglars, bugs, and dust. When she turned again she had not far to run. The ambulance had pulled up across the street in Kaufman’s drive-way.
Already a crowd had gathered, neighbors in bathrobes, housecoats, carrying the comic sections with them; and too, churchgoers, shiksas in white hats. Goldie could not make her way to the front where her daughter and Marvin stood, but even from the rear of the crowd she could see a young doctor leap from the ambulance and race up to the porch, his stethoscope wiggling in his back pocket as he took two steps at a time.
Mrs. Katz arrived. A squat red-faced woman whose stomach seemed to start at her knees, she tugged at Goldie’s arm. “Goldie, more trouble here?”
“I don’t know. Pearl. All that racket. I thought it was an atomic bomb.”
“When it’s that, you’ll know,” Pearl Katz said. She surveyed the crowd, then looked at the house. “Poor woman,” she said, remembering that only three months before, on a windy March morning, an ambulance had arrived to take Mrs. Kaufman’s husband to the nursing home, from which he never returned.
“Troubles, troubles . . .” Mrs. Katz was shaking her head, a pot of sympathy. “Everybody has their little bundle, believe me. I’ll bet she had a nervous breakdown. That’s not a good thing. Gall stones, you have them out and they’re out. But a nervous breakdown, it’s very bad . . . You think maybe it’s the daughter who’s sick?”
“The daughter isn’t home,” Goldie said. “She’s away with my nephew, Michael.”
Mrs. Katz saw that no one had emerged from the house yet; she had time to gather a little information. “He’s who, Goldie? The son of the brother-in-law that Lou doesn’t talk to? That’s his father?”
“Yes, Sol in Detroit—”
But she broke off, for the front door had opened, though still no one could be seen. A voice at the front of the crowd was commanding, “A little room here. Please! A little room, damn it!” It was Sheila. “A little room! Marvin, help me!”
“I can’t put down my guitar—I can’t find a place—”
“Get them back!” Sheila said.
“But my instrument—”
The doctor and his helper were now wiggling and tilting the stretcher through the front door. Behind them stood Mrs. Kaufman, a man’s white shirt tucked into her shorts. Her eyes peered out of two red holes; she wore no make-up, Mrs. Katz noted.
“It must be the girl,” said Pearl Katz, up on her toes. “Goldie, can you see, who is it—it’s the girl?”
“The girl’s away—”
“Stay back!” Sheila commanded. “Marvin, for crying out loud, help!”
The young doctor and his attendant held the stretcher steady as they walked sideways down the front steps.
Mrs. Katz jumped up and down. “Who is it?”
“I can’t see,” Goldie said. “I can’t—” she pushed up on her toes, out of her slippers. “I—oh God! My God!” And she was racing forward, screaming, “Lou! Lou!”
“Mama, stay back.” Sheila found herself fighting off her mother. The stretcher was sliding into the ambulance now.
“Sheila, let me go, it’s your father!” She pointed to the ambulance, whose red eye spun slowly on top. For a moment Goldie looked back to the steps. Ida Kaufman stood there yet, her fingers fidgeting at the buttons of the shirt. Then Goldie broke for the ambulance, her daughter beside her, propelling her by her elbows.
“Who are you?” the doctor said. He took a step towards them to stop their forward motion, for it seemed as if they intended to dive right into the ambulance on top of his patient. “The wife—” Sheila shouted.
The doctor pointed to the porch. “Look, lady—”
“I’m the wife,” Goldie cried. “Me!”
The doctor looked at her. “Get in.”
Goldie wheezed as Sheila and the doctor helped her into the ambulance, and she let out a gigantic gasp when she saw the white face sticking up from the gray blanket; his eyes were closed, his skin grayer than his hair. The doctor pushed Sheila aside, climbed in, and then the ambulance was moving, the siren screaming. Sheila ran after the ambulance a moment, hammering on the door.
Goldie turned to the doctor. “He’s dead?”
“No, he had a heart attack.”
She smacked her face.
“He’ll be all right,” the doctor said.
“But a heart attack. Never in his life.”
“A man sixty, sixty-five, it happens.” The doctor snapped the answers back while he held Epstein’s wrist.
“He’s only fifty-nine.”
“Some only,” the doctor said.
The ambulance zoomed through a red light and made a sharp right turn that threw Goldie to the floor. She sat there and spoke. “But how does a healthy man—”
“Lady, don’t ask questions. A grown man can’t act like a boy.”
She put her hands over her eyes, as Epstein opened his.
“He’s awake now,” the doctor said. “Maybe he wants to hold your hand or something.”
Goldie crawled to his side and looked at him. “Lou, you’re all right? Does anything hurt?”
He did not answer. “He knows it’s me?”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. “Tell him.”
“It’s me, Lou.”
“It’s your wife, Lou,” the doctor said. Epstein blinked his eyes. “He knows,” the doctor said. “He’ll be all right. All he’s got to do is live a normal life, normal for sixty.”
“You hear the doctor, Lou. All you got to do is live a normal life.”
Epstein opened his mouth. His tongue hung over his teeth like a dead snake.
“Don’t you talk,” his wife said. “Don’t you worry about anything. Not even the business. That’ll work out. Our Sheila will marry Marvin and that’ll be that. You won’t have to sell, Lou, it’ll be in the family. You can retire, rest, and Marvin can take over. He’s a smart boy, Marvin, a mensch.”
Lou rolled his eyes in his head.
“Don’t try to talk. I’ll take care. You’ll be better soon and we can go someplace. We can go to Saratoga, to the mineral baths, if you want. We’ll just go, you and me—” Suddenly she gripped his hand. “Lou, you’ll live normal, won’t you? Won’t you?” She was crying. “Cause what’ll happen, Lou, is you’ll kill yourself! You’ll keep this up and that’ll be the end—”
“All right,” the young doctor said, “you take it easy now. We don’t want two patients on our hands.”
The ambulance was pulling down and around into the side entrance of the hospital and the doctor knelt at the back door.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” Goldie wiped her eyes. “He’ll be all right? You say so, I believe you, you’re a doctor.” And as the young man swung open the door with the big red cross painted on the back, she asked, softly, “Doctor, you have something that will cure what else he’s got—this rash?” She pointed.
The doctor looked at her. Then he lifted for a moment the blanket that covered Epstein’s nakedness.
“Doctor, it’s bad?”
Goldie’s eyes and nose were running.
“An irritation,” the doctor said.
She grabbed his wrist. “You can clean it up?”
"So it’ll never come back,” the doctor said, and hopped out of the ambulance.
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