By Dolly Reisman
“Putting on a few pounds there, kid,” Uncle Saul said, looking me up and down. “A few too many latkes, I see.” He shook his head. “It’s not even Chanukah yet.”
I stood in the middle of the driveway in the one-piece long underwear I normally wore for skiing, covered by white shorts and a large unzipped ski jacket. On my feet I wore sandals with white athletic socks.
“But I love latkes,” I said, tiptoeing over the light dusting of snow to the driver’s side. “I like everything about them, even their oily taste.”
He tsk-ed. “Keep that up, Sally, and you’ll be fat as a pig.”
I stared at him, then shrugged my shoulders. “At least I’ll be happy.”
Sprouting breasts and widening hips this past year had made me more awkward than usual. Nothing fit properly. I told myself, and anyone else who would listen, that I was going through a growth spurt. But the truth was, I loved to eat.
Uncle Saul laughed too. He ruffled my hair and as consolation said, “But you have a pretty face.”
I grimaced, not wanting to acknowledge the compliment, and rubbed my hands back to life. I was starting to freeze.
“Jump in,” he said, opening the car door and pushing the front seat forward. Although he had two kids and a wife, Uncle Saul had bought a two-door black Cadillac convertible with red leather seats that sizzled your flesh in the summer and numbed it in the winter. I hesitated getting in, adding up the pros and cons of taking this trip with him and my aunt and cousins. Given Uncle Saul’s obsession with fat — he thought eating was a crime — my soft gut would be a constant source of discussion. Chanukah was around the corner with its miracle of oil, potatoes and sour cream. How was I going to eat with him around?
“Kid? We don’t have all day,” he said, sticking a cigarette between his lips, cupping the match and puffing until the cigarette ignited. Exhaled plumes of smoke mixed with the crisp air. The cigarette dangled out the side of his mouth but rose like a glowing flag with each inhalation. Even though his dark eyes unsettled me, I sucked in my stomach and squeezed between him and the red leather seat. The thought of sun, sea and beaches lured me, even if that meant I’d have to traipse around in my big-girl one-piece bathing suit.
Uncle Saul was a Dean Martin look-alike with brown hair and almost black eyes. He was perpetually tanned. The wrinkles around his eyes made him look wise, I thought. Sometimes, when he smiled, he looked kind, but that was mostly an illusion.
“God, you’re getting big,” he said, patting my butt as I slipped past.
Mortified, I thumped down between my silent twig-size cousins, Naomi and Rebecca, wrapping my arms around myself and squeezing my eyes to prevent tears. The fact that he was handsome made the sting of his words that much worse.
“I don’t want a peep from either of you on the ride,” he said to my silent cousins. Normally they never talked, but now, flopped on opposite sides of the car, they suddenly came to life, like windup dolls, nodding and smiling until he averted his eyes and they resumed their normal sullen faces.
“Saul,” Aunt Marilyn said, “couldn’t you —”
“Shush,” he said.
“But Saul —”
“Marilyn, please.” He put his hands together as if he was praying. “Okay?”
Aunt Marilyn, wrapped in a whisky-coloured muskrat coat, looked the other way.
“Thank you,” he said. He took one final hard suck on his cigarette and flicked it out the window, where it hissed and was extinguished on the snowy ground.
We were driving down to Florida. Me, Saul, Marilyn — the second of his three wives of the same name — and the girls, age ten and eight. Uncle Saul said the trip was their Chanukah gift to me. I knew he was fabricating that story. Our family had never exchanged extravagant gifts before. We indulged in chocolates and received Chanukah gelt. We played games and sometimes even gambled a few pennies with the dreidel. But that was the extent of our family gift-giving. Saul and Marilyn were taking me with them because my dad was sick and my mother couldn’t leave his side. My dad barfed after every meal while my mother held his forehead, preventing the barf from going up his nose. No one knew why he was puking all the time. Even the doctors were stumped. But they were concerned enough that they didn’t want him travelling.
Florida for Jews at Christmas was its own religious experience. Instead of being the only family on the street without Christmas lights and a tree, like at home, we were part of a mass exodus worshipping sand, beach and sun, with other non-celebrating families, all of us escaping Jesus. His name was never mentioned along the strip of beachfront hotels unless it was to claim him as one of our own. And this year with Chanukah close to Christmas, we’d have our own miracles. Our own gifts.
The car sputtered as Uncle Saul pumped the gas pedal. “Come on,” he said, smoothing his hand across the dashboard. “Come on, Myrtle. Let’s get going.” He had a woman’s name for everything: his car, his house, his boat, his 24-horsepower lawn mower. One high rev and Myrtle started. He patted the dashboard again. “There, there,” he said. “Good girl.” And off we went, bumping down our long street, the car tracking back and forth while Uncle Saul unscrewed the top of his bottle of Scotch and took a long swig.
“Saul,” Aunt Marilyn said, “the kids.”
He waved off her concern. “The kids are fine.”
He slammed on the brakes. ““Honey, you wanna go or not?”
“Yes or no?”
She chewed on her lip. “Yes.”
“Okay,” he said. He flashed a cool smile and tucked a stray hair behind her ear.
We drove for a couple of hours in complete silence.
“We get off here, honey?” Uncle Saul asked. We were on the outskirts of Buffalo.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
“Marilyn, I need a yes or a no. You’re the navigator. Do we get off here or not?”
“I can’t tell.”
Turning her head as we passed an exit, she said, “Yup, that was it.”
“The one we just passed?”
“I think so.”
Naomi and Rebecca pushed the hoods of their ski jackets down.
“You think, or you know?”
He let up on the gas. “No, you don’t think.”
“Saul,” she said.
“What? You don’t want the kids to know you’re stupid. Kids,” he said, steering the car off onto the shoulder.
The tires hit the gravel and the car shook violently.
“You know how dumb your mother is?” he asked, as we skidded on the loose stones.
Still clinging to the map, Aunt Marilyn looked away. Naomi blinked continuously, and Rebecca used her hand as a visor and stared ahead. I pushed my heel into the floor as if that might help the car stop. When it finally did stop, I lurched forward just as my uncle turned back. For a moment I was face to face with him, looking into his eyes. Animal or human, I wasn’t completely sure.
“I don’t want you to be that dumb,” Saul continued his train of thought. “That’s why you have to finish school.” He grabbed the map from Aunt Marilyn’s hands and looked at it for a second before throwing it back in her face. He jammed the car in reverse and sped back towards our missed exit while I shook my head, warding off images of tangled cars and dead bodies. Large trucks whizzed by, honking madly to tell us we were going the wrong way. I closed my eyes and prayed, opening them only when the car stopped.
“Okay,” he said, then he moved his face in close to Aunt Marilyn’s and whispered, “I’m sorry.” Her shoulders relaxed. He looked around at the three of us in the back seat and gave us a thumbs-up. “We’re A-OK,” he said.
We drove for a long time and finally merged onto I-95 South as the sun set in bloody streaks of red and pink. The trucks’ red running lights and cars’ headlights blinded me to the road as I peered ahead. All I could see was the worn leather of the seats in front of me and the back of my uncle and aunt’s heads: his short curly hair and the straggling locks that escaped my aunt’s kerchief.
Uncle Saul pulled out his hooch and passed it to Marilyn.
“Open it,” he said.
“I know what I’m doing. That’s why I need something to settle me. Now open the bottle.”
“Saul, it’s getting dark.”
“What the fuck has that got to do with anything? Open the hooch,” he said. “Open it now.”
She twisted the top off and handed him the bottle.
“Hold the wheel,” he said.
She didn’t move.
“Hold the friggin’ wheel,” he said more emphatically, grabbing her hand and placing it on the steering wheel. “Watch the road,” he said, “for fuck’s sake, or you’ll kill us all. Kids,” he said, craning his head toward the back where we three sat, slack-mouthed and silent, “if we die, blame your mother.”
Cars sped past us in the other direction. It was a two-lane highway with nothing but yellow lines separating us from a head-on collision. Aunt Marilyn’s fingertips rested tentatively on the steering wheel. She glanced back at me briefly, and I could see tears running down her cheeks. I doubted she could even see the road ahead.
Uncle Saul raised the bottle. “L’chaim,” he said, tilting his head as he drank.
That’s when I leaned between the front bucket seats and put my hand on the wheel to keep us straight. The vibration of the road went straight up my arm and through my body.
“Ahhh,” Saul said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Much better.” He took the wheel again and pushed me away with enough force that I landed on the floor in the back.
“I don’t want to die, Saul,” Aunt Marilyn said, looking at the open bottle between his thighs. “I don’t want the kids to die.”
Uncle Saul held up his right hand for what seemed a long time. “I love you, honey, I really love you.” Without looking at her, he touched her forehead with the tip of his index finger and slowly spread his palm open until it covered her face, then dragged his hand down to her chin. “God, I love you,” he said, pushing her away so hard that her head hit the window. Her hands flew up to her hair and scarf and held them in place.
“Saul,” she said.
“Honey, no one is going to die, I promise you.” And then he laughed, drank some more and kept driving.
I shrank into the back, put my hand on my grumbling stomach and thought of latkes until my mouth watered. Naomi and Rebecca both leaned on the car’s interior — each on their own side — and snored with their mouths half open and their nostrils quivering with breath. With the two of them sprawled out, there was hardly any room for me, so I slid onto the floor and made myself small, curling into the cradle-like space behind my aunt’s seat. I rested my head on a pillow, covered the rest of me with my coat and slept through the night.
Dawn crept across the sky, and with the new morning came warm weather. I peeked up front. Uncle Saul was sitting up, his hand clinging to the bottle of scotch as if it were a rudder. Aunt Marilyn still slept, her head lax against the headrest.
I caught Saul’s bleary eyes in the rearview mirror as he took another swig from the bottle. It was almost empty. He looked back at me and guffawed defiantly. His eyes darted from me in the back seat to the road ahead.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “Wanna get there today and hit that beach.” After a moment he added, “You got your bathing suit?”
“Good.” He pursed his lips together and nodded his head as if he was having some great thought.
“Don’t you think you’ve had too much to drink, Uncle Saul?”
His eyes froze on mine as he puckered his lips and shook his head. “Honey, family is everything to me. My family is in this car. My entire world. You think I’d take chances?”
“The hooch?” he said. “No big deal. Relaxes me for the long drive. Nothing to worry about.” He took another swig. “I’m completely fine.” And with that he tucked the bottle under his seat, placed both hands on the wheel and fixed his eyes on the road.
Aunt Marilyn woke somewhere near Jacksonville. She flipped the sun visor down, then dug around inside her large straw handbag, searching for supplies. She took out three makeup brushes and small round containers of cover, shadow and blush. In amongst her things was a package of Chanukah candles and the tiniest menorah I’d ever seen.
“You got too much stuff in that thing, Marilyn,” Saul said.
“I need my makeup,” she said, pulling her kerchief off and sliding an Alice band over her bangs.
“I don’t like it when you put that shit all over your face,” he said.
“I just want to look good.”
“Well, I don’t like it when you cover yourself up. I want natural. I want a natural wife with natural beauty. That’s why I married you.”
“Natural takes work, Saul,” she said, studying her face in the mirror. She immediately went to work patting and smoothing foundation over her face and neck. She outlined her eyes with pencil liner and shaded her lids with three different shadows. With her lips puckered, she rummaged through her bag for her lipstick. I was mesmerized by her artistry.
“How ’bout giving me a smooch?” Saul said, draining the last bit of scotch and tossing the bottle over to her side of the car. There was a terrible impatience in Uncle Saul’s voice. “A naked smooch,” he said. “Not with that shit on them.”
“Saul, the children,” she said, twisting the tube until a small red tip emerged, and she coloured inside the lines of her mouth.
“Are you listening to a word I’m saying? Are you listening to a goddamn word?”
“What about breakfast? she asked, blotting her lips on a white tissue, making a perfect pinkish-red impression of them. “The girls need to eat.”
“Here,” he said, raising his arm so the sleeve of his sweater bagged. “Wipe that shit off your mouth and give me a kiss.”
I watched my aunt thinking about what Uncle Saul had said, what he demanded of her. I could see her lips moving, maybe in prayer or maybe not. She might have been begging him off, pleading with him to leave her alone, or perhaps she was ordering him, as I so wanted her to do. Ordering him to stop it, to lower his voice, to take the edge out of his tone.
“You know better,” he said.
I saw her flinch and the surrender in her face. Something in his quiet low tone had frightened her. She leaned over, grabbed his sleeve and wiped her mouth back and forth on it until her lips were bare. She gave him a quick kiss on the mouth, then turned and watched the scenery pass by.
“Good girl,” he said, patting her arm. “We’ll stop and get breakfast. So the kids can eat. You must be hungry too, honey.”
She nodded like one of those bobble-head dogs. Then she looked in the mirror, slid off her hairband and tied her kerchief around her hair. It wasn’t until we turned into the large Denny’s parking lot that she snapped out of her trance.
In the restaurant we sat in one of the big booths with curved seats. I studied the menu while Uncle Saul ordered pancakes for Naomi and Rebecca and a coffee for himself. Aunt Marilyn ordered waffles with a side of bacon and an extra side order of fruit.
“Honey, you eating?” the waitress asked without looking at me, her pencil poised over her order pad.
“Latkes,” I said. Uncle Saul stared at me until I cleared my throat and said, “Make that poached eggs, okay?”
The waitress arched a brow and slowly turned her pencil around to erase my first order, blowing the eraser bits off onto the floor. She tucked her pad and pencil into her apron, gathered up the menus in one hand and, with the other, grabbed a pot of coffee and filled Uncle Saul and Aunt Marilyn’s mugs.
I picked away at my eggs and the side of white toast smothered in butter, but under the watchful eye of my uncle, I lost my appetite.
He grabbed one of my pieces of toast, took a huge bite and put it back on my plate.
“Done?” he asked, before I was.
“We’re ready then,” he said.
Just outside Miami, Uncle Saul pulled into a gas station, opened the door and fell out of the car. He picked himself up and lurched over to the passenger side. He reeked of booze.
“You drive,” he ordered Marilyn.
“But, Saul —”
He opened her car door and waited.
By the time Aunt Marilyn walked around to the driver’s seat, Uncle Saul was already asleep. She adjusted the seat back and forth until it was just the right distance for her feet and both side and rear-view mirrors until they met her requirements. She appeared to know what she was doing, surveying the street, the way out, glancing into the rear-view mirror and adjusting it. She flashed a big-toothed smile at the three of us in the backseat while shifting the car into gear. She drove the rest of the way down to the Fontainebleau, her large white-framed sunglasses covering most of her face. She never looked at Uncle Saul again on that car ride.
When we arrived in front of the hotel, she took her scarf off her head and tied it neatly around her neck. Then she reapplied her lipstick, accentuating her mouth. We were all out of the car, standing at the front desk, before she had the bellhop wake Uncle Saul.
The next morning, I sprawled my pasty body across the last poolside cot and covered myself up with a large striped terrycloth beach towel. Uncle Saul was beside me, his face lost in the glare of a reflector. He held it under his chin with one hand; his other hand rested on his companion of Scotch. He grunted a greeting. Nothing else was said between us while he fried his face.
Aunt Marilyn arrived in her one-piece suit with its plunging neckline. Naomi and Rebecca straggled behind.
“Hey,” Uncle Saul bellowed across the pool, “looking good.”
Aunt Marilyn took off her hat and raised her face to worship the sun.
The girls jumped in the pool and swam freely, not watched by either of their parents.
In the late afternoon, I walked along the beach until the tide came in, lapping my feet and tickling them. When I looked up, I realized I’d gone a long way and might not make it back before sunset and the lighting of the first Chanukah candles. I pinched my towel closed like a cape and ran all the way along the beach. I have no idea how long it took me to cover the distance, crossing in front of three or four other beachfront hotels. I could see the outline of the moon as I neared our hotel. I ran up to the pool area, which was eerily empty and sad, its lounge chairs draped haphazardly with thrown-away towels. Taking a back door through a maze of hallways, I avoided running through the lobby in my suit and towel.
“Honey,” Aunt Marilyn said, “we were getting worried about you.” She and the girls were standing around the unlit menorah. Uncle Saul sat on the couch, a glass in his hand.
Without another word Aunt Marilyn struck a match and lit the shamash which lit the other candles. She sang the blessing in her sweet soprano voice, and the light of the candle flickered across her face. I don’t think we were supposed to pray for miracles, not in the way that my friends asked Jesus to wash away their sins. But that night, when I heard my aunt singing the prayers, I sensed a miracle or two around us. I had no experience of what that might feel like. The hairs on my arms stood straight up as the candle flickered and then burned strong, reminding me of the miracle of oil burning for eight days when it should have lasted only one. I felt a strange comfort and we all said, “Amen.”
“Kid,” Uncle Saul said, nodding in my direction, “get dressed. We’re going out for dinner.” His gaze landed on my aunt’s hand as she dabbed the last bits of makeup on her face. “When the hell are you going to stop putting that shit on your face, covering up your natural beauty. Now take it off.”
“I didn’t tell you to talk,” he said, standing up. “I told you to take it off.”
She ignored him.
“Did you hear what I said?”
I pulled my towel tighter around me.
Aunt Marilyn stood there and shook her head, slowly at first and then, in a burst of protestation and defiance, “No!” she screamed. “I’m not taking it off.”
And the next thing I knew, Uncle Saul leapt over the couch and was right beside her at the door with his fist in her face. I heard a big crack as her head snapped back and hit the wall. Aunt Marilyn grew unsteady, and I thought she might fall or pass out. It was hard to tell where all the blood was coming from, but it was everywhere, splattered all over her freshly powdered face, her white pants, and the walls of the hotel room.
“Uncle Saul!” I screamed.
“Marilyn,” he said, grabbing her arm.
Naomi and Rebecca started crying.
“Shut up,” he said, snapping his fingers at me. “Shut your mouth and you two stop crying.”
I held my breath. The girls whimpered into silence.
Aunt Marilyn leaned against the wall and held her face as though it might fall to pieces if she let it go. Blood oozed through her fingers and ran down the length of her arms.
Saul ripped my towel away from me. “Here,” he said, shoving it in her face. “Clean yourself up.”
Marilyn pressed the towel to her face and walked unsteadily to the bathroom.
“You break it?” he asked from the doorway.
She lifted the towel and peeked at her bleeding face in the mirror, then continued to put pressure on it. Blood poured from her nose. I thought I might vomit.
“Can you shmek?” he asked.
“I dunno, Saul. If it’s broken —”
“You always said you wanted a nose job, honey.”
Aunt Marilyn looked in the mirror again and started to cry. “It’s crooked.”
“Honey,” he said, “you’re gorgeous no matter what. That’s what all the women were saying about you down at the pool. So, can you shmek?”
She inhaled and coughed and inhaled again.
“Okay,” he said. “You didn’t break it. Don’t think you did. Keep the pressure on. We’ll find Brotsky. He’s somewhere down here in some godforsaken hotel. He can look at it. He’s a pharmacist. He’ll know what to do.”
After that night, I didn’t go down to the pool any more but snuck out the back and down to the beach, where I sat in the sand, watching the waves rolling in, bigger and bigger, the water getting closer and closer before pulling back to sea.
My aunt pretended that nothing had happened and managed to cover her bruises with her makeup and wear her large sunglasses — glamorously — even at night.
We went out to fancy restaurants. I ordered nothing but salads while the rest of them ate lobster and steak and big desserts topped with whipped or ice cream. By the time we headed back to Toronto, the swelling around my aunt’s eyes and nose had gone down and the bruising had mostly faded. I had lost ten pounds and my uncle and aunt bought me new skinny pants that hung tight and close. I felt sleek and thin and, in a weird way, weak. Still, I didn’t mind.
We packed up the car and I climbed into the backseat with Naomi and Rebecca. There was a brand new, unopened bottle of Scotch at Aunt Marilyn’s feet.
When Uncle Saul went in to pay for the gas before we hit the highway, Aunt Marilyn slid over into his seat. She glanced nervously towards the store.
“Honey,” she said, catching my eye, “I love him.” She started the car. “I really do.” Her foot was on the brake.
“Come on up here, Sally, and sit beside me. Just us girls up front,” she said, turning around and taking her sunglasses off her makeup-free face. “Help me navigate,” she said. “Would ya?”
She put her sunglasses back on and waited for me to get into the front seat beside her. I looked towards the door. I understood that in his own drunken way my uncle was asking for something pure and true. A beauty that stood on its own.
“Here,” she said, handing me a crushed tinfoil package. “A small gift.” Inside was a stack of latkes. It was the last day of Chanukah. I took a bite. I remembered the warm glow off the menorah when the candles were lit and my aunt looked radiant in the beauty of that light.
Aunt Marilyn shifted the car into drive and hit the gas. We were heading towards I-95. We were going home.