“Esther,” Rose calls through her neighbor’s closed door, with its blistering paint and the new steel plate around the knob.
“Who is it?” Esther’s muffled voice floats back.
“Rose Markowitz.” The door opens, and they fall into each other’s arms. “How are you dear?” Rose asks. “I thought I heard you last night on the stairs, but I couldn’t leave him. Now the woman from the service is here. What business do you have taking a cab so late?”
“Come in, come in,” Esther says. “My nephew met me.”
“Come in, Rose.”
“No, I can’t stay.”
“Just for a minute. Let me get you some coffee. I’ve made it already.”
“But I really can’t stay,” Rose says as she walks into Esther’s apartment. “I was just going downstairs for the mail.” They sit together at the kitchen table and sip coffee from Esther’s china teacups. They have lived in the building for twelve years, and their apartments are mirror images of each other.
“I’m speaking Hebrew,” Esther tells Rose. “Ani midaberet ivrit.”
“You took those Hadassah classes?” Rose asks.
“I went on ulpan,” Esther says, as if to say she went on safari. Rose thinks that anyone in the room would notice the contrast between Esther, full of energy after six weeks in Miami, and herself, wan and exhausted from staying here in the city all winter with Maury ill and no one to help. Having to do things when she didn’t have the strength. Esther is tall, and big in hip and shoulder, her brown hair puffy, although thinning a little in the middle. Rose, who has always been petite, has lost weight—although she is still not thin. Her hair is short, once black and now iron gray. She no longer has time for herself or the beauty parlor. “And who do you think I met on the first 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 strange to see the sister there. She looks nothing like him—it only came 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 went to the kids’ hotel, where Dougie had his bankers’ convention, and I was sitting by the pool and there out of the blue came Beatrice Schwartz with him; he’s had surgery—he speaks artificially, you know, with a voice box—but she’s still walking around with her fingernails out to here painted white, and the white slacks with the pleats, the knife-edge pleats. They weren’t even the only people I saw. I could go on and on. It was just, you know, one small world 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, ten years older than Rose, fifteen years older than Esther.
“Now, on top of everything, today his daughter is coming.”
“We haven’t seen her in years, and now she decides to come.”
“I can talk to her in Hebrew,” Esther says.
“And she’s staying with us,” Rose tells Esther. “Here in 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 determined to stay until, God forbid, the end.”
Esther shakes her head.
“What else could she mean by coming now? She has never ever come before.”
In the lobby, Rose pries the mail out of her small aluminum mailbox, number 5. There are bills, there are statements from the insurance, and there’s a calendar from the Girls’ Orphanage in Jerusalem, full of halftone pictures of the girls’ laughing faces, their great big eyes and curly hair, their uniforms. She leafs through the calendar as she climbs the stairs. Rose loves the Girls’ Orphanage and gives a little to them every year. She had always wanted to have a little girl of her own, but she and her first husband, Ben, had two sons. She would not have traded Henry and Edward, never. But she always wanted a little girl. She would have dressed her up in the summer in crisp white dresses with smocking; in the winter she would have sewn dresses with velvet sashes. There would have been tea parties and doll clothes; she would have trimmed doll hats. She has two granddaughters, it is true, but they are far away, almost too old for dolls, almost wild. Her eyesight is no longer good enough to sew small pieces. The Girls’ Orphanage teaches sewing and the arts; the girls, it says on the calendar, “are instructed strictly according to the precepts of the Torah.” Rose’s small gifts support the schools, the woodworking shop and sewing classes, the dowry fund for brides—“to help them build a Jewish home.”
When she walks into her own apartment she feels how stuffy it is; the air is so hot and close. On the sofa the woman from the service reads her magazines, and Maury is sleeping in his chair. His large-print library books are stacked at his feet, his plaid blanket spread over his knees as he dozes away. He is so sick he gets all the pills he wants. For Rose, Mednik won’t prescribe a thing. She has come to him and begged for some relief from her pain. Nothing. The sun through the window warms Maury’s upturned face, and he seems to be dreaming he is lounging on the deck of an ocean liner. How she would love to do that. To sail away with him out of Washington Heights over the slush and the ice and out onto the Hudson, and then across the Atlantic, far, far away. If he weren’t ill. If they could leave the apartment. She bends over him and says, “Maury, I don’t know what to do. Where are we going to put her? On the sofa in the study? Is that where she should sleep?”
Rose doesn’t even know Maury’s daughter, Dorothy. She’s only met her once. Maury and his first wife divorced in 1950, when Dorothy was a child, and all she knows is that Dorothy lived here and she lived there and then ran away to Palestine. She simply grew up in greenhouses, raising tomatoes. She just grew and grew until she became a great lump of a woman, big and heavy, with thick, cropped black hair and down on her lip. Rose dreads having her in the house. He has been sick before and she’s never come, but now Dorothy is visiting herself upon them. What will she do with her in the house? She will feel eyes on her all the time. She will have to cook for the angel of death. She cannot 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 bring him lunch on a tray that clips onto his chair and try to get him to eat it. He pushes the food around on his plate. “Eat a 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 go down 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,” he says gallantly.
“But you aren’t going to finish all that,” Rose tells him. They send the young lady down to 160th Street all the time. Rose tells him the food is bad for his digestion, and he makes a face.
“What’ll be?” he says. “Am I going to die from one corned beef and tongue on rye?”
“Don’t talk that way,” Rose snaps. She hates hearing him talk like that, because he is joking not only about his own 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 snores in the study on Rose’s green silk nonconvertible sofa, her face against the bolster and all the antimacassars in a pile on the floor. She wears jogging suits but she never goes jogging, and in the mornings she uses up all the hot water in her shower. Emerging from the bathroom, she just shakes the water out of her cropped hair like a great black bear. Then, day in and day out, she sits and watches her father sleep, waits for him to wake up. The minute he wakes, she pounces, asking him questions. How is his heart, why this medication or that. She wants to know about the doctor. Then she starts asking him about his life. What he did in the union, how he did piecework, cutting the fabric. But it’s all a ruse, as Rose can clearly see. As soon as Dorothy starts asking Maury about his life, she starts talking about her own. And then she starts in schreiing at him. “Father.” She says it in a deep voice—not just deep but lugubrious, and with an Israeli accent so dark and smoky you would have thought she was a native. “I have come 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 I never had the chance to know you. I have wanted to come and talk to you, so that you and I would know each other just once. I have wanted to tell you about my life, what I have 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 done to deserve this silence from you? You forgetting me, your daughter.”
“Listen,” Maury explains, “this was long ago. Needless to 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’t fit to raise her child. All right, fine. I wasn’t going to argue with the woman.”