Utopia

 

Utopia

By Annie Lubliner Lehmann

 

The worst part of dying,   Hanna thought as she settled into the theater’s cool darkness, was never again being able to watch a movie. It was hard to imagine, all of Hollywood, gone from the screen forever.  

Since her uncle’s funeral, the first she’d ever been to, Hanna hadn’t been able to stop thinking about what it would be like to be in a wooden box, alone, so deep in the dark ground. Nothing to watch. No one to talk to. Forever and ever. 
 
“He’s finished. Gone,” everyone said. But Hanna had a hard time believing that Uncle Abe couldn’t hear the dirt as it landed, loud thuds, on his coffin. It all seemed so unreal.
 
On the drive back from the cemetery, she’d noticed that “Move Over, Darling” was still playing at the Utopia Theatre. She’d seen the Doris Day romp about a woman who, believed to be dead, resurfaces in time for her husband’s nuptials to someone new. But Hanna often saw movies more than once, especially if they starred her favorite actress.
 
“Get out a little, mamele, her mother had encouraged earlier in the day when she’d gone downstairs. She hadn’t left the shiva house since Thursday.
 
“Others will watch the boys,” her mother assured her. “Go, maybe to see that show with the Que Sera, Sera lady.”
 
Her mother knew that movies were Hanna’s heaven — that she never could get enough of the blond-haired, blue-eyed actress, so different from the adults who otherwise peopled her life.
 
Hanna walked the streets of the neighborhood she’d gotten to know well in recent months, having spent almost all of her free time helping Aunt Dora with the boys. She thought about her cousins, Leiby and Sy, as she passed the apartment buildings and row houses with grill-fronted storm doors and lines of cars parked fender to fender, interrupted only for driveways or hydrants. Nothing changes, she thought, even when someone dies.  
 
“It’s almost over,” the woman in the Utopia Theatre ticket booth said, an open tabloid and half-eaten chocolate bar beside her.
 
“Doesn’t matter,” Hanna said to the woman who was obviously annoyed by the interruption and the need to make change.
 
The lobby was tired and sad-looking, especially with only half the sconces working. Hanna was unaccustomed to seeing a movie theatre so empty, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The scent of popcorn and the waxy feel of grease hung in the air. Gauzy strands of her long dark hair had escaped the gold barrette that winked in the concession stand lighting. “She’s getting to be a dark beauty, like my mother,” she’d heard her father whisper when she got off the bus from summer camp. Hanna paused in front of the baroque mirror, handcombing and rebarreting her hair.
 
Inside the theatre, Hanna stepped carefully between the rows, the sticky residue of spilled soda and dropped candy underfoot. She’d never gone to a movie alone before but didn’t mind, was even pleased by this new independence. 
 
She unwrapped one of the caramels she’d brought from home and popped it into her mouth. Running her tongue over the thick tracks of her braces, she reminded herself not to bite down. 
 
On the screen, Doris Day and James Garner embraced, and a tightness tugged at her middle. “You’re becoming a woman,” her mother had said earlier that morning when she’d complained that her dress had become too small. Such comments had become constant since Hanna was thirteen and still without her period.
 
All alone at the Utopia, Hanna couldn’t take her eyes off the illuminated screen, that beacon in the darkness, leading her to a place where nothing mattered.
 
 
*
 
 
Uncle Abe had been soft-spoken and gentle, a man of few words, with ears that stuck out and a hairline that was fuller than that of most men his age. He radiated kindness, yet the thick yellowing lenses on his plastic glasses made him look bug-eyed, cartoonish.
 
He spent long hours at the sweater factory he partly owned, a dusty mill with noisy machines that worked around the clock. Hanna had visited once with Leiby. She remembered the conical spools of colored wool mounted high on a merry-go-round-like feeder, the strands meeting in a central weaver that generated knit fabric. Sewing machines and large worktables were strewn with buttons and tags. Silvaneers, Leiby called them as he pocketed a few.
 
But that’s all Hanna really knew about her uncle. What happened “before America,” for him and for the rest of her family, was rarely talked about.
 
Hanna never knew what it was like to call someone “Grandma” or “Grandpa,” to have family members who spoke perfect English or had all their teeth. There were no photographs, not even one, of the people she and her cousins were named for. Anything that might have been passed down — candlesticks, linens, a wedding band — was as disappeared as the people who’d once possessed them.
 
Asking questions was considered cruel, and whenever Hanna did, her mother would fold her arms, tight across her chest, as if she were cold.
 
“We lived through it — that was enough,” Hanna’s father would say, defending his wife’s need for privacy. It was as though uttering the words, bringing the people and events into the light, forced her mother to remember what she struggled to forget.
 
Still, Hanna knew why her mother was terrified of barking dogs and hated clothes with vertical stripes; why, pointing at vegetable peels in the trash she would say, “What a delicious soup that could make.” And why, in the middle of the night, she’d overhear her parents speaking softly, without turning on the lights.
 
So, when, out of the blue, her mother began talking about how Uncle Abe had survived, Hanna was surprised. “Two years he lived in a chimney,” her mother explained, “hidden by a Polish farmer.”
 
How could that be? Hanna wondered.  How could he sleep? What about a bathroom? Maybe her mother used the word “chimney” but meant something else. She often confused English words.
 
“Uncle Abe is sick, very sick,” Hanna’s mother told her.
 
It’s true; he’d been quieter than usual. And a leather recliner, a black behemoth under which half the den disappeared, had been delivered.
 
“What’s wrong with him?” Hanna asked.
 
Hanna’s older sister Sara walked in excitedly, holding the mail.
 
Yenna machleh,” her mother continued in Yiddish.
 
Sara’s expression changed when she heard the conversation. “He has cancer,” she said, her nostrils flaring.
 
Zah shtill,” her mother said.
 
“Why is everything in this family a secret? Tell her, Mommy,” Sara said.
 
“Quiet,” her mother repeated angrily.
 
“He’s dying,” Sara said.
 
“Is that true? Is he gonna die?” Hanna asked.
 
“Everyone dies,” her mother said, avoiding her gaze.
 
“But what’s gonna happen to Aunt Dora and the boys?”
 
“They’ll go on,” she said, her voice catching. “There’s no choice. I had to. They have to.”
 
“C’mon, Hanna. Don’t you know? That’s what they do in our family. They survive.”
 
Hanna began to cry, afraid and unsure of what to do.
 
“We have to pray,” Hanna’s mother continued, pulling a tissue from her cuffed sleeve.
 
Sara bolted out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She hadn’t bothered to share the news that among the letters she was holding was her acceptance to Cornell, her first-pick college.
 
 
*
 
 
Hanna was six when Leiby was born.
 
Many of her friends had younger siblings, and, often, when she returned from playing at their houses, she’d pester her mother about having another baby.  “Please,” she’d whine.
 
So no one was surprised by Hanna’s excitement when she learned Aunt Dora was expecting.
 
“When? When? When’ll it be born?” she asked, jumping around breathlessly.
 
“Before the summer,” Aunt Dora said, flipping the pages of a calendar with Stein Insurance printed on the front. Day five in the month of June was circled in red.
 
More than six months to wait, Hanna learned, the same kind of “forever” she’d endured until yet another birthday or summer finally came around.
 
“You can’t rush these things,” her aunt explained. “The baby comes when it’s grown and ready.” She tacked the promotional calendar low on Hanna’s bedroom wall.
 
“Is it okay if I pray for a girl?” Hanna asked.
 
 “Just pray for gezunt, healthy,” she answered, leaning over to kiss Hanna’s forehead.
   
When Leiby arrived, all but the calendar’s last day of May were X’ed in black marker.
 
“Come meet our new baby,” Aunt Dora waved Hanna over.
 
She was shy, nervous about meeting her new boy cousin.
 
The baby, wrapped in the yellow zigzag blanket crocheted by Hanna’s mother, had swollen eyes, patchy wisps of hair and skin that was mottled and rouged. Nothing like what Hanna imagined.
 
“Do you want to hold him?” 
 
Hanna nodded.
 
“Wash your hands, and I’ll show you how,” she said, patting the bed beside her. Aunt Dora lowered him into her arms and demonstrated how Hanna should cup her hand to support the baby’s head.
 
He opened his eyes.
 
“He’s looking at you!” Aunt Dora said, smiling with amusement.
 
He smelled sweet and felt warm; his squirming was so like the stirring Hanna had felt when she’d press her hand against Aunt Dora’s swollen belly.
 
“What’s his name?”
 
“Not yet. By the bris everyone finds out. Remember?” Aunt Dora explained.
 
Eight days later, he was named Leib David, the “new” baby of the family, a title Hanna happily relinquished.
 
 
*
 
 
Every Sunday, Aunt Dora hosted her two sisters and their families in the house she and Uncle Abe bought after Leiby was born. “A perfect fit,” Hanna’s mother would often say, admiring how intuitive Hanna was in handling her infant cousin. Sara preferred to stay home, but Hanna’s mother wouldn’t hear of it. “Family is family.”
 
Dora enjoyed the chaos, liked putting out small fires and feeding the forever-hungry troops. There were twelve family members until Sy, the last of them, was born.
 
The sisters spoke every day, yet on these Sunday visits the chatter from the kitchen was ongoing — oscillating voices filled with emotion. In the den, the spouses passed around sections of the Sunday paper, checking their watches periodically as though they had important appointments to keep.
 
When weather allowed, the cousins played outside, coming in to use the bathroom or for drinks. During the winter months, they stayed indoors, pairing up to play cards, board games or   organizing shows, singing and dancing to rock ‘n roll music from a cheap transistor radio Aunt Dora had received for opening a bank account.
 
For dinner, they’d walk or drive to the kosher deli, with its bottomless bowls of pickles and coleslaw. The adults ordered zoup, thick meat sandwiches and a variety of knishes; the kids —hot dogs and fries.
 
“Maybe you should eat some French fries with your ketchup,” Aunt Sonya would tease.  
 
Afterwards, they’d exchange goodbye hugs and kisses, and each family would head home. Hanna would sit in the backseat of the car with her sister, listening to her parent’s conversations, watching her father reach for her mother’s hand at stoplights. Or she might lie back, transfixed by the constantly changing view of the sky from the rear window.
 
As they got older, Hanna was the only cousin who continued going with her parents to Aunt Dora’s. She liked playing big sister to Leiby, bringing him library books on planets and cars, working on large intricate puzzles that were put out of harm’s way between visits.
 
Before he became sick, Uncle Abe would sometimes take the two of them out for donuts. Hanna would walk down the avenue holding Leiby’s hand, under the elevated train, past merchants tending their produce stands and small crowds of pedestrians hurrying by. They’d make a game of not stepping on pavement cracks, and when trains thundered overhead, they’d cover their ears, defying the deafening noise, silly with laughter.
 
“Not in the street!” Uncle Abe yelled if Leiby chased pigeons too close to the curb. And once they could smell the coffee and cinnamon from the donut shop, Hanna and Leiby would take off in a race that Hanna always allowed him to win.
 
“Pick whichever one you want,” Uncle Abe offered, eyeing the doughy rows of chocolate, powdered, sprinkled and glazed.
 
“I can’t see,” Leiby would complain, after which Uncle Abe would lift him high over the counter.          
 
After a few minutes of discussion and feigned indecision, Leiby would ask for chocolate and change his mind the minute Hanna ordered hers with colored sprinkles. “I want that too,” he’d whine, as if he’d nearly been cheated.  
 
Uncle Abe ordered coffee, black, which he paired with a cigarette that rode his lower lip when he spoke.
 
Leiby was more interested in spinning on the backless counter stools than eating donuts.
 
“C’mon,” Hanna said, sliding the milk-filled paper cup closer to him. “Drink your milk and eat your donut, or I will.”  
 
“Let’s get dizzy,” Leiby insisted, spinning on his stool.
 
That’s when Uncle Abe would place a handful of uncounted change on the counter and say, “Time to go.”
 
Once Uncle Abe got sick, everything changed.
 
He stopped going to work and often wore a dark robe, his white, veiny legs sticking out like blanched stems. He was thin to start, but with each passing week the huge dark recliner seemed to swallow more of him. He’d doze on the chair, slack-jawed and snoring in fits and starts, surrounded by untouched newspapers and teabags dried to the sides of stained cups. Get well cards from Leiby’s classmates were scotch-taped on the wall. The television that no one watched was always on.
 
Dinners at the deli became a thing of the past. Instead, Aunt Dora simmered meaty stews and thick soups in an attempt to whet her husband’s appetite. The phone that, for a time, rang endlessly with well-wishers and information seekers was taken off the hook. Dora had no desire to discuss the nightmare she was living.  
 
Hanna’s father took Abe to an out-of-state clinic, and returned looking beat up, hopeless. “Kill me before you let me go through what he’s going through,” he said to Hanna’s mother, whose only sleep came from the pills she’d begun taking again.
 
Uncle Abe, Hanna understood, would soon become another ghost her parents whispered about behind closed doors.
 
Whatever free time Hanna had, she spent mostly with Leiby, who at times seemed as lost as his father was sick. Sometimes it was hard for Hanna to stay cheerful, with the house so weighted with grief.
 
Leiby, whose first word was “Da,” spent the last months ignoring the man he once believed could do no wrong. But he had questions, lots of them, none to do with his father. “Are there tornadoes in New York? How do airplanes fly? Is there a real Candy Land?”
 
And when Leiby had trouble sleeping, he’d call Hanna on the phone, asking her to tell him her made-up stories about jazz-playing cats and enchanted helicopters. Hanna did her best to distract him from the knockout punch headed for his soft middle.
 
One Sunday, Leiby tore apart an elaborate puzzle, near completion, while Hanna was in the bathroom.
 
“Why’d you do that?” she asked.
 
He didn’t answer.
 
“Ruin something we worked so hard on.”
 
He struck her arm.
 
“Well, now you’re gonna have to clean it up.”
 
“You can’t make me.”
 
“C’mon, Leiby. We’ll do it together,” she said, starting to lose patience.
 
“Shut up, you stupid. You freak. I hate you!”
 
She was silent.
 
The words surprised her, but not as much as the appearance of Uncle Abe. He stood by the door.  “I hear woids like that again mister, and your mouth, I will vash out mit soap,” he warned feebly.
 
 
*
 
 
When they returned home from the cemetery, Leiby exited the car in an eager surge, racing ahead, the band aid on his knee flapping as he leapt up the brick steps. A tray table with a filled water pitcher had been set up at the entryway.
 
The door was open; inside the air was thick with the smells of oniony salads and smoked fish. The entry mirror was covered with a rose-petaled bed sheet, faded and marked with ironed folds. It was unseasonably hot for early November and, even with the first-floor windows opened wide, the house felt like an airless box.
 
Stacked folding chairs crowded the front hall, and two piles of blue prayer books were on the dining room table. A candle glowed in a tall tubular glass, a jadeite saucer beside it, dotted with coins. A card written in curly European script, read tzedaka.
 
Aunt Dora stepped out of the bathroom, her hair dark and face damp.
 
“Where’s Mommy?” Hanna asked her.
 
“In the kitchen with Aunt Sonya.”  
 
Standing at the counter, decorating a cheese platter with radish rosettes, Hanna’s mother waved her over. “Good, you’re back,” she said, craning her neck to kiss Hanna’s forehead. “Dora won’t eat. Maybe if you offer her something. . .” She pointed to the cake cooling on the counter.
 
Everyone knew that Hanna was Dora’s favorite, the niece who was like the daughter she’d never had.
 
Before Leiby was born, Aunt Dora would ride the subway from her Bronx apartment to babysit Hanna in Brooklyn, her purse always stuffed with surprises. Bubbles. Bank deposit slips. Lollipops. Makeup.
 
Dora wasn’t much younger than Hanna’s mother, but she was youthful in her manner and beautiful, with thick tufts of dark hair she kept off her face with sharp-toothed combs. She smelled flowery, delicious, and her lips, which were painted red, matched the color of her lacquered nails.
 
“Let me polish your nails,” she’d say when she arrived and set up a small artillery of glass bottles, cotton balls and nail polish remover on the kitchen table. Hanna would soak her tomboy hands in sudsy water, after which her aunt would file and color her square nubs.
 
Or they would cook together, make latkes even though it was spring. Dora would hum softly as she worked; she’d have Hanna crack and mix in the eggs and add unmeasured quantities of matzo meal, salt and pepper. They’d spend the afternoon preparing the greasy potato cakes and eat them with sour cream and applesauce, leaving a plateful for her parents and sister.
 
When it was time for Aunt Dora to say goodbye, Hanna would beg her to stay.
 
“Don’t cry,” Dora would urge, refilling a saucer with milk they put out for neighborhood strays. “I’m going to get a magical straw that’s so long you can be in your house and drink a glass of milk from mine,” she’d tell her. Or, “I’m going to buy shoes so big that it will take only one step for me to get to you from my place.” 
 
Now her aunt sagged in the low-to-the-ground mourner’s stool, staring blankly at the dining room breakfront.
 
“Mrs. Berger brought you apple cake,” Hanna said, as she handed her aunt a plated slice along with a cup of coffee she’d prepared, the way her aunt liked it, milky and sweet.
 
“Thanks, maydele,” Dora said, fingering her torn collar, a symbol, the rabbi had said, of the husband “ripped” from her life.
 
Hanna knew Aunt Dora didn’t care for the young, clean-shaven rabbi, so different from the dark, bearded holy men she’d grown up with in Poland.
 
Dora reached for Hanna’s hand as Mrs. Berger approached. “I know you like my cake,” she said, eyeing Dora’s plate.
 
“I do, and the boys do too,” she said, struggling to swallow the bite she’d taken. “One day I’ll have to get your recipe.”  
 
“I wouldn’t give it to no one,” Mrs. Berger answered, leaning in close, “but to you, I’ll give it.” “The trick is the apples shouldn’t be too zour, and they should be cut dinchik,” holding up two fingers to show her just how thin. “Also, you need to mix them out with a bisl of flour,” again she used her fingers to demonstrate a pinch, “so they shouldn’t sink to the bottom.”
 
Dora nodded, though Hanna could tell she wasn’t listening.
 
Gloria, the cheek-pinching gossip everyone knew to stay quiet around, was coming over. “Hannaleh — look at you,” she said, sizing her up. “You’ve gotten zo big.”Her eyes rested on Hanna’s chest. 
 
Scary-looking, Hanna thought, eyeing the thick-as-frosting makeup that stained Gloria’s collar.  
 
“Soon you’ll be a kale moyd . . .”
 
She’d just turned thirteen and the woman was talking about her getting married?
 
Dora interrupted.  “Hanna, go get Leiby and bring him down. I want him to eat something.”
 
Hanna was grateful for Aunt Dora’s rescue.
 
“Such a good goil,” she heard Gloria say; the words, Hanna knew, as phony as the blond color of her hair.
 
 
*
 
 
Leiby was in the master bedroom upstairs with the rest of the cousins. Plates of half-eaten food, crumpled napkins and sweating glasses disturbed the smooth coating of dust that had settled atop the dark wood dresser. The room was hot, musty.
 
“You need to open a window in here,” Hanna said, walking over to the curtained frame. After three hard pushes, the sash gave way, a swirl of dust riding the sunlight.  In the nightstand’s half-opened drawer beneath, Uncle Abe’s cigarette lighter gleamed, metal in a small sea of plastic pill bottles.
 
Sara dozed on the unmade queen bed, her dark-framed glasses askew. Sy, asleep beside her, had his thumb in his mouth and sweaty curls plastered his forehead. Sam, Aunt Sonya’s eldest, played cards with Leiby on the floor. The television was on. Soap opera music crescendoed. No one moved. 
 
“Go fish,” Leiby said, running his free hand over the kitten, a family addition he had yet to name.
 
“Mommy wants you to eat something,” Hanna said. “Finish your game and we’ll go downstairs.”
 
“I don’t want to,” he whined.
 
Sam’s sisters were in the bathroom laughing. Hairspray hissed.
 
“I know you don’t, but people brought cake and candies. You can have some, but first you have to eat.”
 
“No.”
 
“C’mon, Leiby. Mommy wants you.”
 
“I don’t care what Mommy wants.”
 
“I’ll go too,” Sam offered.  
 
Again, Leiby shouted, “No,” startling the kitten.
 
Please, no tantrums now, Hanna thought.
 
Leiby threw his cards.
 
“Remember what I told you?”
 
There was no answer.
 
“Remember the charm?” Hanna tried again.
 
“We’ll take the kitten with us,” Sam offered.
 
“You can’t,” Sara said, raising her head sleepily. “It’s too crowded downstairs. But I’ll watch her,” she said, adjusting her glasses and sliding off the bed.
 
Sy stirred.
 
Sara cradled the kitten, promising Leiby she’d be fine. 
 
Hanna and Sam grew annoyed waiting for Leiby to finally scramble to his feet. And as they neared the top of the stairwell, Hanna reached for Leiby’s hand, which he refused to give.
 
 
*
 
 
Chesed Shel Emet was one in a long line of cemeteries on Long Island.
 
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Hanna observed, worrying about how many would drive more than an hour to visit her uncle.  
 
Aunt Dora had been unsure about bringing the children to the funeral. Leiby, almost seven-and-a-half, understood what was happening, but Hanna’s mother insisted that Sy, at nineteen months, did not belong at a levaya. Aunt Dora didn’t argue. She didn’t have the energy. But Hanna watched as she hugged the toddler tightly before getting into the car, as though her aunt wished she could absorb the sorrow she knew that the child would one day feel. When she handed him back to the sitter, his screams, Hanna could tell, tore through Aunt Dora like a shot.
 
 “Cemeteries are no place for babies,” Hanna’s mother reassured her.
 
No one else in the car spoke.
 
Rows of headstones in varied shapes and sizes were embossed with Hebrew words and stars of David. Hanna did the math and figured out that Sybil Lerner had lived seventy-seven years, and Herman Ginsberg, ninety-two. She stopped the subtraction game, however, when she saw a sleeping angel on a small headstone that read Arthur Schott, beloved son, 1959-1961.
 
The place was green and flat, with towering cranes and industrial smokestacks in the distance. The group gathered around the deep rectangular hole, earlier prepared, and waited for the coffin to be unloaded. Curious, Hanna caught herself stepping too close to one of the edges.
 
“Participating in a burial,” the rabbi explained, “represents the ultimate kindness. The deceased can never repay you.” People were solemn, silent.
 
The coffin was made of plain pine wood, the kind Hanna had seen stacked in front of hardware stores.
 
“Even Moses died,” she kept telling herself as the box was lowered into the ground, the pulleys squeaking. The words were a comfort, a mantra she’d created in third grade when she’d first learned about Moses.
 
“He parts seas, talks with God and then dies? It makes no sense,” she’d told her teacher, Rabbi Jacobs.
 
“Bodies are vessels for God’s work and are meant to be here temporarily. In the world to come — oylem habe — souls find eternity.” 
 
She nodded but didn’t buy it, this place that no one could touch or see. But now, strangely, the thought that Moses had died made her less afraid.
 
Dora shoveled first. She was limp, empty and unable to withdraw the weighty tool from the dirt.  Hanna’s father helped.  
 
Men and women lined up, took turns shoveling, the younger men doing the bulk of the work. Once the grave was filled, Kaddish was recited and the crowd formed two rows through which Aunt Dora and Leiby passed.
 
“May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” they said together. Hanna felt like an outsider rather than a participant.
 
“Me and Sonya are going ahead with Dora,” Hanna’s mother told her as they washed their hands in the strange fountain with multiple faucets. “Leiby wants to ride in Daddy’s new car anyway, so he’ll go with you. Okay?”
 
Hanna nodded. A stranger stepped from behind.
 
“Ella.”
 
“Ignatz?” Hanna’s mother said as she embraced the man with a newsboy cap. “You drove all the way from Toronto?”
 
“I couldn’t believe it when I hoid.” His eyes welled. “God let’s him out fin Hitler and then kills him right away off? Mit kleyne kinder nokh?”
 
“I know,” she said. “Babies.”
 
“How can this be?”  
 
“How should I answer you? Tell me. I would like such an answer,” Hanna’s mother said.
 
“There are none,” he said, blowing his nose into a crumpled handkerchief.
 
“Did Itka come too?”
 
“Over there,” he said, pointing to his wife.
 
“Let’s talk later by the house. You know where Dora lives?”
 
He wrote the address she gave on a ripped piece of Yiddish newspaper that announced Uncle Abe’s obituary.
 
Hanna’s mother got into the back seat of Sonya’s car with her two sisters. Seeing the three of them lined up in the back window reminded Hanna of what Aunt Dora had once told her: “One day I vas the baby, the yingest fin zibn, and the next day all that I had left vas my two sisters.”
 
As the car pulled away, Hanna couldn’t help but think of those lost relatives, never buried and for whom no one sat shiva.
 
 
*
 
 
The crowd had thinned by the time Hanna returned from the movie. She felt removed, like an intruder, watching as people spooned food onto their plates, ate and talked as though nothing had changed. And really, for most of them nothing had. They’d lost a friend, a co-worker, a card player, a nice fellow they’d see from time to time. But these people, who spoke with thick accents, some with tattooed numbers on their arms, had been accustomed to people disappearing and never coming back.
 
“Are you okay?” Hanna’s mother asked, acknowledging her daughter’s return.
 
“I’m fine,” she said, thinking about the movie she’d just seen and how she could replay parts in her head in an endless loop, forever.
        
Mrs. Zelig entered the room in a fog of perfume, a Carvel cone of a hairdo and in heels so high that every step looked like a wobbly attempt not to fall.
 
“Come in,” Dora said warmly.  She never judged.
 
Someone got up from the couch so Mrs. Zelig could sit.
 
Sara was chatting in the corner and you could hear Sy banging his spoon on the high chair tray in the kitchen. Hanna wondered who was feeding him.
 
“You’re leaving?” Hanna asked.
 
Sam had car keys in his hand. His sisters, holding their jackets, were saying goodbye to some of the people. “Our parents drove separately and they’re staying. We have school tomorrow and need to get back. Homework.”
 
“Where’s Leiby?”
 
“He was looking for you. I think upstairs. Not a happy camper.”
 
 
*
 
 
 
Leiby was asleep on his bed, the kitten beside him. A bookcase made of wood planks and cement blocks held his books, most of them passed down from the older cousins.
 
On the far wall was an Elvis poster, a gift from Sam; grease stains from a birthday party pizza marred its edge. The crayons from the big box, with the sharpener in the middle, had been dumped on the table. He’d written his name on several pieces of paper with an elaborate design — shapes in a variety of colors that didn’t touch but fit together like a Yin Yang symbol. 
 
There were random things on top of his dresser: soda bottle caps, the tags from their factory visit, a family photograph, seashells from the family vacation they’d taken in Miami Beach.
 
He’d been afraid of the ocean.
 
“Let the waves kiss your toes,” Hanna had instructed.
 
Little by little, they had made their way to the surf’s edge, on their behinds, leaving tracks in the sand.  
 
Later, he’d gotten bolder, allowing her to carry him into the water, his arms tight around her neck and his legs hugging her waist. He was sandy and smelled of suntan lotion, and as the waves carried them up and down, he kept asking to go further out. By the time the sun started to set, he didn’t want to leave. But Hanna coaxed him to shore by suggesting that they collect seashells.
 
Three old drawings were scotch-taped to the wall. Four crooked circles, supposed to be wheels, under an amoeba-shaped design, was his first drawing of a car. A smiling dog came later and a family portrait, before Sy was born, followed. Three stick figures stood alongside a house with green-curtained windows, grass, a leafy tree and a chimney spewing green curlicues of smoke. Green was his favorite color. That’s why she’d brought him the brooch.
 
It was the Sunday after the puzzle incident. “I have a surprise for you,” she’d said.
 
He was intrigued by a present that wasn’t in a box and bore no toy-company logo. It fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. “What is it?” he asked.
 
It was a broken brooch with a missing pin, a useless bauble that had been one of the surprises Aunt Dora had pulled from her purse during one of her visits. It was about the size of a quarter but as heavy as a small Hungarian plum, with a large stone the color of a lime Lifesaver in the center.
 
His hands were pudgy and unwashed, and as he examined the gift, he dug his nail into its setting, as if wanting to dislodge the stone. “What makes it green?”
 
Hanna shrugged, “Secrets maybe?”
 
“Money?” Leiby asked. “Yeah,” he decided. “A folded hundred-dollar bill.”
 
“Leiby, it’s whatever you want it to be,” Hanna said. “It’s a charm.”
 
“Like a genie in a bottle?”
 
“Yes,” she said. “Like a genie in a bottle.”
 
She heard her father leading the evening prayer service downstairs, reciting Kaddish. “Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmey rabah.” Hanna understood the words, “Exalted and sanctified be His great name,” intended as a humbling reminder that, despite the heartache of loss, God remains at the helm.
 
After gently sliding off Leiby’s shoes, she covered him, and sat in the rocking chair watching the subtle rise and fall of his chest. Leiby sighed softly as he turned over. The nameless kitten eyed Hanna with a bored expression when she got up to straighten Leiby’s blanket.
 
In his palm, Hanna saw the green brooch she had given him and, feeling like she might cry, resisted the impulse to hold him like she’d done the day after he was born. 

         

Copyright © Annie Lubliner Lehmann 2017
 
Annie Lubliner Lehmann, a freelance writer for more than 28 years, has published articles in The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. Her book, The Accidental Teacher – Life Lessons from My Silent Son, published by the University of Michigan Press, is a memoir about the challenges and lessons of raising a son with severe autism. Ms. Lubliner Lehmann resides in Michigan with her husband, is the mother of three adult children and is currently working on her first novel.


 

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