The Women of Tahiti
By Ann S. Epstein
The women of Tahiti hover as he convalesces on the veranda. Flowered dresses of sunset orange and peacock green ripple in the wind. Their skin is the color of strong tea sweetened with honey and lightened with cream. His eyes drink in the balm of their milky flesh.
Slender hands perform healing rituals above the staples covering his chest. The women’s smiles tame the angry cross-stitching on his right leg where severed veins have been rerouted to his heart. His doctor explained that blood vessels are normally stripped from the left leg, but his limb was shortened and weakened by polio during childhood. So the surgeon massacred his good leg, the sole source of stability in his life, to save his heart. By such logic, salvation lies in destruction.
Leviticus tells of ancient priests who slaughtered unblemished bulls to propitiate a jealous god and protect the people. Yet all their Temple sacrifices failed to spare the Jews from persecution and death. Why should the offering of his unblemished leg be any more successful?
Torches flare around the circumference of his tropical isle, charged with holding back the big-mouthed lion of post-operative pain. Other flames burst upon his vision. Candles stuck in the sand. He is seven years old, aboard the Rotterdam, sailing for America with his mother and aunt. The father he cannot remember awaits them in a gold-paved city called New York. He is with other immigrants in the ship’s dark hold. Though the days of their voyage are unmarked, a spiritual calendar tells them it is Friday. Sundown will soon descend above them. Where in this tinderbox of an ark can they kindle the Shabbos lights? A corner is cleared. Bags of wet sand, used for ballast, are emptied on the planked floor and heaped into a mountain. One by one, the women embed pairs of candles in this underwater Sinai. Matches flare. Their hands circle the flickering tallows, then cover their eyes. “Baruch atah, adonai...” begins the ancestral blessing.
His mother’s prayers continue when they reach the New World. No longer content with safe passage across the sea, she now wants miracles on land. Walking, running miracles. Bereft of the words in English, her eyes command the doctor to fix her son’s crippled leg. Plant the seeds for a new muscle, she mimes, grow him a fresh limb. The boy sees a flash of steel aimed at his harrowed flesh. Then blackness. He awakens to see the surgeon’s failure soiling his mother’s face. Hope wilts. The seeds planted inside his leg will not germinate. There will be no harvest celebration at Sukkot this year, or ever.
She dresses him in long pants before other boys his age have graduated from knickers. Tells him it’s because he’s the man of the house now that his father has disappeared again. But he suspects she is more ashamed of his withered leg than his father’s drinking binges.
He’s an adult now, and drunk himself, the only time in his life. Turned down for yet another job. His last shot at legitimacy, trying to break free of the petty work the Jewish mafia throws his way. This afternoon the manager said the store owner had decided not to hire someone after all – times were tight. But he knows the real reason is because his leg is short. A crippled salesman scares away customers.
He’s afraid to go home and face his pregnant wife’s sainted smile. The sight of her martyred mouth infuriates him. He knows resentment for his failures licks at the edges of her acid tongue. To delay the sting of her gaze, he rides the midnight subway from the Bronx to Queens, and sleeps off his bender in a Catholic cemetery. Awakens when creeping daylight nudges a sly paw under one eyelid. Limping slowly past tombstones on his way to the rusted gate, his quick mind interprets the odd inscriptions underneath tender Madonnas and winged angels:
“Landed at last.” This poor guy finally bought the farm.
“I got time.” He was a con paroled to an eternity in hell.
“Forever indebted to my Lord.” She never put so much as a nickel in the collection plate.
His first association with death trudges into consciousness. He’s ten, hanging around Jack’s candy store where the local chapter of the Kosher Mob meets at the table in the back. A rumor’s going around that Sid the Shyster and Moxie Maxie pulled off a hit for Bugsy Siegel last night. They’re making aliya to Palestine, laying low till the heat dies down. What did they see in the doomed man’s face just before they killed him? Did the victim’s life flash before his eyes? Was he ready to go? What will the man’s widow write on his grave?
He sounds like a cheder boy, making with the questions. Pity his God is silent on the subject of death. The rabbi told him Jews worry only about what goes on in this world. He envies the goyim who go to St. Anne’s down the block. Their priest tells them what happens next, after they die. He wants to know if there’s an afterlife. If so, what is he supposed to pack? Should he take his swimming trunks? How many changes of underwear will he need? Do they dress for dinner?
Big bands of Tahitian women sway to Siren songs from the swing era. Benny Goodman’s licorice stick beckons and he succumbs to the jazzy enticements emanating from its ebony hole. He turns up his hearing aid, taps his right foot. His re-plumbed heart is capable of carrying him around the dance floor now. Elderly widows compete for his attentions, grateful for even a half-ambulatory partner. Who cares if he has a pacemaker or a limp, as long as he’s upright and doesn’t smell too bad.
“Sorry,” he tells the golden girls two-stepping toward him. “I already have a partner. She’s the chief’s daughter, Princess Mah Jong of Tahiti.”
“Why would a young beauty want a gimpy geezer like you?” the rejected ladies jeer.
“Because heaven is just another retirement community,” he quips. “I’m one of the few men left. All the others are dead.”
His old man’s bravado weakens, powerless to stop his memory from replaying childhood taunts. He’s hanging around the candy store soda fountain. Friends brag about their muscles, hoping to attract the gangsters’ attention. Usually all the speech from his mouth drains into the hollow lameness of his leg. So everyone is surprised when he asks to be a courier.
“How ya gonna run, crazy cripple, when Hy’s guys comes after you wid a gun?” the other boys sneer.
“Shuddup,” Louie Latke tells them. “Dis kid’s got chutzpah. Speed don’t matter when ya runnin’ numbers. Discretion, dat’s what counts. We need someone what knows how to keep his mouth shut.”
So he gets the job. And a nickname, Silent Solly, to go with it. Like the streets in Fort Lauderdale, where he lives now, where everything has more than one name. Route I-75 is also Alligator Alley. Drive down 41st Street for a couple of miles and you discover you’re on State Road 7. The turnoff to his condo is at Oakland Park Boulevard and NW 49th Street. In tiny letters underneath the numbered street is a second sign—Tahiti Drive.
He hangs around the crap games at night and delivers the loot to Bugsy’s headquarters before dawn. The Yids and Italians cut him a small deal. They set him up at Madison Square Garden, too, selling peanuts at the fights. Every penny goes to his mother so she can buy food during his father’s long absences. Day-old bread, week-old vegetables. He hears a lot, lurking in the shadows. But Latke is right. He never squeals and he never gets caught.
Who is he kidding? Jews always get caught. Theirs is a vengeful God, it says so in Exodus, “visiting the sins of the father upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
He’s nineteen, just getting home from a night of boxing at the Garden. Sounds of another kind of fight knock against his ears. A bottle sticks out of a coat thrown on the couch. He hobbles at top speed to the back bedroom. All the strength missing from his left leg is concentrated in his right arm. He pushes his father off his mother, pummeling him until the shouts and pleas of all three of them recede into silence. A neighbor calls the cops and he’s locked up overnight with the bums and perverts. His mother testifies that her son was protecting her; all charges against him are dropped. The incident is never spoken of again, and days later his father disappears for good.
Citrus-scented clouds rise from the perfumed skin of the island ladies. They revive him with the pungent aroma of hibiscus blossoms. Petals the size of dinner plates waft under his vein-mapped nose. They bring him platters of fish wrapped in smoky banana leaves. Not the thin onion-powdered filets his wife insisted on serving after his heart attack, but thick roasted planks that still smell of sea salt and palm tree embers.
Gourds are held to his parched lips. He leans forward to inhale the soapy smell of coconut milk infused with rum. He gags, remembering his father’s boozy breath, undifferentiated in his youthful mind from the stench of oil and sweat that accompanied his infrequent returns home. He narrows his nostrils and pushes away the tropical elixir the generous women proffer.
The air reeks of sweat and peanuts, cigar smoke and perfume. He’s back at the boxing matches. Tipping forward, careful to rest his weight on his good leg, he exchanges a bag of roasted goobers for a nickel. It’s no longer the money he cares about after five years at the Garden, but the spicy fragrance that rises from the women’s breasts as their bulgy-faced boyfriends slap coins into his palm. He leans in closer, the crippled leg an arabesque behind him. Gimpy, pimply teen. He doesn’t exist for these ladies in their fox-footed furs. Might as well be a vending machine on the elevated train platform, dispensing peanuts to feed the pigeons. Crap on them dames. Would they be interested in him if they knew that he knew Abe the Axe was planning a hit on Shlomo Shmaltz at Katz’s Deli after havdala services on Saturday night?
Fat Shlomo. He’d bled like a stuck pig. Scratch that; there’s no pork at the kosher deli. He spewed red like the maraschino cherries crowning Katz’s famous mile-high cheesecake. Mrs. Katz used so much bleach to scrub out the stains, it killed the smell of salami for a week.
What does death smell like? Not the putrefaction of death when it’s old. He figures that it stinks like his old man when he’s been on a month-long bender, sleeping in the gutters and his own piss every night. And he knows about the stench of loosened bowels, an indignity even the most hardened gangster worries about on his way to the electric chair. What Solly wonders is how death smells at the very instant it arrives. Is it sickly sweet like ether? Rotten as a polluted river flowing to hell? Or is death tangy like just-picked lemons squeezed on banana-baked fish?
Pesach. Gathered at the Seder table to celebrate the Exodus from slavery. Ma nishtana ha lailah hazeh mikol haleilot? Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat sitting upright; on this night we recline. Once a year, on Passover, the people of Moses eat leisurely to show they no longer have to be ready to run from their oppressors.
He lies back so the Naugahyde recliner can support his elevated legs. Without his having to ask, the women of Tahiti bring him bowls of cherries with the pits removed. He stuffs the dark, firm, intensely sweet orbs into his greedy mouth. Crimson juice runs down his stubbled chin and pools on his knife-scarred chest. His wounds drink in this tasty blood. What’s that word the bald kids at the airport recite? A mantra. Yum, yum.
Do cherries grow in the tropics of Tahiti? He doesn’t care, they are the only fruit he likes. He also hates vegetables, unless potatoes count.
His mother buys wormy apples and rotting cabbage at the green grocer on the corner. Sometimes the store owner gives them to him for free when he spies him slinking home early in the morning after a crap game. If the shopkeeper forgets, his mother salvages the limp and spotted produce herself from the trash bin in the alley. The taste of poverty fills his nostrils and mouth.
He forbids his wife to cook vegetables in the house. He makes an exception for frozen peas and carrots when she pleads for the sake of their children’s health. Nothing strong-smelling, he warns her, and flies into a rage if his nose detects any stove-top treachery. Both his children grow up to be vegetarians. He doesn’t understand their choice, but he doesn’t really care what they eat. He knows he hasn’t been much of a father.
Youthful appetites control his mouth. Tables laden with food, huge portions he and his buddies compete to devour. Thick bloody steaks, fried shrimp and boiled lobster, greasy bacon sandwiches, bright pink slabs of ham. Chunks of meat and shellfish drowning in cream sauce. The young men love anything that isn’t kosher.
One day Louie Latke says, “Waddya want, Solly, so’s I can show my appreciation for ya keepin’ ya mouth shut?”
The only thing he wants is a new leg. Can money buy that? He turns up his hands and shrugs. Pressed for an answer, he asks to be set up in business. He’s got this idea for opening a non-kosher deli. There’s nothing else like it in the Bronx. It’s sure to be a hit.
Louie laughs and dismisses him. “We shall see what we shall see.”
His friends punch his arm. “Crazy dumb cripple. Who’s gonna eat in a place like that?”
They all go off to gorge themselves at the Greek diner and the Chinese restaurant. Later, they pick at the meals their mothers and girlfriends spend hours cooking at home. It takes years, but his wife finally gets her revenge. Beginning with his first heart attack, she serves only roasted chicken and broiled fish. No salt, only stingy flakes of freeze-dried onion to season her medicinal meals. He despises her good intentions even more than he hates her tasteless food.
The Tahitian handmaids don’t care about his clogged arteries. They feed him whatever his mouth craves. It’s them he loves. They know how to heal his heart.
Tender fingers slide from wrist to elbow, elbow to shoulder, then race back down his arm. He giggles, more ticklish than a toddler. The women of Tahiti massage his scalp through gray-black waves of his still luxuriant hair. They apply cool compresses of nubbly cloth to absorb the heat of his burning incisions. His breathing slows. Their gentle probes give way to penetrating pressure along his atrophied leg. All tension disappears beneath their touch.
The pain of the polio in his six-year-old limb fades, but his mother’s shame forever stabs at his manhood. Ill-fitting shoes daily chafe his deformed left foot. He spends hours cutting Dr. Scholl’s pads to line the insoles. The thin cushions fail to prevent his gimpy gait from rubbing his toes and instep raw.
A happier sensation. One summer he and his buddies rent a cabin in Jersey. Sun warms his thighs as he rows across Lake Hopatcong. Only six-foot Miltie the Cop has arms as strong as his. Mid-July, a group of girls take a bungalow on the other side of the lake. Going to squeeze some tomatoes, the guys joke as they carry coolers of beer and Hebrew National hot dogs down to the dock. Dock, dick. Thank God the polio stopped at his leg. Was FDR ever able to get it up again?
There is a tight feeling in his chest from a first, second, third heart attack. Maybe more; he loses count. Better to linger above the neck where it’s safest. Fizz teases his nostrils because Louie Latke is treating all the kids to a glass of seltzer. The others want to know what Louie’s celebrating. A hot night at craps? A successful hit on a rival gang? He never asks, just enjoys the two-cent plain tingle of his good luck. Years later there is free booze to go around on these mafia-made occasions. His friends toast the boss. Not him, no thanks. He makes polite excuses, says the whiskey turns his bum leg to rubber. The guys know about his father’s drinking, so they keep their mouths shut. He never knows if they know about his night in jail.
He waits twenty years for Louie Latke to ask him again what he wants. This time he knows. He’s read about an operation where they sewed new muscles into the arm of a guy who was hit during the war. Got the spare parts from some kid killed in a motorcycle accident. That’s what he wants the doctors to do to his leg. He’ll ask Louie for the money. But the question never comes again. And he’s Silent Solly, so how can he bring it up himself?
His children race between the apartment and the playground. The boy wants a basketball, the girl wants roller skates. They pester him to buy them bicycles. “We shall see what we shall see,” he tells them.
A bitter marriage, money problems, alienated children, heart attacks. Five, he remembers,
there are five coronaries. The same number of veins the doctor strips from his good leg and stitches to his failing heart. Pain, oh God, the pain.
Radiant light blinds him. The One Who Shall Remain Nameless calls out for him in the eternal silence. He recites the Shema, and then the Ve’ahavta: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.” His prayers implore his children and grandchildren to honor his memory by saying Kaddish. The waxy smell of a yahrzeit candle drifts beneath his nose. Offered a glass of Manischewitz, he accepts the sweet red wine this time.
Florida’s afternoon glare hits him as he stumbles out his front door into the busy intersection. The women of Tahiti lift him up. He’s flying over cars and pedestrians. His strong arms have become wings. He doesn’t need legs any more..