Elizabeth Edelglass’s stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review (winner of the Lawrence Foundation Prize), Lilith (short story contest winner), In The Grove (winner of the William Saroyan Centennial Prize), American Literary Review, Passages North, New Haven Review and more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best New American Voices and has won a fiction fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She is currently at work on a collection of linked stories and two novels.
“Over there,” Ma instructed, handing Ruth a tin pan heavy with her homemade apple cake oozing caramelized brown sugar and cinnamon, a few burnt bits just begging to be plucked and devoured. “Put in front,” she said. And Ruth knew she meant in front of the store-bought babka Uncle Harry’s wife Hannah had brought in a string-tied box, then set out on her own fancy cut-glass platter from home. Ruth had already noticed Ma nudging Hannah’s cake to the back of the counter.
“Thinks she’s such a big shot, can afford store-bought,” Ma grumbled, “then pretends like homemade with the fancy plate. Never mind if she baked herself, dry like straw.”
“Ma,” Ruth whispered, trying to be casual, pretending not to be shushing her mother. The other wives stopped blowing across their hot tea to listen, but Hannah-Harry’s took a big slurp as if they weren’t talking about her.
Ruth and her mother were in the kitchen with the women, laying out food for the men—Pop and his brothers, number-two Harry and the rest, plus a couple of their cousins, a tribe of shiny Brylcreemed heads tilted towards their joint reflection on the polished wood of the table where they were about to carry on their family circle meeting as seriously as a gathering of the Supreme Court. Ma always said they rented this otherwise bare Brooklyn basement for their monthly meetings just for that table, never mind the narrow alley kitchen where the women couldn’t help but brush bosoms past shoulder blades, someone’s soft tush against someone else’s girdled hips.
“It ain’t her turn, anyway,” Ma said, whispering now, but a loud whisper, loud enough for Hannah to hear, maybe wanting Hannah to hear. Hannah’s babka was as good as in the trash. It was Ma’s month to bring the food, and she didn’t like the other wives trying to show her up, although she would grouse later if they didn’t offer to lend a hand in the kitchen.
As soon as Pop smacked down his gavel on the table to call the meeting to order, he and the men offered a better target for the women, better than carping among themselves.
“Who do they think they are?” Uncle Abe’s wife Channah snorted.
“The Tsar’s generals plotting war?” Uncle Phil’s wife Ann added.
“Or the Knights of the Round Table?” Ruth chimed in, but the wives turned to stare. “What I’m studying in school,” she mumbled.
“Here, cut,” Ma said, handing Ruth a bakery bag full of rolls and a knife long and sharp enough to butcher a cow. Ma might not mind what the other wives heard her say, but she was cautious about what Pop might hear.
Ma’s cousin Fanny, always stylishly corseted with breasts at attention, started to unwrap the whitefish and herring—Ma trusted her only blood relative in the room with the most expensive part of the meal. Channah-Abe’s and Ann-Phil’s got busy arranging slices of tomato and onion and sweet Muenster cheese in decorative shapes like Chinatown paper fans. Now that Ruth commuted to college in the city, Fanny sometimes invited her downtown for eggrolls and fortune cookies and even the occasional fruity cocktail with a paper umbrella. Don’t let the umbrella fool you, Fanny always said if Ruth downed hers too fast.
Fanny had a job in the city. It was a factory job, stitching shirtwaists amidst a gaggle of girls, who were really women, all bent over their machines with their fingers flying, like the men bent over the table with their mouths flapping today. Not much, some might say, not much Pop did say, on a regular basis. But it was a job, and it was hers, instead of a husband.
Pop’s cousins’ wives dawdled quietly in a corner, as if trying to fade into the chipped paint, like the second-class citizens they knew they were in the family circle. They were not helping, but also not interfering. Hannah-Harry’s, on the other hand, was already making herself a sandwich, grabbing the first roll out of Ruth’s hand, plucking cheese and drippy slices of red tomato from the pretty fans as fast as Channah and Ann could fashion them, even trying for a forkful of whitefish if Fanny hadn’t slapped her hand away.
Ma handed Ruth a dishcloth, from a pile she’d brought from home, to mop up Hannah’s mess. Ma’s dishcloths were rectangles of the softest bleached linen that she had hemstitched herself, finer than any fabric she used to make her own shirtwaists. These were precious remnants from Ruth’s old Rosh Hashanah blouses, a new one brought by Fanny each year when she arrived for brisket and tzimmes. Probably smuggled out of the factory in Fanny’s big black purse, Ruth’s fine once-a-year blouse, and at what risk? The cloth in Ruth’s hand now bled the red of ripe tomato juice. Ma pushed Channah and Ann aside to doctor the plate herself, hastily rearranging new, only slightly crooked fans.
The men wouldn’t care about fans, would attack the spread as soon as Pop banged down the gavel to end the meeting, as if they hadn’t been fed since they’d left Russia. The men were always hungry, scarfing down Kaiser rolls and pot cheese, never mind poppy seeds and curds catching on the scruff of their chins that had been clean-shaven just that morning, as if fighting with their only relatives in America made their beards grow faster, five o-clock shadows appearing before lunch.
It would end up a late lunch, two- or three-o’clock, European lunchtime as Ruth had learned, not from Ma, but from her well-traveled teacher in Eur. Hist. 101. The first one to start college from the first generation of her family born in America, and what was she required to study first thing freshman year? European history. But Ruth didn’t think of Ma and Pop as belonging to that Europe. What did Przasnysz have to do with Paris, shtetl rebbes with the Reformation?
Today’s meeting had gotten off to a late start, Ma’s apple cake requiring a slow oven back home. “Quit dawdling,” Pop had hollered, standing in the street with the car door open. But Ma wasn’t about to turn up the heat and risk burning her cake, so they didn’t get on the road until she and the cake were good and ready. Secretly, Ruth knew, Pop didn’t mind being late. The meeting couldn’t start without him, family circle president by dint of being the oldest. Let the others wait. But his foot had jerked from gas to brake and back again all the way from Newark, and Ruth’s stomach had sloshed in the back seat, her long legs tucked up to her chin and her tush wedged tight between her brothers Joey and Izzy. Never mind she was the oldest—stuck in the middle because she was a girl.
The biggest reason lunch would be late was that the brothers were embroiled in their monthly argument about the cemetery, a hundred grassy plots purchased with family circle dues, their parents, Ruth’s Bubbie and Zaydie, buried smack in the middle. The brothers and cousins might live scattered throughout the five boroughs and adjacent suburbs, but in death they would be reunited with their parents, wives, children, uncles, cousins, and the whole mishpocheh in the Jewish-cemetery-heaven of South Jersey.
The question was: how would they be reunited, who’d be more reunited than whom? Who would get buried next to Papa, who next to Mama? Whose wife’s sister was deserving of a plot, whose wife’s cousin was not. This argument had preoccupied every family circle meeting since the unveiling of Bubbie’s and Zaydie’s headstones last year. Not that any of the brothers were dying, nor even sick, but they were planning ahead, staking their claims while they were still young enough and strong enough to fight it out, even with fisticuffs if it should come to that.
“Forget about it,” Pop scoffed in answer to a suggestion from one of the cousins, Hymie or Heshie, that they toss a coin to see who would sleep where for all eternity. When Zaydie was alive, Hymie and Heshie had been stuck in second-class silence on account of their father, Zaydie’s brother, never made it to America. Now, one or the other brought up the coin toss every month, and Pop shot it down every time. As the oldest, and the family circle president, Pop had first dibs on the plot next to Zaydie, and he wasn’t about to entertain any doubt or any question.
“As if any one of them would let go of a nickel long enough to toss,” Hannah-Harry’s muttered in an undertone meant only for the kitchen. Then she sidled her babka in front of Ma’s apple cake, ostensibly to cut herself a piece, which she proceeded to eat with dramatic lip smacking and finger licking, as if it were tastier than any cake any of the women could remember their own mothers ever baking back home, those cakes growing in memory with the passing of miles and years.
When Hannah went off to the bathroom, a mustache of white sugar failing to mask the ugly black mole on her upper lip, Ma pushed her babka behind Ruth’s pile of rolls and sent Channah and Ann to check on the kugel. Ruth knew Ma wouldn’t take the kugel out of the oven until Pop had sounded the gavel to end the meeting, time to eat, but the oven was near the bathroom door, the better for the other wives to get an earful of Hannah tinkling and passing gas.
Zaydie had never needed a gavel when he ran the family circle. He’d never even needed to raise his voice, not with four strapping sons who bent to hear every gruff whisper. It was Ruth’s brother Joey who’d suggested a gavel when Pop took over, not a real gavel, just a hammer from Pop’s toolbox. But when Joey had shown Pop to hit the table with a loud smack that made everyone jump, then who cared that Pop had never heard the word gavel before.
So now here was Joey, seven years younger than Ruth, already sitting at that table with the men, butting his nose in like practicing for his own turn to take over. Joey, who had lately started helping out on Pop’s plumbing calls. His hand on Pop’s hammer showed new calluses and a nasty red arc where he’d been burned by the welding torch—either he’d been too slow to get out of Pop’s way, or Pop couldn’t be bothered to wait. But the scars were not a sign that he was still just a careless boy. To Pop, they proved him more of a man even than when he’d loomed a head over the rabbi at his Bar Mitzvah last month.
Joey might’ve been tall, which on him, unlike on Ruth, was considered an asset, but he was still a kid, sitting at Pop’s elbow, brandishing the gavel through the air whenever Pop wasn’t looking. And Pop wasn’t looking, too busy yelling at the brothers and the cousins, all of them flailing smoldering cigarettes, ashes threatening to fly off and burn, everyone yelling, half Yiddish, half English.
When the tea kettle whistled its interruption, Pop shot Ma such a look that she yanked it off the stovetop without first shutting off the burner, gas flames licking into the air, lapping at the apron hanging low over her ample bosom.
“I’ll pour,” Ruth said, pushing Ma back from the flame.
But Fanny shouldered them both aside. “You got homework, go do it.” She pointed Ruth towards the book bag she always brought in hope of sneaking in some schoolwork between serving and dishwashing. “And you,” she turned to Ma, but then they leaned in close, so Ruth couldn’t hear the rest.
While Ruth settled into the only spot available for studying, a corner of hard linoleum, and waited for her heavy history text to transport her to the Crusades, Fanny poured two steaming glasses of tea and strode to the table, where she slopped them down in front of Pop and second-oldest Harry. “Watch out, it’s hot,” she warned, daring to interrupt Pop, whose mouth startled shut for an instant before he remembered whatever he’d been hollering about and carried on as if Fanny didn’t exist.
Fanny, who wore red lipstick and the nicest lace-trimmed shirtwaist in the room, actually paid dues to the family circle, had somehow been finagled in by Pop before the other brothers had had time to think better of it. Ordinarily, wives’ relatives didn’t count as family. It wasn’t that Pop cared boo about Fanny, but he’d liked putting one over on the other brothers.
Even as a dues-payer with no husband to represent her, Fanny wasn’t invited to sit at the table, never mind to speak. But she had the nerve to approach the men for a listen under the pretext of hot tea, while the wives waited in the kitchen for her to report back. They knew Fanny wouldn’t say much except to Ma, but still they plied her with the first slice of apple cake upon her return, two cubes of sugar in her tea set out on the kitchen counter, with a chair pulled up, she should take a load off, let the others eat standing up, balancing plates and forks and glasses.
“Papa… Mama… Papa… Mama,” Fanny whispered to Ma, but loud enough for all the women to hear. Her contented sigh at the first bite of Ma’s apple cake said more than all of Hannah’s licking and smacking over her store-bought babka. “Enough already with the Papa and the Mama.” Fanny set down her fork to free a hand for flapping in disgust.
With that one gesture, Fanny dismissed all the jockeying for cemetery position next to Papa and Mama, but not because it was laughable in the way Ruth and Joey used to laugh about it before he took up his seat at the table. The women had no patience for this argument that seemed like it would never die. Not these women whose own papas and mamas had been left behind long ago. Women whose parents might be dead already, with the letter to inform them still months in transit, parents maybe buried who knew where across the ocean, if they were lucky in a familiar shul graveyard that would only ever be seen again in memory. No, these women didn’t care who would end up buried next to Papa, who next to Mama. Even the cousin who might get ostracized to the farthest corner would still be here in America, his children able to walk across the plush green grass to set a stone on his grave.
“Why not first come, first served?” Hannah murmured for women’s ears only. “You want to get buried next to Papa,” she explained, brandishing the knife she’d used to cut her babka now in the direction of her own husband Harry, “you gotta be the first one to drop dead. Problem solved.” And the other wives chuckled in agreement. Even Ma, who covered her mouth to hide the fact that Hannah had made her smile.
All of a sudden Pop was summoning Ruth to the table, probably to ask her opinion, to show off what she was learning at that expensive college he was paying for, never mind her scholarship, let them think he was paying. She tucked in her blouse, licked her lips to mimic the sheen of Fanny’s lipstick, pulled herself up from the linoleum to her full height, shoulders back.
But no, he just wanted a sheet of paper from her notebook, paper for Joey, of all people, he should draw a picture of the cemetery, a map of where everyone should end up, settle this in writing once and for all. “And a pencil,” Pop called after Ruth when she went to fetch her book bag. “You got a ruler?”
“I brought history, not math,” Ruth said, returning with paper and pencil but no ruler, holding out the history text for explanation.
“History?” Pop said. “Like we don’t already know what already happened?” And he looked around for nods of agreement from the men. “Arithmetic you could use in the real world, measure a pipe, figure the water pressure. Ain’t that right, Joe?” with a big smile at his son. Now all of a sudden it was Joe, no more Joey. “But history, who needs it? Just a bunch of girls.”
Goyls was how he pronounced it. And the room grew quiet.
The grown men, who’d begun to lean forward to watch number-one son Joe perform a miracle with Ruth’s paper and pencil, now backed up straighter in their chairs.
Even the women in the kitchen ceased their chatter.
What nasty words would bubble up Ruth’s throat? What smart retort would burst forth from her mouth?
And then, what new and different fight would break out?
Thump…thump…thump—the only sound in Ruth’s ears for a moment—not her dangerous heartbeat, just innocent Izzy and the younger cousins out front tossing their rubber ball against the stoop. She felt the weight of the history book in her hand, heavy as a baseball bat, a sharpened sword, a medieval pollaxe.
“Kugel’s ready,” Ma announced. And she appeared, as if from the trenches instead of just the kitchen, with her huge steaming pan just yanked from the oven. Only a couple of dishcloths protected her hands from the scalding tin as she hefted the trough onto the table directly in front of the men. They barely had time to pull their own hands out of the way.
Pop had no choice but to bang down his hammer, calling for lunch. “Leave Joe in peace,” he said with a satisfied grin. “Let him concentrate.”
There was nothing left for Ruth but her corner and her books—battles and blood and battering rams and burnings at the stake. The pages in front of her eyes faded into a blur of penciled-in notes and crisscrossed underlining, the remnants of previous owners that had made the book cheap for her to buy, but would make it harder for her to resell.
“Come, Ruthie, eat.” It was Fanny offering a plate of kugel and a generous helping of whitefish, tender flakes she’d scooped from the belly of the fish, which Ma usually saved for Pop, not the bony dregs near the tail. If Ruth felt slighted by her father, there’d be little sympathy from the wives. Boys grew to be men and girls grew to be women and that was life. But Fanny, who worked all day for boss men without one to call her own, maybe Fanny had an inkling. “You helped fix this food,” she said, “you might as well eat it.”
It was out of the ordinary for the meeting to carry on through lunch. The men brought their plates back to the table, scattering fish bones and hard-boiled-egg shells, so Pop himself had to push aside the mess, clearing a space for Joe to work.
After cake had been served, and more tea, and also watery coffee for the few who wanted, Joe presented his plan, a neat grid of squares and rows, showing how all four brothers could lie near their parents by putting one next to Papa, one next to Mama, one at the parents’ head, and one at their feet. “It’s easy,” he said, “like geometry. Four brothers, four sides.” And he pointed out designated quadrants for the wives and the children and the future generations. The four outer corners of the sizable property, he’d assigned to cousins Hymie and Heshie and Fanny and old man Teitelbaum, a friend from the old country whom Ruth had been taught to call Uncle even though Ma could never entirely explain if or how he was related.
In a way, it was absent Teitelbaum, maybe purposely-absent, cowardly Teitelbaum, who’d started this whole megillah when his wife died last winter and everyone arrived at the cemetery for the funeral to find the plot next to Mama opened up to receive her. There was nothing they could do at the time, what with the casket already out of the hearse and the frozen ground around the hole covered with snow. But don’t think the brothers didn’t have a plan to dig up old lady Teitelbaum and move her just as soon as they’d figured out where to move her to. They would get her into the corner by next week, if they could vote today to approve Joe’s proposal.
But Uncle Harry, who was penciled in next to Mama, didn’t like that Joe had assigned Pop, his own father, the prime spot next to Papa. And Uncle Phil, the youngest, wasn’t at all keen on lying for all eternity next to Mama and Papa’s feet. “Their feet?” he said. “Their feet?”
Then Pop must have realized that if Uncle Abe was placed at the top, next to Mama’s and Papa’s heads, why then he’d be next to both of them, both of them. All of a sudden the burial plot next to his father that Pop had been claiming for months didn’t seem like the place of honor after all. “So, okay,” he said. “Abe wants next to Papa, I give in, I’ll switch.”
“Never mind, I keep what I got,” Abe said.
Meanwhile cousin Hymie pushed back his chair with such force that it clattered over as he stood. “The corners?” he said. “You giving us the corners?” meaning him and Heshie. “We ain’t good enough to lay next to you? Our money was good enough when you wanted to buy the place!” And he stormed out of the apartment in his shirtsleeves, Heshie running after, both of them side-stepping the ball that flew through the unexpectedly open door and landed with a threatening thwack at Pop’s feet.
So the argument took up where it had left off before Joe had been assigned to save the day. It was just the four uncles now, which in some families might have been less fractious than with the cousins thrown in. But here the opposite was true, the brothers free to curse at each other, to denigrate each other’s physiques and intelligence, without having to pretend a united front against the cousins.
At some point, somebody must have felt the need to tear Joe’s master plan into angry shreds, which Ruth didn’t mind sweeping up with the cigarette butts and eggshells after one of the aunts handed her a broom. Joey, once again Joey, had long since abandoned the gavel, snatched up the ball and fled outside to join the game.
The gavel lay silent on the table next to Pop, just a rusty hammer again, the only thing silent at that table. Not that anyone had any further hope for the argument to end today, but the meeting couldn’t be called to its conclusion until Hymie and Heshie returned, or else how would their wives get home? None of the women knew how to drive, and none of the uncles would be in the mood to offer a ride—the aunts knew better than to ask.
So Ma put up another pot of tea and started pulling wax paper wrappings off the leftovers. She would regret this tomorrow, when she’d normally have served the leftovers at home for lunch. She didn’t stomp around or complain the way Ruth might have, but she balled up the wax paper into the trash instead of folding it neatly to re-use.
Ruth retreated to the tiny bathroom, the one Hannah-Harry’s would have been wise to avoid earlier, practically in the middle of the kitchen as it was. That practically public bathroom was the reason Ruth rarely ate much at family meetings, definitely not onions nor glass after glass of sweet tea. But now she squeezed in with her history book and her notebook, sat on the toilet with the door ajar for light. She’d have to copy out notes, the textbook too obscured by its previous owners for another round of underlining. But instead, she found herself doodling on the note paper, her own plan for the cemetery, like Ma’s apple cake cut into eight wedge-shaped slices, one wedge for each brother, and one each for the cousins and old man Teitelbaum. They could all lie in a circle, with their heads next to Papa and Mama, or their feet.
Maybe they would alternate heads and feet, like the younger cousins did when they were all put to sleep across one bed after a late-night Passover seder. Ruth leaned her back against the toilet tank, her oxford shoes up against the far wall, which of course wasn’t really far at all, her knees skewed at an awkward angle. But she could almost forget where she was, having fun now sketching the brothers lying prone in their graves, Pop with his glasses, Phil’s daring goatee, Harry’s prominent paunch that Ma always attributed to Hannah’s cooking, fatty and filling.
She drew in trees and some pretty flowers, even though Jews don’t do flowers on graves. She was just adding the mole to Hannah’s lip on the body next to Harry and his paunch, a smear of black that she’d always wondered how it might feel to the touch—like an angry raw pimple or a swath of fine velvet?—when she heard the apartment door slam, followed by the immediate bang-bang-bang of Pop’s hammer, time to pack up. Pop would be in a rush to beat the Sunday night traffic, once again late, probably cursing every red light all the way home.
Ruth came out of the bathroom to find the brothers standing and stretching, putting out their cigarettes and putting on their hats. Hymie and Heshie were back, their mouths shut, at least until next month.
“Where you been?” Hymie’s wife asked.
“Around the block,” Hymie said, barking the words in a tone that every woman in the room knew meant none of your business.
“A long time for around the block,” the wife said. “You must be getting old, pretty soon you’ll need that corner plot.” It was the most Ruth had heard from either of the cousins’ wives all day, and her instinct was to back away in case Hymie’s fists should fly. But Ma and all the aunts were inching closer to Hymie’s wife, practically surrounding her, as if at any moment they might whip out shields from under their skirts to form one of those protective tortoises like Ruth had been reading about in her history book, medieval siegecraft.
The room simmered for a moment, until Hymie turned away to fetch his hat from its peg on the wall, and Pop himself swung open the door that Hymie had slammed and hollered out to the younger cousins, enough with the ballgame, time to go home. Then the women set to packing up the leftovers for a second time, in new wax paper torn fresh from Ma’s roll—a few remaining slices of cheese, a bit of whitefish with the head still attached—Ma always brought extra, she shouldn’t look poor, nor cheap. Then they, too, scattered to find their hats, powder their noses. Most of the wives took turns in the bathroom, before riding off in different directions towards home, except for Ma who never used the toilet outside her own house. Ruth always wondered how had she once made it across the ocean?
It was Hannah-Harry’s who came out of the bathroom holding what looked like Ruth’s cemetery pie chart. How could that be? Wasn’t it here in her book bag? Ruth zipped and unzipped frantically, shuffling through papers, Hannah’s eyes meanwhile scanning the room in her direction. Ruth saw Fanny pause with her hatpin in midair, as if ready to wield it in Ruth’s defense. But Hannah didn’t look angry. She was smiling, then chuckling, then laughing out loud, gesturing for the other wives to come take a look.
“Women’s business,” Hannah said, pushing Harry back out of the kitchen when he wanted to know what was what. Then, “I pay you a dollar for this, Ruthie,” she said, unsnapping her pocketbook. Hannah, who never unsnapped her pocketbook. “Gonna buy a frame at the five and dime, hang this up in my bathroom. Harry can have a look every time he takes a you-know-what.”
“You can keep your dollar,” Ma said. “Ruthie don’t need.”
But then it was Ma who put the last forkful of Hannah’s babka into her own mouth, chewed and swallowed, licked the powdered sugar off her fingers with the careful pink tip of her tongue. “Come Ruth, it shouldn’t go to waste,” she said.
So Ruth licked her own forefinger to dab up a dusting of white sugar left on the rim of Hannah’s plate, leaned forward to pinch up the last crumbs of babka from plate to mouth without scattering any across the bosom of her blouse, not an ample bosom like Ma’s and the other wives’, but perhaps someday enough. Hannah’s babka turned out to be moist and sweet after all.
Then Ma washed and dried Hannah’s plate and wrapped it in several of her own handmade dishcloths. “It shouldn’t break in the car,” she said to Hannah.
“But your cloths,” Hannah said.
“So you’ll give back next time I see you.” Ma held out the padded and protected plate, which Hannah grasped from the other side. Their hands, both Ma’s and Hannah’s, were red and raw from dishwashing, but all the women had proper gloves to put on for the trip home.