New Prose by Kate Dreyfus
“Mom, have you had this car checked lately?” I’ve been out of the country a year, so I have no idea, although I know the odds aren’t good.
“Maybe, maybe not!” she says, punching the words out like bullets.
We’re driving to Cummings Beach in my mother’s Plymouth Valient; my grandmother, mother, and me.
It’s early evening, July 13th, a Sunday. Tomorrow I’ll turn 23. My mother proposed this trip so she could say something meaningful. She’s big on birthdays. I’m not, and neither is my grandmother, but we do a lot of things to humor her.
I’m the driver. I have a long-standing rule of never getting in a motor vehicle if my mother is driving, due to her lack of interest in the rules of the road. She makes noises of objection to my driving her car, as a matter of principle, to defend her skills–but actually she doesn’t mind. She hates driving.
Today the temperature touched 100, and didn’t start to go down until just around 5:00. The AC doesn’t work, and I notice the idle is uneven when we’re stopped at the lights on the way south through downtown Stamford towards Shippan Avenue.
Looking in the rearview mirror, I see she’s staring out the window. She wears oversized sun glasses that cover her cheek bones, a Marimeko print mini-dress with black and white circles pierced by vertical black and white rectangles; white cotton Capris; and red patent leather high-heeled, backless sandals that I guess she thinks constitute walking shoes. My grandmother, who’s sitting beside her, has opted for a sporting look. She’s wearing a blue and white striped sailor shirt and a white sailor’s cap. She’s also got on white pants, although hers are full-length. I’m in jeans and a thin Indian cotton shirt with a floral print. The shirt is falling apart, especially at the arm pits, but I don’t care. I love this kind of cotton; the open weave, the faint, musty smell. I’ll just keep my arms down.
Even though it’s nearly six when we arrive, the beach parking lot is still half-full. I angle the Valient into a space. The lot is edged by quaking aspens, but the air is still, so their leaves, with the fragile stems, hang motionless.
My mother, as usual, takes a while to get out of the car. When she does, she’s lugging her oversized black leather pocket book, shaped like a grocery bag. I fight the urge to ask her if she really needs it. “Let’s go!” I say.
The walk to the beach is fairly easy, as the path is paved. Once we get to the sand, however, my mother’s in trouble, given those backless shoes. She takes a step, then another one, and sinks down. Her feet skid sideways out of the shoes, testing their red patent limits.
“Why don’t you take your shoes off, Mom? I already did.” It’s true, I’m carrying my sandals in one hand, with the ankle straps looped around my wrist like leather bracelets.
“I did too, Ruthie, see?” my grandmother adds, demonstrating her sandals, which she’s carrying the same way.
“I can take care of myself!” my mother snaps.
“Ruthie! Take off those shoes, before you hurt yourself!”
My mother frowns, and then reaches down to slip off her shoes. I keep an eye on her, just in case she tips over. She’s prone to tipping over, given her history of back surgery. But this time, she doesn’t. She slips the shoes in her purse, and we continue.
Ahead of us, light deflects off the sand and pier, with the fleeting touch of a skimming stone. The clouds are turning a brilliant orange, edged with streaks of fuschia and magenta—the products of the polluted air of Long Island Sound.
“This is far enough!” my mother suddenly announces, and at the same time, she collapses downward to the sand. My grandmother sits down to her left, and I take the other side.
“Well, does anyone have anything they want to share, on this lovely and most symbolic birthday eve?” my mother says, looking at me.
“I can’t think of anything right now.”
“Well, I have a story,” my grandmother says. “It’s about a man at 23 Peter Cooper Road.”
23 Peter Cooper Road is the address of my grandmother’s apartment complex on the lower east side. It’s a big brick structure, one of a cluster of towers, all built in the 1940s. Some, like my grandmother’s have views out to the Hudson River. They’re all rent-controlled, and there’s a long waiting list to get in. The fact that my grandmother’s baby sister Bea was already living there helped to get my grandmother in, when her second husband died ten years ago.
“Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes!” I say.
“Alright, then I’ll tell you. It’s about a man who lived in my building, a Mr. Tennison.”
Mr. Tennison, she explains, was a tall, thin man, not Jewish, not attractive, but well-dressed, who made a point of knowing everyone’s name, and saying hello to them–using their name–every time he saw them in the lobby, or elevator. There’s a wife, a shnooky wife, who seems very meek, who always wears a wig with a chiffon scarf tied around it. She’s always with him.
That’s just the preamble, though. Now that the characters are set, she launches in.
“Then one day, I got into the elevator, and there was a pleasant looking man I’d never seen before. So I said ‘nice day, isn’t it,’ or something pleasant like that, you know, general chit chat, and he couldn’t speak! Obviously, he was deaf, or mute, or something like that, because he pointed to his mouth, like this, you know?”
Here she pauses and jabs her left index finger emphatically at her mouth, several times. She’s still left-handed, even though the teachers tried to beat it out of her by rapping her hard across the knuckles with sticks if she used her left hand.
I’m left handed, like her. My mother, father, and brother are all righties.
“He pointed that way, because he couldn’t speak!” My grandmother looks back and forth at us, to make sure we are following.
I nod. I’m working hard to hold down the start of a smile on my face, and to keep it from being a full-on grin. That would irritate my grandmother, and then she would stop talking. No, first she would say something like: “All right, I can see that no one is taking me seriously, and I’m going to stop right here.” And then she would stop talking.
My mother nods, too, but there’s no spirit to it. My grandmother’s stories tend to irritate her.
As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing in the world that’s better than one of my grandmother’s stories. They’re like Aesops’ fables—but with a Jewish, immigrant, slightly surreal, spin.
Sometimes I wonder if the fact that English is her second language–learned after Yiddish–has something to do with it. Would these stories, perhaps, come out differently, in Yiddish? But I’ll never know. I don’t speak Yiddish. And my grandmother claims that she doesn’t either.
“Well, when we got out of the elevator at the lobby, there was this Mr. Tennison. Of course, he was with his wife, because as I’ve already told you, they are always together. The man who had been in the elevator with me walked out of the building, and I went over to my mailbox, to check my mail.”
“Well, Mr. Tennison followed me over. ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Rogin,’ he said. ‘Do you know if something is wrong with that man? I always say hello to him, but he never says anything! Do you know if something is wrong with him?’”
My grandmother stops again, and looks at us carefully, to see if we are still following. Then she adds, as if she’s translating for us: “You see, he was upset, that someone didn’t say hello to him! Can you imagine?”
My mother can’t help herself. “Mother, get on with the story, please! What is it you’re trying to say?”
“Well, alright, Ruthie, I’m getting to the point! I just tell you this by way of background! You see, he’s a busy-body! Nosy! He wants to know everyone’s business, he says hello to everyone, so why doesn’t this fellow say hello to him? Because he can’t speak, you see? That’s why!”
Now my mother doesn’t say anything. I know she’s working hard to keep quiet because she’s afraid that if she says anything, this story will keep looping and looping, and we’ll still be sitting on the beach after the moon has risen.
My grandmother looks at her, and then at me. Her thin grey eyebrows are raised slightly, and she’s doing that, neck cocking owl-stare thing that teachers like to do to quiet a class down.
We are both very quiet.
“So. I said to him,”–and here she sits up just a little straighter, which she always does when she pulls on her “suitable for strangers “voice–’Why Mr. Tennison! That man didn’t say hello to you because I don’t think he can speak!’ And I said it to him in a very cold voice, because I think he’s terrible, so full of himself! He has to speak to everyone in the building, you know, be involved in everything.”
“Some time goes by, and I notice that I see his wife alone in the lobby and elevator. Now, this is a change, because before, they were always together, everywhere they went! Well, one day I say I say to her, ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Tennison, but I can’t help but notice that you’ve been alone lately, and before, I used to always see you with your husband. Will you tell me, is everything all right? Is he well?”
“And she said ‘Oh no, Mrs. Rogin, I’m afraid he is not well. He is quite ill, he’s in the hospital, and the doctors just don’t know if he’ll make it.’”
My grandmother stops, and bows her head slightly, as if she is weighed down by the enormity of it all. Then she rises up again.
“You see, he collapsed! All of a sudden, just like that! And not too long after that, he dies! So what do you think of that!”
With that, she splays both palms upwards and outward, fingers to the sky. This signifies the end of the story.
My mother frowns. She’s peeved. “So mother, what’s the point? I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
I try to help out. “Grandma, are you trying to say that nosy people drop dead?”
Now my grandmother is peeved. “All—I’m—saying—is! This is a man who wanted to know everyone’s business! Always saying hello to everyone”–and here she mimics, with a pinchy nosed-squeaky voice–”‘hello hello hello!’ And now, all of a sudden, he’s in the hospital, and he’s dead!”
My mother’s still drilling down for the truth, or a better version of it. A version that follows all the standard principles of essay writing, perhaps: An opening thesis. Several expository paragraphs, to build out core ideas. Then, a conclusion.
“Mother, I think there’s more to this than you’re telling us. Was there something else about the man you didn’t like? Are you taking it out of context?”
“Ruthie! That’s all there is. I’ve told you all there is.”
There’s quiet now. The sun has set, but twilight still lights the beach.
“Thanks for the story, Gram.”
“Shall we go now, and get some dinner?” my mother suggests.
We rise, and shake the sand from our clothes. Then we turn, and walk back towards the parking lot.
As we walk, behind us, the sound of the ocean falls away to a whisper.
Then even the whisper is gone. There’s a breeze now, soft, but still cooling. Ahead of us, I can see the silvery leaves of the aspen trees turning, and then turning back, as if nothing, or everything, holds them in place.
Kate Dreyfus blends phantoms from her Jewish shtetl past with spirits of her Portland present.