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Wild Flowers


ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

Etta Bloch tended her memories. Tended her husband Manny and their son Jake like flowers, though not to grow and blossom—simply to remain fresh and alive in her mind. They were her responsibility, and by her attentions she kept them from wilting, from fading as long as she did.

This was nothing she’d set her mind to at first. How could she not think of her boy, after all—cut off like that at 29, his face cut up so by the glass and the phone pole that the undertakers could hardly make him decent?

For weeks that was all she could see, his face in the hospital (it had only been a formality for the rescue squad to carry him there) and then, stitched along the great flap that had torn loose along the line of his jaw and up round his ear and just under his eye, in the casket that only she and Manny peeked into to say goodbye.

For weeks afterward Etta spied her son out of the corner of her eye and everywhere she turned. Always in these quickest of glimpses Jake’d be staring back at her out of that poor torn face, sometimes with one of his mischevious grins or about to whistle, (everyone knew him for his whistle—he was a wonderful whistler), sometimes round-eye scared. And there’d be salt on her lips while she was still trying to keep her limbs from shaking, her chest from collapsing. What would Manny do if she collapsed?

Jake’s face in the casket was the only thing she allowed herself to forget. Until she could manage to do so, however— and it was a long time—the jagged smile on his cold lips stood between her and the real memories, the ones from when he was a boy especially, and turned them into false dreams.

* * *

One morning while she was fixing breakfast, Etta heard Manny sigh above the burbling of the oatmeal pot. “What’d you say?” she called. Funny she should hear it in the kitchen. She thought so then, but he didn’t say anything more. If he was thinking about Jake, well, she was curious—he never, ever, spoke about their son, which meant she had to do the talking for them both, or do none at all. On the other hand, she acknowledged with a flick of the ladle, what point was there in knowing what had Manny sighing—it would probably only make those bad memories of hers flare up but good.

With the back of her ladle she shaped the oatmeal into an island, around which he’d pour skim milk. Somehow the thought that she shouldn’t have been able to hear him sigh flattened the surprise as she backed through the swinging door and discovered Manny slumped at his place. His cheek was resting on one arm, as if he were stealing a quick nap while she got ready for work at Dr. Wilder’s office.

Carefully Etta set the bowl down and hurried back to the phone in the kitchen. She could count on the town’s rescue squad arriving in under five minutes, but she knew already that time didn’t matter—they could take their time. Returning to the table, she slipped onto her own seat and rested her head on her arm and stared at Manny, who was smiling in his sleep, nothing crooked to his mouth.

It seemed that Sarah Abrams arrived before the rescue squad. Though that wasn’t possible, was it? Perhaps Etta had called her too?—She didn’t have the strength to recall. Her arms and tongue were leaden. She felt heavy, too heavy even to think. For that she was grateful.

While Etta sat dazed in her chair, desperately trying to recall Manny’s face, Sarah was puttering about. Arranging things on the phone, picking out Manny’s dark suit to take to the funeral home. Sometime after ten, Harry Abrams, Sarah’s husband, walked through the screen door—it was as soon as he could close his second-hand furniture shop and hurry on over. Harry was wearing his rumpled corduroy jacket and smelling of pipe smoke. It was Harry who called the rabbi in Richmond.

By afternoon the small clapboard, bungalow was buzzing. Gladys Shapiro brought the first load of food—a sponge cake, smoked trout from up on the mountain, hush puppies—and having seen these provisions safely into the fridge and straightened her wig, Gladys seized a plastic pail and a rag and set to cleaning. No one was paying any attention to Etta, not for the time being, except to set a mug of tea in front of her and to replace it in due course with another.

In the early evening it was Harry again who took her hand. “It’s time we went on over,” he whispered and drew her up out of her chair. Then they were in Harry’s ancient Studebaker. Then they were at the funeral home, Harry handing her over to Mordecai Smith.

“Thank God he felt nothing,” Mordi said.

Etta stared at him blankly.

“Do you want to see him now, before the others arrive?” he asked. “We’ll have to close the casket by then.”

She shook her head. But he took her hand, coaxed her to sit down in his office for a few moments, and, without asking a second time, led her to a small curtained area in back. He all but shooed her forward to the casket. “I’ll leave you for a few minutes—as long as you like, Etta.”

Oh, but she fooled him. She walked five paces towards that casket with her eyes closed. Listened to what Mordi said and stood there in the middle of the little room with her eyes closed. She didn’t want to see whatever was in the casket. She’d learned her lesson with Jake. She wanted to be able to remember Manny right off, not be blocked by how they’d posed him.

Dressing him, of all things, in that stylish mail-order suit she’d made him buy years before—a suit with a pinstripe, a suit he’d laughed at even though he knew it hurt her feelings, a suit he’d worn a first time to take her out for her birthday, and once again five years later for Jake, and then never again. What use had he for such a suit?

* * *

Late on this Friday afternoon, like every other business day, Etta drew out the files of Dr. Wilder’s scheduled patients for the next day (Saturday a.m. only), ticking a pencil in the upper right hand corner for those who hadn’t had their teeth x-rayed in two years. She tidied-up a bit for the maid, and double-checked that the water was turned off in the bowls by Dr. Wilder’s two chairs. Her coat and scarf off the hanger, a flick to the lights, and she trotted silently in her white shoes down to the street just in time to catch Hoke Perkins’ 5:10 Locust Avenue bus.

There wasn’t a seat, not at this hour, but Etta wasn’t going far, and she squeezed out a place for herself in the aisle between Mr. Klagholz, who owned two Hallmark shops, and Virginia Watley, poor dear, who was having some pretty bad trouble with her gums (she smiled distractedly at Etta, her lips pressed tight together).

The bus cut across the older part of town, skirting Court Square on its way out to the new shopping mall and subdivisions. But it was only down the hill from the old courthouse that Hoke Perkins made a special stop in the middle of the block for Etta—she didn’t even have to ring the bell. From the rear door she gave him a quick little wave in his mirror and all but jumped down, eager for her favorite evening of the week.

Smiling to herself, excited, Etta opened the door of the bungalow, stepped across the threshold, and turned up the thermostat—the house was chilly after the long cool day. She wasn’t thinking about Manny or Jake. No, no, that wouldn’t do, not yet. They’d simply have to wait. She sighed at the thought—it was she who had to wait, and the anticipation, the flirting with the pleasure to come, was delicious.

Instead of cleaning the house on weekends as in the old days, she’d taken to sweeping and washing and polishing on Thursday night with the TV turned up loud. And last night— such a productive evening, so much accomplished—she’d also made a fresh chicken casserole (with a good dollop of sweet German wine) all ready to slip in the oven now. Into the oven it went, and a good dollop of French bath oils she poured into the bathtub as it filled with hot, hot water.

She was humming something from the FM channel that Dr. Wilder played in the office all day. It was an old, pretty song, one of those songs by Henry Mancini or someone like that. She was humming as she took off her new uniform—nearly new, anyway. She’d given this style a try since the material was supposed to be easy to clean. But what she’d discovered was that the dress grew awfully hot during the day, and now the collar was already yellowing and they said you shouldn’t use bleach on this space-age material.

This was the reward, this the glory as she eased slowly, carefully into the almost-too-hot water. Its surface shimmered with delicate colors from the bathoils that protected her skin, (always prone to drying out and to sprouting patches of psoriasis, especially as the weather grew colder this time of year). And the glint of the water smoothed and disguised the wrinkles, the pouches, the patchwork veins that seemed, almost, to belong to someone else. She closed her eyes and let the heat and steam seep and steep and coddle her.

Catching a glimpse of that sneak Manny, all of 22 or 23, poking his head in for a look, she wagged a wet finger. “Mmm, mmmnh—not yet, you,” she said out loud. But she stretched her legs and back and remembered—not him, not his face yet—how she’d preened and let him look at her lying in the tub like this when she was 20 or 21. That was the first time they’d run away to a motel and the first time he’d seen her or any woman naked and not be afraid to let him see. Look at the twitch in that smile—he was ashamed! Yes, he had been, ashamed and excited.

Greeting the sabbath bride—that was how Manny’s father used to talk about preparing for Friday dinner (her own parents had never bothered much with ceremony), and when Mother Bloch lit the candles on the sideboard Etta felt a thrill at the mysterious glow that extended beyond the flickering light.

Tonight, though, as she drew on a brand new pair of panty hose and the dress she’d retrieved yesterday from the cleaners, clipped on earings, and spooned out the casserole with its raisins and winy aroma, she nursed, playfully, a deliberate confusion—yes, she was preparing for the sabbath bride but, after all, she was the bride herself.

Making one concession to the time, she set two candles on the dinette and lit them quickly without a blessing. And standing, ate the casserole and a stalk of steamed broccoli, and sipped at a healthy dose of sweet wine poured into a juice glass.

The synagogue was walking distance up the hill toward Court Square. The night, however, had turned raw with a gusty wind. Already half a block up the street, Etta halted with a sigh, swung around, and hurried back inside the house to fetch a plastic scarf to protect her hair and a woolen one for her throat.

Near the top of the hill, only a single lamp above the doors of the synagogue lighted the front path. There hadn’t been any trouble to speak of in years, but out of habit the small community of Jews in a Southern town didn’t like to draw attention to itself. Perhaps that was the reason their century-old redbrick building might easily have been mistaken for a church.

Etta hung back in the shadows across the street, trying not to shiver. It was a sparse crowd tonight—half-a-dozen families, a straggler here and there. Harry and Sarah Abrams appeared, Mordecai Smith hurrying along behind them. The Levys arrived three minutes late as usual, dragging along their boy Philip who was shameless about not brushing his teeth—had already chipped two playing football—and who traveled all the way to Richmond once a week to study with the rabbi for his bar mitzvah.

At last the coast was clear, and Etta scurried across the street and up the steps. Cracking the heavy door open, she slipped inside. Tucked in one corner of the foyer, a narrow flight of wooden stairs led to the gallery, from the days when there were enough orthodox families for their women to cloister by themselves. Most of the time now the gallery was deserted, except when the choir performed from up there or when, sometimes during the high holidays, there were enough visitors from out of town or children home from school to cause an overflow from the small sanctuary. Or when on Friday evenings Etta hid herself away.

She had flowers to tend. To avoid being caught up in conversation with her friends or having to pretend to follow the service on their terms, she tiptoed up the wooden steps. Truth to tell, she’d never been much of a synagogue goer— that had been left to Manny on the rare occasion when he felt like it, on a Saturday morning or for the yarzeit memorials of his parents.

Quietly she slipped onto a bench two rows back from the rail. No one directly below could see her. Only Harry or Mordecai standing way up front on the bima might be able to, but they’d have to stare hard to make her out in the shadows so high above.

Because tonight was nothing special—no particular holiday or bar mitzvah—the rabbi hadn’t driven up from Richmond. And so also from long habit the congregation made do for itself. Men and women took turns reading on the bima. (The handful of more traditional Jews in town, offended by such innovations, would take their own turn in the morning.)

Etta had smuggled in Manny’s old prayerbook, its cover a tattered grey cypher without characters, its pages frayed. Skipping ahead of her friends below, she opened the book where a scrap of paper held her place at the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Quiet, simple, reassuring, this had always been her favorite part, even before she’d lost her Manny and Jake.

Our help comethfrom Him, said the prayer. The departed whom we now remember have entered into the peace of life eternal. They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory.

She read the words silently and then again, whispering to make it official and buoy herself in the right mood. And shivered with pleasure. Yes, this was what she’d been waiting for, a magic incantation that released her memories and made them blossom. Here she didn’t feel guilty; she was performing a solemn duty, not merely indulging herself. Keeping a finger at the spot, she closed the book in her lap, stretched her legs as far as the benches allowed, and closed her eyes.

Her memories had gathered themselves as delicately pressed flowers in between the pages of another ancient volume. Back and forth she fingertipped lightly, catching glimpses of Jake across nearly 30 years, and of Manny young and not so young. A single leaf caught her eye, and off she leapt, chasing a flash of water at a lake high in the mountains where they went swimming. Hadn’t the car broken down? Yes, there was Manny in a soaked undershirt awkwardly, hopelessly prying into the guts of his pride-and-joy Buick on the dirt road. Etta put her hand to her mouth and coughed a little giggle into it. Manny tinkered and tinkered and couldn’t fix a machine for the life of him.

The sight of the two-tone, turquoise and cream automobile scratched up a smell she couldn’t identify right off. It was sour and unpleasant, but she couldn’t let go until she recalled—that was it, the stale smoke and beer (and moonshine if his buddies could make the right connections) that soaked the front seat of the car and Jake’s hair and jacket in the morning after he’d snuck home only a few hours earlier. She grimaced and waved the thought away—that wasn’t the sort she wanted, not at all.

Down below in the sanctuary, Sy Rappaport was leading a responsive reading with the 15 or 20 worshippers. First his thin, nasal tones would drift up (Sy had moved from Brooklyn 15 years ago, and from what his accent gave away it might have been yesterday), followed by the smudge of other voices rising and falling and indecipherable.

Manny winked at her. He was wearing his favorite suit, a natty chocolate brown, with suspenders and a red bow tie, all still new, which meant he couldn’t be more than 40. And a felt hat, darker brown, cocked to the side. Her heart winced tight. Wasn’t it really back then that Manny had blossomed, right about 40? No longer the shy Jewish boy out of place anywhere beyond his own doorstep in the Southern town; not yet the sad, resigned old man who shouldn’t have been old so soon. Here he was winking at her. He swung to show profile, pulling in his belly and touching his nose with a laugh—no way to pull that schnozzer in. But what did it matter? he’d demand, elbow in your ribs. You know what a big nose means in other areas.

And her heart did ache because she knew what it meant and knew why he’d blossomed back then. Natalie Coles, the wife of a buyer up in Staunton, was making him feel quite the cavalier. For days after he’d snatched a visit with that little tramp, Manny’d be strutting around, attempting lamely to hide these proud, astonished smiles. (One horrible night they’d all had dinner together; Etta pretending not to know; poor Barney Coles, a kind, enormous radish of a man, really not knowing.)

Etta shook her head to clear away such thoughts. They were spoiling the evening—what could they possibly matter anymore?

Philip Levy, the boy with chipped teeth, was standing on the bima holding up a silver cup and croaking the blessing on the wine. His own voice dangled him helplessly, a classroom specimen of anguished puberty.

Try as she might, Etta couldn’t tug loose of the sour memories. Tonight they were powerful and insistent. So vivid she could zero in on the smallest detail: the coat button sewn on by other fingers, the smell about him when he snuck home at the end of the day—that musky smell of his own after sex, laced with Natalie’s catbox scent. It made her furious. “Come on, honey,” Etta said, cooing and tugging him by the wrist. “Aren’t you sleepy? I’m sleepy.”

“It’s not even six o’clock.” Triumph still dilated his eyes, though they’d narrowed suddenly with alarm.

“What’s that matter?” she said. She pulled and dragged and nudged him into their bedroom. Reaching under his jacket, she snapped his suspenders. But didn’t let him take off his clothes. Just yanked his trousers open and hitched up her dress and slipped herself onto him standing by their bed. Oh, and he was aroused, miserable, the smells of the three of them commingling.

And in the balcony of the synagogue she, too, was miserable and breathing through her mouth. She rubbed knuckles hard into her eyes, over and over, trying to shake herself free. She was embarrassed with herself.

But Jake would help her out. She’d hadn’t paid him enough attention so far tonight anyway. His eyes, the most beautiful dark eyes when he was a boy—everyone said that’s what he got from her, and it was true.

First thing in the morning she’d slip into his room in her robe without even turning the light on. He lay curled on his side, and she settled next to him, combing fingers through his hair, rubbing his back to wake him for school. She could feel him wake through her fingers. At last the ten-year-old turned over and looked at her, his face lighted from the doorway, his sleepy eyes dark and deeper than deep, unfilled yet with the distractions of the day. “Do I gotta?” he yawned. But once he was out of bed she could hear him whistling the latest song as he got ready.

Could those girls of his wake him with so much love? she wondered, and then bit her lip. Why was she getting into that—That was all so much later. Jake was still in school, too young, too young for all that.

It was Manny’s fault, what went wrong with Jake. He’d been undermining her all along. The two of them, man and boy, took each other’s side—and where did that leave her? “Screw college, if he doesn’t want to go away to college,” Manny said. “Isn’t there plenty for him to do here, if that’s what he wants?” Just to spite her, that’s why he was saying it. And she wanted to hit him, her fingers sore from twisting and tearing at each other. And Jake standing off to the side, thinking his own thoughts and apparently not even listening to them argue. What kind of example was Manny? Etta was trembling with anger, the taste of salt on her lips for the first time in a long time and she not even wiping at the tears, alone in the gallery.

A car door slammed, waking her. She’d hold her breath waiting, and yes, there, the second door slammed. So he was bringing her home again. But why assume it was the same one?—Jake was bringing another, a different one each time.

He made no effort to be quiet entering the house. The girl did, but she was drunk and giggling despite herself and though she was trying to tiptoe it wasn’t possible in those heels, them striking the floor like a hammer every second or third step.

Manny hadn’t stirred, but Etta knew he was awake beside her, listening. Was this an arrangement he and Jake had come to? Did Jake even bother to close his bedroom door? Because they, she, could hear it all, could hear the clothes hitting the floor, and the groping, the first great squawk of the bed, the moans, the rhythm, the cries in the night. So vivid, so vivid, to the smallest detail she was remembering.

Only dimly was she aware that the service below was ending, the small congregation winding through the aisles and out of the sanctuary. With a sudden harsh click the lights disappeared. And Etta sat in the darkness. Only the faint red flicker of a hanging lamp up above the bima, the one never extinguished, remained and grew brighter, blowing shadows everywhere as her eyes adjusted. It was very quiet now.

Two car doors slammed again, nearly in unison this time, and Jake was strutting up to the house in broad daylight no less, both arms around the cute little girl at his side (Meg Tillich, wasn’t it?, who’d been a couple years behind him at school and had gone off to Roanoke to become a beautician) so that the two kept stumbling over each other.

Fresh, potent as a morning after wind and rain, vivid as all the other memories, this particular scene Etta couldn’t place. That suede jacket he was wearing was a clue—his father had given him that later, after he’d left the community college to start selling insurance full time.

Etta felt confused, disoriented. When she tried to leap ahead the memory became disjointed; she had to walk it through at its own pace. Where was she to see Jake and this Meg saunter up to her house? Was she watching through a window? Did he not care that she’d see? Where am I? she wondered.

The screen door slapped behind them. Jake and Meg didn’t halt, didn’t hesitate, but stumbled on toward the bedroom. And now Etta could smell the alcohol, the smoke, the girl’s not-so-cheap perfume. How dare they? Couldn’t they show the slightest decency or respect? Where am I?

It must have been a Saturday, because there was Manny sitting in his chair in the living room watching a Brave’s game on TV. He was drinking, too—beer, despite what it did to his system.

Etta found herself panting, frightened in the dark balcony of the synagogue. A thousand tiny claws clattered on the roof, driven by a hard wind. From one of her deep coat pockets she dug out a ball of Kleenex and wiped her eyes, blew her nose. That last memory had unnerved her. It was so clear, so real. It frightened her not to remember when it happened. Silly thing, silly me, she thought. “Silly,” she said softly aloud.

Yet the niggling memory tempted her back to discover where it led. The secret lay crouched waiting for her. She could keep it at bay and concentrate on the sounds and drafts and musty smells of the sanctuary. Or she could leave. She could simply walk away. Surely her responsibility to Manny and Jake extended only so far, and not to any memory like that. Sighing, she blew her nose again. Her fingers were very cold. (This would be a bad winter for her chilblains.)

The sharp hiss of the eggs startled her as they hit the hot skillet. Manny’s specialty, with a liberal dash of tabasco, garlic, black pepper—and the magic touch, fresh ginger. Etta stared at her husband. His very round face was accentuated by the bald dome of his head, grey tufts around the sides. Except they weren’t grey. They’d gone quite white. And he’d grown jowly, more jowly than she recalled.

From the way he was pursing his lips she could tell that the beer he’d been swigging in front of the TV was disagreeing with him. Gas mainly. “Shouldn’t you know better?” she might have whispered aloud. But Manny was attending to the eggs. You couldn’t let them grow too hard and dry in the skillet. Why aren’t I making a salad? Etta wondered. Why don’t I remember any of this, even though I’m remembering it?

The smell of eggs and spice drew Jake out of his room, buckling his belt and tucking in a clean shirt. That girl, that Meg, was she still in bed or had she somehow sneaked out when Etta wasn’t looking? Jake was whistling—he was always such a remarkable whistler, whistled any tune note for note after one hearing. She missed him so, wanted more than all the world simply to hold him, to nestle him in her arms, all that he’d done to disappoint her no matter, absolutely beside the point.

He walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on for coffee. Said something to his old man that Etta missed, couldn’t make out. Manny shrugged and replied without looking up. But again she didn’t catch what he said. It wasn’t that she couldn’t hear their voices—she could, oh yes, just the way they’d always sounded, gruff with each other and matter-of-fact—but the sounds were muffled, the edge of the words blurred.

Confused, anguished, she wanted to cry out to them. “Oh,” she moaned, knowing she couldn’t speak to a memory. “Damn, damn. Damn.”

Manny expertly divided the eggs with a spatula and slipped portions onto two plates. The rest he left in the skillet and covered with foil on the stove. He and Jake sat down, and there was a third place at the table with an empty plate. For her? Or for Meg still in the bedroom?

Jake rose to get the coffee, and as he was standing at his father’s side, posed to pour, Etta’s glance traveled up his arm and to his face, and now at last she saw what she should have seen all along, the scar along the line of his jaw and up around his ear and just under his eye, healed, faint, undeniable. And she knew that if he was there like that then she had to be the one who was missing. The empty place was not for her.

The steps down from the gallery were treacherous, dark, and steep. She made her way slowly, a hand pressed against the plaster. Once she’d reached the ground, however, the front door presented no problem. Three or four paces directly across the foyer it greeted her fingers, and the bolt turned easily. Of course the old men arriving in the morning would fuss at the carelessness of that casual Friday night crowd leaving the door unbolted.

The sidewalk seemed to stretch forever down from Court Square. Her feet ached and she was perspiring and she was also chilled to the bone by the time she reached her door. Only for the lock stubbornly to refuse her key. Perhaps it was the wrong key. Perhaps—and the half-second’s thought terrified her—she’d come to the wrong house.

No, a thousand signs, the mat, the mezuzah on the doorpost, reassured her at once. It was only her nerves, only her hand trembling a bit. And with that the key slipped home.

Without taking off her coat, Etta went directly into the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea. She sat in the chair where Manny had been sitting—would have been sitting if the memory had ever happened, which it hadn’t, except that it had seemed more real than all the others. Warm house or no, she was still trembling lightly like a bird.

A whistle began, low and tentative but swelling rapidly towards a shriek. She glanced at the kettle, an old red thing with a wooden handle, 15-years-worth familiar and yet tonight threatening, foreign, not at all what she’d remembered. Didn’t stop her, though—she’d be damned first. Lifted that kettle, poured water into a cup, dipped the tea bag, added milk.

Again she settled in the chair, her coat still on, cowering and refusing to look about. The tea was strong and hot and reassuring. This was all it took. Once she got to bed and to sleep and dreamed some honest dreams everything would be all right.

She realized, suddenly, that she’d left Manny’s prayerbook in the gallery. It had been so dark she hadn’t been able to check about or notice it lying on the bench beside her. Too bad, she decided with a shrug. Why did she care? What use would it be now?

She sipped her tea and felt better, stronger. It had given her a nasty turn, what she’d glimpsed. Shook her to her bones. Manny and Jake—what a pair. They deserved each other. What a pair of bastards. They didn’t care. Not an iota. Didn’t miss her at all, didn’t bother to remember her. Nothing. Why should they trouble themselves?, that’s what they figured. What kind of gratitude was that for all her years of faithfulness?

She sighed, rose, and poured another cup—what did it matter if it kept her up a little while longer? Her legs were aching, and it was good to sit back down.

And she nodded to a further truth that blossomed across the table through the steam and sweet tea and milk. Well, after all, what of it if they were such bastards? Hadn’t she suspected it all along, down deep, that Manny and Jake were wild flowers and didn’t really need her tending? Oh, they’d tolerate her remembering them, they’d let her fuss. But only because it made her feel better. Which was nice. Certainly none of it was necessary.

Sipping the last of her tea and not wishing to get up or turn out the light, Etta Bloch was feeling better, rather relieved. They must have cared something for her after all.

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