Eventually Aunt Fritzi would blame her third marriage on the Prime Minister of Canada, a middle-aged swinger who’d ended his trendy bachelorhood by wedding a flower child (and so caused Canadian schoolgirls to lower their flag to half staff).
This rakish paragon was emulated by a host of lesser lotharios, including twice-divorced insurance agent Douglas “C’est Si Bon” Carlisle. Like the PM, Doug sported a silk ascot while driving a Mercedes roadster after decking his lapel with a red, red rose. He also wore a brown, brown rug and had skin the color and texture of a buttered cigar, on which he believed you could never splash enough Brut.
Fritzi was gaga over him. She did a grand jeté at Doug’s suggestion that hey, since Pierre tied the knot with Margaret and went on a ski-slope honeymoon, why not do likewise? So what if this was the third hitch for them both? Therein lay the charm!
|Wire briar limber lock|
|Three geese in a flock|
|One flew east, one flew west—|
—and the third got married in the cuckoo’s nest that had been Madame Massena’s Dance Studio. Fritzi was relocating to Doug’s turf, the state capital, which meant this ceremony would be the studio's coda—its swan song and final hurrah—with the reception conveniently staged downstairs in the Joe E. Lewis Dinner Playhouse.
“Well,” sighed Felicia, “at least this wedding’s indoors.”
(As opposed to a high school elopement, or windblown nuptials at the Lakeside Central Sculpture Garden.)
It was also the first wedding where Fritzi got given away by her father. Diamond Joel had hated Bucky Fettermeyer’s guts, and felt only contempt for glassblower Andrew Massena; but Doug Carlisle was a dream son-in-law come true. Who else invited Dime to a bachelor party at the ex-Knickerbocker Hotel, recently converted to the Playboy Towers? Nobody but bunny-club-keyholder Doug! Who’d gotten Dime and Gran the most affordable deal on pre-need burial coverage? Nobody but Doug the macher chassen!
“So sure am I that my baby girl’s in the best hands you could hope for, that breathing easy is now at last possible. So to take a cue from Frank Sinatra, I say it’s my turn to retire! ‘Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the yeeeears—you ain’t seen nothing yet: the best is yet to come.’ Mazel tov!”
“Mmm,” added Gran.
One-man standing ovation by Ozzie Volester. He too had nothing but kudos for Doug Carlisle (and a few extra crinkles in his own butter-and-egg smile, following that bachelor bash). As for little Goofus, he’d begun wearing a bandanna round his neck to approximate an ascot, and was saving stray nickels to buy a Mercedes.
Yet Fritzi’s fellow Schmelzettes were quietly appalled. Felicia kept her mouth shut about the groom, lest Diamond Joel rethink his retirement. Gran’s enmity had been earned the first time Doug swiped one of her prize roses to stick on his lapel. And the girls labeled him “Gross Uncle Doug” after he demonstrated his feeling for young female cheeks, lower as well as upper. (Vicki’s merely got patted; Tricia’s were definitely pinched.)
As far as the girls were concerned, the only good thing about their aunt’s marrying G.U. Doug was the appearance of fourteen-year-old Cousin Miles Carlisle. Who had the fleeting good fortune at that particular moment to be a dead ringer for pop star Bobby Sherman.
Miles set off endless muffled giggles among the Peaches, who’d all been invited to the wedding reception. Their table was loaded with the state capital’s native dish, horseshoe sandwiches (thick toasted sourdough topped with a slab of ham—the “shoe”—drizzled with cheese sauce and surrounded by fries—the “nails”—served on a hot steak platter or “anvil”). On which even the Pomerantzes were chowing down, since they only kept kosher at Passover and that was still a week off. Brenda sat stolidly munching on hers, despite the other girls’s efforts to haul her into Miles’s dead-ringer vicinity.
The Peaches knew all about Bobby Sherman thanks to Tricia’s teenybopper magazines, which they were forbidden to touch and so had to smuggle stealthily over to Hayley’s apartment. One day Kris caught Brenda staring unblinkingly at a Bobby Sherman photo in Tiger Beat, and when kidded about this Brenda didn’t scoff it away but blushed and stammered. After that, even fear of her wrath didn’t stop the other Peaches from moaning in soulful unison when “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” or “La La La (If I Had You)” came on the radio and Brenda was nearby.
“I swear, you guys, I will break each of your arms and legs...”
“Who, us? We like the way he sings is all. It’s not like we got a crush on him or anything—”
Growl from Brenda then; same (through a mouthful of horseshoe sandwich) now.
Not that it mattered—Cute Cousin Miles was being monopolized by Bridesmaid Tricia. To the point of being led off, by the hand, on a tour of the Joe E. Lewis Dinner Playhouse dressing rooms, while everyone else (except Vicki’s quintet) witnessed Gross Uncle Doug toasting Aunt Fritzi with a bottle of Seagram’s and a Tom Jonesish serenade.
“Whoa whoa whoa she’s a layyyy-dee,” he crooned, as Tricia and Miles disappeared.
“We are not splitting up! We’re just gonna be—doing, y’know, different things. In different places. Some of the time.”
So insisted Hayley at Sarah-Jill’s spring vacation sleepover.
The Peaches were grappling with the loss of their dance studio and regular Saturday sessions. Miss Sandy had urged Vicki to apply for Level Three entry at the exclusive Olivia Fischel Academy of the Ballet: two lessons every week and not cheap ones either, though her parents said it wouldn’t be a problem now that they were part-owners of the Lot.
Hayley, despite similar encouragement, was afraid the Fischel Academy wouldn’t think she “looked right,” and its bound-to-be-haughty students would jeer at her.
“They have to take you if you can pay the fees—and can dance, of course,” said Vicki. “Which we know you can do.”
“Yeah, well, maybe...” Hayley wishywashed. “I’d feel a lot better if the rest of you guys were going there too.”
But Sarah-Jill wasn’t interested in dancing more than once a week; Brenda’s folks were doing well enough on Brunt Street to afford ballet-free membership at the Jewish Community Center; and Kris was about to re-tackle the Y. Superconfident with the power of Peachiness, she had the extra cachet of being kid sister to high school Y star Kate Rawberry. So any Blue Meanies that tried getting in Kris’s way this time had better watch out or they’d be sorry!
Yet this didn’t mean their quintet was dissolving into five soloists. Obviously they’d still have school together, presuming they remained in the same class for fourth grade and beyond. No matter where any of them might go, they would always be Peach-pinned sisters of the Nectarine sorority. And in the meantime they were on a spring vacation sleepover: pass the Filbert’s root beer and don’t hog the Screaming Yellow Zonkers!
(Such fare was practically contraband at Sarah-Jill’s, thus all the more delicious.)
The Shapiros lived on Favell Avenue, a side street between Brunt and Van Hopper, in a house with many shelves on the walls and books on the shelves and artwork hanging on any remaining open spaces. Vicki came over here a bit oftener than the other Peaches, since her mother and Sarah-Jill’s had become close friends. Millie Shapiro was a very intent, serious-minded person with even less sense of humor than her daughter (to whom you sometimes had to explain jokes); but “she’s the sort you can really have a cup of coffee and chat with,” according to Felicia. They drank many intent cups and had many serious-minded chats, here and at the Walrock walkup and even—to general Volester astonishment—at the Unitarian church every Sunday morning.
“It’s not like organized religion at all. No dogma, no superstition, just a rational chance to hear good profound talk about issues and ethics once a week. I find it inspiring.”
Vicki fell asleep the only time she was inveigled into accompanying her mother. She dozed off during a sermon on the dangers of nuclear testing, delivered by a big bald Unitarian who grabbed far less attention than the bigger, balder, professional wrestler who played an atomic mutant in The Beast of Yucca Flats. Which the sleepover girls were currently watching on a TV in the Shapiros’s enclosed sunroom.
“Look,” said their hostess, “even if Russian spies could get that near to a bomb blast, there’s no way it’d make them want to go around strangling people.”
“It was in the olden days. Radiation did funny things to people.”
“Probably Russians most of all.”
Kris, imitating the narrator: “Kill, just to be killing.”
“Okay then, why’d he carry that lady into the desert after he choked her?”
“She’s gonna be his lunch. He’s a cannibal atomic mutant.”
Stomp stomp stomp on the sunroom ceiling. Which would’ve caused high-pitched shrieks had the movie been scarier, or the stomper some unknown potential maniac instead of Sarah-Jill’s brother Garrett. Whose bedroom was right above the sunroom, and in which he was trying to play chess with an equally uncrushworthy chum.
But the Peaches were unbudgeable. They intended to spend the entire night in the enclosed sunroom, despite the changeable April weather. Snow one day, seventies the next: not so much spring as “springlike.” Both cotton and flannel PJs had been recommended, and the girls might end up burrowed into sleeping bags or sprawled carefreely atop them. It was practically like camping out.
Bored with The Beast of Yucca Flats, they snapped off the TV and turned on the radio, at a volume calculated to irritate Garrett but not provoke more stomps. The “Theme from Love Story” filled the sunroom, making the girls decide to tell each other’s romantic fortunes if they could figure out how.
“I wish you had a Ouija board. I shoulda brought mine.”
“Those things are so phony,” said Sarah-Jill. “What we need is a deck of Tarot cards. Those are scientific.”
“Oh are not!”
“Are too! I’ve read about them—they ‘tap into your subconscious mind’ and can show you future influences you don’t even know you have yet.”
“Well,” said Vicki, “I hope they don’t show any of us marrying anyone like my Gross Uncle Doug!”
(Laughter, squeals and ewws.)
“How ‘bout your Cute Cousin Miles?”
“Don’t everybody look at me,” Brenda growled through a mouthful of Zonkers.
“The only future influence I want is to make me a ballerina,” Vicki continued. “Or some kind of dancer, anyway.”
“Whoops!” went Kris. “After you get all curvy like Tricia, who knows where you might dance! I might have to raid the place when I’m a policewoman!”
“You know your mom’ll never let you be that,” said Hayley as Kris ducked a Vicki-flung pillow.
“She might if I can dress nice—y’know, like Eve on Ironside. I’ll be a detective in slinky outfits that’ll solve more mysteries than Nancy Drew.”
“With Nessie as your Scooby-Doo!”
“Then I’ll come to the prison and probe your criminals’s brains,” said Sarah-Jill.
“You wanna be a shrink?”
“They’re called ‘psychiatrists,’ Brenda.”
“But that’d mean hanging around crazy people all the time,” Vicki objected.
“Well, if they’re dangerous, they’d be kept behind a glass wall so I could observe them from a distance.”
“Um...” said Hayley, “are all the windows in here locked? I thought I heard a noise outside just now.”
The girls leaped up and peeked behind the sunroom curtains, half-expecting to see an atomic mutant scrabble at the windowpanes.
“Anyway,” said Kris after this menace was dealt with, “we’re surrounded by crazy dangerous people every day at school. Dunk Gunderson sure belongs behind a glass wall.”
“Him and that water pistol he fills with spit.”
“Him, that water pistol, and Melissa Chiese too. You could probe their brains and maybe find a pill or shot to cure their evilness.”
“Or just suck out the air and let them suffocate.”
“You guys,” Hayley chided. “Well, when I grow up—I know this doesn’t sound Women’s Liberation-y—what I really wanna be is a wife and mother, with lots ‘n’ lots of kids. But” (brave wobble-voice) “if that doesn’t happen, I’d like to be a teacher like Miss Steinfeldt. I’d still get to work with children—and get a fresh new bunch every year.”
“Hunh,” went Brenda. “Whatever kind of job I get, it’s gotta make me lots ‘n’ lots of money. I’m serious! With that, you can buy pretty much anything else you want.”
No sooner said than Bobby Sherman began singing “Cried Like a Baby” on the radio, and four of the sleepover girls let out a single soulful moan.
“So help me, you guys, I will fracture all your jawbones!!”
“Keep it down down there!” shouted Garrett from on high.
“Down doobie-doo down down,” Kris responded; and the rest of the Peaches rose to help bellow “BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DOO-OO” at the sunroom ceiling.
Next morning Vicki was surprised to be collected from Sarah-Jill’s by her entire household, in the Olds Eighty-Eight whose trade-in was slated to be Ozzie’s very first act as Leader of the Lot.
“Are we going someplace? I haven’t really washed yet.”
“Yuggggh, I can tell!” went Goofus, mock-recoiling against Tricia, who shoved him back Vickiward and said, “Gran’s freaking out.”
“Patricia Elaine, that is not true,” remarked Felicia. “Your grandparents are simply having a minor disagreement—”
“‘Minor,’” went Ozzie.
“—that we’re going over to help straighten out. So I would appreciate no more of that talk.”
“(You two—trade places)” Tricia told her siblings. An order promptly executed, though not without yugghs by Goofus and a “You’re the one who needs a bath” from Vicki. Who then breathed “So what is it?” in Tricia’s ear, and got murmur-told that Diamond Joel wanted to sell the lox-colored cottage and buy a condo on Fiddler Key, down on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Not a syllable of which Gran agreed with or would open purse strings to enable.
“They’re gonna move?”
“Gran won’t,” whispered Tricia. “And if she doesn’t, Dime can’t. And if he doesn’t...” Significant green eye-roll toward the front seat, in which Ozzie was very silent.
The lox-colored cottage looked the same as always. Too early yet for Gran’s roses or rhododendrons, but the yellow forsythias were in bright blossom. They found Diamond Joel crouched beside his garage workbench, polishing a collection of vintage hood ornaments.
“This far away I’ve gotten,” he informed them. “By the end of the year I’ll maybe reach the end of the block.”
“Where do you think? Where else would she be? Never leaving the house, she says. ‘In a box you’ll have to carry me out, Sssmelz,’ she hisses—”
“Dad, please! Not in front of the—”
“The hood ornaments. There you are right, Funnyface: why should they have to listen? You, Boychik, climb up on that stool and I will show you objects of wonder from cars that are no more. The rest of you, see what you can do. Just say that otherwise I start shopping for a box to carry her out in!”
“She loves roses so much, I’ll carry her to Rosehill!”
Which was a place from which you were not carried back.
Into the cottage then: Vicki seeing her father wrap an arm around her mother’s waist. Hearing her barely-audible lament, “He hasn’t called me that in years.” Taking an obedient seat in the empty living room, on what Gran always referred to as the cowtzz. Sensing a gentle knock on the sewing room door; a tentative twist of its knob; a minor-key opening-creak.
Trying to engage in further speculation with a tuned-out Tricia. Watching her flip through Look magazine and glance at her watch again and again. Deciding to go have a good scrub in the bathroom, at the same pink-sink site of her early hygiene education:
Wasss your hands first, Miss, then they will be clean when you wasss your face.
Doing a thorough job on both. Wringing out cloth and towel borrowed from the mint-condition linen cupboard. Hanging them carefully over the rod to dry. Heading out to be confronted by emerald glare in the hall.
“You try,” said Tricia.
Glancing left and right. “Where’s Mommy and Daddy?”
“He’s out in the garage. She’s lying down on the couch. You go talk to Gran. You were always her favorite.”
This was news to Vicki, who started trembling.
“Hey!” (Brief shake of her shoulder.) “Where’s my brave little sister?”
“Who’s my brave little sister?”
(Absent pat.) “So go talk to her. And don’t take all day about it—this is supposed to be spring vacation. If they do move to Florida, we can go visit them; remind her of that.”
Trudge to the sewing room on brave little wobble-feet. Knock three times, like the song said: therein lies the charm.
“Good morning, Victoria.”
There in her customary chair, needle and thread in hand, tending to the mending.
“Are—are you okay, Gran?”
“I would say well, Miss—not ‘okay.’ Come sit here by me, and drape thett sweater over your sssoulders if you feel a tzill.”
“Why else would you tremble? Emm I so scary an old lady?”
Vicki tried to think calming thoughts. “Um... does Dime really want to move to Florida?”
“Your grenndfather thinks thett’s what he wants. It is a pleasant place to visit—in the winter—with lovely flowers we kennot grow here. But he does not need to see them all the year round.”
“So... will you talk him out of it?”
“Oh, he will go—there is no question about thett. His mind is made up, and there will be no tzanging it. Never once, not since I first knew him, when he won me.”
Confused image of a raffle prize. “He what?”
“Won me. Why, I do not know. Not then—not now. I was thirty, and not a beauty. Not like Raytzzel, my sister. Espesssily when she dennced.”
(Needle, thread, mending set aside.)
“How I wisss you could’ve seen her, Victoria—like a bird ssee could fly. You, I think, may do the same someday; already you do a little. I wattz you on the stage, and sometimes see Raytzzel when ssee was young.”
They sat quietly awhile, watching feather-lightness scarcely touch the ground.
“When... when was the last time you saw her for real?”
(Needle and thread back in hand; buttons back on shirt.)
“Forty years. My femmily said: ‘If you marry this Galitzer, you are dead to us.’ I did not believe it. He hedd won me, so—! I did marry him. Waited awhile, then wrote letters. All returned unopened, so—! I wrote no more. Heard no more. Did not essk.”
“Um... what’s a Galitzer, Gran?”
“Old country foolisssness. ‘Litvak’ nonsense. Many things they could hevv said against your grenndfather, but that was what they tzose? Absurd.”
(One shirt finished; another taken up.)
“What thett menn does to his buttons... Your mother came in just now, a little girl again: ‘Dedd called me ‘Funnyface.’ When I was a girl, Raytzzel was ‘the pretty one’—I, ‘the smart one.’ Then when I hedd daughters, I said this would not heppen to mine. But no use telling your grenndfather thett: to him your mother is always ‘the smart one’—Frenntzzesca, ‘the pretty one.’” (Heavy sigh.)
“‘N’ now it’s me ‘n’ Tricia,” Vicki said forlornly. “‘Cept she’s the smart and pretty one.”
Fierce turn upon her then, with eyes like speeding bullets.
“Never believe thett, Miss! Never let me hear you say those words again. You are too smart a girl, Victoria, to think sutz things.”
Wan wobble-smile from Victoria. “What about too pretty?...”
Enfolded in her grandmother’s arms. Or arm, till the needle and thread and button and shirt were discarded; then arms.
Not too. Just right.
I don’t want you to go!
Whatever happens, I will not. When you are a grown-up lady, and have worries or problems or doubts, tell yourself that “Gran can see what I see, and hear what I hear.” And then you will know what to do.
I will. I promise.
As do I, my darling.
After awhile they sat apart, and made use of handkerchiefs from Gran’s ample supply.
(Another sigh.) “I suppose we must start to think about pecking.”
Renewed confusion. “Peck—packing? You mean to move? Are you sure, Gran?”
“Now I emm. We all need to cry a little from time to time. It clears the head like rain does the air.”
“Oh... Tricia said I should remind you we can come visit you, in Florida.”
“Mmm. Your sister Patrissa is a smart girl. But you are a good girl, Victoria.”
They looked slowly round the sewing room.
“I believe I heard your grenndfather offer to go sssopping for boxes. Let us see how many we kenn make him buy! If I must go to Fiddler Key, I intend to leave nothing behind. Nothing,” she reiterated, her starry black eyes resting upon Vicki.
A couple of Passovers later, Diamond Joel brought Ruth Sennmann Schmelz back from Florida to The City, and buried her in Rosehill on a springlike day.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2010-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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