The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
A newly reissued short story from the under-appreciated late writer revives Jewish Toronto of the 1930s
Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Toronto, Shirley Faessler lost her mother at a young age and grew up with her father, stepmother, brother and sister in a small flat above a synagogue in the city’s Kensington Market. She quit school after eighth grade, had a failed marriage, traveled extensively, and read voraciously: Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Malamud—and later Mavis Gallant, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro, each of whom would become a friend and admirer.
For many years she presided over a theatrical rooming house, holding court at its famous kitchen table and telling tales of Yankev the Bootlegger, Henye the Hunchback, Motele the Blabbermouth, and other characters she had known in her youth. It was her third husband, actor-director James Edmond, who finally sent the actors and ballerinas packing—and sent Shirley upstairs to write down the stories she had honed in their midst.
Faessler didn’t start writing until she was in her forties and was already a grandmother when her first story was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. Eight more stories appeared in prominent magazines over the next decade or so, and a novel, Everything in the Window, was published in 1979; The New Yorker called it “a striking first novel.” Faessler’s acclaimed “Kensington Market” stories, which first appeared in book form in 1988, were recently republished as A Basket of Apples: Stories by Shirley Faessler (Now and Then Books), bringing her splendid literary voice back to vivid life.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
I met Lottie Kogan my first day in grade seven at King Edward Public School. It turned out that she and I lived on the same street, and overnight we became bosom pals. Lottie used to call for me every morning at a quarter to nine, but one morning she didn’t show up and I was almost late for school. “I’ll tell you later,” she said when I asked her about it at recess. She then left the schoolyard, which was forbidden, raced across the street, and came back with a nickel bag of broken biscuits and licorice all-sorts, which she shared with me. She didn’t call for me the next day, or the day after, but each time she had a nickel to spend at recess.
“Either you tell me why you stopped calling for me or I won’t talk to you again.”
“I can’t call for you because I make a nickel on my way to school.”
If she made a nickel on the way to school, why couldn’t I? “Okay,” she said, “but you’ll have to be ready tomorrow at a quarter past eight sharp.”
The next morning, instead of our usual route, we took a detour by way of Carlyle Street where some excavation work was going on. A deep pit had been dug in the road, which was closed off to traffic, and a plank about fifteen feet long had been placed across the hole in which men were working.
“Watch me,” said Lottie, “then do the same and you’ll get a nickel.”
She stepped out on the plank and slowly, sinuously, walked the length of it, sashaying and swinging her hips. At the other end she squatted, arid peering into the pit, she held out her hand. Then she straightened out and beckoned me to follow.
I stepped out as she had done, sashaying and swinging my hips. When I was halfway across, a hand shot out and grabbed me by the inside of my thigh. I let out a shriek and ran to the other side. A man’s head emerged from the pit, a scowl on the face. The man’s hand came over the dugout, and Lottie took the nickel for me.
“Don’t bring her here no more,” he said to Lottie. “And don’t you come back here neither.”
Shortly after that, a new source of revenue opened up to us. Charlie Reilly, who worked as a teller in a bank, rented a room at the Kogans. He kept his room neat and paid his rent on time, always thanking Lottie’s mother when he gave her the money. His room was next to the one Lottie shared with her sister, Jenny. (Jenny was two years older than Lottie, and wasn’t all there.) Some evenings when Lottie and I went up to her room to do homework, Charlie would be lying spreadeagled on his bed, fully clothed, with a checkerboard across his chest. One night as we were passing he fired a couple of checkers at us. We picked them up and fired them back, and that was the beginning of the Checker Game.
Lottie and I would take a handful of checkers from the board on his chest, and positioning ourselves at the door, would take turns firing them as he lay there, arms flung wide and legs apart. Anytime it happened that we hit him in the groin, he would draw his knees up to his chest, squeal with pleasure, then spread himself wide again, inviting the next barrage. We knew it was a dirty game and that we risked being caught by Mrs. Kogan, who had called up one night asking what the racket was about. After that scare, Lottie shrewdly appraised the pros and cons of continuing to play the Checker Game.
“He gets a bang out of it,” she said, “but what do we get?”
So Lottie put it to Charlie that we wouldn’t play the Checker Game anymore unless there was something in it for us. She proposed that each of us would take the same number of checkers and take turns firing them. “You’ll have to pay a dime to whoever gets the most hits,” she told him, “and a nickel to the loser. Okay, Charlie?” And he agreed.
About two weeks after Lottie had put the Checker Game on a paying basis, Charlie was transferred to an outlying branch of the bank. He was sorry to leave, and we were sorry to see him go.
It was about this time that a scandal broke out on our street, a scandal involving Lottie’s mother and a man called Tzarik. We were almost thirteen when Lottie’s father went into partnership with Tzarik. Tzarik was a dark-complexioned, slow-moving, handsome man about twice the size of Lottie’s father. The two of them would go to the country twice a week and bring back a truckload of live poultry. They would park the cackling fowl in front of Kogan’s while Mrs. Kogan attended them, feeding them before market. The partnership lasted a few months and ended in a fight with Tzarik being thrown out of the house.
I was asleep when the fight broke out across the street, and it was my mother who said to me the next morning, “You didn’t hear nothing? Kogan kicked his partner out of the house and the whole street came out, there was such a commotion. Mrs. Kogan was on the verandah crying and when she tried to go back in the house Kogan wouldn’t let her come in. Mrs. Zaretsky, the grocer’s wife, she said Kogan made his wife stay the whole night on the verandah before he let her come back in the house in the morning. When you finish your breakfast, go ask your friend what happened last night.”
That morning I asked Lottie on our way to school, “What happened last night? My mother says your father kicked out Tzarik?”
“Tzarik’s been crooking my father so he kicked him out.”
But Mrs. Zaretsky told my mother: “Kogan found Tzarik fooling around with his wife. That’s why he kicked him out.”
Lottie blossomed the year we became thirteen. At recess she was no longer content to walk the schoolyard arm in arm with me, but was hankering now to be at the wire fence that separated the girls from the boys. We still walked arm in arm but she managed always to steer our course over to the fence.
These sessions were an abomination to me. I had no confidence in my looks. I was shy and leery of boys. But there we stood during recess, me with my head down and my best friend posing and prancing before the boys who were hanging over the fence.
Towards the end of the term a new girl was introduced into our class. One day at recess I saw her standing by herself. “Let’s go over and talk to her,” I said to Lottie. “She’s new, she doesn’t know anyone.”
Lottie agreed and instead of going to the boys we went over to the new girl, Helen Loftus. Helen turned out to be every bit as boy-crazy as Lottie; she couldn’t wait to get to the fence.
Before long it became apparent that Lottie preferred Helen’s company to mine. I became moody and jealous.
“I don’t know what’s come over you,” Lottie said to me one morning on our way to school. “You’re getting to be a real pain in the neck.”
After that year my friendship with Lottie began petering out. I used to see Helen and Lottie on the street, seldom one without the other. We would wave and on occasion stop to speak. I had no thought of renewing our friendship, but things fell otherwise.
Years later—we were both twenty—Lottie stopped me on the street to show me the diamond ring she was wearing. “I hope you’ll come to my wedding,” she said. “I’ve got you on my list.”
I had heard she was engaged. Mrs. Stork, Dave’s mother, told my mother, who told me, that Dave had given Lottie a diamond ring.
“Only one short month ago that they met,” said Mrs. Stork. “And now the daughter of that shikker Kogan, his daughter is wearing my Dave’s ring and a date for the wedding is already settled.”
The Storks also lived on our street. Once or twice a week Mrs. Stork, a short woman with rosy cheeks, lively eyes and thick black hair showing a few strands of grey, would drop in to pass an hour or two with my mother.
Dave was Mr. and Mrs. Stork’s only son. Their other two children were middle-aged twin daughters. Dave was born twenty years after the twins.
Mrs. Stork told my mother that Dave’s birth had caused a stir in the street. He was born at home and as soon as word of the birth got around, the lying-in room was inundated. The mother, whom the women expected to find at least a little embarrassed, received them with unblushing smiles. She spoke of the baby as her “surprise baby.”
“Surprise baby,” said Mrs. Zaretsky, the grocer’s wife. “It’s a change-of-life baby. I would be ashamed to show my face.”
Though the Storks lived only three doors away from us, I had had no contact with Dave. It was only when I went to work as bookkeeper for Peerless Dress that I met him. He had been with the firm three years. He was about five-foot-eight with a dark complexion, black hair and light-brown eyes. He had a pleasant face and was good-natured and obliging.
Mrs. Stork was not pleased with her son’s choice. “It’s not for me to say anything,” she said to my mother. “Dave after all is twenty-five, and if Kogan’s daughter suits him, I have nothing to say.” Having said her piece, she wiped her mouth with an open hand, a meaningful gesture, signifying that no word of criticism will issue from the wiped mouth.
Two months later Dave put a wedding ring on his bride’s finger. Helen, dressed to the nines, was Lottie’s matron of honour. Helen had been married three years to a bookmaker who was unable to attend the wedding: he was doing a short stint for parole violation.
Everything from the ceremony to the reception went well. The bride’s father got drunk, but that did not come as a surprise to anyone.
Mrs. Kogan was dancing when she caught sight of her husband. “If there is any shame in you,” she said to him, “you’ll leave the hall right now, this minute, and go home before everyone here sees you in your wet pants.”
The next day, and for many days following, the women on the street had something to talk about.
Mr. Yanovsky owned Peerless Dress and his business prospered. Extra sewing machines were installed, extra hands hired, among them a second shipper, Jack Kaminsky, recently arrived from Vancouver with his widowed mother. Thirty years old, overweight, average height, he was a man of beefy good looks with wavy brown hair and blue eyes.
“He’s been here a couple of months now and hasn’t made a single friend. I think the guy is lonely here in Toronto,” Dave said one day. He took Jack home with him one night and introduced him to his wife. The three of them began going out together—to the movies, wrestling matches, bowling alleys, Chinatown, and later on to Dave’s parents’ for supper on Friday nights.
Once when she was visiting my mother, Mrs. Stork said to me, “Come to my house for supper tomorrow. Your mother told me your father is coming home—what does she need you? Come to my house for supper.”
After being out of work a while, my father got a job in Kitchener with a friend who ran a large grocery store. My mother missed him, and when he phoned, which he did once a week, she’d hope he’d say he was coming home for the weekend. With my father home my mother had no need of me, or of anyone for that matter. Chances were that he’d be out playing cards with his cronies most of his homecoming weekend, but that didn’t disturb my mother. The comforting thing was that Pa was home.
I accepted Mrs. Stork’s invitation to supper.
“Jack’s staying home, his mother is sick,” Dave said when he and Lottie called for me.
The door to the living room was open and Mr. Stork, looking glum, was sitting in his chair; his paper lay by his feet, unopened. We walked down the hall to the kitchen. Mrs. Stork was at the stove.
“What’s the matter with Pa?” Dave asked. “Why’s he wearing such a long face?”
“Maybe he got up on the wrong side,” said Mrs. Stork.
“Go in the parlour. In ten minutes supper will be ready.”
When we went back to the living room Lottie went over to Mr. Stork and sat on his lap. “What’s the matter, Pa?” she said. Nuzzling him, rubbing her cheek against his, Lottie wriggled and squirmed in his lap with her bare arms around his neck, till the man was in a visible sweat.
“Lottie!” Mrs. Stork called from across the room; she had been standing in the doorway. “Get down from Pa’s lap, you’re not a baby no more.” A rush of angry blood had made her face red. She turned to me. “Come, you’ll give me a hand in the kitchen.
“Sit,” she said when we were in the kitchen. “I’ll attend to everything my own self. Tell me, how come she didn’t bring him tonight?”
“Who?” I said, knowing she meant Jack Kaminsky.
“Who? The bik,” she said harshly. “They go everywhere together. What happened that she didn’t bring him tonight? You’re a smart woman. Say yourself, is this the way to treat a husband like Dave? A good provider, a kind man, an honest husband. Shouldn’t she be ashamed? I would like to speak to her but my husband, he told me strictly I shouldn’t say a word.”
“You could be wrong, Mrs. Stork. I think Jack is just a good friend.”
“A good friend—Lottie can be a good friend with a man! You saw the way she was sitting in Stork’s lap. She knows what she was doing. Besides, that’s an insult to me. I’m not such an old woman yet. Let’s talk straight. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The mother was a kurveh and so is the daughter. Didn’t the mother have another man? You were best friends with Lottie. You should remember Tzarik.”
“Tzarik was Mr. Kogan’s business partner,” I said. “And the quarrel was about business. I remember the whole story.”
She looked shrewdly at me. “Who said he wasn’t a partner? He was a partner with everything. A partner with the business and a partner with the wife.”
My husband and I were married at the City Hall, with a couple of strangers rustled up as witnesses. We lived in a furnished flat in a lovely old house on Avenue Road. Lottie and Dave had been married three years and a few months. I was still working for Peerless Dress. Dave and I got along well, we liked each other. Jack Kaminsky I saw once a week, on Wednesdays when he came to the office for his pay envelope. Without a word, a smile, a glance, he took his pay envelope from my hand as if from a vending machine. When Dave recommended a movie they’d seen, or a new Chinese restaurant they’d tried, I knew they were still going about together—Lottie, Dave and Jack.
One night when Dave was on the road we had a call from Lottie. She wanted to come over. “Do you mind if I bring a friend?”
The friend she brought was Jack Kaminsky.
It was hard work making conversation with him. My husband asked about Vancouver. What was the weather like? Jack said it was great for ducks. But the totem poles in Stanley Park, they were really something to see. Apart from the totem poles, he could think of nothing else about Vancouver that might be of interest. Decked out in a tan gabardine suit with a vest, teal-blue shirt with button-down collar, two-tone shoes, he sat like a stump, without saying a word.
Lottie called me aside as they were leaving. “Look, I’m not going home yet. Dave is supposed to be home around ten in the morning, but he could just change his schedule and get home around three or four, so I left a note saying I’m staying here overnight. Okay? I usually stay at my mother’s when he goes out of town, but my mother and father and Jenny are in New York visiting my aunt. That’s why I thought I’d better leave a note saying I’m staying here—just in case.” Then she said, “If I’m trusting you this far, I might as well go all the way—we’re having an affair.”
“What if Dave does get home at three or four and phones here first thing in the morning and you’re not here?” I asked.
“He won’t phone you. When he gets in at three or four he always sleeps till noon. Anyway, I’ll check with you in the morning.”
Now that I was in her confidence, they never went to a hotel for the night without Lottie telephoning me first to establish an alibi. It worried me in the beginning. We weren’t that close anymore, and Dave knew that.
“You don’t have to worry about a thing,” she said. “Do you think I’d leave him a note saying where I am? Give me credit for more sense. Dave knows I don’t always sleep at home when he’s out of town, but he never asks if I did or didn’t. He takes it for granted that I sleep at my mother’s. So far I haven’t even used your name. I’m keeping it in reserve, is all. Just in case there’s a slip-up and he gets to know that I didn’t sleep at home or at my mother’s, I’ve got you to fall back on.” Apt in deceit, she left nothing to chance.
Lottie telephoned me one Saturday morning and invited me to lunch. “Things are getting serious,” she said, “and I have to talk to someone.”
I arrived at the restaurant, surprised at her having chosen such an expensive place; Lottie was close with money. We exchanged greetings, the waiter took our orders and Lottie got down to cases.
“Do you think it’s possible to love two men at the same time?”
“I don’t know. I can’t speak from firsthand experience.”
“Let’s face it,” she said, “I wasn’t in love with Dave when I married him. I liked him, I liked him a lot. Now I’ve got two men on my hands and my feelings have changed. I think I’m beginning to feel something like love for him, believe it or not.”
“Who? Which one?”
“Look, are you going to be serious or not? Jack keeps bugging me to divorce Dave and marry him.”
I didn’t believe for a minute that she had any intention of divorcing Dave, the money-maker, to marry Jack, the no-account shipper. But I went along.
“What would you gain by divorcing Dave to marry Jack?”
“That’s what I keep asking myself. In lots of ways I like Jack better than Dave. And Dave likes him too. The funny thing is the way they’ve become so palsy-walsy. They go to the ball games together, the fights, the hockey matches. And any time we decide to take in a movie Dave always says, ‘Let’s ask Jack.’ So the three of us go to the movie, come back to our place for a bite to eat, and except for all of us getting in the same bed I might as well have two husbands.” She sobered. “Give Dave a couple of years and he’ll be a partner in the firm. Jack has no ambition, he’ll be a shipper till he drops.”
She finished her coffee, opened her handbag, put some powder on her face and applied fresh lipstick to her mouth. Her hair, worn short, was auburn, with a glossy sheen and a natural wave. She had large, dark-brown eyes and thick eyelashes. Despite a thin-lipped mouth, which gave a sly look to her face, she was undeniably attractive.
I was not persuaded that Jack wanted her to divorce Dave and marry him. He was dumb, but not so dumb that he didn’t know clover when he was in it. Still, I don’t think Lottie was telling an out-and-out lie. He probably had proposed that she divorce Dave and marry him. But as it was four years or better that they had been lovers, Jack would know by now the kind of woman he was dealing with. He wouldn’t have to be too bright to know he wasn’t sticking his neck out, proposing marriage.
I was proven wrong on both counts. Several months after I’d had lunch with Lottie, Jack phoned and asked me to meet him. He had something important to discuss. I agreed to meet him at ten o’clock at a restaurant a short distance from where I lived. When I arrived, he was sitting in a booth towards the back. I saw him as soon as I came in—I could hardly miss him, duded up as he was. He was wearing a fawn-and-blue plaid sports jacket, pink shirt, matching pocket handkerchief and mauve tie with purple dots. I sat down opposite him. He was freshly barbered and too strongly scented for ten in the morning.
He looked up from cutting his prune Danish. His hands were beefy, his fingers square, his fingernails none too clean.
“Hello there,” he said, keeping his seat. “I really appreciate your coming. I’d like to ask you some personal questions. And I’ll appreciate it if you’ll tell me the truth without worrying about hurting my feelings.”
“Would you call Lottie a sincere woman?”
“By that I mean honest.”
“Honest?” I was puzzled.
“What I mean is, is Lottie a person you could trust to keep her word?”
“Well, that would depend of course on—”
He didn’t wait to hear me out. He talked about his mother—a wonderful woman who had worked like a horse bringing up three small children after his father took off with another woman. The other two, his sisters, were married and living out west. He was the only one left, and owed his mother a debt he could never repay. He had told her about Lottie, but she was against it.
“What can you expect from an old-fashioned type like my mother? How would you expect her to react if her only son tells her that he’s in love with a married woman?” He paused, as if waiting for an answer. “You couldn’t expect her to jump from joy, could you?”
“No,” I agreed.
But that wasn’t his problem. The problem was Lottie. For almost five years they’d had an intimate relationship. Was she stringing him along? Or could she be trusted to keep her word about divorcing Dave to marry him?
“She keeps telling me to wait. How long can I wait? I’m not getting any younger. That’s why I decided to talk to you. You’ve known Lottie about twelve or thirteen years. If any person can say that she’s a woman you can trust to keep her word or not, that person is you. You know Lottie better than anybody does.”
“When Lottie and I were close friends, we were just kids. It’s only recently that we’ve been seeing each other again. If anyone knows Lottie, it’s you. I’d say you know her better than even Dave does.”
He gave me a sullen, ill-humored look. “That’s a shitty thing to say.”
“You told me not to spare your feelings,” I reminded him.
He got up. “Thanks for nothing.” He stopped at the cashier’s to pay for his Danish and left.
The next time I saw Lottie she was in hospital recuperating from an emergency operation. One morning she had woken with acute abdominal pains. An examination revealed an ectopic pregnancy. Infection had set in and a hysterectomy was performed.
“I’ll never be able to have any kids,” Lottie said. “But I’m not sorry about that. If I got pregnant I’d worry about having a kid that might turn out to be like Jenny. If that runs in the family, it could happen to me too.”
Lottie thanked me for coming to visit her. “Dave said that you’re leaving Peerless Dress? That you and your husband are going to Europe?”
“That’s right. To London first, then to the continent for as long as our money holds out.”
“Don’t forget to send a card.”
To use my mother’s expression: the days are long and the years are short. Seven years went by. My marriage broke up. My father died. My mother is in a nursing home, grieving, desolate. She has become hard of hearing, her eyes have weakened; my father’s death knocked the props from under her.
I visit her often. She blesses me when I arrive, blesses me when I leave. She asks about my husband. I tell her he’s fine. Sends his regards. She doesn’t know we’ve broken up. Why burden her with my misadventure? She has enough on her plate.
One day when I was visiting her, she spoke sadly of past events, of Mrs. Kogan’s death, assuming she’d already told me. Before I left, my mother told me that Mrs. Stork often came to visit her. I decided I would phone Mrs. Stork and thank her.
When I got home I called Lottie’s number before calling Mrs. Stork. “Well, well, well,” she said, “a voice from the past. How long is it anyway since the last time I saw you?”
“The last time was when I came to see you in the hospital. That would be about … seven years ago?”
“My mother told me that your mother died. I was very sorry to hear that, Lottie. When did it happen?”
“About a year now. She had a heart attack and died three days later in her sleep. If you’ve gotta go, that’s the way to go. Poor Jenny, she’s really heartbroken, you never saw anything like it. And my old man took it very hard too, believe it or not. By that I mean when he was sober enough to realize what had happened.”
“Fine. He’s out of town at the moment with a new line. Say, if it’s seven years that we saw you, you wouldn’t have heard that Dave is a partner now with Yanovsky.”
“Congratulations,” I said. “I remember the day you predicted that Dave would be a partner.”
“Did I? Hold the line a minute, someone’s at the door… It’s Jack,” she said, returning. “Would you like to say hello to him?”
“Give him my regards,” I said. “I’ll be seeing you, Lottie.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” she said.
“Come over,” Mrs. Stork said when I called to thank her. “I didn’t see you for—I don’t know myself how many years. Come over tomorrow.”
Mrs. Stork had not changed much. Her hair had gone grey, but she was still a robust woman with rosy cheeks and lively eyes.
Mr. Stork was in the living room, listening to the radio. I would not have known him. He was diabetic and had changed beyond recognition.
Mrs. Stork and I went to the kitchen. She put homemade cookies on a plate and poured tea. We settled in for a talk.
“You saw Lottie lately?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen her in years, but we spoke on the phone yesterday. She told me that Dave is a partner now with Yanovsky.”
“What else did she tell you, the nafka?” she said, and we’re off to the races.
“You’re a clever woman—tell me, is my son blind? Is he blind that he can’t see what’s going on in front of his nose? You know how many years now that people are talking? Laughing at Dave? Twelve, thirteen years. Even Helen, she happened to be in the district, she said, so she thought she’d step in and say hello. To say hello—Helen, her best friend, she came specially to tell me that when Dave goes out of town they go everywhere together like a married couple, to a moving picture, to a restaurant, a beer parlor. When it comes to stabbing me in the heart they know where to find me, even Helen. I heard from somebody that Mrs. Zaretsky said that Dave acts like he’s the shadchan, he’s so happy about the whole thing. She said Dave doesn’t care what his wife is doing because he’s got a tootsie on the side. This I don’t believe. Dave is an honest husband. Blind, yes. A fool, yes. But an honest husband. On Friday night when I see them here at my table, she in the middle, my son on one side, and on her other side the bik, my kishkas get tied up in knots. You know it’s a sin to wish on somebody they should die—I have to bite my tongue not to wish him he should drop dead.”
On a Sunday Dave telephoned with shocking news. It was not quite a year since I had spoken to Lottie and now she was dead. Dave and Jack were playing gin rummy after supper, and Lottie was washing up when suddenly they noticed that she was in some kind of trouble.
“She was standing at the sink,” Dave said, “bent over and clutching her left breast, you could see she was in pain. Next minute she flakes out and she’s on the floor, unconscious. I phoned a doctor, he took his time coming, the son of a bitch. Anyway, that didn’t make any difference, she was dead about two minutes after she flaked out. Goddamn it! Lottie didn’t waste no time checking out.”
It was hot the day of the funeral. The atmosphere in the funeral parlour was stifling. Some people were seated, some were standing around talking, almost everyone wiping sweat from his face. It was one o’clock and the rabbi had not arrived.
The coffin, open, was on a stand at the front of the chapel. Jenny, whom I had last seen about fifteen years ago at Lottie’s wedding, was standing near the coffin. But for an accumulation of flesh, Jenny did not look any different than she had fifteen years before.
I went up to her and held out my hand. “Remember me, Jenny? Lottie and I used to be friends when we went to King Edward, remember me?”
Holding my hand loosely in hers, she said, “You wanna see Lottie?” She pointed to the coffin.
They had put too much makeup on Lottie. Crimson lipstick thickly applied to her mouth had given a Cupid’s-bow shape to her thin lips. Her hair was dyed a luminous copper, her eyelashes were thick with mascara, and her eyelids had royal-blue shadow on them. She looked awful.
I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. It was Dave. His head was partially covered by a yarmulke.
“They put too much makeup on her,” he said, looking at Lottie. “She never used any of that crap. Used to touch up her hair is all.”
Lottie’s father came up and said something to Dave, something I didn’t catch. His breath reeked. Dave took hold of his arm. “I’m warning you, Kogan,” he said, his voice trembling, “you step out of line and I’ll kick the living shit out of you.”
Raising his hand, Kogan made a sort of conciliatory gesture, turned and walked unsteadily down the aisle.
“He got drunk at his daughter’s wedding,” Dave said, watching him, “now he’s getting drunk at her funeral. He’s got a bottle on him. Give him half a chance and he’ll turn Lottie’s funeral into a sideshow. Nice seeing you again.” He walked away.
Looking around I recognized people I had not seen in years. Customers, salesmen, Mr. Yanovsky and his wife, designers, cutters, pressers, operators, floor girls, finishers. Peerless Dress was well represented. Everyone liked Dave.
I saw Helen coming towards me. She was overdressed, in black.
“Hello there,” she said to me. “I saw you looking at Lottie—what does she look like?”
“Go and see for yourself.”
She put a black-gloved hand to her heart. “That’s all I need now, to see a dead person. You know I never saw a dead person in my whole life? Here comes Jack.” She whispered: “He looks terrible. Lottie’s dying makes him a widower too, if you get my meaning… Hello, Jack,” she said as he came up. “That was a terrible thing to happen. And to Lottie of all people. Look who’s here,” she said, presenting me.
“If you want to come out to the cemetery,” he said, “I’m looking after the cars for Dave.” He had put on a lot of weight. There was sweat on his face and his breath was bad. I thanked him and said I would not be going to the cemetery.
“See you,” he said and left us.
“Boy oh boy,” said Helen, “he acts like he’s Dave’s best friend. And Dave hasn’t got a clue. Imagine outfoxing a sharp guy like Dave all these years. How did she ever get away with it!”
The rabbi walked up the aisle, put down the lid of the coffin and took his place at the lectern.
Helen put her arm through mine. “Let’s sit together, us two, like in the old days. Out of respect for Lottie.”
The rabbi started riffling through the pages of his prayer book. He put the open prayer book on the lectern and began the eulogy. He spoke well of Lottie, lauded her, praised her. He went on and on, overdoing it by far. At last he took up the open prayer book. “Yiskadal v’yiskadash shmey,” he began, and we got to our feet.
We were standing outside the nursing home, Mrs. Stork and I. She had been to visit my mother, and we stopped to talk. It was the evening after Lottie’s funeral, and Mrs. Stork was telling me about how she’d gone to Dave’s place, with food she’d prepared for the house of shivah. Dave, she said, was sitting on a small stool. The shocking thing was seeing Jack nearby, sitting on a crate. Both men were in stocking feet.
“A man cannot sit shivah for his nafka,” she said harshly. “The husband, my Dave, he sits shivah for her.”
She said when she got home and told Stork about it, he nearly fainted, a sick man. He got on the phone to Rabbi Isaacs.
“An old man, he’s the rabbi of the shul we belong to. I didn’t hear what Stork said to him. But Stork told me that Rabbi Isaacs, he’ll take care of everything.”
That morning she arrived early at Dave’s. When the rabbi came at ten o’clock, Mrs. Stork was already there.
“He came in, said shalom, didn’t look even once on me, the old rabbi, he looked only on the two men sitting shivah. ‘Which one is the husband?’ he asked. My Dave said he was. ‘And you,’ the rabbi said to the bik, ‘what were you to this man’s wife—her father? Her brother?’ He didn’t answer, so Dave said, ‘He’s a good friend, Rabbi. He was also a good friend to my wife.’
“ ‘You were not the husband,’ the rabbi said to the bik, ‘you were not the woman’s father, and you were not her brother. The husband says you were a good friend to his wife, but that does not give you the right to sit shivah for her. So get up from that box, mister, and put on your shoes.’ ”
It’s one year since Lottie died, and one year that Jack has been sharing the apartment with Dave. The move was made after Lottie’s funeral. It was the day Rabbi Isaacs came at ten in the morning and ordered Jack to get up from the crate and put on his shoes. According to Mrs. Stork, Jack obeyed the rabbi’s order without question. He left the apartment, and whether it was at Dave’s invitation or of his own volition, he returned an hour or so later with four packed cases and made himself at home. As for his mother, to whom he owed a debt he could never repay, he had left her, an 85-year-old woman, to fend for herself.
Mrs. Stork telephoned. She calls me from time to time.
She told me again that her heart aches for Dave. Without Lottie he’s lonesome. “To have the bik in the apartment, it’s better for Dave than to be by himself,” she said. “This way they play cards, go to a moving picture, a baseball game. And they talk about Lottie, what a wonderful woman she was. Thank God I took Stork’s advice and didn’t say nothing to Dave. It’s better this way, that he doesn’t know from anything. Lottie after all is dead, finished, kaput, a picnic for the worms. I feel pity for her too. I have to go now. Stork wants me. I’ll phone you again, keep well.”
I went back to the living room and poured myself another drink. Dave was still on his first. I offered to freshen it. “One’s my limit,” he said, “thanks just the same.” I should know by now that he never accepts more than one drink.
Two months ago Dave began stopping off at my apartment once or twice a week, usually early in the evening on his way home from work. He accepts a drink when he comes, never more than one, and we talk. I should say it is Dave who talks. I listen, make a comment when it’s called for. He usually stays an hour, during which time he talks of Lottie, of Jack, and of his and Lottie’s friendship with Jack. He talks of nothing else. I like Dave, but his visits are trying. He wears me out, harping on the same theme. I can’t tell whether he has belatedly become suspicious of his wife’s relationship with Jack. So when he invites a comment, I don’t know whether he’s encouraging me to open up, suspecting perhaps that I know more than I’m letting on. His visits have become a trial. It takes three or four whiskies to get me through the hour he puts in at my place.
“As I mentioned before,” Dave said, “we talk a lot about Lottie. And lately he’s been telling me that he was in love with her—as if I didn’t know that. But I never worried about them being together when I was out of town, and that’s the God’s honest truth. When I’d come home from being on the road, Lottie would tell me the different places they’d been to. ‘We always go Dutch,’ she said. Which didn’t surprise me. He’s not the fastest guy in the world with a buck, you know.” Dave looked at his watch and got up. “I’d better get going, he’ll be phoning the hospitals.”
One day last week Dave said, “Yesterday I got home later than usual and I could tell by the colour of his face that he’d been into the booze. That’s one sign. Another sign is when he starts running off at the mouth. And sure enough, soon as I sat down he starts telling me that if he’d met Lottie first, I wouldn’t of stood a chance with her.
“Me,” Dave said, his thumb jabbing his chest, “I wouldn’t of stood a chance with her, get that.”
He paused to take a drink. “Lottie didn’t mind him around. She liked him, but mostly she felt sorry for him. She used to say that his miserable childhood was responsible for his weak character.”
Dave finished his drink and got up. “If he’d met her first—he talks such foolishness when he’s tanked. Not that he’s an Einstein when he’s sober.
“He’s getting to be a pain in the ass. I pay the rent, hydro, telephone, the cleaning woman, he doesn’t even chip in for the food. Never buys a bottle, he drinks my liquor, the free-loader. And that takes some nerve, don’t you think?”
“I certainly do. Why do you put up with it, Dave?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Habit, I guess. Used to having him around… He’s got some filthy habits,” Dave continued. “He’s got an itchy back that he scratches with a fork. No kidding, when he feels an itch, he takes off his tie, unbuttons his shirt and goes to work on his bare back with a fork. And puts the fork back in the drawer without washing it. Another thing he does is he comes out of the toilet after he’s had a crap—excuse my language—without washing his hands. And he sweats a lot. A person that sweats the way he does should take a bath every day instead of maybe once a week the way he does.”
Dave came by yesterday and I got out the bottle. Before sitting down to his drink he took a small, unframed photo from his jacket pocket and showed it to me. It was a sidewalk photographer’s photo of Dave and Lottie. “Remember this picture?” he said.
“I think so. But wasn’t Jack in it too?”
When I’d seen it on Lottie’s dresser, it had been a photo of the three of them, Lottie in the center, Dave to one side of her and Jack on the other.
“You’ve got a good memory,” said Dave. “Jack was in the picture.”
He put the photo back in his pocket and sat down to his drink. Smiling, he said, “Yesterday when I happened to be looking at that picture, I thought to myself what a nice picture that would be of me and Lottie—if Jack wasn’t in it. A pair of scissors happened to be handy and so I cut Jack out. It wasn’t his picture anyway. He never paid for it, I did. He didn’t see it till last night after supper. He blew his top when he saw it.”
Dave laughed. “He said it was spite that made me cut him out of the picture. I was jealous, he said, because Lottie liked him. Me? Jealous of that slob because Lottie liked him?”
He took a long drink and put down his glass. “Lottie was a looker,” he said. “Shit, if she wanted to play around—and she had plenty of opportunities with me out on the road—the last guy in the world she’d pick would be a fat guy who dresses like a fairy, douses himself with that whorish cologne, sweats like a pig, scratches his back with a fork, and comes out of the can without washing his hands.”
Dave finished his drink and stood up. “She felt sorry for him is all.”
“The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree,” from A Basket of Apples: Stories by Shirley Faessler, copyright © 2014 by Karen Hines and Now and Then Books, Toronto.
How observant Jewish funnymen (and -women) navigate the line between irreverence and devotion