The Family Markowitz
Farrar Straus GirouxCopyright © 2005 Allegra Goodman
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780374529390
Esther," Rose calls throughher neighbor's closed door, with its blistering paint and thenew steel plate around the knob.
"Who is it?" Esther's muffled voice floats back.
"Rose Markowitz." The door opens, and they fall intoeach other's arms. "How are you dear?" Rose asks. "Ithought I heard you last night on the stairs, but I couldn'tleave him. Now the woman from the service is here. Whatbusiness do you have taking a cab so late?"
"Come in, come in," Esther says. "My nephew metme."
"Come in, Rose."
"No, I can't stay."
"Just for a minute. Let me get you some coffee. I'vemade it already."
"But I really can't stay," Rose says as she walks intoEsther's apartment. "I was just going downstairs for themail." They sit together at the kitchen table and sip coffeefrom Esther's china teacups. They have lived in the buildingfor twelve years, and their apartments are mirror imagesof each other.
"I'm speaking Hebrew," Esther tells Rose. "Ani midaberetivrit."
"You took those Hadassah classes?" Rose asks.
"I went on ulpan," Esther says, as if to say she wenton safari. Rose thinks that anyone in the room would noticethe contrast between Esther, full of energy after six weeksin Miami, and herself, wan and exhausted from stayinghere in the city all winter with Maury ill and no one tohelp. Having to do things when she didn't have thestrength. Esther is tall, and big in hip and shoulder, herbrown hair puffy, although thinning a little in the middle.Rose, who has always been petite, has lost weight—althoughshe is still not thin. Her hair is short, once blackand now iron gray. She no longer has time for herself orthe beauty parlor. "And who do you think I met on thefirst day?" Esther asks. "Dr. Mednik's sister."
"He and I," says Rose, "are not on speaking terms."
"No, you are not," Esther agrees. "But it was strangeto see the sister there. She looks nothing like him—it onlycame out later."
Rose stares at the place where Esther's oven should be,except that the apartment is a mirror image.
"And then right after, just a couple of days later, I wentto the kids' hotel, where Dougie had his bankers' convention,and I was sitting by the pool and there out of theblue came Beatrice Schwartz with him; he's had surgery—hespeaks artificially, you know, with a voice box—butshe's still walking around with her fingernails out to herepainted white, and the white slacks with the pleats, theknife-edge pleats. They weren't even the only people Isaw. I could go on and on. It was just, you know, one smallworld after another. But I was worried about you, Rose."
"Well," says Rose, "he's very ill."
"But he's in good spirits?"
"Happy as a lark."
"I hope I have such a happy disposition at his age,"Esther says. Rose's husband, Maury, is eighty-three, tenyears older than Rose, fifteen years older than Esther.
"Now, on top of everything, today his daughter iscoming."
"We haven't seen her in years, and now she decides tocome."
"I can talk to her in Hebrew," Esther says.
"And she's staying with us," Rose tells Esther. "Herein the apartment."
"For how long?"
"She wouldn't say." Rose lowers her voice to a whisper."She has an open ticket, and I think that she is determinedto stay until, God forbid, the end."
Esther shakes her head.
"What else could she mean by coming now? She hasnever ever come before."
In the lobby, Rose pries the mail out of her small aluminummailbox, number 5. There are bills, there are statementsfrom the insurance, and there's a calendar from theGirls' Orphanage in Jerusalem, full of halftone pictures ofthe girls' laughing faces, their great big eyes and curly hair,their uniforms. She leafs through the calendar as sheclimbs the stairs. Rose loves the Girls' Orphanage andgives a little to them every year. She had always wantedto have a little girl of her own, but she and her first husband,Ben, had two sons. She would not have traded Henryand Edward, never. But she always wanted a little girl. Shewould have dressed her up in the summer in crisp whitedresses with smocking; in the winter she would have sewndresses with velvet sashes. There would have been tea partiesand doll clothes; she would have trimmed doll hats.She has two granddaughters, it is true, but they are faraway, almost too old for dolls, almost wild. Her eyesight isno longer good enough to sew small pieces. The Girls'Orphanage teaches sewing and the arts; the girls, it says onthe calendar, "are instructed strictly according to the preceptsof the Torah." Rose's small gifts support the schools,the woodworking shop and sewing classes, the dowry fundfor brides—"to help them build a Jewish home."
When she walks into her own apartment she feels howstuffy it is; the air is so hot and close. On the sofa thewoman from the service reads her magazines, and Mauryis sleeping in his chair. His large-print library books arestacked at his feet, his plaid blanket spread over his kneesas he dozes away. He is so sick he gets all the pills hewants. For Rose, Mednik won't prescribe a thing. She hascome to him and begged for some relief from her pain.Nothing. The sun through the window warms Maury's upturnedface, and he seems to be dreaming he is loungingon the deck of an ocean liner. How she would love to dothat. To sail away with him out of Washington Heightsover the slush and the ice and out onto the Hudson, andthen across the Atlantic, far, far away. If he weren't ill. Ifthey could leave the apartment. She bends over him andsays, "Maury, I don't know what to do. Where are we goingto put her? On the sofa in the study? Is that where sheshould sleep?"
Rose doesn't even know Maury's daughter, Dorothy.She's only met her once. Maury and his first wife divorcedin 1950, when Dorothy was a child, and all she knows isthat Dorothy lived here and she lived there and then ranaway to Palestine. She simply grew up in greenhouses, raisingtomatoes. She just grew and grew until she became agreat lump of a woman, big and heavy, with thick, croppedblack hair and down on her lip. Rose dreads having her inthe house. He has been sick before and she's never come,hut now Dorothy is visiting herself upon them. What willshe do with her in the house? She will feel eyes on her allthe time. She will have to cook for the angel of death. Shecannot bear it. If Maury were well, it would be one thing.She would be happy to serve anyone at her table.
She and the woman wake him for his pills. They bringhim lunch on a tray that clips onto his chair and try to gethim to eat it. He pushes the food around on his plate. "Eata few bites," Rose urges.
"I'll tell you what," he tells Rose in a light, dry voice;he weighs almost nothing. "You get this young lady to godown to 160th Street. I want a number 11 on light rye,extra lean, a side order of onion rings, and a cherry Coke."
"You aren't going to eat all that."
"I was going to share the onion rings with you," hesays gallantly.
"But you aren't going to finish all that," Rose tells him.They send the young lady down to 160th Street all thetime. Rose tells him the food is bad for his digestion, andhe makes a face.
"What'll be?" he says. "Am I going to die from onecorned beef and tongue on rye?"
"Don't talk that way," Rose snaps. She hates hearinghim talk like that, because he is joking not only about hisown condition but about her predicament, too.
He seems to be laughing at her, his eyes sparkling,magnified by the lenses of his glasses. "Aw, don't worry,kid," he tells her.
Dorothy is forty-five, and she sleeps and sleeps. She snoresin the study on Rose's green silk nonconvertible sofa, herface against the bolster and all the antimacassars in a pileon the floor. She wears jogging suits but she never goesjogging, and in the mornings she uses up all the hot waterin her shower. Emerging from the bathroom, she justshakes the water out of her cropped hair like a great blackbear. Then, day in and day out, she sits and watches herfather sleep, waits for him to wake up. The minute hewakes, she pounces, asking him questions. How is hisheart, why this medication or that. She wants to knowabout the doctor. Then she starts asking him about his life.What he did in the union, how he did piecework, cuttingthe fabric. But it's all a ruse, as Rose can clearly see. Assoon as Dorothy starts asking Maury about his life, shestarts talking about her own. And then she starts in schreiingat him. "Father." She says it in deep voice—not justdeep but lugubrious, and with an Israeli accent so dark andsmoky you would have thought she was a native. "I havecome here to be with you."
"What did she say?" Maury asks Rose.
"Because I am your only child," Dorothy continues,"and so I have come here to be with you, even though Inever had the chance to know you. I have wanted to comeand talk to you, so that you and I would know each otherjust once. I have wanted to tell you about my life, what Ihave done—"
"I can't hear you, dear," says Maury.
"What I have done," Dorothy tells him loudly.
"Yes, what have you done?" Maury asks."I have asked myself this question: What I have doneto deserve this silence from you? You forgetting me, yourdaughter."
"Listen," Maury explains, "this was long ago. Needlessto say, your mother and I were not on the best of terms.She threw me out. We had a divorce."
"But there was me also."
"So you went with her, too. Your mother said I wasn'tfit to raise her child. All right, fine. I wasn't going to arguewith the woman."
He is falling asleep; in his stare, talking wears him out.Rose tries to shoo Dorothy away. Big, heavy tears fill Dorothy'seyes. It's horrible, as if, God forbid, Dorothy is startingup a funeral in the apartment. If she had come to bringsome good cheer, it would be one thing. If she had cometo help. But weeping and complaining is all she does. Andshe snoops, Rose is sure of it. She has heard her twice inthe night, walking around the apartment. She thinks sheheard her try to open the secretary where Rose keeps herVenetian glasses, the acorn tea set, the crystal she boughtwhen she worked at Tiffany. At night she imagines shecan hear her opening the glass doors. Then, during the day,she realizes it cannot be so, because Dorothy has no interestin the things in the secretary. Dorothy has probablynever even heard of such a place as Tiffany, where Roseonce stood behind the long glass counters and brushedwith royalty in the form of the Duke of Windsor and hismen browsing through the silver and the jewelry. Dorothywould not understand such things.
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]