“Where’s Aunt Ruby?” I ask.
My sister Talia is slouched in the passenger seat. Talia is fifteen. She gives blow jobs to Ben Levinson in the temple parking lot after all the old yentas have gone home. I’m not supposed to know this, but I do, because Ben’s stupid sister Emma read through his text messages, and she told me in math class a few days ago and laughed when my face turned red.
“Ruby’s dead.” He says it just like that. “How many times have I told Lillian to take her keys away? And now she’s crashed her car on the damn Thruway. But what do I know?”
In Hebrew school that day we watched an episode of Torah Toons. It was the one about Jacob and the Angel. In Torah Toons, everyone has eyes that are empty white ovals, like the animator forgot to give them souls. When God wants to talk to the cartoon people, a red phone receiver drops down from the sky, dangling on a long curly cord. Andy Silver, who sits next to me, raised his hand and said, how come Christian kids get Veggie Tales, and we’re stuck with this old tape from the 80s? Why do Jews always get the sucky stuff? Our teacher, Morah Aviva, sent him to the director’s office. I giggled so she threatened to send me too.
Aunt Lillian and Bubbe meet us at our house. I peel off socks that are half-ice from walking through the snow to school that morning, and then again to temple. The town hasn’t plowed the sidewalks yet. They would be sorry if I lost my toes to frostbite. As the grown ups talk, Talia and I sit quietly on the couch, Talia braiding and unbraiding her hair. We both have our mother’s hair, thick and dark, with a stubborn wave.
Ruby was on her way back from Ladies’ Night at Casino Niagara, Aunt Lillian says. She went with the girls in her bridge club. She calls them girls but they are all old like her. Lillian says her car hit a patch of black ice on the Thruway near Tonawanda and went off the road. My father snapped that she should have taken Ruby’s license away.
“And who was going to chauffeur her around? You? Ha!” Aunt Lillian said.
“You’ll forgive me if I think my job is a little more important than making sure the synchronized swimming classes are running on time at the JCC.”
“Go to hell, Teddy. You couldn’t have been that concerned about her driving, you had her picking Gabby up every week.”
They continue like this for several more minutes until Bubbe sighs and says God willing she still has some time left, but by all means let her spend it listening to her children fight like dogs. Next to me, Talia’s fingers tap across the glowing screen of her phone. I wonder if she is texting Ben Levinson, if she is telling him cant meet u at temple 2nite.
“Are we doing a Jewish funeral or not?” My father, skinny, gray-haired, pre-hypertensive. He was at the hospital all day and most of last night and he doesn’t eat enough or sleep enough. A spot of blood has dried into a rusty smear near the ankle of his scrubs.
“Of course we are,” Aunt Lillian says.
“She didn’t exactly live a Jewish life,” he says. Aunt Ruby has a whole extra freezer in the kitchen full of bacon. She eats it nearly every meal. Our father always says it’s a miracle her blood hasn’t turned to Crisco. She does other things, too, my father doesn’t approve of.
“Teddy Kugel with his matzo-print yarmulke. God in His infinite wisdom appointed you to say who’s Jewish enough?” says Bubbe. “Don’t forget, I used to wipe your tuches.”
“Fine,” he says. “Where are we sitting shiva? Because I can tell you right now, we’re not doing it at my house.”
Aunt Lillian says she can’t host it either because her new carpets are being installed on Monday, and it is decided that shiva will be held at Aunt Ruby’s. I wonder who the blood on my father’s scrubs came from. If she had bled too much in childbirth, or maybe had a tumor tucked away in a secretive place. In the kitchen where I dropped the sugar bowl in the eclipse-dark morning, isosceles shards of Vaseline glass fluoresce a soft, eerie green in the last light of day. The bowl had belonged to my mother. There is no way to piece it back. The spoon is still sprawled unconscious where it fell, little splattered crystals lacquering the floor.
* * *
Shiva is supposed to last for seven days, but in our family it lasts until people decide they’d rather go to the mall or out to dinner. When Zayde died, shiva was three days. When Ruby’s oldest son died, it was two, and our father left after only one because his beeper went off and he had to go cut a baby out of someone. But Ruby once told me it was different for our mother. You don’t remember it, shayna maidel, but your father, he didn’t leave the house for seven days. He sat on the floor in his torn clothes, barefoot. He didn’t shave or shower or even eat. Ruby says he was different before she died. That he was softer.
But I don’t remember that version of my father, just like I don’t remember my mother. I was two when she died, of a quickly murderous cancer. Sometimes I think I remember things, a sweet heavy smell, her arms clutching me as she walked over sharp rocks at the lake, but I don’t know if they are real memories or things I’ve invented. But Talia was five. She remembers. Sometimes she tells me things and I pretend I remember them too. Her memories fill in the empty spaces.
Our father is an obstetrician-gynecologist. He doesn’t know what to do with two girls who have no mother. Sometimes he brings us into his office and shows us pictures of wart-infested vulvas and high-order perineal tears. He doesn’t know about Talia and Ben Levinson and the temple parking lot. He doesn’t know that Talia gave me some maxi pads to keep in my locker in case I started at school and that I’m afraid to talk to Andy Silver and that when Emma Levinson told me what my sister was doing, I didn’t really know what it meant. In the evenings when our father is at the hospital, Talia and I watch inappropriate TV shows. My body is still all hard angles, but hers has softened and risen like bread. She doesn’t talk to me as much as she used to, or play Barbie Soap Opera with me anymore. She burns with the quiet fierceness of things I don’t understand.
* * *
In the morning we go to Aunt Ruby’s to get things ready for shiva. The rooms here are filled with amulets, nailed to the walls, hanging in the windows–magic squares, and triangles inscribed with Hebrew, and blue eyed hamsas that stare at me as I move through the house. Our father and Aunt Lillian move things around so people will have spaces to sit. Talia does the dishes, and I dust and vacuum the living room. The furniture in the living room is covered in clear plastic that smells toxically sweet and crinkles with the small talk of ghosts. Heavy lamps roost on the end tables like gilded owls. Shelves overflow with family photos and tchotchkes—a mini Statue of Liberty, an old Brownie camera, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter salt and pepper shakers, fading portraits of dogs long since dead. A little blue and white cardboard tzedakah box sits on the windowsill. I pick it up and shake it. Coins rattle inside. I take it outside to our car so I can turn it in next time I’m at temple.
Aunt Ruby has long fake nails and she wore big jewelry and frosty lipstick. Her short curly hair often turns strange hues from bad home hair coloring. When Talia took geometry last year, Aunt Ruby tutored her and she pronounced CPCTC (“Corresponding Parts of Congruent Triangles are Congruent”) as though she were hacking up a giant hairball, Cuhpachhhtich. Our father and Aunt Ruby hate each other. No one in the family really knows why. Uncle Marvin says it is because our father put Bubbe, Ruby’s sister, in the assisted living home. Aunt Lillian says they fought over who would keep Bubbe’s antique curio case after Bubbe moved out of her house. The curio case disappeared and we all suspected that Ruby kidnapped it in the middle of the night. Our father would never tell what happened. Aunt Ruby would only say, “Teddy? He’s dead to me.”
But Aunt Ruby likes us girls. I think she feels sorry for us. So she picks me up from Hebrew school and comes to see us every week. She greets our father with a stream of Yiddish curse words, and he calls her an old bat and then she comes inside and heats up a pot of soup.
In Aunt Ruby’s house, our father covers the mirrors. Aunt Ruby said he was dead to her, but now she is the one who is dead. He must have covered mirrors once for our mother, in our own house. I wonder if this is something Talia remembers too. If it’s another memory I can take for my own.
* * *
The funeral is on Sunday. Freshly fallen snow echoes the pallor of the clouds so the whole world seems to be made of the sky. Ruby is being buried in the Jewish cemetery. Last year, the cemetery was vandalized. There were swastikas painted on some of the tombstones. One of them belonged to a three year old boy who died of Niemann-Pick disease. The boy was delivered by our father, and when our father heard about the vandalism, he went out that very night and scrubbed the granite clean.
Ruby’s coffin is wood and inlaid with a Star of David. It is lowered into the ground and we shovel dirt on to it. After the service ends, our father leaves Ruby’s grave and, beckoning for Talia and me to follow, he leads us to a bird bath filled with stones. He hands a stone to me, a stone to Talia. He takes one for himself. We walk silently through the rows and when we reach our mother’s, he slams his stone down into the snow on top of her grave marker. He walks away before anyone can see his face.
* * *
Aunt Ruby has—I mean, had—a side business that she ran out of her kitchen, talking to the dead. People would ask her to send a message to their deceased relatives and Ruby would speak to their souls and then bring a message back to the living. Aunt Ruby said she had been possessed by an ibbur, a friendly spirit, who gave her this gift. The ibbur was a girl who was separated from her family and then died in Bergen-Belsen.
At Ruby’s house now, Bubbe tries to light a candle in the living room but her hand is shaking too much, and Talia helps her. People take off their shoes when they come in. Bubbe and Cousin Donny, Ruby’s youngest son, wear torn black ribbons on their chests. I wish I had a ribbon too. Some men from temple lead the mourner’s kaddish. Talia has already forgotten the Hebrew she learned for her bat mitzvah. But for the first time since I started learning it two years ago, the Hebrew flows off my tongue and even though I only understand some of the words, they tingle through my bones.
Ben Levinson comes by, and Talia and I go sit in the family room with him. Ben is in 11th grade and he has a car and a Jewfro. He and Talia are pretending to just be friends, but they sneak a kiss whenever none of the grown ups are around. Cousin Donny moseys around the house smelling like wine and says to Talia and me, here, sweetheart, buy yourself something nice, and he hands each of us a $50 bill. Bubbe peers in the doorway and snaps at Talia to get her feet off the coffee table. Talia and I call her Baba Yaga behind her back. She would smack our mouths if she knew. She asks if anyone would like a bagel and lox.
“No thank you, Bubbe, I don’t like lox,” I say. Bubbe purses her lips.
“A Jewish girl who doesn’t like lox?” she says. “No wonder you’re such a skinny mini. Go, eat something. You want boys to look at you, you need some meat on your bones.”
Talia always tells me not to listen to things like that, but it still stings. I go into the kitchen and spread some cream cheese on a bagel. The weird buzzing in my bones is back and I shiver. Once last year, in the kitchen where she summoned the dead, I asked Ruby if I could speak to my mother.
“This I can’t do for you,” she said, stirring a pot of soup. “A child is not meant to speak with the dead.”
“But the ibbur does,” I said. “She’s a girl like me.”
“God forbid you’re a girl like her,” Aunt Ruby snapped. “The ibbur speaks to the dead because she’s one of the dead. In the camps she had to prick her fingers and rub blood on her cheeks to look healthy. You have rosy cheeks and the sun in your hair. Do you want some soup?”
“I’m not hungry,” I said. “What do you think she would say? What do the other ones say?”
She plopped some steaming matzo balls into a bowl for me. “Our lives are like the grass,” she said.
“What does that even mean?”
“Eat your soup, OK?”
When my father found out what she said, he was furious with her. The whole ghost business was a shanda, he said, a disgrace. I’m pretty sure this is the real reason he stopped talking to Ruby. Even then I was old enough to know that she probably just told people whatever they wanted to hear.
* * *
Ben is there again on the second day of shiva. He sneaks into a bedroom with Talia. Andy Silver and his family come by too. His parents bring a basket of fruit. I smile at Andy and then blush and hope he doesn’t see me blushing.
“I’m sorry. About your aunt,” he says.
“You missed another great episode of Torah Toons today,” he says.
“Did you get sent to Mrs. Leichner’s office again?”
“No, but my dad told me I have to learn to keep my mouth shut or he’ll make everyone do the Macarena at my bar mitzvah.” Then he pretends he is pulling a phone down from the sky. “Hello? God? Please make Hebrew school suck less. And smite the temple’s VCR. Thank You. Amen.”
I giggle. An old lady I don’t recognize comes in the front door. She throws her hands in the air when she sees me and says, you don’t even remember me, do you? She pinches my cheek. The eyes on the wall stare at us, blind and unblinking.
* * *
Bubbe pulls Talia out of the bedroom. She sends Ben Levinson out the back door so our father won’t see him. She yanks Talia to the living room by her collar and sits her down next to me on the plastic sofa. Then she looks at us and tightens her lips and shakes her head.
“What’s going on, Ma?” our father asks.
“Girls,” she says. “Ruby always wanted a girl. What for? Her boys may have been loud and dirty, but a girl? She will break your heart a thousand times before she’s grown.”
“Good thing our mother is dead, then,” says Talia. “So we don’t have to disappoint her.”
“In front of your sister you say this?” says Bubbe. She lets off a torrent of Yiddish. “Do you know what that means? Sometimes a dog is more faithful than a child.”
“Ma, enough,” says our father. “Talia, watch your mouth.”
Talia stomps out of the room. Bubbe says something to my father in Yiddish. I don’t understand it, but his cheeks change color. Then she says, this fight you’ve been having with God for ten years? Get over it. My father crosses his arms and turns toward the window, folding in on himself.
I find my boots and duck out the door into the frozen evening. I trudge through the snow until I’m in the middle of the yard, the street and houses and trees blanketed in silence, and twisting around me, flurries and emptiness. The tingling in my limbs hardens, ossifies into the matrix of my bones, and something spectral envelopes me, our arms intertwining. In its shadow embrace the rhythms of languages learned and forgotten over centuries speak their tongues inside me, shards of broken glass, corresponding parts of congruent triangles are congruent, gyres of ocean crossings, a thousand blue-eyed stares. The street light catches on the ice-glazed branches of the trees. They look so pretty, like the fingers of an ibbur girl, like shimmers from the world to come.
* * *
Talia has uncovered the mirror in Ruby’s room. The mirror has an ornate carved frame and the glass is spotted with age. She sits in front of it, trying on one of Ruby’s hats, tilting her head and pouting her lips. When she catches my reflection, she tells me to close the door.
“I keep pretending we’re sitting shiva for Mom,” I say.
“Be glad we’re not,” she says.
“Do you remember it?”
She picks up one of Ruby’s lip glosses from the vanity and smears it across her lips, sparkly pink. “Come here, you’ll look cute in this color.”
I perch on the vanity and she traces the shape of my lips with the brush. Pretty, she says. She coats her eyelashes with mascara and looks in the mirror again, opening the top button on her shirt and adjusting her breasts. She’s probably meeting Ben later. She smudges a metallic color across my eyelids and puts some mascara on my lashes. You’re going to be gorgeous in a few years, Gabs, she says to me.
“Tell me what you remember,” I say. She sighs.
“I don’t remember a lot, OK? I was a little kid. All I really remember is Aunt Ruby trying to make Dad have some soup.”
“Because he wouldn’t eat. She told him if he didn’t at least have some broth, he’d kill himself. She sat on the floor with him and made him eat it. That’s all I remember.”
Outside, it is still snowing, big lacy flakes that flutter to the ground. The sun is a burning ball that hangs low behind the skeletal trees. She takes off Ruby’s hat, deep green velvet with big felt flowers, and puts it on me. She tucks a lock of hair behind my ear.
“Cuhpachhhtich,” I say.
“You didn’t even try on this math homework, Talia Rose Kugel,” says Talia. We giggle.
“Do you think Aunt Ruby was really possessed by that dead girl?”
“Not possessed. Just crazy,” she says. “Go find me another hat.”
I slide off the vanity and open Ruby’s closet. It smells like dust and her flowery perfume. The rack is bursting with clothes–floral prints, sequins, shimmering satins and polyesters. Shoes are scattered on the bottom. Her hats are stacked on a shelf to the side, and I pull out one for Talia, a polka dot one with ostrich feathers spraying out from the band. She sets it on her head and strikes a pose at me.
The door opens and our father comes in. He is wearing his coat. Talia jumps up and pulls the sheet back over the mirror, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“My God,” he says. “When did you two grow up so much?”
“Can we take some of these hats?” Talia says.
“Put them back,” he says, and then his eyes land on a piece of furniture in the corner, a round set of cherry shelves set in glass. He laughs. “The old bat had it all along! I wonder if it’ll fit in our backseat.”
“Can we go soon?” Talia asks. “I’m starving, and I will literally puke if I have to eat any more of Aunt Lillian’s cooking.”
“Let’s go get some pad Thai,” he says.
Talia hands me her hat. They leave the room but I stay a moment more, looking at Ruby’s things. I put the hats back in the closet, and that’s when I see the red phone on the top shelf, one of those old rotary ones, half hidden behind a shoebox. I can’t remember seeing Ruby ever use it. I stretch on my tiptoes and snag the cord with my finger and tug. The phone topples down, almost hitting me in the face. My father calls my name from the next room, telling me to hurry before the roads get bad. I hesitate, then pick the receiver up and hold it to my ear. “Hello?” I say.
On the other end, only silence.
Rebecca Saltzman is a writer and Hebrew school drop out from Rochester, New York. Her writing also appears in McSweeney's and Kveller. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, she currently lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and children.
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