Repotting


“You look like you had a nice outing,” Maryann said, when I returned to the brick bosom of the Golda Meir House. She eyed the bag. “Where’d you go for lunch?” I told them Barry’s Deli, with my daughter, Mimi. Murmured approval from the girls. We were a sturdy group; I wanted to think that. Good for a number of years yet; I wanted to think that, too. Stiff, all of us, except for Lisa, who could still sit on the floor and cross her legs, yogi style. Things were hardening where they shouldn’t (arteries) and softening and crumbling where they shouldn’t (bones) but you had to get beyond that. You had to enjoy what you had before it dwindled into nothingness. Seeing Mimi, my daughter, does that to me—makes me wonder if I could have made her cheerier if I was cheerier myself.

“Pascal went out with his son,” Letitia said. She was a peppy one, and in her short plaid pleated skirt and tights, she could have passed for a high school cheerleader. If you looked at her from the back. And didn’t look at her waist. Her hair was thick, and she kept it a dusky blonde. Actually, looking at her did make you feel better.

“They went to the West Newton Cinema. The Israel film festival is there. Everything’s in Hebrew with subtitles.” This from Maya.

“His son could fill in anything that the subtitles leave out,” Maryann said. Pascal’s son was the cantor at the synagogue down the street, B’nai Or. He had brought Pascal up from Boca when the mother died. Like I came up from Delray when Sam died. Half of us here were transplants, the other half native New Englanders. We had transplanted ourselves to Florida, then heaved ourselves back up North, leaving behind the white rattan furniture, the pre-molded pottery we painted ourselves, the bathing suits, the sun visors, and, most of us, our cars.

We were still sitting there when Pascal came in. He was a mild looking man with still brown hair, though sparse, and a round face and big eyes behind his glasses that made him seem good-natured. His corduroy pants made him look like a professor, but he had owned a small grocery. A grocer who produced a cantor. I was impressed, though many of us had accomplished children. A cantor is different; you’ve got to be really an opera singer who knows the whole prayer book.

“Come over and sit down a minute,” Rina said. She’d been a nursery school teacher and had beautiful manners. “Did you like the movie?”

Pascal shrugged off his coat—his shoulders were still supple—and he sat down in a chair against the bank of plants. He accidentally knocked his chair against the ledge, and a long ivy vine stirred forward and dangled over his left arm. He brushed it aside carefully. When he stretched back, his elbow knocked the vine again and it snapped off. “I’ll take it,” I said, reaching out. “I’ll put it in a glass of water, and when it has roots, I’ll replant it in this box.” I surprised myself by saying this—I’d been known to pinch off bits of vine, get roots growing, and plant them in my apartment, using soil I asked Mimi to bring. They almost all took, and I had a little garden growing on the metal case of the air conditioner. Now here I was, trying to rectify Pascal’s mishap.

“You don’t need to grow roots,” Letitia said, taking it from me. “You can stick it right back in the soil. It’s worked for me many times. I’ll show you.”

“I’m the culprit,” Pascal said. “But putting it in water might be a good thing. My wife did that sometimes.”

“Seems a little gentler,” said Rina. She’d had a botched hip operation and maybe needed a redo. But they were giving her time in case it fixed on its own. Rina was what I privately called a lovely one, what my mother used to call a good soul. She didn’t play games.

Letitia could play games. Or maybe compete was a better word. Push others aside gently enough, because she was still a good person. She’d reach out for what she wanted, whether it was a vine or a job or a man. That sounds sensible enough. Maybe I should have done more of that, but it was like I had a non-compete clause written into my system. Still, I had ended up with a husband and kids and a nice house three blocks from the school I taught. Oak Place Junior High, where I had to compete only once—when another teacher wanted to teach my beloved seventh grade Ancient World History, and the principal blithely said fine until I put my foot down.

“Here, hon,” Letitia said, “take it.” She pressed the vine in my hand. The back of her hand was free of the raised veins that snaked across mine. I got a whiff of her hand cream, Ahava, I thought. Magnanimous, she was playing. But playing for whom?

All of us. Pascal. He was the only man in the group. And single. That word always reminded me of the past, of nights patting on Max Factor and rouge and doing my eyes. Yet I know they still use it today; it hasn’t gone out. We’ll ask a girl visiting her grandma if she has a boyfriend, and why wouldn’t she, they’re all so adorable, the ones who visit, and she’ll say, “No, I’m single.” There’s always a little shy duck of the head. They should know that very few boys are good enough for these girls. Of course I tell them, always adding that there are nice ones out there—I don’t want to discourage them—but they should grab if they find or someone else will. Sometimes the nicest girls need a little push.

“What is this, hot potato,” Maryann said. Maryann was an actress before she had kids, half a century ago, to be sure, and community theatre, but it was Chicago, where it would mean something. She knows every Tin Pan Alley song ever written. Her eyes are still clear blue. With sparkles in them, which I can see when I have my reading glasses on. And she still bothers to brush on mascara and glide on green or blue eye shadow. But those blue eyes, unlike a lot of blue eyes, have depth and smartness. I always feel you could never fool her.

Maryann’s words pulled me up short. I was making a fool of myself, though I was annoyed that she, smart as she was, had said something that exposed me. Showing everyone that I was as foolish as Letitia. The two of us, fighting over a man.

“Ladies, I’m going to leave you.” I was still holding the vine in two fingers. Most of the others, including Pascal, got up with me, clutching canes, releasing brakes on walkers, gliding the hand lever on electric scooters.

In the elevator I pressed 6. Maryann was standing behind me, her long eyelashes, pasted on but nice and straight, practically touching my hair—which could use a touch up, Clairol, medium blonde. Maryann kept hers gray, but she put on wigs or a chestnut brown bun with escaping curls, other variants of chignons. I pushed 5 for her. Come to my apartment for a minute, she said to me, I got a new framed picture of Amelia. Her granddaughter, twelve, already an actress and ice skater.

I got off with her, on 5. Her corridor was almost exactly like mine, just different pictures on the wall and different names on the doors. Pascal lived on 5, so he got off with us. Pascal’s apartment was two doors before Maryann, so I nodded goodbye. Before he could take out his key, Maryann linked arms with the two of us and moved us along. You come look too, she told him. My baby doll I have to show off.

We looked like a song and dance team, the three of us, ready to shuffle off to Buffalo.

Maryann thought the same thing. She let go of us and lifted her arms, her fingers spread wide on either side of her face. “I’ll go home and get my panties, you go home and get your scanties. Off we’re going to shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo.” She did a little soft shoe dance, and Pascal added his own little two-step. I clapped; they had style.

But I was afraid to look at Pascal’s face. Panties and scanties falling on the ears of a cantor’s father. I did look, and he was grinning. “Racier than any Yiddish song I can think of,” he said. “But how’s this—Mit zayne sheyne shvartse oygn, Hot er dan mir tsugetsoygn. Not so racy, but heartfelt.” A beautiful baritone—so that’s where his son got it. I didn’t have enough Yiddish to understand what he said, but Maryann belted out, “Oy, mama, bin ikh farlibt.”

Well, who was I not to put in my two cents. “Hey, good lookin’, Whatcha got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?” I tapped my pointed toe in time with my scratchy voice. “Oh, and do me a favor. What were you singing?”

“Mine was, when I look into those dark eyes, I can’t hold back all my sweet sighs,” Pascal said.

“And I was, Oy mama, am I in love,” Maryann said.

“That much I got,” I said. I didn’t want to be seen as a complete ignoramus. You know, Pascal and Maryann would be a good couple. Maybe that was what was going on here. I’d move aside. Move aside? I didn’t have a leg to stand on.

“I have a record of the song,” Pascal said. “You two should come and listen.”

“First things first,” Maryann said. “We must admire the little princess.” She led the way into her apartment and to her desk, a gilt rendition of something Louis XIV might have used to dash a note off at Versailles. She’d placed it between the wine brocade drapes, tied by gold rope with enormous tassels. Pascal sat in a corner of the burgundy velvet couch, and I sat leaning into the armrest on the other side. Maryann could sit in the middle if she wanted.

“Did you ever notice that people don’t sit three in a row on a sofa?” she said. “Even if the sofa is big, like this one.” She stood over us, holding the gold tone frame in both hands. “How gorgeous is she.”

“She’s beautiful,” I said. A preteen with long blonde hair and blue eyes smiled out at us, but a half smile, demure. She was smart and nice, writing emails to her grandmother and saying she wore all the clothes Maryann bought for her.

“I didn’t think the blonde Irish genes from her father would be dominant,” Maryann said. “But you know what my daughter told me? When the baby doll looked in the mirror the other day, she said she looked like her father, but she was her grandma.”

Who could top that? I gave my granddaughters money, not daring to pick out clothes past grammar school years. One girl would be wearing always skirts, so I’d buy a darling pleated plaid, and then she’d tell me she’d switched over to cowgirl skirts and boots, but maybe her sister would like it, her sister who was already two sizes larger. But Maryann was better at getting inside a young head, plus her daughter told her everything about what granddaughter Amelia thought and said and wore. And what size. My own daughter, my Mimi, she wouldn’t dish. To her credit, maybe Mimi felt I should talk directly to the girls.

“She’s a triple threat,” Maryann said. I look at her, startled.

“Ah, sings, dances, and acts,” Pascal said.

Can I help it if my children didn’t go into theatre at school? But Maryann and Pascal never made me feel inferior. For feeling inferior—and fat—I had my brother, may he rest in peace. I was always Fatso to him, from toddler until I married. Sam never stood for it, so Abe no longer dared. But the first thirty years were plenty. I married late. Sam didn’t care that I was shy and not much of a conversationalist. He liked to talk.

I got up to go. Better to give them a little alone time. I gave a big smile at Amelia’s picture and walked to the door, and they followed me. That’s right, they were going over to Pascal’s to hear music. And music I heard just then, tinkling out a little Mozart melody. Maryann’s cell phone. Mine had a generic six tone broken scale, not music by a long shot. I’ll ask my granddaughter to change it for me. Maryann ran to the desk where she kept her pink cellphone. “Baby doll! Speaking of the diva. I just showed my friends the new picture. No, the smile was just right. A little princess smile. Hang on a minute, hon.”

She turned to us, her eyes full of love, pure and simple. Oy, mama, bin ikh farblit. “When the baby calls, the grandma listens. So I’ll see you anon.” She cradled the phone so that her lips pressed against the mouthpiece. She laughed, wildly, clasping one hand to her breast. This call would go on awhile.

I waved to her, but she didn’t see. I nodded a very civil, well-meaning goodbye to Pascal and went into the hall. Couple things about this place, the halls are brightly lit, the ceilings high, the paintings just comforting enough without being smaltzy. And Maryann’s apartment was all of a kind, European hoity-toity. Ungapatch, as my mother would say. Overdone. One would think I couldn’t breathe in there, me who likes a few nice pieces of furniture, no excess pillows to plump or tables covered withtchotchkes. But I could breathe in there because her dècor was homage to Maryann. And really, I couldn’t get enough of her, strange as that sounds. She loved who she was, and any part she didn’t, she’d laugh at. She was the big lucky diva, and her granddaughter was a little one.

I was past Pascal’s door on the way to the elevator when he called after me, asking if I had a minute. “I could play the song we were mangling. Or the one you were—”

“Mangling,” I laughed. Was it a real laugh or fake? After a lifetime of polite laughter, it’s hard to know. He ushered me inside with a formal sweeping hand gesture. I hadn’t been in his apartment before, and it was plain and studious, with rows of overflowing bookcases, reading lamps, and well-used overstuffed chairs. Two things stuck out—the prints on the wall, smudged deep colors and broad, angry brush strokes, and the high end stereo-set in gleaming black.

“You like them? They may be a little hard to take,” he said, pointing to the prints.

“Awfully different from what we saw at Maryann’s,” I said. “Mine are mostly sedate little street scenes, with the rain coming down and people with umbrellas. And some Chagall.” I didn’t mention that I had needlepointed the Chagall, his windows, his people playing fiddles on the rooftop. I didn’t want to put myself forward. “Who’s the painter?”

“Chaim Soutine.” He fiddled with the record player (record player! Who still had one?) and put on Peggy Lee singing Fever. He said maybe we could listen to the Yiddish songs later. “He was from Russia, religious family, and his brothers beat him to an inch of his life when he drew. Graven images.”

“Horrible. Why are people so crazy.”

“So he went to France, painted sides of beef that hung in his studio for days. Also portraits and self-portraits, like this one. Plenty of impasto, thick gobs of color. Course you can’t really tell so much from my prints. They say he influenced abstract expressionism, which came a little later.”

“Did you talk to your wife about art and music?” The words were just out of my mouth when the shame rose in my throat. Who was I to ask about his wife? It wasn’t concern; it was nosiness. I wanted to find out what kind of relationship he had with her. But not out of a good heart.

“Thank you for asking about her, Tessa.” I don’t remember him calling me by name before. “No one up here knew her.”

“Wait, you don’t have to tell me anything. Maybe I’m prying. I’m sure I am.”

“You asked a small, polite question. I certainly don’t feel it as prying. It’s good to talk a little about the old days. Just not too much. You need the right balance at our age.”

“At any age,” I agreed, thinking of Mimi, who thinks too intensely about everything—her childhood, what we did wrong, the part she admits (not too often) we did right, her life now, is she following her bliss. “I don’t know if I asked it in the right spirit.”

“The right spirit, the right path, what, is this Buddhism?” He changed the music to Frank Sinatra singing “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Lovely… never ever change, Keep that breathless charm, won’t you arrange it?

“Or we could hear Connie Francis sing it,” Pascal said. “May I sit next to you?”

I slid over to the edge, giving him most of the couch. He sat close to me, but not too close, not crowding my personal space. This was not my usual late afternoon, to be sure, me sitting in a man’s apartment, next to him. So what, I chided myself, you’re not a young couple about to rip each other’s clothes off. It’s foolishness. You’re an old lady. Well, not that old, really, by today’s standards and using today’s medicines. I’m in my late seventies, not so bad. Not so bad—I was optimistic, of all things. Mimi says I’m catastrophic, assuming only the worst will happen. But sitting with Maryann’s boyfriend for a few minutes is not cooking up sad feelings.

“I don’t want to be thought of as forward—Heaven forefend—but this song reminds me of you. Keep that breathless charm. That’s you,” Pascal said.

“Maybe the breathless part. Stairs do that to me, but I insist on taking at least a flight once a day. Charm, that’s not me. As least no one told me that before. And my friends tell it like they see it. Besides,” I said, giving the back of his hand a slight slap”—now he’ll think I’m flirting, which I never mastered and don’t intend—”you shouldn’t be saying that to me.”

“I’m sorry. I was too forward. But it’s the truth,” he said, sitting up straighter. “You’re refreshing. You don’t push yourself on people, and everyone wants to tell you things. You care.”

“Tessa as care package. That’s a new one.” Didn’t have a clue how people saw me, though I’ve wondered. Or maybe this was just a line. “Shouldn’t you be saying these things to Maryann? She’s as breathless as I am, certainly.”

“Maryann? She’s a good friend, but we don’t have that sort of— as the kids say now—chemistry. Why do we always have to qualify what we say, as if we don’t deserve to talk like everyone else,” he mused.

“You’re right. What, we’re limited to cruisin’ for a bruisin’ and swell and Daddy-O?”

“And The Man and knuckle sandwich and skedaddle,” he added.

“And 23 Skidoo, kiddo. Listen to us, all that slang just popped out like it was yesterday.”

“That’s because it’s easier to—no – it’s just the past is more accessible.”

“You’re not kidding,” I said, pushing down certain years I didn’t want to revisit now. “I could tell that you and Maryann are a couple.”

“You could?”

“Of course. Dancing and singing together—you’re perfectly synched.”

“But that was just stage dancing, I promise you. We can dance, you and me. I have the Andrews Sisters and Sarah Vaughn and Peggy Lee.”

I looked at him. Earnest eyes, a remnant of a cowlick poking up in the back. I’d have a little talk with Maryann soon to make sure, but he was convincing. It occurred to me that she never intended on coming to his apartment, even if she hadn’t gotten the call. I stood up and pulled his hand. “One dance now. I’d like to.”

“You sure? I’ve been looking your way for a while.”

I was about to say at our age, it pays to speed things up. But I didn’t really feel that negative at the moment. Pascal pulled the album he wanted from the shelf, and Peggy Lee came on. You’ve got me in a spin and what a spin I’m in, ‘Cause I don’t know enough about you. 

We did our version of ballroom dancing, not too close, not too fast. “Did you pick this song on purpose,” I said. His hand was firm and warm and dry, and the arm around my waist had just the right pressure. “I know you’re a good dancer,” I said, “but I don’t know enough about you.”

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “If you tell me.”

Well, why wouldn’t I.

Karen Mandell
has taught literature and poetry at Lifetime Learning, sponsored by Newton (MA) Community Education. She has written two poetry chapbooks, The Story We Think We’re Telling, and Rose Has a New Walker. She recently completed Clicking, a book of interconnected short stories.

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