Lillian’s husband Herb died on a Sunday. He was 78. It was Easter. The day before he died, someone brought an Easter Lily to the apartment as a gift. Lillian said, “Get that thing out of here, it reminds me of death.” The next day, Herb was gone.
He wasn’t even sick. He was getting ready to play golf with some friends. He went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. Lillian heard the water running. She heard a slight thud. The water kept on running. God he’s wasting water again. “Turn off the water, for godsakes,” she shouted. “Shut off the water you’re wasting.” When she came to the bathroom ready for a fight, she almost tripped over Herb’s left shoe.
Lillian reached over the body and turned the faucet off. She stared at her husband’s face. He looked rather absentminded. He looked as if he’d forgotten something. She knelt down beside him on the blue-tiled floor and took his head in her hands and held it.
Nobody thought it symbolic that Herb had died on Easter. After all, he was Jewish. But the coincidence about the lily, that was something.
At the funeral, Lillian sat in a large armchair. People came up to her and murmured things; it was all very strange. She could not distinguish any words. What was all this murmuring? Why didn’t anybody speak up here? Her ears cast around her for definite sounds. She picked up her neighbor Ellie like radar—Ellie having a natural broadcasting ability.
“She shouldn’t have let the flower in the house,” Ellie’s deep voice was saying.
“It was God’s signal, she should take care,” added Leah.
“A Jewish god sends a Christian flower?” (That was Rosa.)
“I say she should’ve thrown it out.”
“How was she to know, a little flower, a harmless gift?”
“But that’s just it, sweetheart, she did know.”
“Our Lillian, a psychic?”
“Psychic schmychic—but she knew that flower meant trouble. It was—a premonition!”
“A premonition? Oi Vay. What next?”
Lillian stifled a snort. That Ellie. What next? But suppose, just suppose—God forbid—that dreadful flower had had something to do with Herb’s death. Were there such things? Had something or other spoken to her through the lily? No, she had simply hated its waxen face and ordered it out of the room. Maybe you could be allergic to an Easter lily?
Lillian was torn. All she had were the facts, and the facts were, her Herb was dead. Lily or no lily. But as her mind wandered around the funeral home, it was teased into a dark room and led to focus on a round table in the center of that room. A dark person sat before the table, which was covered by a fringed tablecloth—no, it was her mother-in-law’s best rose shawl—and on the table sat an enormous lily with words coming out of its white throat. She leaned forward like the RCA Victor dog to hear what it was saying.
“Lillian, Lil, are you okay?” someone asked.
“Sure I’m okay,” snapped Lillian. Nonsense, she said to herself. Flowers don’t talk. A premonition indeed.
Since she had discovered Herb on her nice clean bathroom floor, Lillian had had the hardest time thinking about anything, let alone her husband. She could only do. After the ambulance had taken his body away, she had gotten down on her knees with a pail of warm sudsy water and her favorite stiff brush and scrubbed, had scrubbed at the bathroom floor. Maybe she was trying to erase—who knows?—the dying, the invisible imprint of his body. There was one particular tile that she scrubbed at most vigorously, where his left foot had lain. She couldn’t get out the stain, which looked like a grass stain, green around the edges. She used up half a can of Ajax and still it would not come out.
The truth was, she was a little annoyed at him for doing this. It was most unfair, his dying like that without any last words, goodbyes, or—I’ll see you in heaven, Lil. He had promised, had promised to love and protect her forever! and he had broken that promise. You nasty old buzzard, what am I supposed to do now? Play mah-jongg till I burst? Eat lamb chops alone? We were supposed to do this together.
No one. No one to order around. No one to clean up after. No one to do for—actually that sounded quite pleasant. She should be so lucky. A single woman again.
Lillian’s persistent scrubbing brought pictures. There was Herb, but not the Herb who had stained her nice clean floor, but a Herb with hair, a younger Herb. And she was there too, and she looked—so soft. Oh my God, I’m wearing Mama’s pin!
They were at a restaurant. They were discussing, no they were arguing over—the bill. It was Arthur’s Eats, Arthur’s, for godsakes! That cheap little fish place by the boardwalk. It was their first date—or tenth. Same place. Same argument. He was broke, trying to support his kid sister Addie, and she had a good job as a bookkeeper. She wanted to pay. He would not let her. Funny, her remembering that after all these years. Funny what one remembered.
Lillian stopped scrubbing for a second. If she continued to scrub more pictures might come, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to see anymore—though she did want to see Herb— both.
She hadn’t been a bad wife. She’d looked after all his needs. Kept a clean home, helped pay the rent. No kids, but they couldn’t help that. Yes they had had their differences, but after 50 some-odd years, they’d learned a few tricks about getting along.
The doorbell rang. It was Ellie.
“Are you okay?”
“Sure I’m okay, don’t I look okay?”
“Yeah, you look okay. Wanta play some canasta?” Was it okay to play canasta when your husband had just died? She supposed it was. She could mourn over her cards just as easily as she could mourn in her apartment. And besides, she was mad at him. Maybe she wouldn’t mourn at all. Would serve him right.
But then the people had begun coming. They came to the funeral, they came to her apartment. They murmured—again this murmuring—sweet nothings about her Herb and ate some chopped liver off her mother-in-law’s good china. It seemed there were always people in her house. It was rather annoying. She was waiting for them to stop coming, to stop consuming the salmon, the cream cheese, the bagels; to stop sending notes about her beloved husband—to leave her alone already! She felt like a bride again, all these thank you notes she was going to have to write! She wrote all the names on a list. Well, thank God she didn’t have to do any dishes. She could just sit. But who would pay the electric bill, I ask you? Lillian, that’s who. All those people using up her hard-earned electricity.
During the days that followed the funeral and the sitting, Lillian’s mind kept reliving events as if she were rehearsing for a performance. She kept hearing the water in the bathroom running. She kept seeing Herb’s shoe. She kept hearing Ellie’s voice say, psychic schmychic. What was a psychic? Someone who read tea leaves, palms, crystal balls? Someone who ran those seance things, with the dead spirits and all, that were the rage ten, 20 years ago?
Lillian pulled out her dictionary. First she looked up psychic, skimming over the definitions until she found one that satisfied her. “A person apparently sensitive to nonphysical or supernatural forces and influences. Medium.” Then she looked up medium. “An individual held to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and world of spirits.” Yeah, like the seances. But the person who had written the dictionary seemed to doubt that mediums and psychics existed. He used words like “apparently” and “held to be.” He wasn’t really sure. And if the folks who wrote the dictionaries weren’t sure—well that settled it. Ellie was a kook, a crazy. Premonition indeed.
Then again, she wondered. In her experience there were things that one couldn’t look up and check on in dictionaries. What about the lily, then? She hadn’t liked it, pure and simple. She knew her own mind. It was ugly, that’s all. But when she’d seen it, a knowledge and a knowing had happened. Maybe she was a psychic. Maybe, if she were a psychic, there was a way to —
No. All this wondering was nonsense. She ought to be doing something useful with her time instead of mooning over lilies. She ought to be cleaning.
It was really about time she tackled Herb’s closet. She went into the bedroom. She marched over to his closet. She opened it, then backed away. She had not expected the smell of him, the smell of Herb to be there. But it was. Or the Herb of him, soft in the creases of the shoulders of his favorite tweed jacket. She reached out—she pushed the closet door closed.
She felt a little weary, a little dizzy. She sat on the right-hand bed and took her shoes off. This was Herb’s bed, but she didn’t think he’d mind if she rested herself on it. Perhaps she would have it taken out of the room. She would have the place all to herself, as if she were a young girl again. The clothes in her closet could breathe, could ooze on into his old closet; perhaps the winter wardrobe would sleep there while the spring and summer danced in hers.
But first, his closet. Well, maybe tomorrow, she finally said to herself. It was chilly in the room, and Lillian rose and went to the dresser searching for a sweater. She finally found one of his, a blue one. Every movement made her feel as if she were walking in deep space. Each sleeve of the sweater took hours to pull on. Months were passing as she pushed her head through the neck opening. She felt herself growing warmer, slowing, sleeping, somehow.
The sleep was good, it was so soft! It was rose-colored. Then it became white, became waxen. She was standing in a forest of enormous white lilies. All of a sudden, the lily nearest her began to ring. She looked and looked but couldn’t find the receiver, and the lily kept ringing and ringing.
The next morning, Lillian took a bus to the graveyard. The sod was still soft on top of the grave, had not yet begun to settle. She would have liked to talk to it, to have been able to pretend that Herb was somewhere about and listening, but she couldn’t. She knew he was not there, in that grave.
She was lonely. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She had no place to put this—this feeling of time. It weighed, this time. It took up too much yet not enough space.
If Herb wasn’t here, then where was he? Was he back home, resting in his easy chair, that brown vinyl monstrosity she’d always sworn she’d have carted away? Or was he asleep at the golf club under a tree by the 18th hole.
Or, was he dressed in silly clothes—a toga or something— taking harp lessons from some somebody up there—
“You know, I’m not afraid of dying,” she said to the grave, “but I am afraid of not knowing. Where are you, Herb?”
She took the bus home. She went into the study expecting to see something or somebody. A pale but civilized-looking ghost like Topper. Somebody to talk to.
Maybe I’ll just talk to myself.
She looked at Herb’s easy chair. This can go, she thought. Something made her go over and test it out. She had never sat in it before, it was Herb’s. But something—she sat. It was comfortable! It was gloriously comfortable. She fell asleep.
Ring! Ring! Her sleep was full of doorbells and phones ringing. Corridors of phones, the sounds of—she opened her eyes. It was the doorbell. A persistent ringer. She stirred herself and looked around the room, dazed from her new perspective, her new friend the easy chair. I’m coming, I’m coming, she shouted. She pulled herself up out of the chair and walked to the door. It was Ellie.
“Thank God, you’re all right,” said Ellie. “I thought I saw you go in so I called, but nobody answered, so here I am, ringing, and ringing, worried half to death—
“Listen, some of the girls are coming over tonight for a game of mah-jongg, and we need a strong fourth. You haven’t played with us in a while. We really need you.”
“Need me?” “Come on, the four of us will sit around the table and yack—it’ll be like old times. Penny ante—”
“Well—what time? What can I bring?”
“Just bring yourself. We eat at six, remember?”
Lillian changed into a fresh skirt and blouse. She combed her hair carefully and checked her rouge as if preparing for a date. She had a bad moment when she thought, with guilt, that Herb would have to gather his own dinner, then realized that he didn’t after all. No one to do for.
At a quarter to six, Lillian found herself sitting primly on the chair by the mirror by the front door trying not to wrinkle her skirt. Every minute or so she’d check her watch. Finally she gave in.
“Am I early?” she said as Ellie came to the door, her right hand gloved in a potholder. Behind her, wonderful smells.
“Give me a hand, will you?” Ellie handed Lillian an apron.
“So,” said Ellie, “you lonely? or what? You miss him? Make sure that doesn’t boil over.”
Lillian lowered the flame. She watched the soup calm itself. Then she turned around slowly, as if to say it needed more salt and said, “Hey, remember those seance things that were such the craze 20, 30 years ago?”
“Oh my God, yeah. What made you think of them?”
“I don’t know, I’ve always wondered what one did—”
“It’s pretty simple, I think. You sit around the table with your friends. You turn out the lights, and you ask for the spirits.”
“That’s it, that’s all? Sit with your friends and ask for the spirits?”
“And turn out the lights. And so maybe they come, the spirits, and maybe they don’t. Hey, what’s all this sudden interest—you planning on having one—oh. You miss him that much.”
“No. I was just—” Lillian turned back to the stove and fussed with the flame under the soup.
Leah and Rosa arrived. “It’s like old times,” said Leah as she put her casserole on the kitchen table.
“Yes,” added Rosa. “We’ve missed you, Lil.”
“We thought you’d taken up with a new group of friends.”
“Me?” said Lillian. “Who would have me?”
They ate in the kitchen. It was warm, it was bright. Leah cleared the dishes while Ellie got a damp rag and wiped the table clean. Everything in the kitchen. Lives came and went in such kitchens. The kitchen was the heart.
Ellie brought out the box of tiles, her mother’s box. They rolled the dice to find their seats. They built walls of tiles, small walls, two tiles high.
“Okay, who’s East? Leah?”
“Oh, I just love when I get to break the walls.”
“We still playing penny ante?”
“You got a better idea?”
Lillian looked around the table at all her friends. She heard Ellie saying, “You sit around the table with your friends.” Well, that’s what they were doing. The game began and Lillian was not up to full speed. She was distracted. She kept hearing the shouts and the slamming of the tiles, the “Bam” and the “Crack” and—a seance. A seance. “You sit around the table with your friends, you turn out the lights, and you ask for the spirits, ask for the spirits. . . .”
“Lillian, are you okay?”
“I, I don’t feel so well. A little bit too much excitement! I think I’d better call it a night.”
Lillian walked slowly down the hall. Seances! What had made her blurt out about seances! Crystal balls, lilies, what next? Night rides on broomsticks?
Lillian was not sure which Lillian she was. The old Lillian was snorting down her nose at herself. She couldn’t believe it—she must be getting senile. And yet—to speak to Herb again, could she? This was not the self she knew, this was some other Lillian Goldberg.
The next day Ellie called Lillian. Without saying hello she said, “I’ve told the girls and they’ve agreed.”
“To hold It. To have One.” She lowered her voice. “A seance.”
“You didn’t think I was serious, did you?”
“Oh come on, Lillian. You were serious, very serious. And anyway now we’re all serious. Don’t worry, I’ll help you run it. Next Wednesday, instead of Mah Jongg we’ll have our seance. But it’s got to be at your place, you know, to make it more congenial to Herb or whoever. . . .”
They gathered around Lillian’s kitchen table. Though the kitchen was their usual meeting place, tonight, with its bright lights and formica magnifying those lights it didn’t seem appropriate. Ellie said, “Hey listen girls, this is no good. We gotta be somewhere darker—somewhere with more—you know—atmosphere.”
“How about the dining room?” suggested Rosa.
“Yeah, Lil, how about the dining room?”
Lillian hesitated. The dining room was not a room to be taken lightly. The cushions wore plastic to protect them and runners made paths across the plush carpeting. The good china and silver were hidden away in the mahogany sideboard, along with the bulk of Lillian and Herb’s wedding presents, rarely used. Only her mother-in-law’s large brass menorah dared show itself, waiting for an occasion to be lit. A room that spent its life resting between religious holidays and now they were asking it to wake up?
Everyone sat down. Leah squeaked on the seat.
“Try not to fidget, Leah,” whispered Ellie.
“Okay, so what now?” said Rosa.
“I don’t know. I guess we can light a few candles. Lillian?” Lillian rose and opened a mahogany drawer. She pulled out several white candles and put them in the menorah. She lit them and turned out the chandelier. Then she returned to her seat.
“Now,” said Ellie solemnly, “we hold hands.”
“Don’t squeeze,” said Rosa to Leah.
“All right already.”
“Ladies. Please close your eyes. And I mean closed.”
Silence. “Now, um, let’s—concentrate.”
“Shut up, Leah.”
Lillian tried to focus on an image of Herb but she couldn’t see him. The harder she tried, the more elusive he became. She felt like crying. “This is ridiculous!” she said.
“Lillian, please,” said Ellie. “Give it a chance. I call upon the spirits,” she began, “to enter the room and say hello.”
Rosa snorted. “Say hello—isn’t that kinda—”
“Will you shut up!” said Ellie. “Concentrate.”
Everyone was silent. Lillian could hear everyone breathing and someone deliberately not breathing. It was difficult for them to keep still for so long. This was not a raucous mahjongg game where screams and insults were allowed with every slam of the tile.
“Spirits,” Ellie called out. “Come on, spirits, come to us. We have someone here who’d like to speak to Herb Goldberg. Can you hear us Herb? Lillian, you try—”
Lillian shook her head.
Lillian felt rather faint—it sounded so sincere, almost possible. She could sense his presence in the room!
The silence stabilized. Everyone was breathing together. Suddenly Lillian saw Herb, in her mind’s eye, lying on the tiles of the bathroom floor. He was dead then, and he was still dead today.
“Turn on the lights,” she said, “turn on the lights.”