(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Ann Birstein
On Sunday afternoon Mona Milner watched the snow fall gently past her windows and transform East Sixty-sixth Street into a lovely black and white lithograph of Old New York. On Monday morning, Currier and Ives had yielded to a cold gray muck that traffic splattered on passersby, including Mona. No doubt it was foolish to walk to work every day all the way from her town house down to Mona Milner Designs in the heart of the garment district. Today in mid-November, doubly foolish. Her husband, who regularly took the car and driver, certainly thought so. But it was a habit left over from those early hectic years when as soon as she got to her office Mona would never have another quiet moment to herself. What no doubt made it triply foolish was that, since Mona was no longer designing, there were too many quiet moments—a point she immediately dropped from her mind.
Tonight, the driver would wait while they changed to go out again, to the usual charity event. At the Plaza, of course, and chaired by Sue Ridgely or some other socialite skeleton, for a cause Mona hadn’t bothered to remember—it was always a disease or global catastrophe. The cause didn’t matter. What mattered was that the Milners openly and financially supported it. Poor Lawrence who handled the business end of their company with such dispatch, hated the social demands. Increasingly. But the parties and the balls and the benefits and their names and pictures in the news were business too, she often reminded him, trying to be sympathetic. To tell the truth Mona didn’t really mind any of it. She still got a kick out of the excitement, the glamor, in a way that Larry, who was born rich, couldn’t.
At Fiftieth Street and Fifth Avenue she paused at Saks to check on the display of the Mona Milner red plaid wool suits that had also been featured in the store ad in Sunday’s Times. The department store was still closed, so she could study the effect without being jostled by customers. The suits looked even better than in the ad, the plaids vivid, the longer jackets and pleated skirts pert and kicky on the red-haired mannequins. She’d been right about the plaids—and that these suits were perfect for Mona Milner Collection. She might not still be actively designing, but she hadn’t lost her savvy. Still, maybe the suits were a bit too kicky for the women who could afford them? Maybe they should have used this style in the MM line, done in a rayon blend, instead of wool and cashmere? But the matter had already been argued back and forth between the design staff and the sales people. Besides, Saks clearly loved the look as it was. She was just edgy this morning. She was always edgy on a Monday, never knowing what calamity the week might bring. Pressures in the garment industry were unrelenting. “It’s like selling fruit,” her father, Nat Rosenfeld, a veteran in ladies wear, often said. “A business could go rotten overnight.”
If Fifth Avenue had been bad underfoot, Seventh Avenue and Thirty-third Street was hopeless, crowded and bustling and treacherous underfoot, the streets a gray moiré pattern of endless slush. The only oddly quiet note was a large bronze statue of an immigrant tailor across the street from 555 Seventh Avenue—a worn out Jew in vest and yarmulke, perpetually bent over his sewing machine. The statue made her edgy all over again. It was absurd, bizarre even, for this anachronistic figure to be sitting there, larger than life, plying his trade right out on the busy sidewalk. Okay, so he represented the historic heart and soul of the garment industry. And maybe her own grandfather, originally a tailor, had looked like that when he first came over from the old country. But times changed. Her grandfather had changed. She had never seen him dressed anything like that statue, except maybe when he was wearing a yarmulke for some kind of religious occasion. Who had put that statue up in the first place?. The ILGWU, probably, always ready to trade on nostalgia.
Inside 555 Seventh Avenue, the elevators were packed with men in heavy overcoats and females in furs. Suitable clothing for winter. Upstairs, manufacturers were heading straight into summer. The usual garment center confusion of seasons. The air was close. She was relieved when the elevator doors opened onto the calm of the Mona Milner Designs showroom. The atmosphere was soothing, reassuring, as it was intended to be. The walls a dove gray to match the silent carpeting, spotlights on photographs of the fall line as it had appeared in the pages of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar. Also pictures of Mona herself, with her big broad smile, her trademark huge glasses, black hair close cropped, as she received plaques, applauded her young designers.
Marie, the main receptionist, was already there, as was a young man sitting on one of the gray suede banquettes. Mona glanced at him quickly and he half-rose as she passed. She continued on into her office, wondering whom he was waiting for at this hour. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. Had they met at the gala dinner for the Met Costume Institute? Was it he escorting some ancient countess into the vast main hall of the museum filled with lamplit tables? One of those handsome young men without any talent, who, if they weren’t being “escorts,” thought they could pick up a few easy bucks being male models? If so, he was in the wrong place on every count. The rumors that they were planning a line for men were false. Lawrence had decided it was a risky expansion. Better to stick with the smaller licenses for shoes, scarves, and other accessories, possibly even perfume, though the right scent was still elusive.
Actually, the young man didn’t really seem suppliant at all. In fact, he had more the air of a bill collector. A ridiculous notion. Maybe it wasn’t just Monday. Maybe like Lawrence, she too was getting tired of it all. No, ridiculous. Still, she found herself wishing that instead of having the usual large, and much publicized, Thanksgiving dinner in the town house on Thursday, she and Lawrence could escape to the country instead. But, oddly, not to their “cottage” in Southampton. For some reason she was thinking of her grandparents’ old farmhouse in the Catskills, where she had spent so much of her childhood with her cousins, Caroline and Lee, and where Caroline’s father still lived. It wasn’t a serious wish, of course—she couldn’t even remember when she’d been in the old house last—only a trick of the mind, probably, brought on by Lee’s unexpected call yesterday announcing her daughter’s engagement. Mona wished the girl well, but also wished that she hadn’t succumbed to Lee’s desire, no, insistence, that they have lunch today. As she futilely tried to explain to Lee, she usually had lunch at her desk because of all those evening social activities, and now was a particularly hectic time at Mona Milner American Designs since they had just finished showing the Spring line to press and buyers and were plunging into the next season. To cap it off, that this was a short week on account of the Thanksgiving holiday. “Yes, but you don’t design anymore,” Lee had said, which was typical Lee, and derailed Mona completely.
Once in her office, Mona got out of her coat and boots, and settled down as her assistant Sheila brought in a fresh pot of coffee and consulted her notes. As expected, some of the garments presented in the Spring show in October would have to be edited out. They had looked great on the runway, been applauded, but hadn’t been ordered by the stores. A usual occurrence but dispiriting nevertheless.
“Well, it could be worse,” Mona said, as much for herself as for Sheila, who was consulting her notes again.
“The summer fabrics,” Sheila said. As one of her prerogatives Mona had the final say about fabrics, and though Sheila didn’t say so, Mona knew she couldn’t put off her decisions any longer, difficult as some of them were. The white silk suits for instance. Obviously the samples would come back from Hong Kong in muslin—silk was too expensive to fool around with. But would the muslin give an accurate enough idea of how the silk would handle? Betsy, the chief designer, said not to worry, the suits would be great, and maybe she was right. But then there was the red silk chiffon that Mona loved but nobody, including Betsy, knew quite what to do with. She would have to decide by the end of the week.
But now, calls to Saks to say yesterday’s ad looked great, and thanks, and to Bloomingdale’s to express her appreciation for the highly visible placement of the new Collection boutique on the fifth floor. At some point a meeting with Lawrence and the PR people about plans for more interviews. Maybe being featured on TV, though Lawrence was leery about too many details of their operations being disclosed. Maybe he was right. But in any case, Lawrence would have to put pressure on the Houston Lord and Taylor where the fall line of Milner Petites had wound up side by side with the oversized Ample Beauty line. On adjoining racks, in fact. It couldn’t have been a worse location. It looked like a freak show. This mustn’t happen again. (But could it be a sign that the image of Mona Milner Designs was faltering, just a bit?) She thought about her daughter Jessica, saw her tanned and beautiful, idle after a precipitous marriage and quickie divorce, being photographed in one of those white silk suits if they came out right, and decided she would talk to Lawrence again about asking Jessica to model. Not on the runway, of course. In the next ad campaign. Mother/daughter combination, it could be terrific publicity. Better to wait on that. Larry had seemed not only tired yesterday, but distracted as well. At night... No, she wouldn’t pursue that now, either. Not on a Monday morning. She had to be strictly business.
Sheila was still hanging around in the doorway, near the brass mezuzah attached to it, an amulet that contained some kind of biblical blessing. Like the statue of the Jewish tailor outside on the street, the thing looked totally out of place. Representatives for Jewish organizations were forever swarming over the garment district, distributing these mezuzahs in exchange for contributions. Bearded men in black fedoras and black coats, whom Sheila called “rabbis,” soliciting for orphanages, yeshivas, whatever. Usually Mona gave them a few dollars and waved them off. Whatever had persuaded her to let Sheila attach the thing to her office door? Lawrence had looked startled the first time he saw it. She realized she could easily remove it, it was just hung by a nail.
“Larry’s having lunch with Reed Palmer today,” Sheila said, consulting another note. “He wanted to know if you can join them.”
“Reed Palmer?” This was a surprise. Lawrence’s old Harvard friend and former roommate, now a famous, and famously reclusive, novelist. She had thought he lived abroad permanently now.
“Oh, Sheila, tell Larry I’d love to, but I can’t.” Maybe if she cancelled lunch with Lee? No, she would never hear the end of it. Not with Lee.
“Really, tell Larry I’m awfully sorry, would you?”
Sheila remained standing there.
“Is there something else?” Mona asked.
“Your cousin’s here.”
“Lee? Now?” Had Lee decided that whatever it was couldn’t wait? That would be just like her.
“It’s a man,” Sheila said.
A male cousin. Mona had no male cousin. Several times removed, it had to be. Or, no, probably someone on Larry’s side.
Mona looked at Sheila dubiously.
“He says his name is Colescu. Joseph Colescu. And that he’s from Romania.”
No, Lawrence’s family had originally come from Frankfurt, snobby German Jews.... Romania... She wished that she followed world events more closely, that the fashion industry were not such a closed insular world of its own. But, wait, hadn’t Grandpa Sam come from somewhere near Romania? Or was it Bessarabia? She remembered talk when she was a child of the relatives left behind when her father emigrated sometime in the early 1900s. But there were so many names and so much emotion attached to each one that she had never been able to keep any of it straight. Hesitating, she finally asked Sheila to show the man in.
It was the young gigolo/bill collector she had seen waiting in the reception room, now with a smile on his face. A smile that became broader as he glanced at the mezuzah on the door. She thought of explaining why it was there, and realized that was pointless.
“Come in. Please.”
Now that he was closer, she saw, as she hadn’t in that first glance in the reception room, how very good-looking he was. Too good-looking, actually, like a movie matinee idol of the thirties, with blond wavy hair combed straight back, a strong jaw that almost needed to clench a pipe, and rather icy blue eyes. But he was surprisingly short. And his gray pin-striped suit, badly cut and too close fitting, suggested not only poverty, which was to be expected if he really was a recent refugee from Romania, but also, disturbingly, a kind of seediness. She searched his face for a family resemblance and found a flickering one that might have been only her imagination. It didn’t mean anything, anyway.
“Well,” Mona said, rising awkwardly to shake his hand, and wishing that Lawrence, with his innate social grace, were around to smooth things over. She indicated the chair facing her desk.
“Well,” she repeated. And then stopped short. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you speak English?”
The young man laughed. “What else can I do? Nobody speaks Romanian.”
“Yes, of course,” Mona said, and made herself laugh too. She cleared her throat. “You say you’re a relative?”
“A cousin. I’m Yankel Rosenfeld’s son,” he said, plainly assuming that this would explain everything. When it just as plainly didn’t, he added, “Mordecai Rosenfeld’s grandson.”
Mordecai? Yankel? Had she ever heard of these people? This was getting embarrassing. The young man reached inside his breast pocket and produced a creased and ancient letter written in what looked like Yiddish script. The kind of letter she dimly remembered her grandfather poring over. He handed it to her, and she held it briefly, not knowing what else to do. She couldn’t read a word of Yiddish. Hardly knew any, in fact. Her parents had used Yiddish when they didn’t want her to understand.
“Rosenfeld?” she said, finally. It was her own maiden name—and also one of the most common Jewish names in the world. “But you call yourself Colescu.”
“Ah, sometimes a Jew—” he said, shrugging. And began to bring out still more tattered and dingy documents, which he gravely presented to her, also mentioning so many other names—Bubbe Chana...Fetter Yossel... Kleyne Herschel—that by now she was totally at sea. Maybe, like the “rabbis,” this “cousin” only wanted a donation. She hoped so.
“I see,” Mona said. She carefully handed back his papers. “Yes, well, we must really have a long talk sometime soon. About families... Romania. Everything.” She glanced at her watch. “But I’m afraid that right now—of course, if there’s anything I can do for you—”
“I want a job,” Joseph Colescu said.
“A job,” she said. “Here?”
This was a surprise. If he had wanted money, she would certainly have been generous. But what kind of job could she possibly offer him? Even if they had been branching out into men’s wear, he was definitely all wrong as a male model. He was too short, and there was that seedy air, that disconcerting coldness in the eyes.
“—I’m afraid that we really don’t have anything... Well, possibly the mail room...” She looked to Sheila, who was still hovering in the doorway, almost protectively.
“The mail room?” He brought out his documents again. “I have come to be a fashion designer.”
She smiled at his naïveté. “That’s not the way we do things in this country, I’m afraid. You have to be trained, you have to—”
“I am trained. I was a tailor in Romania.”
She laughed—until she thought of the statue outside. But you still couldn’t just come in off the street and...
“I can do this work,” he said.
“No, I’m sorry. Our designers are FIT or Parsons graduates. They have years of study and experience under their belts.”
“I have this experience already.”
This was getting ridiculous. Mona looked to Sheila. “Sheila, could you escort my...uh—” She couldn’t say cousin, she still couldn’t believe that he was one. “Could you escort Mr. Colescu to personnel? Maybe he could—”
“Fill out an application,” Sheila said.
Yes, fill out an application. It was one thing to give to charity. But this was business. She would have to check on this with her father in Florida. Ask Lawrence’s advice. Only, that would have to wait until much later in the day. Lawrence wouldn’t be free until after his lunch.
Mona and Joseph Colescu shook hands again, and this time the icy blue eyes looked decidedly ungrateful, maybe even hurt. Suddenly there was that vague guilt again. Because what if he actually were a relative, a survivor of all that the family here had been spared? She had treated him like a total stranger.
“Look,” Mona said, “Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. A very American holiday. We’re having a holiday dinner at my house. Maybe you’d like to come. Sheila will give you the necessary information.”
He accepted, nodding, without thanks, and finally let Sheila usher him out.
Mona tried to bring her mind back to business, but couldn’t. She thought of all the questions Lawrence would have asked Joseph Colescu and she hadn’t. For example, how had he managed to come over? Who had vouched for him? Surely the fact of his being in this country presupposed other relatives in the United States. And when had he come? She was sure he had been here longer than he seemed to suggest. His English was too good. Maybe she should call her parents right now, ask if they knew anything about a Yankel—or was it Mordecai? No, that was silly. Mona never called on a Monday morning. She’d only upset them, particularly her mother, who would ask hysterically if something had gone wrong with the business.
The phone rang. It was Lee, to confirm their lunch date.
“Yes, sure we’re on,” Mona said, wishing they weren’t. “Why would I disappoint you?... Oh, and listen, Caroline’s joining us, too.”
There was a pause before Lee said coldly, “Fine.”
What was bugging her? The two cousins had never gotten along as kids, but surely that was water under the bridge. Mona hung up quickly. It obviously wasn’t the time to tell Lee they might just have acquired another cousin.
Mona got to the restaurant first, since Bernie’s was in her neighborhood, a long-time fixture in the garment district. Still, maybe she shouldn’t have picked this place, convenient as it was. Lee would have been expecting something luxe, and Bernie’s was practically at the other end of that spectrum. In fact, it had been a kosher restaurant in the old days, the favorite haunt of the old hard-driving, wisecracking clothing manufacturers, with their white on white shirts and silk suits, waving cigars, who had once dominated the industry. Like the cousins’ own fathers, actually. But maybe Lee wouldn’t remember. Lee often blocked out what she didn’t care to think about, which was most of the past. Still, next time she would take Lee to Lutece, at least. Was that where Lawrence had gone with Reed Palmer? She was sorry now that she hadn’t made some excuse to Lee and joined them.
Hoping that Caroline would arrive next, Mona looked toward the entrance. But it was skinny little Lee who marched in, dwarfed by a black mink coat, a large handbag and an oversized tote, like a diminutive traveler from a distant land. She looked around, pursing her lips disappointedly, as Mona had known she would. Her black hair was in tight little curls. The rest of her face was taken up by big, dark, tinted glasses which Lee mistakenly thought gave her a dash of glamour besides alleviating her extreme myopia. Her skinniness didn’t make Lee look chic as it did the models, either, only kind of pathetic, embittered. It was hard to believe that Lee was actually the mother of two daughters, one about to be married, her body was so totally un-maternal. Mona waved. Lee finally saw her, came over, gave Mona a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, and sat down. She took another look around. Did she recognize Bernie’s now? The decor was the same, wood paneling all over, somewhat less than pristine white tablecloths, and surly waiters at their stations in short red jackets. But Lee said nothing about it, and asked for a Pellegrino with a slice of lemon from their own waiter, who took the order disapprovingly when Mona asked for the same.
“Well, it’s great to see you, Lee,” Mona said, which wasn’t true. Her mind kept returning to the decisions waiting for her at the office. She was willing to leave the silk suits to Betsy Slade’s possibly better judgement. But there was that lovely red chiffon still unspoken for. How long had it been since she herself had awakened in the middle of the night to doodle a collar, a sleeve, a pocket? Now it was the young designers, all of them very gifted, who were similarly obsessed. Especially Betsy Slade, who had worked so hard and brilliantly for Mona Milner Designs for the past five years and who would surely dream up something wonderful for the red chiffon, something just right for Collection. Whereas that Joseph Colescu imagined he could just jump right into a career designing! It had been foolish enough to invite him to Thanksgiving dinner, much less ship him off to personnel without consulting anyone, even Lawrence. Was Lawrence miffed that she was missing the lunch with his old friend? Whatever Lee wanted to discuss had better be good.
Lee was looking around again. “Wasn’t this place once kosher?” she asked.
“I think so,” Mona said. And waited.
But Lee only nodded glumly, taking a long, last look around. “Nobody’s here.” Meaning, no celebrities.
In fact, the few seemingly inconsequential people who were left happened to be buyers, account executives, very consequential indeed, even if they didn’t always look it. Furthermore, to be immodest about it, Mona herself was a celebrity. But there was no point in mentioning that. Lee would just take it as a putdown, as she did everything else. Lee had lost her mother when she was only a small child, and ever since had suffered a constant sense of deprivation. Those summers at the big farmhouse when the three cousins had flirted with the busboys and waiters from the hotel across the lake, Lee was the one flirted the most desperately. And when one of the waiters, a young pre-med, actually fell in love with Lee and proposed, it still wasn’t enough. In the long years since their marriage, Morty Samuel had never filled the void in Lee’s heart. Nor had her younger daughter, Kitty. Only the first born, Anita, had ever truly been a source of joy—if one could use that word in connection with Lee.
“Listen, mazel tov about Anita’s engagement,” Mona said, hoping to remind Lee that there really was a cause for celebration in her world.
“What?” Lee’s face fell. “Oh, yes, that.”
Even for Lee, a peculiar reaction. Usually, at the merest mention of Anita, Lee was off and boasting. The mystery remained unsolved, since the third cousin, Caroline, was arriving at the table with an apologetic smile. She was late, though like Mona, Caroline tended to err on the early side. Today she was also uncharacteristically unfocussed, breathless, which for some reason made her look prettier than she had in a long time, her blue eyes brighter. Her streaked blond hair brighter too, as if it had been recently done.
Caroline kissed them both, sat down, asked for some white wine, and smiled to either side of her.
“You look as if you just swallowed a canary,” Lee said.
But, it wasn’t smugness that made Caroline so radiant, Mona decided. It was happiness, pure and simple, which made Mona happy too, since she had always been fond of Caroline. Mona was also delighted to see, when Caroline removed her coat, that her cousin was wearing a Mona Milner design—a brown silk tweed suit lined in bright purple, with a silk blouse of the same purple.
“You recognize it?” Caroline said to Mona.
“Of course I do. It looks great on you.”
“Actually, I never know what to wear when I’m seeing you,” Caroline confessed, laughing. “It’s like trying to chat socially with a psychiatrist you meet at a party.”
“Oh, Carrie,” Mona said.
“I mean it.”
Lee sighed impatiently.
The design was from several seasons back, but still fresh. Gratifying proof that back numbers still had life in them. Or was Caroline proving that to herself? Bitchy thought, probably Lee’s influence. In fact, Mona admired the way Caroline had pulled herself together when her marriage failed, brushed off her PhD, and found a teaching job at a small, women’s college. Of course, they’d all been impressed by Caroline’s ex, William Austin, an eminent lawyer, illustrious champion of lost causes. But no one in the family had ever actually liked him, except, oddly, Lee, who was now turning from one cousin to another, as if they were keeping her out of a secret, her permanent sore spot.
“You know you’re always welcome to come and pick out something from the showroom too,” Mona said.
“Thanks,” Lee said. “But I had enough of showrooms when I was a kid. I don’t think I owned a single retail dress until I got married. No, my wedding dress was wholesale too.”
“Mona told me that Anita’s engaged,” Caroline said to Lee, picking up on the wedding theme. “That’s wonderful.”
Lee nodded curtly, plainly not wishing to pursue that subject, either. Another time, Caroline would have sensed that immediately. But today, she blithely sailed on, buoyed by her own good spirits.
“You must be very happy,” she said to Lee, though Lee looked anything but.
“How’s your daughter?” Mona asked Caroline, changing the subject fast.
“Delia? Traveling around Europe with her camera. In extremely dangerous places.” Caroline looked at the menu, and put it down again. “I guess I’m the last person to say this, but I wish she’d find somebody too. Maybe Anita could convince her you can have it all.”
Lee’s expression behind the dark glasses was unreadable. Mona, thinking about her own Jessica, who had everything and nothing, kept quiet also. Maybe she too should want her daughter to marry. But Jessica had already made one horrendous mistake in the husband department. No, the solution for Jessica was to get her interested in something else, the family business to be exact, which presently she, alas, despised, though not enough to turn up her nose at the money it brought her. But really it was peculiar that Caroline, considering her own terrible marriage, should think a man solved everything.
“So?” the waiter said. The three of them hurried to pick up their menus and order. A small salad for Lee, mushroom omelets for herself and Caroline. Not the gourmet fare Lee might have expected, though Lee would have ordered a small salad anywhere. The waiter left, shaking his head as usual, maybe hoping to have heard pastrami, stuffed derma, Celery Tonic.
“Well, when is the wedding?” Mona asked Lee.
“You’re told?” Caroline asked.
“That’s what I just said, didn’t I?”
“Look, I’d be glad to do the wedding gown,” Mona said to her own surprise, having wanted only to ease the atmosphere. But it would be fun to design a beautiful garment again, even if it was just the one. She tried not to think of Jessica getting married not in a Mona Milner, but in a goddamn, exorbitantly priced, ravishing Givenchy.
“Marvelous,” Lee said. “But make sure it has long sleeves and a matching wig.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The boy’s Orthodox!” Lee burst out, suddenly so angry that the tendons on either side of her neck stood out. “Ultra.”
Mona and Caroline looked at her, startled.
“Oh, well,” Caroline said cheerfully, after a moment. “He could have been a drug addict, or an ax-murderer. Think of it that way.”
“That’s not funny, Caroline,” Lee said. “Though I know you think you have such a great sense of humor.”
“I’m talking about ultra ultra Orthodox. Kosher. Women hidden behind curtains, the works.”
“Well, if that’s his background—” Mona said, tentatively.
“It’s not. That’s the whole point. Some goddamn Lubavitcher seduced him. His own family doesn’t know what to make of it, either.”
“Then maybe he’ll get over it,” Mona said. “In the sixties, people were always becoming Hari Krishnas or whatever, weren’t they?”
“I don’t think that’s the same thing, Mona,” Caroline said.
“I don’t care whether he gets over it,” Lee said. “I want Anita to get over him. She’s a brilliant painter with a brilliant career. And she’s not trying to have it all, for your information, Caroline. She’s throwing her whole life away.”
She glared at Caroline, then looked more kindly at Mona. At Anita’s small show last year at her uncle Gilbert Samuel’s gallery, Mona had bought a painting—Anita’s only sale, but a nice enough little landscape, which now hung in an upstairs foyer of Mona’s town house.
Poor Lee, Mona thought automatically, though this time it was truly apt. Anita, Lee’s only triumph, now seemed to be Lee’s worst defeat. As Lee sipped at her Poland water, she kept looking at Caroline as if it were all her fault. Even if the two of them had never really gotten along, this lunch was certainly making it worse. Mona cast about for a total change of subject, anything to calm the waters.
“Listen,” she said. “We seem to have acquired a new cousin.”
“A new cousin?” Caroline said. “An actual cousin? From where?”
“Romania! How amazing.”
“I’m not sure yet that he’s an actual cousin, though. Maybe at one or two removes. His name’s Joseph Colescu. He says he’s Yankel's grandson, or Mordecai’s son, or vice-versa. I can’t remember now. Did either of you ever hear your parents mention those names? Mordecai? Yankel?”
Lee shook her head, decidedly uninterested.
“But this is awful,” Caroline said. “Not even to know the names of our own relatives.”
“It was a huge family,” Mona said. “And all so long ago.”
“True,” Caroline said. “How did you find him?”
“He found me. He came to my office, looking for a job.”
“Really? A job?”
“He’s a tailor.”
“Well, that part figures. All the men in our family have been in the shmatte trade, one way or another,” Caroline said.
“Great. That’s all we need now to make our lives complete,” Lee said, from deep in her gloom. “A Romanian tailor. I suppose he was hunchbacked and carrying his own sewing machine?”
“Actually, he’s young and very good-looking,” Mona said, sidestepping that undefinable seediness. “He has a kind of faint resemblance to you,” she added to Caroline.
“Well, he’s blond and blue-eyed.”
“Oh, that doesn’t mean anything. I was saying to... someone... just the other day, that a lot of Jews are blond and blue-eyed.”
Lee veered around. Her antennae were clearly out. So were Mona’s. Who was that “someone”?
“God, I wish now that I had sat down with Grandpa Sam and Grandma Sadie, and talked about all of it,” Caroline went on, “the old country, the relatives left behind—”
“—they didn’t want to talk about it,” Lee said. “They hated the old country.”
This time Lee was right.
“Has anyone else seen him?” Caroline asked. “What did Lawrence think?”
“Lawrence hasn’t met him yet.” Mona hesitated. “But I invited him for Thanksgiving.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Lee asked. “You invited a schnorrer you never laid eyes on before to your house for your glitzy Thanksgiving dinner?”
Mona remembered too late that she had never asked Lee and Morty. “Well, he could be a long lost cousin,” Mona said lamely.
“Anybody could come in off the street and say that.”
Unfortunately, Lee was right again.
“I think you should both meet him,” Mona suggested. “Take a look for yourselves.”
“Sure,” Lee said. “That’s the main thing on my mind.”
“Meet him now?” Caroline asked, sounding strangely panicked, looking at her watch.
“No, I mean sometime,” Mona said. Her mind back to her business, Mona hurriedly started to eat her omelet. She really did need to get back to the office and Lee still hadn’t come to the point. It wasn’t Anita, she was pretty sure of that by now, despite Lee’s hysteria over the fiancé, and it certainly wasn’t a desire for an original Mona Milner wedding dress. She watched Lee poking the salad around on her plate, as usual. Caroline, who generally had a very healthy appetite, wasn’t eating much, either. Was it just because she was oddly distracted, or was she suddenly afraid of putting on weight? She needn’t have worried about that since the Mona Milner outfit she was wearing, like most of the designs, concealed a multitude of sins, which was what had made them so popular in the first place. Still, this lunch with the cousins was getting to be uncomfortably full of mysteries, so different from the simple summer lunches of their childhood at the farm. She could still remember Grandma Sadie stuffing them like geese at every meal. And how the fathers would come up for the weekend, pale and tired from the strains and pressures of the garment business, unbuttoning their vests after dinner, lighting up cigars, playing a few rounds of pinochle at the folding table on the porch before it got too dark to see the cards and they came inside. And how both grandparents sat and beamed at the sight of the whole mishpocha all together.
“I envy you having Thanksgiving in the old house,” Mona said to Caroline, who was going to spend the holiday there with her father. “Sam and Sadie hated Europe, but they loved America. And they certainly loved their farm. They acted as if those hundred acres were a gift from God.”
“And the food!” Caroline said. “And the pine trees and the lake. And the big hotel on the other side.... It was the heyday of the Catskills.”
“The farm stank of cow manure and chickens. The food was indigestible,” Lee said. “The heyday is now. It’s become very valuable property.”
“Oh, Leah,” Mona said, calling her by her real name by mistake. She had been lost in the past. They both pretended it hadn’t happened. “How is it valuable? Even the Hotel Diamond Lake went bust years ago.”
“Yes, but the people who took the property over this fall have big plans. Condos on the lake front for the summer, chalets for the ski season.”
“That’s awful,” Caroline said.
“Why awful?” Lee asked.
“Because they’ll spoil the whole area.”
“How?” Lee asked sardonically. “By introducing an ‘undesirable element’?”
Mona had to admit that Lee had a point here, too. No doubt when Grandpa Sam and Grandma Sadie first moved to the area, they were also considered ‘undesirables’. And maybe when she and Lawrence bought the place in Southampton, that word was also used about them privately in certain quarters. Maybe not so privately, now that she thought of it.
“Actually, the people who want to buy us out think they’ll improve the area,” Lee said. “So do I.”
“Buy us out? You mean you’ve had an offer?” Mona asked.
“Well, we’ve had an offer,” Lee said. “Through a good friend of mine who happens to be in real estate.”
The “we” wasn’t strictly accurate, just Lee’s rather pathetic attempt to win her cousins over to her side. Only Lee, whose father had died a few years before, now owned her piece of the property outright. The other two thirds were owned by the surviving two brothers, Mona’s father Nate and Caroline’s father Ben.
“Well, tell your good friend we’re not interested,” Caroline said.
“Really?” Lee said. “Just like that?”
“Lee, the place has been in our family for years,” Mona said.
“Yes? And when was the last time you were there, Mona?” Lee asked. “When you’re not jetting around, you spend your summers and weekends in that mansion in Southampton.”
“Cottage,” Mona said.
“It doesn’t matter where Mona goes for the summer,” Caroline said. “My father lives in that house all year round—in case you forgot.”
“And don’t you forget that my father left his share to me! It was all he left to me, and not to my lousy stepmother. It’s the one goddamn thing in my life I can call my own.”
“Then why are you so eager to get rid of it?”
Lee tried, not very convincingly, to smile.
“Come on, Carrie,” she said. “You know your father’s rattling around in that place. It’s way too big for him.”
“You never worried about his rattling around before.”
“I know the buyers would be glad to fix up something nice, smaller, for Uncle Ben, right on the property,” Lee said, more to Mona than to Caroline.
Caroline turned to Mona also, dismayed. They both expected Mona to intercede. But how could she? Lee was right, Mona didn’t spend any time in the big old house. And as to Caroline’s father, he’d probably be more comfortable in a smaller place. It wouldn’t mean uprooting him altogether. Anyway, it wasn’t up to Mona to decide. It would be up to her father and Uncle Ben. As it would be with whether the new “cousin” was actually a cousin, she realized. How did her father, that hard-headed businessman, feel about old family history, anyway? As with the grandparents, it had never occurred to her to ask. Now she would have to. Meanwhile, she wished her real cousins had been a little more helpful. Particularly Caroline, whom she always thought of as having a soft spot for the afflicted. Instead of which, there was that startled, “Now?” and the glance at her watch.
The restaurant had become almost empty of customers, and silent. Years ago such silence would have been impossible at any hour. The old atmosphere when she was a little girl had been full of shouting, kibitzing, wheeling-and-dealing garment manufacturers stabbing their food, wreathed in cigar smoke, plotting trades, deals, counter deals, writing figures on the tablecloths. And the Rosenfeld brothers in the thick of the battle. Was history repeating itself in a modern version of that strife? The tension between Caroline and Lee over selling the farm was palpable.
“Is it a large offer?” Mona asked.
Lee, too, seemed to be remembering that old boisterous Yiddish-speaking clientele.
“Big gelt, Mona,” Lee said happily. “Big gelt.”
Copyright © Ann Birstein 2012