Jack of Hearts
By Lesléa Newman
And then before she had a chance to turn around, the very first night of the very first Chanukah without him arrived and it was time to make the latkes that the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren, the lights of her life, were expecting her to make. So what could she do? Pull the ancient rickety metal step stool out of the pantry, that’s what. Drag it over to the corner kitchen cabinet and open it with a creak. Climb up on the top rung and stand there on her trembling legs and arthritic feet, praying not to fall. Open the cabinet door, reach up for the cumbersome Cuisinart and hug it to her chest like a child. Climb down, place the contraption on the counter, and thank God she hadn’t taken a tumble and broken a hip or worse. Catch her breath. Collapse the stepstool and put it away. Lift the lid of the food processor and find a folded piece of red construction paper inside. Recognize the shape: a voluptuous curve tapering down to a sharp point. Feel her heart race as she unfolded the note and came face to face with the slanted southpaw writing. Read out loud: “I love you a latke!” Feel her chin quaver and her eyes fill. “Oh, Jack,” she said aloud. “How could you?”
For seventy years he’d been leaving her these heart-shaped notes. Little valentines all over the house: “You’re the toast of the town!” in the breadbox, “My cup runneth over!” in a coffee mug, “You knock my socks off!” in her top dresser drawer. For weeks after he died, she’d found them everywhere, but it had been many months and she thought they were done. But here was another, the final one, she knew it in her bones. And oh, what this must have cost him. “You shouldn’t have,” she turned to scold the picture of him propped up by the stove, the one that had been taken at his ninetieth birthday party six months and a lifetime ago. There he was in that ridiculous tie—“Oh Jack, are you really going to wear that awful tie?” she’d asked when he got dressed that morning. “Awful?” he said, indignant. “I’ll have you know, this is a very special tie. A very special thirteen-year-old girl knit it for me.” His hand flew up to stroke the lumpy blue strip like the tail of a beloved pet cat. “I’ve given you so many gorgeous ties since then,” she reminded him. “Don’t you want to wear one of them?” But no, he did not. So stubborn he was, he wore that atrocious tie so often, that she threatened to strangle him with it.
She shook her head and gazed at the photo, which their oldest son had snapped right after all the toasts had been made and Jack had given a short speech, thanking everyone for coming. “Remember, it’s not what’s on the plates, it’s who’s around the table,” he’d said, as he did at every family occasion. “Cancer, shmancer,” he’d added, raising the glass of wine he shouldn’t have been drinking. “I’m a lucky guy.” Then he cut himself a thick slab of the chocolate cake he shouldn’t have been eating, but who cared? It was his ninetieth birthday for God’s sake, he’d earned the right to eat what he wanted to eat and drink what he wanted to drink, cardiologists, pulmonologists, and oncologists be damned. But the one thing she’d insisted on was that he use the wheelchair. The doctor had said that if he put any weight at all on his left leg, he could shatter his pelvis because of the goddamn tumor that was lodged in there like a stone. So just like that, his walking days—oh how they’d loved to hold hands and stroll around the neighborhood after dinner!—were over.
It took some getting used to, this towering over Jack who had always been so tall (so dark! so handsome!), six-foot-four to her five-foot-one. It was strange to look down on his darling dome of a head with all those freckles that she’d never noticed before, peeking out from under those few remaining thin gray wisps of hair. And still, out of habit, she asked him to get something down for her from the top shelf, “Honey, can you get me a jar of tomato sauce?” “Dear, can you reach my gloves?” He’d answer by raising one eyebrow and lifting his empty hands to the sky, a gesture so helpless, it took all she had not to fall into his lap and weep. One day she had the brilliant idea to buy him one of those grabber things, a long metal stick with a grip on one end to squeeze so that the claw on the other end would open and shut. But he never got the hang of it, and only used it to pinch her behind, which made her giggle like she was still that thirteen-year-old girl smitten by that sixteen-year-old good-looking guy who swore from day one that he would marry her, and then did, three years later on leave from the army. “We got married so we could have sex,” she was fond of telling anyone who would listen. “That’s how it was in those days,” she explained to the younger generation, delighting in the shock on their faces as they tried to imagine such a thing. But they couldn’t imagine how delicious those three years of waiting had been, the hand-holding, the kissing, the necking, the petting, and then finally…
“We had a pretty good run, didn’t we, Jack?” She took the note and his photo over to the kitchen table and sat down by the window—ever since he’d died she’d taken to sitting in his place so she wouldn’t have to stare at his empty chair—and read what he’d written again. Then she tried to imagine how he’d done it. He’d have to have snuck it up there when she was out at the store. He’d have waited until he heard the car start, no, until he heard her pull out of the driveway, because so often she turned the car on and then turned it off and came back inside for something she’d forgotten—the shopping list or the letters that needed to be mailed—and then once he knew she was gone, he’d have wheeled himself into the kitchen. She could see it so clearly: how he’d set the brakes on his chair and pause for a moment to gather all his strength like a prizefighter about to go into the ring. Plant both hands flat on the arms of the wheelchair and use all his upper body strength to push himself up into a standing position. Shuffle on stiff legs over to the kitchen cabinet and yank open the door. Reach up and take down the food processor. Slide the note out of his shirt pocket, unfold it, read it over one last time, then fold it up again so the two halves of the heart matched perfectly, and slip it under the lid. Lean against the counter for balance and lift the heavy kitchen tool up and place it back on the top shelf. Slowly make his way back to the wheelchair, turn around, collapse into it, and gasp for breath. Wheel himself back into the living room where she’d find him upon her return, sitting by the fireplace reading the newspaper, like he hadn’t just risked his life—so heroic! so romantic! so stupid!—to surprise her months later on the first night of the holiday when he knew he wouldn’t be beside her grating the potatoes for her to fry. “May I grate?” he always asked her, his way of acknowledging that she was in charge of the kitchen. “Just don’t grate on my nerves,” she’d answer, handing him the potatoes to wash.
“Jack, you fool,” she addressed his picture again. “You could have killed yourself.” She could have come home and found him on the floor in a heap. And then what would she have said to him? “I love you to pieces,” which was the last thing she’d say every night before they went to sleep. “I love you to pieces,” she whispered in the dark. “I’m a lucky guy,” he answered. She’d said it in the hospital because the nurses told her that hearing was the last to go, and even though he hadn’t eaten or drunk or moved or opened his eyes in three days, they insisted he could still hear, would still know her voice. So she held his hand, limp as a fish, and told him over and over, “I love you to pieces,” and when he didn’t answer, asked, “Are you my lucky guy?” And then when she had to get up to go to the bathroom—even now, nature calls, she’d thought, astonished—she said to him, “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.” A joke. Something he might have said if she was lying there like a lox and he was sitting beside her, standing guard. But it wasn’t a joke. She came back and he was gone. “Two minutes I was in there,” she told her sons. “A minute and a half.” The nurses tried and failed to console her. “It happens,” they said. “No one wants to leave the person they love most in the world. It’s easier to go alone.”
And now she was alone. On the first night of Chanukah. With a tear-streaked face, a head full of memories, five pounds of potatoes, and a houseful of company coming in an hour. So what could she do? Wash and scrub the potatoes, that’s what. Dig out their eyes with the end of the peerler, scrape off their skin, cut them in quarters, and feed them into the noisy machine to be grated one by one by one. In the cracked yellow bowl that had belonged to her mother, mix up the shreds with an egg or two and a fistful of matzo meal. Fry the latkes until they were crisp and golden, and spread them out on brown paper grocery bags to soak up the oil. Place them on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven on low to keep warm. Set the table with the silver they’d gotten from Jack’s parents on their wedding day. Yell “I’m coming” when the bell rang, tucking Jack’s note into the breast pocket of her blouse, to keep his heart close to her own. Open the door with dry cheeks, a smile on her face, and her arms open wide, for there were the children—some children! they were already sixty-six and sixty-eight years old—and the grandchildren with children of their own, the little ones crying, “Bubbe! Bubbe!” spinning around her like dreidels, making her dizzy with joy. And all of them gathered around as she lit the candles and sang the blessing and placed the menorah on the windowsill, so that wherever he was, Jack could look down and see it. I’m a lucky girl, she thought. And she was.
For Jack Terry Rubin, 1925-2016
May his memory be for a blessing