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NYC Time Traveler

Sam’s Girl

Even after all these years, I am always a little shocked, when I walk past that corner at Eighty‑Fourth and Third, and come to the third shop down, to see a health food store there. Of course, the entire row of stores has been utterly transformed: In place of a motley collection of old-fashioned shops, there is a bright green-plastic and glass strip of Boutiques, each occupying an identically designed space. I suppose that’s what new shopkeepers want, the clean well‑lighted look. It’s like something out of a suburban mall.

Had the landlord wished to preserve the character of the old places, it would have been impossible anyway: There wasn’t one brick or stick of wood left standing from which to reconstruct after the fire. The early morning blaze, which started (or was started) in the cellar of the corner discount drug mart owned by a foul‑tempered Turk, left only that store reclaimable. It took with it everything from there to the funeral home on the other end of the block, sweeping clean through the old Blarney Stone, the cheap curtain/linen store, the yard goods and knitting shops, a controversial, clamorous methadone clinic occupying floor-through space over everyone’s head...and, my grandfather’s shoe store.

By the time of the fire, my grandfather had been dead for two or three years, a good thing, too, because the loss of the store (as they say in black jokes about death) might have killed him. It really might have, though. Sam had owned Archway Shoes for over forty years. That store was his whole life, and he its living heart: He never seemed to move, or speak, or think naturally anywhere else, never seemed like my grandfather anywhere but there. And by the same token, the cavernous shoe store felt weirdly empty whenever he so much as stepped out for a beer next door, no matter that my grandmother or my uncle or even my own brother might be taking care of several customers at once, and that the little Hungarian shoemaker who had set up shop in the recesses of the store would be ceaselessly hammering at heels and soles, and whistling a tuneless Magyar melody.

No, it was always, to me, My Grandfather’s Shoe Store, and he, my shoe grandfather, and it remained so after he was gone, although my grandmother slaved there beside him for years, and kept it up after anyone else would have either let the lease run out and auctioned off the stock, or prayed to God for just such a fire so that the tsuris and the insurance premiums would (praised be!) pay off in the end.

Actually, some of us thought my uncle (his wealthy, well‑connected son) may have had the place torched because he didn’t want my grandmother running the store alone, but didn’t have the time or interest to work it with her. That was the practical side. There were compelling emotional issues as well that might have explained such a scandalous act. It was very hard to see the store open and functioning as usual (which is to say, on the edge of bankruptcy) without my grandfather there, striding back and forth beneath a poisonous cloud of cigar smoke, shouting, cursing, ordering everyone around and seeming to love (or at least deeply live) every moment of what was in so many ways a cramped, dreary life.

 It took several hours that Sunday for the firemen to extinguish the three-alarmer and soak down the ruins. Some good neighbor had been thoughtful enough to call my grandmother, asleep alone in her little house in Queens, and she called my parents, asleep in their slightly larger home nearby. They all called my uncle, asleep in his penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. He had been out nearly all night as usual, but he was surprisingly alert, even cheerful, my mother told me later. He suggested that since it might be extremely upsetting to my grandmother and mother to visit the site while it was still smoldering, and since he lived practically around the block, he ought to go alone to the burnt-out store to see what he could see. Besides, the fire marshals might need to speak to a family member, and he knew how to handle them. (All of this, and most particularly his apparent good mood and his desire to “handle” everything personally, are what gave rise to the speculation that the fire was no accident and that the nasty Turk might actually be innocent. But this is beside the point.)

No one thought to call me until much later in the morning. It wasn’t only the sense that there was nothing I could do—what could anyone do? the store was a dead loss—it was also a parental reflex: They wanted to protect me from the pain of change, of loss, as they had striven to do when I was a child, and my young life was played out in a fixed constellation of familiar settings: Home, my little brick school building, my father’s office, my grandfather’s shoe store.

I didn’t understand this quite so clearly then—or rather, I didn’t recognize the tremendous longing and fierce feeling behind my mother’s bland “We didn’t want to upset you.” We were a family in which a lot was kept from the kids, and I always hated it. I didn’t appreciate my own lingering need for the protection I scorned. The simple news didn’t, in fact, greatly upset me. Despite what did happen that day, it would be years before I knew just what had gone up in smoke.

It was a bright, late‑autumn day, that Sunday of the fire. By afternoon, it had turned blustery and grey. The wind swirled garbage and dead leaves around my feet as I walked from my building to the bus stop three blocks away. Although it would take twice as long to reach the store by bus, I had decided that it would be less of a shock if I approached it in a vehicle, riding up Third Avenue, than if I had to walk from a subway stop, perhaps breaking into a run in spite of myself. What was my hurry?

I took the crosstown bus from the West Side through the Park. It was crowded with people riding to the Metropolitan Museum, to family dinners, children’ birthday parties, East Side movies and shopping. I wished I’d made arrangements to meet my family down at the store. At least they could have taken me out afterwards for Chinese.

Getting off at Seventy-ninth and Third, I found a phone booth, put in some change, rang my mother’s number—and hung up. If they were in the city, they wouldn’t answer. If they were home, it meant that they’d already been in and returned, in which case why would I want to trouble them? I went back to the bus stop waiting to make my transfer.

I remember being incredibly cold as I stood at the curb, my back to the oncoming traffic and the wind sweeping over the avenue. I had forgotten my gloves as usual, and my hands were clenched in the pockets of my too‑thin coat, the flimsy little bus transfer balled in one fist. When the bus came, I took a seat over the motor in the rear: Sitting in the back was the only way I could now delay for one more moment my attendance at the scene of the small disaster.

It was only five blocks, but I rode a few stops past my destination, so that I might view it through the wide bus windows, a remote piece of scenery, before walking back to confront it. I don’t know why I was taking so many tiny internal precautions, what I thought I would see, or what feel. For in fact, the damage was so extensive that it almost appeared that nothing had ever stood on that rubble, in that empty lot, and I felt no connection, as yet, to the place. That first time of walking back past the corner to stop before the nonexistent third store on the block wasn’t shocking. On the contrary, the moment was cushioned by a strong sense of unreality. How could anyone’s shoe store have been here yesterday, or fifteen years ago, or fifty?

The fire trucks were of course gone by this time, and cars and vans were once again parked bumper to bumper at the curbside meters. I stepped back from the fallen rusty gates that had feebly guarded the triptych of display windows and two entrance doors, crossed the sidewalk, and sat on the hood of a small red car. I felt I wanted to meditate on the scene before me until I was closer to what had happened.

My vague feeling of something being lost was at once too vague and too literal. I suppose I was waiting to feel a pang, whatever that might be, or perhaps I wanted something poignant to occur: The discovery of an antique lady’s shoe amid the brickdust and charred timber; a scrap of calendar or page from a boot catalogue floating to the ground. Nothing. It was just so cold and lonely sitting there, viewing the remains, so troublingly unsatisfying to be feeling things so dimly. I couldn’t seem to focus on it all, while I sat staring the stark facts in the face.

I thought of the cat who’d lived in the basement, supposed to be a ratter, but turned out to be too shy and sweet. My grandmother had finally taken her home to be a fat house cat. Some small thing to be grateful for, anyhow. I wondered if many rats had been incinerated. It was not a fate I would wish even on a rat.

The funeral parlor on the corner seemed strangely isolated and unsupported, almost leaning in toward the scorched wall that had separated it from it closest, ruined neighbor. The afternoon was dropping into the sort of melancholy autumn evening that makes me drag my feet if I must go out, and hurry on my way home if I’m caught out in it. There were very few passersby, and none of them paid any particular attention to the row of burnt remains. The neighborhood people must have seen their fill much earlier in the day, gone on their way, thanking whomever had spared them and their own businesses such a nasty trick of fate. As for those whose stores hadn’t been saved, I supposed that they too had gathered in the morning, called their lawyers and insurance carriers, and gone home to cry and reminisce with their families and friends.

I slid off the car and tightened my scarf, and then the belt on my trench, in preparation for an evening walk in search of a warm coffeehouse and a decent espresso. I was turning to start down Third Avenue when I saw her. I don’t know how long she had been there, or why I hadn’t noticed her before. She was actually standing before the blackened shell of the Blarney Stone Pub next door to Sam’s, standing very stiffly and staring almost as if she had turned up for an appointed Sunday evening drink only to discover that the bar had moved, or that she had the wrong address. Or that the place had burned to the ground.

She didn’t look like a Blarney Stone customer though: She would have been way overdressed in a cheap bar, in her brilliant fur coat and hat, and expensive high-heeled boots. In fact, she didn’t seem the type to frequent bars of any sort, certainly not alone. I didn’t think all of this through, it was a matter of an instant impression. She was the only other person out on the darkening street, and I found it odd enough that she had taken up the watch as I abandoned it that I paid some little attention as I drew abreast of her.

Perhaps she was waiting for me to speak: It occurs to me now that she may have been. For as I walked toward her, her muffled form becoming a bit plainer to me beneath the street light, I saw that her head was turned almost toward me and that her gaze seemed to be fixed, not on the destroyed tavern, as I’d thought, but there, on the shoe store, our store, Sam’s store.

And still, I didn’t think about who she might be, or what she could possibly want there, vigilant and still, even after the last family member had left. I know I didn’t want any company, just then. I made toward a gap between two cars parked behind her at the curb, suddenly determined to cross the avenue before continuing downtown. Cars sped by. I could feel the muscles tightening in my legs and arms as I stood there, waiting to make a dash to the other side. High heels clicked against the sidewalk at my back. I turned, and there she was, smiling uncertainly, fur hat gone, hair shaken loose around her cold-burnished face.

“Hello!” she cried. “You’re one of Sam’s, aren’t you?”

It had been so long since I’d seen her that I might not have recognized her at all had it not been for her hair. She herself was vain of it, that was clear at once: It was still a rich russet color, though she was surely past fifty, and she still wore it long, set in luxurious waves. Her eyes were at once bright and sorrowful: Green eyes, not hazeled as my own are, but brilliant emeralds, and deep, drawing light from the rest of her face to themselves. She had never been a great beauty; but her features were strong, and yes, she was still quite a handsome woman. I turned back to the traffic. She stepped off the curb past the cars to stand near me in the gutter. And then as naturally as if we were intimates (we were, weren’t we?), she reached out and grasped my elbow. Only a slight trembling betrayed her nervousness.

“Why won’t you speak to me?” she demanded. She pulled on my arm, more imperious than imploring.

“What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you speak to me?” she repeated, grasping me more tightly. It was almost beyond belief, it simply couldn’t be happening, this invasion of my solitary grief, this appropriation of me. And I reacted slowly, out of my instinct to deny it, to deny this bizarre scene and this woman any reality. Very slowly, I turned toward her, my face shocked into the sort of impassiveness you can feel, my eyes rivercold. I felt very ugly, just barely in control. I gazed at her only momentarily as I snapped my arm out of her grip. I meant all this to say what I couldn’t find words for: I meant to make everything very clear, no matter that nothing was at all clear to me. Then, I turned back to the street and, seeing a chance as the traffic lights were changing all up and down Third, I ran across in a wheeling diagonal, my hands still in my pockets, my shoulders and elbows swinging for momentum instead. I thought I heard her cry, Look out! or Come back! but I could as easily have imagined that.

 

I am thirteen years old. It is early December. Holiday decorations have begun to appear in the windows of many of the shops on Third Avenue. The small, smudged window of the Blarney Stone next door is crowded with little flashing bulbs, two battered wreaths, cheery red‑and‑green promotional placards and photos, a dwarf, silverblue aluminum tree; the blackboard menu has been updated to include such holiday items as roast stuffed turkey, creamed onions, pumpkin pie.

My grandfather’s store alone remains untrimmed, unchanged and unchanging as ever. It is probably not the only Jewish store on its block. But Chanukkah is as irrelevant as Christmas when it comes to my grandfather’s display windows. On this day, and through the New Year, and on every day of every year before and after this one, they feature virtually the same uninspired array of frankly ugly orthopedic shoes and merely homely, so‑called sensible shoes, men, women’s and children’s, a whole crowded window for each.

Sam liked to think that what he sold were the classic styles, proven on generations of troubled feet, including our own. Except for seasonal changes, there was no reason to show, or sell, anything but the best, the old standbys. Why fix what wasn’t broken? Why break the customer’s feet with fancy fashions?

There was a time, long, long ago, when Sam must have directed a kind of eccentric attention to the appearance of things in the windows and in the shop. For forty years (and looking worse all the time for the sunlight, the dust, and probably the moths) a real stuffed kangaroo has stood stiffly on her hind legs in the men’s window, camouflaged by the browns and blacks of the shoes there. She’s a mother, with a small joey thrust into her slash of pouch. I forget, if I ever knew, what brand of shoe she was supposed to promote; it may be that Sam simply thought she would attract attention, like the musty elk’s head that guards the interior of the store. But I doubt that many men have stopped to study her the way I have: Those hard little marbles for eyes, her expression halfway between a cry of pain and a snarling smile, the long, black nails studding softly furred front paws. I’ve wondered if she taps on the glass late at night, she gestures so appealingly to my eye.

But now, as I gaze into the women’s window across the way, my heart sinks at the all too familiar view: Nothing newer or prettier has appeared since my last visit (which, because of this very circumstance, was some time ago already). I know the shoes, their names—The Deb, The Sally—even their listed prices by heart. And there is nothing else to distract, not even the silly little signs Sam sometimes sets between the sample pairs: “Keep this place well in mind, A better one is hard to find,” with a grinning cartoon wiseguy striding along the bottom, pointing up at the message, as if to say, Get it? I am standing, in a chill December dusk, before the soberly illuminated selection of ladies’ shoes, outside my grandfather’s big, empty shoe store, angry that I still have to get my own shoes here, depressed by the sameness and dullness of everything, certain that the business must be failing on this account, that no one would want these mean old shoes anymore that I do. After all, there is no one in the store at all.

I am coatless: I was only supposed to just run out here for a quick look over the black flat dressy shoes, and I am shivering as I disconsolately turn back to one of the two little front doors. (They are separated by the children’s window, which I ignore altogether.) Through the door, my hand upon the latch lock, I see my grandmother pulling some boxes from the shelves—perhaps eight‑and‑a‑half Double A’s, for me, the littlest bigfoot in a family of big and otherwise problematic feet (as diagnosed by Sam).

My mother, bundled in her purple poodle-cloth coat, with my red plaid in her lap, has chosen a seat in the red row of vinyl-covered metal chairs facing the wall on which my grandmother is concentrating. Every so often, they exchange a few words. My grandfather, in shirtsleeves and a tie, seems apart, and far away from them: His large, balding head tilted back, he is lounging in a chair in the green vinyl row that abuts the red and faces the other wall. In profile, his nose is mountainous below massive forehead, bristling black eyebrows; his thin, oiled hair is slicked back like a yarmulka. His eyes are halfclosed behind his thick, black-rimmed glasses, a fat stump of cigar smoldering between the hairy knuckles of one hand.

My hand is on the cold latch-lock. I am still shivering. I’m thinking of the hot chocolate mix my grandmother keeps in the office. But it’s almost dinnertime, my mother will say. It always seems to be dark and chilly whenever I am looking into the windows of Sam’s shoe store, or whenever I imagine looking, or recall the times I have looked. It makes the sad inside of the store seem almost warm and welcoming by comparison. I press the latch down and push the door open. High heels sound, tack tack tack tack, on the cement entranceway leading to the other door. I look over, through the three-sided children’s display case, to see a woman struggling with that door, which is kept locked. She tugs on it insistently anyway, as if she’s never seen or heard of a door being closed to her. My grandfather starts, my mother turns around in her seat, and my grandmother begins to climb down the little track ladder she had just begun to climb up.

I think, Sam will call out, “Other door, lady!” That’s what he always tells me, without the lady, of course, a special sarcastic touch reserved for customers. But no. As he jumps up, peers querulously through the smeary glass of the door, something makes him change his mind. Something changes him. He smiles broadly, motions for the woman to Stay, stay; then, fishing out the key from a little drawer beneath the ladies’ slipper display case, he opens the never-used door for her with a flourish, welcomes her inside, and closes and locks the door behind her.

I watch, my hand frozen on the handle of the other door, the real door, the right door, watch as he shakes her hand warmly, and leads her to the separate group of vinyl armchairs at the far end of the store, near his tiny office. She doesn’t stop smiling.

I step into the yellow light of the shoe store. The door swings shut at my back, my hand pushing it until the latch clicks, loudly. My mother immediately calls out a warning about catching cold. My grandmother, who has always been, and would always be, a very worried woman, loudly asks a string of anxious questions, without waiting for the answers, which she knows already: “Where have you been? Did you see anything you like? What size are you now? Why didn’t you wear a coat? Did you notice if the meter is up?” (For my grandfather always, always parked his convertible in a metered spot right in front of the store, and spent decades of hours running out there to feed the meter dimes and nickles.)

And then my grandfather turns toward me, smiling, and, giving me a wink, snaps at my grandmother: “Enough already Ruth! Leave the child alone with your questions, her head will spin right off!” He isn’t exactly nasty, just loud and certain. But my grandmother takes on a slightly injured air, and my mother, flushing deeply, gets that look particularly familiar to me these days: In front of strangers you talk like this? it frowns. There is no greater crime in my mother’s eyes than making a private matter in any way public. Of course! We’ve forgotten about the new customer seated alone as if in a place of honor. But Sam has not forgotten her—he’s practically dancing attendance on her—he simply doesn’t care what she, or anyone else thinks.

Besides, I don’t think this woman is a stranger to the store, or to my grandfather. Now, he smiles at me again and beckons me closer. “Janeleh,” he sings out. “Meet Lois. Lois, meet my big granddaughter Janie.”

Having stopped still just inside the front door, I have to walk up to and all around the long rows of back-to-back seats to get to him and this woman. Lois. Her head is slightly tilted, her mouth very pink and open in a wide smile of greeting. She is pretty, even prettier than my mother. I notice her clothing, and her hair.

Her coat is a velvety black wool, with an enormous piece of fur draped at the throat for a collar; underneath the coat, which she has opened and half shrugged off, she wears a garnet suit with buttons like big diamonds and a lacy white blouse with tiny buttons like pearls. Her legs are crossed and on her feet are high-heeled black-and-grey ghillies. They are higher than anything my grandfather sells, higher than anything anyone who knows about feet and shoes would wear. Her leg swings slightly over her knee, the calf bulging under dark stockings. Dark stockings; and (I see glancing hastily up again) too much makeup. My mother would say. It is very interesting to me, though, her face. Deep pinks: Bright cheeks and lips. And black all around her very wide, bright green eyes. I have my mother’s eyes, a much cooler yellow green. Lois has a long thin nose, nothing special, no question it’s her own.

But her hair! Probably very long, piled on top of her head to an astonishing height, a smooth coppery twist of curls and combs. It doesn’t look natural to me, though I’m no judge. My family, every one of us, has dark hair so thickly, tightly kinked that no one ever lets it grow more than three inches all over. I despise and despair of my boyish bob as much as I do my homely Sam’s‑store‑shoes. I feel too awkward, too gawky and big for my own little name sometimes. Now, my ears and forehead warm as I hear my grandfather’s hearty introduction, and my eyes slide sideways to take in my reflection on the mirrored wall to my left. I look...not pretty, not old enough, not like someone anyone would care to meet. And I see that a familiar sullen unhappiness has settled over my face besides.

It has nothing to do with this woman, really, yet it has everything to do with her, her surprise visit, my having to meet her, just now, on top of the pitiful selection of shoes I don’t want (does she?), the cold and the dark and, soon, the long drive home through rush hour traffic to a late supper and hours of schoolwork.

She is still smiling up at me, extending a small white jeweled hand from her soft lap (does she think I’m going to shake it?) I stop just short of arms’ length, and slouch back on one leg, casual, twisting my uncooperative mouth into the wry, downturned smile everyone thinks of as so totally me.

 “Hello,” I manage. My eyes drop helplessly. She thinks I am shy, that I must need drawing out; she’s going to win me over, I can seen that light in her eyes.

“I’ve heard so much about you, Janie.” (Jane. Jane.)

“You are quite the student, I hear.” (I give a faint smile.)

“And a musician, if I’m not mistaken.” (No smile for that. I’m beginning to feel a little taken in. Why does this woman know anything, much less everything about me?)

I turn what I imagine to be an ironic smile on Sam, who is now slouched in the chair next to hers, absently rubbing away a spot of dust from the toe of his black suede shoe with a big clenched fist.

“For what is this look?” he asks flatly. Irony is lost on him, but it’s my only line of defense lately. “You don’t want people should know how brilliant you are? Excuse me. All right, go on. Go! Your grandmother is collecting a pile of shoes for you over there...” He turns to Lois. “She’s very particular, this one.”

Lois tilts her head to the other side, and breathes out a ripple of soft laughter. “And why not?” she cries. “It’s a woman’s prerogative. I’m particular too. Aren’t I, Sam?”

  Sam, she calls him. Sam. Even the oldest of his old lady, crippled-footed customers call him Mister Rosenberger.)

“That’s different,” he assures her. “You’re looking for a little style. She’s gotta have something sturdy, she’s still growing. She’s got lousy feet besides.”

It’s the final affront to the little dignity I have here. “There’s nothing wrong with my feet,” I say, but without the necessary conviction. It’s hard to oppose the foot expert on his own territory, especially for the very first time.

I turn away from them, as coolly as I can manage, so I don’t have to see her smile sympathetically, and slowly saunter around the red row of chairs, back toward the front of the store, where my grandmother is straddling a shoe salesman’s stool, one hand steadying a tall stack of faded cardboard shoe boxes. Waiting for me. I take the empty seat next to my mother. Who has turned in her seat to watch the preceding scene. I suppose she may whisper something to me about being unsociable. But she neither says anything, nor seems to notice my return. As my grandmother unboxes the first pair of shoes for me—brown, handsewn oxfords, plug‑ugly shoes with laces—I turn away to watch with my mother as my grandfather half-kneels on the worn carpet before the woman, and gently grasps one high‑heeled black pump in his hands.

 

My grandmother Ruth only rarely worked in the store since my mother and her brother had grown up. This had little to do with my grandmother’s feeling about the shoe business, and even less to do with the fact that Sam’s particular piece of the business had never been really prosperous, at least not since its very earliest days. If Sam seemed, to outsiders, the type of tough little guy who didn’t need any help from anybody, he was, in fact, always loudly complaining to us about the hardships of working alone “on the floor,” as he grandly put it. But he had, it seems, even stronger feelings about working with women, closely related or not.

My mother is an older sister, but only her brother has worked beside Sam in the store. Likewise, I am an older sister; but Sam patiently waited for my brother to reach his early teens and enter (as unwillingly as our Uncle Richie had) the slavish Saturday‑and‑holidays apprenticeship. In between the impressment of son and grandson (neither of whom were destined for a career in the shoe trade), Sam, frugal, not to say cheap, and perhaps faintly realizing that he could never hope to keep hired help if he heaped his customary unselfconscious abuse upon their heads, grudgingly allowed Ruth to accompany him into Manhattan a few days a week. Which kept him pleasantly full of petty complaints all week long.

On this day, a sunless Saturday in February, my grandmother is at home. My brother is expected to appear in the store in time to run out to fetch sandwiches for lunch, and then to stay until the six o’clock closing, shoving money into the parking meter, reorganizing shelves, straightening up the basement stockroom, and maybe even waiting on a younger customer or two, if any ventured into the store. But when I arrive, at one thirty, Steven is not there, and neither is Sam, so far as I can see through the glass door.

The itinerant shoemaker to whom Sam has given a hole at the heel of the store, glances blandly up at me as I half-enter his cluttered workspace. He is alone. Hundreds of shoes, most of them untagged, carelessly paired and tossed aside, lie in dense heaps along the alcoves’s splintered workbenches and narrow shelves. He does not speak much English. I wonder how he manages with my grandfather, who has refused to speak anything else since he got off the boat—nothing worse than a greenhorn, nothing better than a real American, by him. Perhaps Sam makes an exception with his shoemaker when no one is listening.

Neither does the little man stop the hideously clamorous sewing machine as I try to find out where everyone has gone. Out for lunch? I ask several times. Mr. Rosenberger? Out? He looks puzzled until I begin to gesture, sweeping my arm toward the front of the store. Mr. Rosenberger o-u-u-t? Then he smiles, and nods. “Egen.” Yes. 

I wonder if my brother has been and gone as well. And Steven? A dull look has settled again on his face: Complete incomprehension. Steven!! I grimace the ee’s, hum the vee. I don’t know how to say brother in Hungarian. “Mein bruder; brooooder; mein bruder,” I add desperately. Ah! He lights up, brightly shakes his small white head. “Nem.” No. “No here, no today here.”

I realize that we will begin to yell if we continue this conversation another moment. Which will not make this day, or my being here on this day, any pleasanter.

Walking toward the front, I stop at Sam’s cramped office, separated from the shoemaker by a plaster board partition, half-hidden from the general view of the larger room by a wall of open shelving crowded with shoeboxes. A scarred mahagony desk and chair fill the space; nearby, the venerable register rests on a special shelf. The desk is littered with catalogues, circulars, bills, calendars, two overflowing ashtrays, crushed coffeecups, cellophane cigarette wrappers, cigarette packs, cigar tins, receipt pads, order forms, scribbled over scraps of paper. A dirty beige phone is balanced precariously on a pile of newspapers and well-thumbed copies of U.S. News & World Report.

 From atop a ragged stack of flattened‑out cardboard boxes set on an abandoned office chair, a boxy, beatup plastic Emerson radio buzzes with what sounds like news and weather. The four-cup water heater, short cord and plug stuffed inside, still sits atop its dusty little telephone table, but hot chocolate has long since ceased to be served here, now that we kids are older, and Nanny Ruth is mostly home. There is a small container of Nescafé, a little jar of chicken bouillion cubes, a straw bowl overflowing with envelopes of restaurant sugar and Swee Touch Nee teabags.

Two stained, chipped teacups, without saucers and not traceable to any china pattern held by any member of the family, are stacked next to the electric pot. They look too delicate to belong here. I think it would be very nice to have a hot drink in my hand while I wait alone in one of the long rows of customer chairs.

There is no running water in the store itself, however. You have to go all the way down to the dank basement for a sink and toilet, set back in a peeling tomb of a w.c. It is not a place I willingly visit for any reason. More often than not, the lightbulb over the decaying wooden staircase that leads down is burned out, while the chain switch that sends a faint illumination over the series of cavelike basement rooms is well beyond the foot of the stairs, so that after groping your way down, hands sliding along the splintered bannisters, you would have to stumble out into the damp guts of the cellar, wildly reaching before you for the elusive light.

And as scared as I am of sheer darkness, nothing could be worse than the actual sight of the basement. The amount of debris and dirt is staggering: The floor (of rotting wood, earth and jagged concrete) a sea of wastepaper, discarded shoes and shoe supplies; the unpainted walls, stinking of mildew, stacked with motley ranks of excess old shoes, and the low, crazed ceiling festooned with cobwebs. If you look more closely (I never have, only heard this from my brother) you can see rat droppings everywhere. We have, admittedly, never seen the rats, but we know they’re there: The exterminator has removed their greasy bodies in black plastic trash bags.

So, then, the bathroom—its door half-unhinged and permanently ajar—lies on the far end of this horrible den. And it is more horrible still. Barely lit by an undersized bulb, its yellow broken sink is covered with the scum of years, and runs perpetually cold, while the seatless toilet is normally stuffed, and on its way to overflowing. Toilet paper would be too much of a luxury in such a place; if you don’t remember to bring your own, there is always yesterday’s, or last year’s, Daily News. My grandparents and even my brother generally use the Blarney Stone john. I, myself, try never to need one at all during my visits to my grandfather’s shoe store.

Just now, I wonder which would be worse: Wandering out into the raw afternoon again to look for a takeout coffee place, or trying to pick my way down to the basement sink and back for a potful of water and a clean cup. I sit at the desk and slip my coat from my shoulders onto the highbacked old chair. I am wearing bluejeans, a black turtleneck, and black boots with Cuban heels I bought in a new shoe store in Flushing. My grandfather will be upset that I am wearing slacks, as he calls them, and he will want to know “Why so much black on a young girl?” and he will probably make me stand up so that he can feel for my wriggling big toe through the soft black bootleather with a knowing thumb. Just for old time’s sake.

I lean back to twist the dial on the rado to my station, WABC: I tune into the last verse of “Michelle.” Yuck. I poke around the catalogues amid the junk covering the desk, looking for something new, something interesting. All I can find are the usual dreary brochures. My grandfather’s resistance to change is certainly encouraged by the fact that most of the shoes he stocks literally never change (except maybe for coming in white for the summer) and that most of his customers couldn’t imagine why they should.

Under a stack of Wall Street Journals, I find Sam’s brown leatherette pocket calendar. I didn’t realize he had one, by which I mean, he doesn’t seem the type, somehow. What sort of appointments would he make? There he is, in the store six days a week, eight or ten hours a day, with no friends to speak of, no clubs or organizations he belongs to, not even a synagogue.

On an impulse, I page through the little book to my birthday, my sixteenth, two weeks away. Nothing there. I know Sam is not one for remembering such occasions without prompting, but I am still a little let down.

But then, as I flip back through the preceding month, and on into March and April, I see that the datebook is almost entirely blank. Mysterious little marks, like tickings‑off, appear on certain pages, at random. At least, I can’t make sense of them. They could mean anything—the bookie’s visits, days to check in with the broker around the block—or nothing. It seems my grandfather is not, after all, the type for a pocket calendar. Maybe someone gave him this one and he felt obliged to use it. Or maybe he thought it might help him order the chaos of the store. I slide the cheap little book back under the papers exactly as I found it. The office suddenly seems oppressively close. I leave my coat on the chair, and wander toward the main part of the store, where fluorescent lights hang high up near the distant tin ceiling, and give an illusion of brightness and fresher air.

I take a chair in the group at the back, nearest the office, commanding a view of the store and the street beyond, though it is hard to see anything way out there from this distance. I look down the double rows of seats, soldered together in a bright line that stretches from my feet to nearly the front door. Ten red chairs to my right, ten green to my left. Twenty seats, not counting mine and the three others flanking it back here. I close my eyes and stretch out my legs. How would it be if twenty customers were here at one time?

Twenty old ladies, or twenty old men, or twenty cripples or twenty...any twenty customers, in any combination, all seated together in my grandfather’s store, all with very sad, old feet, and very definite ideas about what would make their feet young and happy again. And my grandfather more definite than anyone else, arguing, cajoling, finally flatly prescribing, as the presiding foot doctor, twenty pairs of shoes, take them or leave them. (And final sale besides.)

It’s a nightmare vision to me, but I know very well that for my grandfather it would seem like a dream of a working day. If he ever had such days, years and years ago, I don’t know about them. Ever since I can remember, there have never been more than two customers (not including family members) in the store at one time. But why the twenty seats (and more, for the overflow), the dozens of complicated metal foot measures and simpler wooden rules, the full-length looking glasses and knee-high, pyramidical mirrors? Amd why all those thousands of shoes? I suppose if you’re going to have a shore store at all, you had to do things right. Sam relied on what he called “repeat business;” he spoke of “word of mouth.”  He was ready if everyone rushed in at once. He seemed to still be expecting that they would. Because of his reputation, his expertise—his genius.

I open my eyes. The empty store looks dingy and forgotten. No passersby seem to be even glancing at our windows. I look up, and with a familiar little shock meet the glazed stare of the stuffed and mounted elk’s head that has overseen Sam’s business for all its years. My grandfather claims to have bagged the thing himself, but I know now that he never touched a gun after his tour of duty in the Hungarian army, circa l914.

It is a flea-bitten, pitiful thing, anyway, depressing rather than impressive. Hard to believe it is still here, balefully gazing at the unchanging scene below. But then, the kangaroos haven’t budged from their places. And there’s the high-bouncing rocking horse, sitting silently on its strong steel springs because there aren’t any more children for it to carry. And the massive wooden X-ray machine, with its nickolodean eyepiece, through which we used to view the bones of our own small feet as if watching a silent movie. It still stands near the front door, though it hasn’t worked in a decade. It’s not that it’s a curiosity or valuable; it just wouldn’t occur to Sam to move it out. What for? Why bother?

I wish it did work, it would be more interesting than sitting here waiting. I can’t understand why my grandfather has been gone so long, or where he could be. He never eats lunch out, that was just a simple way of speaking to the simple shoemaker. He knows I’m coming. If he used his stupid book instead of burying it in the garbage on his desk, I’d be pencilled in there: Janie, one-thirty. And he would be here.

Meanwhile, Steven had probably overslept and decided to forget it. And for this, I’d turned down a movie date in the city.  The funny blonde guy who tutored with me at Ethical Culture Saturday mornings had finally asked. But no: I’d told him I had to visit my grandfather’s shoe store. He made a face, like, Some excuse. He’ll never ask again.

More than a half hour has passed. A chill teases the back of my neck. I realize that I am going to need a toilet after all. I try to envision myself putting on my coat, stepping out to the Blarney Stone, and pushing my way through the smoky raucous barroom crowd to the Ladies. My imagination falters halfway there.

There’s only Downstairs.

If someone other than the shoemaker were here, in case—I don’t know, just in case. It would make me feel easier. I can’t wait any more, though. It occurs to me to leave a note for Sam, as I pass his desk on my way to the cellar stairs. Or to call someone on the pay phone at the top of the landing, and have them hold on. Stupid. Standing on the top stop, I reach for the light switch along the rough dark wall. The bulb is either burned out, or gone. I play with the silent switch a little, but no light flares over the stairs. I begin to make my way down, one narrow step at a time, like when we were little kids, down, down the steep flight. I am very conscious of how carefully I am moving, of how scared I am. Once, my brother tripped and broke a finger here. There are even worse things that could happen. I stop at the bottom, turning slowly, my eyes trying to see, catlike, across the distance to the bathroom. It is also in that direction that the main light cord hangs.

As I turn to my right I see a thin yellowish line of light, cutting a rectangle out of the blackness. The bathroom bulb is burning, the dislocated door somehow closed against the glare.

I stand very still. My senses seem muffled, rather than heightened by the obscurity. But there is no way I can turn back. I step forward, one hand swinging in the close air before me, trying to catch hold of the slender pull chain. Underfoot, tissue paper crackles, and crushed cardboard boxes slide aside. Other obstacles are less distinct. I am barely breathing, listening for the sound of skittering paws, or squeaking, tensing against the imagined feel of soft flesh beneath my boot heel. The light cord is out of reach, out of sight, out of my way, out of the question. Has it fallen off, or gotten tangled around the beams overhead? I am moving in an ever slower, half-hobbled way now.

The silence is as strange, and as compelling, as the dark. Before, whenever I was forced to come down here, I’d always turned on all the lights and crashed noisily through the rooms as a warning: To the rats and ghosts and all unimaginable others. It always seemed I could still hear the shoemaker pounding and Sam bellowing upstairs. But now, in this blackness I can’t light, the stillness is overwhelming, and unbreachable. If I can reach the light in the distance, hear the creak and crash of the door as it opens and slips off its hinges a little more, the groaning of the old pipes as cold water fills the cracked sink—god, my mouth is dry and I’ve got to pee so bad...

Finally, I’m at the bathroom door. And now, for the first time, I can hear something that is not the rustle of debris beneath my feet, or the blood pulsing in my temples. It is something other than me, here in the dark with me, the sound of a low, monotonous sighing, as rhythmic as breathing, but throatier, like the windy exhalation of a pipe organ. And suddenly I can feel, rather than really hear, another rhythm behind it, a dull secret thudding, slow and methodical, like the heartbeat of a machine. If only, if only, I will spend the rest of my life regretting: But I didn’t have the luxury of time, right then, to realize, to retreat. I’ve always been impetuous, facing things down. Too startled to think, or to wait, I push the ball of my booted foot against the splintered door, hard, and jump aside, into the darkness again, as the door swings out toward me. A hand gropes blindly for the chipped crystal doorknob but it’s too late: The door, careening wide of its sill, smashes against the wall and then shudders to the floor with a crash.

In the twenty‑watt twilight of the bathroom, two figures are caught for a moment before all hell breaks loose: Sam, my grandfather, in his customary shirtsleeves, but with tie undone, red suspenders flapping, baggy pinstriped suit trousers slipping below his hips, stands small and petrified behind a tall woman half-bent over the sink, facing me, her black lace full slip pulled down in front and thrown up in back. She’s wearing a black garter belt, black stockings, high-arching black patent pumps. A fuzzy white sweater, black skirt, bright scarf lie strewn across the filthy floor.

The stench from the toilet is terrific. My grandfather still has the woman’s long red hair wrapped around one of his fists; her head is pulled back, her green eyes and orange-smeared mouth wide. It must have been the hair, the richness and abundance of it, that snared him. Who is it? Who is it? My mind seems to see things so starkly, in this awful instant, to know things it doesn’t really know. Who is it? Who is it? A winter evening striding by tacktacktacktack on highest heels: It’s that woman.  It’s her. That woman and my grandfather, doing it.

Panic suddenly animates them: They move apart and back together, turning, turning (but there’s no place to hide), stopping, starting, knocking each other into the rusting fixtures, wildly rushing to change the scene somehow. I turn and run stumblingly through the cellar and up the stairs, not knowing whether or not they have really seen me, and with no idea what I’m going to do.

 

I did nothing for weeks. I don’t just mean about what I’d witnessed. I mean, I virtually did nothing at all, day after day, just going through the motions, avoiding meals, sleeping badly, not calling my friends, not keeping up in my classes. No one bothered me about it: I had a reputation for moodiness. They must’ve thought that this mood would blow over as abruptly as it had descended on me, as all such moods seemed to; in the meantime, everyone left me as alone as I seemed to want to be.

Once I’d reached the top of the stairs and had stood there for a moment, blinking in the sudden light, the shoemaker’s racket reinforcing the roaring in my head, I knew only that I did not want to see my grandfather’s face again that day. I couldn’t be in the store when he himself emerged from the depths of the cellar. I got my coat and put it on quickly, mechanically, as I walked to the front door. On the street, I passed his smacked-up Chevy parked two stores away; just as mechanically, I noted the expired meter and began to poke around my coat pockets for change. Then I remembered, walked on. I got home very late for supper that evening. I told my parents that I had met someone from school, had gone to a museum instead of shopping, lost track of the time.

They were already settling into a Saturday night of TV. There was some chicken and rice, fresh string beans and a little salad waiting for me in the darkened kitchen. My mother came back in to warm the food, and stir the salad dressing for me. I didn’t have much to say; she soon went back to the living room. I sat at the table for awhile, not eating but not wanting to leave. The warmth and bright colors, the smells, just the dumb every day things of the kitchen were comforting. After awhile, I rose, and, after scraping my dinner into the garbage pail and shifting it to the bottom, I slowly and methodically cleared the table, put the leftovers in their neat Rubbermaid containers back into the refrigerator, washed the few dishes. I wished there were more work for me.

When I say I did nothing, I mean that I said nothing either. Who could I talk to? Even if my mother had been less of a mother, and more of a friend, talking to her was out of the question: Sam was her father. Besides, there was no way to broach such a subject in my family: We had never had a single discussion about sex, and we couldn’t begin now, with this.

My best girlfriend at the time (we are still close friends), would have been alright about it. She remembers more about my life than I do, I believe; there is very little we haven’t told each other. I wanted to confide in her, I really did. But the thing with Sam—that was how I soon began to think of it—I couldn’t tell her, I just couldn’t. It wasn’t only the facts, which were bad enough; it was that I had seen it with my own eyes. So that there was no denying it, or making excuses. I had been there, I was an eyewitness, involved in a way that frightened and disgusted me.

The thing with Sam: I only once talked out loud about it. It was a little like the confessions I remember the Catholic-school kids on our block giving us dramatic little enactments of, except that I was all alone: Something happened. What happened? Something.  What happened? Pop has another woman.  Are you sure? Yes, I’m sure. How do you know? I saw them. You saw them? I saw them.In the basement of the store. What were they doing? They were together. What were they doing? They were...doing it. What were they doing? They were screwing. My grandfather, screwing another woman. Who is she? Lois. Who? Lois. Lois who? I don’t know. I don’t know. That was it. Where were they?

It didn’t really sound so bad, murmured into the dark still air of my bedroom, not half as bad as when I was quiet, kept it inside and my brain began almost to ache with the ugly hammering of the same ugly words. But I was alone with it either way. And I sensed that keeping it to myself was somehow making things seem more catastrophic, that I couldn’t think through everything clearly. Someone else might have encouraged me to talk my way to other conclusions: That my grandfather and the woman were only together once, that she lured Sam down to the cellar, led him on, that he had no intention of going off with her, leaving my grandmother, leaving us and the store.

Or maybe they hadn’t actually done it; maybe I interrupted them before anything had happened. Or...but these ideas, and the relief they brought, were so tentative and fleeting that they had no chance against my pure disgust and despair. My thoughts would suddenly turn and begin to circle one point, as wolves surround a sick, weak animal: I knew something I shouldn’t, I was involved and implicated and (here was that weakest point, the worst, guiltiest thought) keeping this secret was as evil as telling. Never mind whether I told my friends to make myself feel better. I owed it to my grandmother to warn her, didn’t I? But didn’t I owe my grandfather something too? Some part of me felt he had forfeited any claim on my loyalty. And maybe my silence wasn’t as loyal as it was ashamed: I was surely ashamed, not only—or even mainly—for my grandfather, but for myself, for what I heard and saw and knew. Whatever the reason, I said nothing.

 

I had never viewed my sixteenth birthday as a major event in my life. That it would forever be a milestone, now, was just a bitter accident. There was nothing to celebrate. I decided to call off the small pizza party four girlfriends were throwing. But this, after two weeks of observable isolation, suspected private tears, was too much for my mother. She overheard me on the phone before dinner one evening. After she had cleared away the meal and done the dishes, she came to my room and knocked loudly. I was lying on my bed, trying to concentrate on my chemistry text.

“Yeah.” I closed the book, twisting around toward the door.

My mother came in, shut the door behind her, drew my deskchair over toward the bed.

“Janie,” she sighed, her eyes pained and anxious. “Jane. I’m getting a little worried about you; we all are. I mean...”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” I said. “Everything’s fine.” But it sounded weak.

“No,” she pursued. “You already said no to a big party, and now there’s no party at all. What are you going to do, hide from your birthday altogether? And why?”

“I’m not hiding,” I said quietly.

“Listen,” she said, trying another tack. “I thought it would be nice if we had the family in, just us, for a dinner this weekend.” I stiffened, felt my chest tighten. “Remember how Nanny Ida used to make you a strawberry shortcake on your birthday when you were little? Well, she says she’ll give me the recipe, and we’ll freeze her a piece for when she and Poppy Lou get back from Florida. And Ruth will make her famous chopped liver...”

I must have smiled exactly on cue, for, encouraged, my mother pressed on. “An early Sunday dinner, so that you won’t have to take a lot of time away from your schoolwork.”

“I don’t think I’m in the mood, Mom.” I meant her to understand there was something more urgent beneath my indifference. “That’s why I cancelled my party...right? It’s no big deal; there’s nothing so important about this birthday. I don’t care what anyone else does.”

””I already know all your theories about Sweet Sixteens—stop making that awful face!—and I’m not talking about that: This is about us having a little family dinner, just your family wishing you a happy birthday. We don’t even have to do that, we can just eat dinner and never say a word. But you can’t go on like Greta Garbo...not on your birthday.”

“You’ve already invited everyone, haven’t you,” I said evenly. “So why even ask me.”

“Don’t be like that. This is for you. Of course I ask, I want to be sure you’ll be here.”

“Sure, I’ll be here,” I snapped. “I wonder if they’ll all be here...”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” my mother said, looking at me curiously as I turned back to the textbook lying across my pillow.

“Nothing,” I said. I didn’t look up again. I could almost hear her thinking, Ungrateful; rude. She left the room; but I had to go and close the door after her, that’s how I knew she was annoyed. Ordinarily I would have yelled for her to do it. I was afraid my voice would break if I said one more word.

I must have believed that I wouldn’t see Sam again for a very long time, it was so unthinkable, him sitting in my living room, eating in my dining room, laughing on my birthday. I was a fair enough actress (even, I knew, a good enough liar when I had to be) but this situation seemed beyond my skills. Though perhaps not beyond Sam’s.

 

I waited, as I always did, up in my room with the door closed that Sunday. Lying on the shaggy, matted carpeting, I leafed through the New York Times Magazine; the comics and Parade from the Long Island Press had been tossed to one side. I was dressed in my everyday Landlubbers, and a dark flannel shirt, but I hadn’t combed my hair yet, or put on shoes and socks.

It didn’t seem like a birthday weekend. Or maybe this was how birthdays would be from now on. My birthday was really Friday: I had imagined that I would eventually begin to feel a little happier, thinking about being a year older. But it wasn’t working out that way. I had been feeling much older, and very much sadder for weeks; but at the same time, I felt so pathetically young and puny. A birthday doesn’t mean much, really. I still didn’t know what to do.

Downstairs, the bell rang. My father’s parents, Ida and Lou, who invariably arrived and departed first, weren’t coming at all, since they were in Miami for the month. And I knew that it wouldn’t be Sam: He was always the last to show up, though he lived right nearby and drove at heart-stopping speeds, with absolute disregard for traffic laws or life and limb, including his own.

I pulled on a pair of dark socks and my boots, pulled a brush through my long curls. At the top of the stairs, I stopped in at the bathroom, borrowed my mother’s mascara and then a slick of not‑too‑pink lipstick, putting on as nice a smile as I could for the mirror. The front door was being closed, and someone welcomed, as I trudged down the steps to the living room, smiling back my fears.

It was only my Uncle Richie, Mom’s younger brother. He was between marriages, and, I guess, between girlfriends: He arrived alone, a small wrapped package bulging out of the pocket of his camel’s hair coat. “Here you go, sweetheart, catch!” he called out, sending the box sailing toward me as he stripped his coat off and tossed it carelessly over a chair in the hallway. My mother rushed to seize and hang it “properly,” in the hall closet. I sat down on the bottom step and tore off the wrapping, which looked to be left over from Christmas. (I recall thinking that the present itself was probably left over from the holidays, originally intended for some other girl.)

Inside was a blue velvet jewelry box; I opened it to discover a bright yellow-gold charm bracelet heavy with three chunky charms. One was a four-leaf clover; the next was a puffy heart with an arrow shot through it; and the third, a large musical note. Since outgrowing the wonderful toys he brought us from FAO Schwartz, I had never yet gotten anything from Richie I could actually use. It was an incredible waste: his gifts were always hugely extravagant, and never quite right. They made me squirm with discomfort.

And now this: A bracelet which was so impossibly not-me, I didn’t know what to make of it, or what to say. Everyone was crowding around: what did the loony young tycoon bring this time? (Besides, that is, his latest sports car, which would soon be drawing crowds of neighborhood kids outside.) What could I do but let them decide for themselves? I draped the gold links around my thin wrist, set the clasp in place, and snapped back my arm, jangling the bracelet and charms in the air like a small golden tambourine. It was not so hard to smile, listening to the chink of gold, seeing this bunch of faces bobbing before me, my mother oohing in the way she imagined an enthusiastic person might, my brother, sizing up the gift with a bark of honest laughter, my father, drinking Scotch in the distance, smiling sagely to himself, signifying god knows what.

My uncle, meanwhile, had sauntered right over to the makeshift bar, poured himself a bourbon, and begun to tell a story. I jumped up and, still smiling, the corners of my mouth just beginning to falter down, made my way toward him, prepared to throw my arms around his neck and thank him. He squirreled aside in an only partly mock-embarrassed way, as if he were a youngest brother instead of my uncle. He always seemed to want to be everyone’s devilish younger brother. Then he allowed himself to be kissed on the cheek before loudly going on. I was relieved to get off so easy, but his story made my ears burn.

“Hello! So I’m driving downtown near the store, I figure, what the hell, I’ll stop in and see how the old man’s doing, right? I double‑park in front of the bar and I’m just getting out of the car when I see the shoemaker come running out, he’s got his hat on and one arm in his coat; the old guy is so excited he runs right into me. Hey! I said, don’t I even get a hello anymore? But he’s like a wildman, hollering in Hungarian, I couldn’t understand a word. Finally, he turns, and he’s literally shaking his fist at the store, and then, he spits twice on the ground, like a curse. The next thing I know Sam rushes onto the sidewalk and starts to yell, you’ve never heard anything like it in your life: ‘You piece of dreck, you lump, you lousy greenhorn, don’t come back, you bastard, your equipment is forfeit!’ (‘Forfeit’; that’s rich. Where did he get that?) ‘Go on, that’s right, run, run!’”

The room is hushed. My uncle’s impersonation of my grandfather’s crazed, thickly accented voice is uncanny.

“So what was it all about? Are you ready?” Richie lit up a fresh Chesterfield, drew deeply, snorted out a derisive smoke signal. “I ask him, ‘Pop, what’s going on? You’re yelling at this poor schmendrick of a shoemaker like he’s a criminal. What happened, Pop, tell me?’ He stands there in the cold on the sidewalk in his shirtsleeves, sweating bullets, panting like a boxer, and he tells me, ‘That sonofabitch is no good, he ruined a pair of slippers, stitched them right across the toe.’”

“That was it. I said, ‘What, are you nuts? Slippers?! For that you’re throwing the man out?’ (Besides, he’s paid for the space already and some of the equipment is his.) What’s one mistake between friends? I don’t get it. And what does he say? ‘Friends? Friends! That’s how much you know,’ he tells me. And he goes back into the store and slams the door. I didn’t bother going in after him, believe me. We haven’t spoken since; it’s four days now.”

My mother chimed in. “I spoke to him several times this week and he didn’t mention a word about it.”

Murmurs and nods all around. I wondered if my grandfather were losing his mind. But no one else seemed to think it was at all out of the ordinary. He wasn’t an easy man to live with, my mother always used to sigh years later, when conversation turned to Sam and Ruth.

I sat down on one of the couches next to my brother. With my hands folded in my lap, I could see just how stupid the bracelet looked, on me anyhow, in my work shirt and jeans. My brother, never one to miss an opportunity to tease, twisted the four-leaf clover between two fingers: “It’s just your luck to get this bee-utiful bracelet,” he whispered, chortling hoarsely. I wrenched my hand away and rose, prepared even to help my mother in the kitchen, if it would keep my mind occupied.

She was standing over the stove, stirring a thick, tomatoey soup. The side doorbell rang Through the curtained glass panel, I could see Ruth, laden with shopping bags. Sam pushed past her, and was already through the small kitchen and into the living room, trailing a sickening plume of cigar smoke.

Ruth had barely unwrapped her garishly flowered kerchief or unbuttoned her heavy brown coat before she was pulling things from bags, setting smaller paper sacks and containers clatteringly down on the grey formica table amid the dishes, cutlery and glasses my mother had been laying out and wiping off for the dining room.

“Here is the chopped liver,” she noted, unwrapping the foil from what must have been a two quart casserole dish. “This,” she went on, holding up a tall former pickle jar,”is vegetable soup. And this,” (a little plastic chicken liver container) “is the griebne, from the chicken fat.” She turned and asked me for the thousandth, or perhaps the millionth time, “Do you know what is griebne ?” as she unsnapped the lid. And for the thousandth, millionth time, I smiled and nodded and reached for a handful of the greasy little rendered fat kernels.

“I made them for you,”” she said as always, and I smiled. It was a good thing, because I would finish them before anyone else even knew they were here.

Ruth wasn’t done, however. She turned to my mother: “Here are some oranges; here is applesauce; here are some cookies from my neighbor the Italian; here is some leftover challah, you can serve it tonight...”

My mother was exasperated. “Mother,” she said slowly, “Why do you bring me fruit and bread and...all this other stuff; don’t you think I shop and cook before I invite people over? You’re supposed to make chopped liver for an appetizer, that’s all. And look at this: Who are you making for, a wedding party? How many pounds of liver is this, anyhow?”

My grandmother now began to busily fold her scarf into a square she could put into her purse, and shrugged off her coat along with my mother’s complaining questions. This was an old game my mother knew she could never win. But she couldn’t help being irritated by it, and you could hear it in her voice, if you knew her well. “Jane,” she said shortly, “Help a little and hang your grandmother’s coat, please. Then come back and we’ll put out the liver and some more cheese and crackers and celery.”

Laughter erupted in the living room as I carried the coat to the hall closet. The loudest honk of mirth was unmistakably Sam’s. It made him cough harshly right afterward. Hearing it, all I wanted, suddenly, was to walk into the warm depths of the closet and close the doors behind me for a few hours. I couldn’t find a strong wooden hanger for what was Ruth’s good coat, but I knew I would attract attention if I lingered there. I slid two wire hangers into the worn shoulders of the coat, quietly pushed the louvered double doors closed, and turned to slink back into the kitchen. (I am certain, anyway, that my father would have called it slinking.) But of course, I was not as invisible as I needed, or wanted to be.

“Jane!” Richie called. “Come say hello to your grandfather and show him the bracelet. Maybe he’s got a diamond for you, huh, Sam?” This was a not‑so‑veiled reference to my grandfather’s penchant for hot merchandise peddled door to door on Third Avenue. Like father, like son, everyone said of the two of them. But it wasn’t really so: Richie had succeeded in making the money that Sam was still chasing with his dubious margin buys, his sure-thing (as in, sure to fail) mining and oil investments, his gullible purchase of watches and gems. Richie may have bought my gift on credit, without seriously intending to pay anytime soon, but you knew it came from a real store, Saks or some place like that. 

Anyway, here was Sam now, slouching back among the throw pillows in his standard blue chalk-stripe suit, white shirt and tie (more dressed up, if not more up-to-date, than anyone), staring uncomfortably across the room at me through his bottle‑lensed glasses. Or perhaps I only imagined that he was uncomfortable, because my own stomach was knotting up and my mouth beginning to go dry and wordless. I looked for a long moment at my reflection in the bevelled mirror above my grandfather’s bald spot. I felt a blurring weakness in my gaze. I glanced again at Sam, then, too briefly to really see him.

“Hi Pop,” I ventured. And then, to the general company, “I’ll be back in awhile, I’ve got to...help my mother.” No one protested; certainly not Sam. My brother predictably snickered. I suppose he thought I was sucking up. No one knows anything about me, it occurred to me, self‑pityingly, before I reminded myself what a good thing that was, and walked back out to the kitchen.

It occurred to me that I was paying my k.p. dues for years to come with this dinner (which was after all in my honor) and that someone, meaning my mother, might decide to become suspicious. In those days, I was almost never in the kitchen unless I wanted to talk to her privately, for she was almost always there, like her mother before her. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about anyone noticing what I was doing, or wondering why. Getting even a small meal together was a hectic thing in my family. Or, I rationalized (invisibility wasn’t altogether pleasant) maybe they just think I’ve grown up. Maybe I had. It was a strangely painful idea.

Dinner itself is a blur in my mind. There was a great deal of food, needless to say, and serious digging‑in promply began, accompanied by much clattering, laughter, extravagant praise for the food balanced by my mother’s self‑effacing protests. No one seemed to remember that we were gathered to celebrate my birthday. I was relieved that my wish to be left alone had somehow been understood, but at the same time this non-celebration made me feel nonexistent. My only satisfaction was that my grandfather seemed not quite himself either.

It was not something anyone else would have really noticed. He was still eating heartily, chewing noisily with his mouth wide open (his atrocious manners not unique among the grandparents, just more energetic), cursing my grandmother for nagging at the soup and gravy sailing onto his tie, smiling at both the stories of ill‑health and the vulgar jokes flying around the table. But there was a tension evident around his eyes. And he seemed to look too long, broodingly, at everyone, everyone, that is, but me. I know, now, that he was waiting for some kind of opening. But at the time, what I noticed mostly was that his glance never fell upon me once. I didn’t have to evade it, but neither did I have the chance of cutting him. I was becoming aware (dimly, dimly) of some power I had, of refusal, denial.

My mother asked my brother to help her clear the table before she served out the fruit salad, fresh mixed with Libby’s, because we liked the slippery peach and pear bits and the faded cherries. “After all, it’s your sister’s birthday,” she coaxed. He grudgingly agreed, throwing me clownishly dark looks as he began to stack the soiled dinner plates. He made everyone laugh as he always did, mugging and capering to steal the spotlight from the time he was old enough to sit under the piano pulling faces, pushing the pedals down, as I played for guests.

But my birthday had been recalled. Ruth decided to give me her present over dessert, before the cake and the coffee were served. Inside the large envelope was a birthday card featuring a glossy photograph of a dachshund (our official family mascot for generations.) Inside the card was a corny verse about Sweet Sixteens. Crisp green bills, a twenty and a five, were taped to the facing page.

“How much did Ida send you?” Ruth might have taken advantage of my other’s grandmother’s absence and let herself off the hook of this competition in which she was always the loser. But no: She had to ask.

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.” Stupid answer; she began to guess, and it wasn’t too tough: Every year, Ida presented me with a Series E Savings Bond in some denomination (usually one hundred, often one thousand) that made Ruth’s customary twenty-five dollars look miserable in her own eyes, not least because Ida never passed up the chance to rub it in.

“Twenty-five dollars! How cheap can you get!” she might bray. And so, every year Ruth was surprised and hurt: That Ida and Lou were still rich, while she and Sam were not and would never be; that Ida had won again, in the contest for my love. Nothing I could say could persuade her otherwise. And it wasn’t possible to tell her that if I’d had to pick a winner, it would have been her, for her simple, loyal affection, unconditional, no strings attached. I still wish I could have told her so, just once.

But even that year, in Ida’s absence, I had to content myself with waving away her effort to retrieve the card so that Sam could add some money to it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped, awkward with by my own welling feelings.  I didn’t want him in it, either.

But he seized the moment. “Money! What’s money? Here, what’s the big deal?” And he peeled some twenties off a rubber-banded wad extracted from his pocket and wafted them, magical little flying carpets, across the table toward me. “Nothing to it; money don’t take imagination.”

“Dad, please, let’s not get carried away,” my mother put in mildly. But my father was smiling tolerantly, and my brother was laughing so hard, grabbing for the stray bill himself, that he nearly choked on a fruit segment.

“You got to get carried away on a girl’s sixteenth birthday. Right, Janie?” He looked at me for the first time, without seeming to see me, his small eyes shining like bright devil beads. There was nothing in them that I could see of love or reconciliation, only the familiar Sam mania.

“Yeah right.” But I could feel the energy at the table shift toward Sam’s corner: Why so sullen, sweet sixteen? Did I have to be such a poor sport?

 “You know, you look cooped up, you look sick,” he said suddenly, shoving his bankroll back into his trouser pocket. “Let’s take a ride, you and me!”

Who made me sick? I wanted to scream in his face. Who?!? Ride with you? I’d rather...

My mother demurred, a little more forcefully than before. She was beginning a head count, coffee vs. tea, and she had her schedule to think of. “Now Dad, that’s just silly: It’s almost time for the cake. Where are you going to go at this hour on a Sunday night?”

“What are you, my wife? I go where I please. The cake can wait, we’ll be back before you miss us.” He turned to my Uncle Richie, who was smiling, indulgent, amused, like the rest. “Give me your keys,” he barked. The smirk fled.

“Oh...I don’t know, Pop...” The red convertible didn’t have a scratch, or probably even a fingerprint on it. And it could do better than a hundred and twenty on the Long Island Expressway.

Sam held out his hand. “Come on, big shot: Don’t be a little vantz. It’s a special day; give me those goddamn keys.”

“What if I drive?” Richie had taken out the small gold keychain, but the car keys swung from his unwilling fist.

“Who invited you?” Sam shook his head: Some nerve. And caught the keys against his vest, smack, with that big, threatening right hand.

 Somehow, he had already commandeered our coats from the hall closet. Now, he hefted my long woolen cape and asked me, “Will you be warm enough?”

So we were going, just like that. “Yes,” I answered wearily. What could I do? I fastened the cape around my shoulders as I walked to the front door. People were brightly calling, Good‑bye, don’t be too long! But don’t drive too fast! And don’t forget the cake’s waiting! I couldn’t see beyond my next step, out the door, couldn’t imagine what Sam could be thinking, why he would not only want me along, but would connive to be alone with me. It was the last, the very last thing in the world I wanted. I hesitated at the doorstep, holding the outer door open slightly and peering out into the frosty evening gloom. Sam nudged me impatiently onto the stoop. “Come on, come on! We’re wasting time here.”

 

Silence filled the car as palpably as the scorched air blown in by the heater, and much faster: It was a dense frost against which the heating element was powerless. I shivered with the cold, and with a kind of mindless fear, as dumbstruck as if I were a kidnap victim. And we were speeding. Sam broke the spell first.

“You’re not talking.”

Sarcastic answers as always rose first to my lips. I just grunted.

He persisted. “I mean, you’re not talking to me.”

I shifted uneasily in my seat, turning my head to watch a purple pick‑up truck in the rearview mirror as it moved up to pass us. There was a cute, dark-haired guy (shoulder‑length curls, and a beard) at the wheel.

“Don’t worry,”Sam assured me, almost tenderly. “We’ll talk.”

I’m not the one who’s worried, am I? I wanted to sneer. For I suddenly realized that he was painfully aware of, pained by, my silence, and I was glad. But the thought, and the sound of his voice, brought me back to my own state of mind: I was worried. I didn’t know where we are, or why, and there was so much I was so unhappy about it didn’t seem possible to ever make it right.

We drove on. Traffic was sparse. Although I have a poor sense of direction, we seemed to be driving into Manhattan. A mad idea possessed me: That we were going to the shoe store to meet her. So that I’d make friends. So that it would all be smoothed over. But then, we were turning off the Expressway, passing a big green and white sign crowded with directions to Idlewild Airport. It occurred to me, then, that Sam was even crazier than I knew.

“Where are we going?” I finally asked. I could hear the panic edging into my voice.

“So, she can speak! Do you hear that, God, she’s speaking to me again, hoo‑ha!” He snorted, then gave me a sideways glance. I was not smiling. His next words were more subdued. “We’re going somewheres we can talk. We gotta talk, you know that.” At my continuing silence, he repeated himself, more aggressive, “You know?” He was, I guess, beginning to feel so oppressed by the cold and the quiet that he demanded some response.

“Yes, I do know, Pop.” Each word fell like a stone, insensibly heavy.

I turned toward him, preparing to hear him open the discussion right then and there. In beaky profile, hunched over the wheel and looking as if he were seated in a hole despite the woven cushion on which he was actually perched, Sam seemed less than ever the shoe store lothario. His jutting blue-tinged jaw was clenched and his thin, pale lips drawn together. I noticed that he had let his sprouty pencil moustache reappear. He didn’t speak. But glancing over his shoulder at the traffic following, he suddenly pulled wildly at the steering wheel, maneuvered the car into the right lane, onto an exit ramp marked AIRPORT.

The roads and parking lots were empty. Sam picked a lot very close to the Departures terminals. It seemed to be an off time for flights, redcaps idling around the entrance doors. I had the idea that we might just sit in the darkened car, in the privacy of the immense Number One parking field. But Sam got out as soon as the engine died, admonishing me to lock my door as he slammed his shut. Then we were walking toward the nearest entrance, my grandfather slightly in the lead.

The air was crisp. Light from the terminal and the airfield cast a shimmering glow along the dark horizon, obscuring the stars I might have otherwise been able to see out here, far from the clustering houses and crowded apartment buildings which had already overgrown this most suburban of the city’s boroughs.

I loved looking up at the stars, tracking the waxing and waning of the moon, and I had always especially liked the idea of night flights through the winter sky. I hadn’t been on a plane since I was three, a mid-January escape to Miami with my mother I barely recalled. Perhaps we flew at night then. Sam pushed through the heavy glass doors into the terminal, and I followed.

Compared with the fresh snap of the early evening air, the terminal was stuffily overheated and glaringly lit. Sam craned his neck, peering myopically this way and that, before hurrying down a hallway lined with closed and darkened shops, motioning for me to follow. “What I’m looking for,” he explained, “Is a nice little restaurant where you can watch the planes go in and out, and have some coffee and maybe a piece of pie.”

“I’m not very hungry,” I began, politely enough. And then I was struck by the incongruity of sitting with Sam in a nice little restaurant in the airport, while my family and birthday cake waited for me. “What are we doing here?” I demanded. “If you just wanted to talk, why couldn’t we go to your house, or drive around ? Why...”

Here my grandfather interrupted me, brushing my words from the air, as if they were so many insects buzzing around his head. “You know all the questions, maybe you know also the answers.” He strode along the hall, glancing neither to the left nor the right; a glass and wood-paneled facade at the bend up ahead was apparently the place he sought.

“You’re just like your grandmother, like your mother, typical woman, always has to know the next move. Why this and why that.” He began to cough raspingly. As we reached the door of the Bar‑Lounge‑Restaurant, he stopped short, his face so close to mine I could see all the tiny barbs that shaded his cheeks with indigo.

“We’re here because no one’s going to bother us. And here you’re not cooped up, you have the planes. You always loved planes. I was the one who used to bring you and your brother to LaGuardia when you were kids.” Sounded funny: when you were kids. The next thing he said seemed in some way to want to explain this.  “I’m going to talk to you like one adult to another. Now that you’re a young lady, a young woman.” He held the door open and waved me into the dim vestibule. The door swung closed behind us with a fatal bar‑room bang.

 

“I thought to myself [he began, after the waitress had brought us two coffees and a soggy piece of apple pie with two forks], maybe there shouldn’t be any discussion; how many times talk just makes things worse, I’ve lived long enough to know. But then again, I’m thinking, how can I leave it like this, God knows what she imagines...” Imagines?! I frowned, and he hastened to correct himself . “...What she thinks, what you think, Janie, what you must think, how you must hate me.”

Did he want to be let off already? I didn’t want to hear whatever it was he was going to tell me. But I wasn’t prepared to say, I don’t hate you Poppy, and stop him, right then. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a lie. I didn’t—don’t—know if my silence was more honest. He listened to it, and it meant he had to go on, more or less honest himself.

“All right. So I realize we have to clear this thing up. But what to say, how to make you understand, that’s not so easy, huh? You’re no little girl anymore, and you got a good head on your shoulders, you’re smart, sensible; but...it’s rough, it’s rough any way you look at it. And believe me, I been looking at it. How to make you understand...”

“You think I don’t understand ?” I interrupted his musings disdainfully.

 “I think you think you understand,” my grandfather returned. “But you don’t, you really don’t. No, you don’t!  So I want to talk to you about it and I want you to listen, hear me out, and then, we’ll see where we stand.” He didn’t wait for even my answering shrug before continuing. “What you saw—you got to know, I’m no skirt chaser, no ladies’ man. That’s not my style. Opportunities I’ve had plenty, it’s the nature of my business. But I’ve always had too much respect for your grandmother, and I had a family to think about, a store to run, a fine, upstanding reputation in the neighborhood...” He spoke simply, without irony, almost visibly straightening his spine along the image of his own rectitude.

“Now, if I told you that I never look, never thought about it, I’d be a liar. I’m a man, I have that weakness like all men do. But I been faithful all these years, and only I am in a position to know that it hasn’t always been so easy. Your grandmother...” I had a swift, prescient vision of their separate double beds, in separate though adjoining bedrooms. When my brother and I stayed over as children, I slept with Ruth and whichever dachshund was in residence, and Steven slept with Sam. My grandmother: I wasn’t going to let him drag her into it.

“Ach...she done her best,” he finally shrugged. I could feel my chest untighten, my breath come freely again. “She has a good heart; she did her part, a wife and a mother. And you know how she is with you kids; she a real nanny, a natural. She has her little meshugas...but I guess I’m not the easiest person to live with either.” He guessed. It had no force, no real self-awareness in it. He went right on.  “No, I can’t blame her for anything; I’m no angel. But if I fell down this once, still, I know in my heart I been doing right by her all these years, and tough going a lot of the time too. I want you to know that.”

So many ifs and buts: It seems to me now that he was wishing he could blame her out loud, that maybe he did in his “heart.” Maybe he could have even told me true stories about his marriage that would have made him seem less culpable. I’ve divined things, listening to my mother reminisce since both her parents have been gone. But it would have been risky, that route. I suppose even someone as elemental as Sam knew that the less said to a sixteen year old granddaughter about his actual sex life, the better, especially considering our special circumstances. Weren’t we precisely trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy, in which I knew nothing, in which the merest speculation would make me giggle, repelled?

But wasn’t there someone else to blame? “What you saw...” he took up the refrain again. “What can I say, but that it was nothing. It was nothing and she—she’s nobody to me. Who is she? A customer, that’s all, been a customer of mine for years. Even your grandmother knows Lois. It was a kind of joke, between us, how she’d waltz in like she owned the place, pulling out boxes, expecting me to drop everything for her. She’s used to getting what she wants: She’s a wealthy woman, this Lois, a widow, living off the money her poor fish of a husband left when he fell down with a heart attack. And nothing better to do than dress up, paint her face, and spend the day shopping all around town. Only the best, Saks, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman. But she always came to my store for her shoes.”

It was off-key, somehow, though I couldn’t have said exactly how. I must have heard, without realizing it, how forced his ungallant description of her sounded, how his dismissal of her as a nobody clashed with his pride in her choosing Archway, choosing him. She’s used to getting what she wants.

He may have heard the note of insincerity himself. “Lois is a beautiful, beautiful woman, no doubt about it. And she isn’t a bad person.” That was just to set the record straighter. His expression was indifferent. “But...” I suddenly knew that I wanted this But to be a positive denunciation, something I could hold onto: How had she done it? How was it possible? Was she what my mother would have privately labelled a slut ? But my grandfather’s picture was more benign, almost affectionate. “To her, it’s like a game, being pretty, flirting. She doesn’t know from family, responsibilities, obligations. She couldn’t see who it could hurt.”

I bit my lip: Not me, I thought. So. He wasn’t going to drag her through the mud and leave her there, rejected. But he rushed on toward the end, as if he needed to reassure us both. “Now she knows the whole thing is kaput. Not because of...what happened, but because it was an accident, a mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake.” That didn’t tell me anything. Maybe it was my mistake, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t say no.

“Believe me, Janie, when I tell you how sorry I am. Because it was never meant to be, and it don’t mean a thing. I’m married to your grandmother, I love all of you, and this, what happened with this woman, we just made a mistake, and it’s done with, finished, I couldn’t be sorrier. It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing in the world.”

My grandfather’s eyes: I had never seen them so before, urgent, pleading. The effect was irresistible, almost hypnotic. “"I don’t want you to be upset, Janeleh. I don’t want you to hate me!” Reaching across the table, he clasped my hand, poised uncertainly over my coffee cup, between his large softly worn old palms. Cornering me in my miserable confusion and demanding that I overcome it and comfort him. And all I wanted to do was thrust back at him what he had burdened me with, and say: No; I can’t accept it. I don’t want your ‘gift,’ I don’t want this straight talk. It’s wrong, I really am just a kid; I don’t want to know about this stuff. But of course it was too late for that anyway. I wasn’t a kid, anymore, was I.

Strange, how actually much sadder and uglier the whole thing seemed now that it was supposed to be meaningless, loveless, nothing but two people fucking in a cold, stinking sewer of a cellar, as mindless as the rats and roaches. Nausea tickled the back of my throat. Strange, I mean, because Sam was certainly telling me what he assumed I (or anyone) would want to hear—whether it was the truth or not was another matter—and it wasn’t working the way it should have, the way even I had imagined it would when I thought about what would satisfy me and ease my guilt and my anger. I think, now, that only complete amnesia would have sufficed. For that, Sam would truly have had to be a hypnotist, a Hungarian magician.

But here he was, himself, my much more prosaic grandfather, Sam the shoe man, waiting, so desperately, for something from me, and not knowing that he couldn’t give enough in return, couldn’t make things right, because no one could. In his own clumsy way, he tried. Whatever the calculation (or miscalculation) that had gone into his apologia, the need with which he was appealing to me was nakedly real.

“I don’t hate you, Pop,” I said softly, as easy as truth, as he stroked my hand with unfamiliar tenderness. “I’m just...I don’t know,” I hesitated. Please. Let’s finish here; please, don’t say anything else, it’s too much. Please.

But he was too relieved to notice my reluctance.

“Of course you don’t hate me!” His voice was booming, he was squeezing my fingers happily in one hand. “Why should you, now that you understand things. You do understand what I’m telling you, Janeleh...?” His voice trailed off. I was suddenly sure there was something else, something he couldn’t possibly come out and ask. It would be easy enough for me to give, if I wanted to, once I knew.

“I guess so,”" I said. “This is the first I’ve talked about it with anyone; it’s still pretty...” I could see his face and shoulders relax even more, and I knew I was right. “Pretty strange,” I concluded. He looked down at his powerful hands, where they lay open on the dark scarred table.

“Your grandmother would only be very hurt to hear of it. And for what? There’s no sense to that. And your mother, oy...” He looked up at me.

“I don’t talk to her much these days; not about...serious things. I guess it’s just adolescent rebellion,” I feebly joked, regretting it instantly as my grandfather broke into too‑loud laughter. I picked up my fork, poked it into the untouched wedge of pie. It looked as if it were made of synthetic materials. A sudden recollection of the strawberry shortcake I was missing, its tart sweetness and cool cream, filled me with desire. My birthday celebration. For perhaps the hundredth time, I glanced out through the wall of glass separating us from the airfield and was finally rewarded by the sight of a plane being readied for flight.

It almost made me shiver, watching the men in heavy jumpsuits clamber over the silver bird as it sat on the frozen ground. How very much better to be someone—anyone, no one—sitting snug in a seat inside, with a ticket and time to fly anywhere on such a night as this. Warmed by the thought, I turned back to my grandfather. “Poppy, let’s go up to the observation deck and watch it take off? And then we should get back, don’t you think?”

“"Sure, sure,”he said signalling one of the interchangeable waitresses for the check. “Don’t worry; we’re okay.”

By the time we got back, the cake had been seriously carved up, and Sam had to concoct a ridiculous story about a traffic jam, the detour he took that wound us up almost in Brooklyn. The facility with which he fibbed to shut up my frantic grandmother and very put‑out mother wouldn’t have been reassuring to me, if I’d focussed on it. But I was busy with another story, one I was going to have to work hard to forget.

 

I wore black leather boots in the fall and winter, and brown, handmade leather sandals in the summer for the next several years of high school, and had no reason either to visit my grandfather’s alone, or to linger there when a rare family outing brought us to the neighborhood. Sam never discussed anything of a personal nature with me again. For which I was infinitely grateful. The past faded like the chambray work shirts and blue jeans I lived in: It was only when they were worn ghosts of themselves that they were livable.

I did, though, end up spending  alot of time with Sam after his first operation. His recuperation was slow; he was home for months, weakened and in pain, and it began to seem he would never return to the city to run the store again. Yet it was hard for him, as always, to keep still, or to relax. The foot reflexology madness probably had as much to do with his need for some sort of useful employment as it did with his interest in the license itself. Somehow, in any case, he got it into his head that he wanted official recognition, and he’d discovered the existence of an obscure state licensing examination for foot masseurs. He was sure he could pass the exam, no sweat. If there was one thing he was certain of, it was his genius as a foot man. But just to be certain, he undertook a self-designed review course. And he requested my assistance.

Apparently my new status as a student at Queens College, my longstanding reputation as The Smart One, now overrode Sam’s hesitations about working with women, for I was the only person he would have for the job. I was frightened by how bad he looked: suddenly so aged, fragile. I didn’t dare refuse him.

I would arrive, sit down at our makeshift desk in the kitchen, Ruth hovering at my elbow with coffee as I riffled through the blue volume, The Science of Podiatry. Eventually, Sam himself—bony and slo-moving, wrapped in a voluminous blue rag of a terrycloth robe, brown plaid slippers encouraging his shuffling walk—would totter in from a long bath, or a protracted visit to the toilet (my grandmother had to help him there), painfully seat himself, and signal me to begin. And for hours, I would read, just read: Beginning wherever I had left off (Sam never studied on his own), and trying to impart some color and life to my droning voice, I read column after column of dry, summary information as Sam listened closely, his eyes brightening with interest behind his glasses even as my own eyes threatened to flicker shut.

Though I must say, the foot book (as I thought of it) was actually more tolerable than most of the science I’d been forced to study in school. You could see how some of the information might apply and it was certainly easier to visualize a hammertoe than a digestive tract, or an atom. Still, for all its potential interest, our readings on the subject soon became problematic. The human foot was Sam’s area of specialization and the focus of the exam. The heavy blue book was therefore a sort of bible. But the problem was that the textbook was literally antique, and I was certain it contained outdated, or plainly false information. As a reader, I began to feel a certain sense of responsibility about it; I tried to tell Sam.

But over and over again, his response was to ignore my tactful remarks. His attitude seemed to be that since the human body (and its appendages) hadn’t changed in eons, neither had the knowledge regarding it.

I asked him why he though there were new editions of textbooks coming out all the time. (Indeed, this very foot book was a third edition, in its umpteenth printing.)  To sell more books to suckers, he said. We went on, as before, but I never felt entirely easy about it, and worried that he would fail the examination and be heartbroken.

I mean, as foolish a license as it might be, it was something Sam wanted. He saw it, I suppose, as conferring status on someone who was seen as just a tradesman, but who had a grander vision of himself, and a larger sense of his mission on earth. When I had to end our tutorial at the start of my own first exam period that winter, I worried even more about what would happen.

But Sam didn’t seem to take any of this to heart. He rarely did. For all the noise he made about every little thing, he was better than me, and the other women in his life, at shrugging things off, moving on. Now he was feeling a little more nearly well, gaining weight, sleeping better and looking less like a grey wraith, and more like the man we knew. It was a great relief to us. I was even more relieved, though, to learn that after he returned to the store Uncle Richie had been running—into the ground, Sam screamed—during his absence, he got too busy and deferred his exam for a year. Neither Sam’s knowledge of the human body, nor the efficacy of our study group would ever come to the test, however. By the time of the next state licensing examinations, Sam would be dead.

 

It sounds so implausible, in the re-telling, that this news, this ultimate and essential fact regarding my grandfather, should have been kept from me. But it was. How this was accomplished is easily explained: I was out of the country for the first time, studying and working in Israel, only sporadically corresponding with the family. And why should such a charade have been undertaken? It was just the furthest extension of my mother’s unreflecting habit of protecting us Kids from the slings and arrows.

She hadn’t even written that Sam was in the hospital again. But then, she hadn’t told me the first time either, not until his surgery (itself a mystery) was over, and she knew he’d be home soon. Now, he wasn’t coming home. In response to my reproaches she wrote, simply, that she couldn’t see what purpose telling me would have served; I was busy adjusting to a new life, and the news would only have shaken me, and made me unhappy.

Of course: I would have been a mourner. She withheld that right, and that responsibility, from me. I was outraged at the idea of a conspiracy of silence. On the other hand, the way she put the thing made me feel that I had collaborated in it, had somehow given the impression that I was too busy with what she called my “new life” (picking bananas all day, studying Hebrew and Arabic at night) to be troubled with news of my own grandfather’s death. Only now can I understand how these distractions of distance, along with distance itself, continued to stave off raw grief. At the moment that the news of Sam’s death accidentally reached me three months late, I was sure the shock was the worst I would ever feel.

It was raining heavily, as it rained nearly every winter’s day, the afternoon the truth found it way to my hilltop cabin. I was sleeping off a hard day in bananas and dreaming of nothing unless it were dinner. The sound of the mail being slid beneath the sodden, warping door woke me.

I seized the innocuous American mailgram as if it were a discarded thousand pound note, an unlooked-for treasure: There’d been no mail for weeks, and none at all from my brother in the months I’d been gone. Though that is not why I’ve saved it, when even long distance love letters from that year have been lost. I lit my kerosene stove, sat down on the bed with the duvet quilt wrapped about me like a buffalo robe, and carefully unstuck the glued edges to reveal a very long letter written in a minute hand I barely recognized as Steven’s own scratchings. I suppose he wanted to squeeze it all in.

                    March 12, 1971
Dear J. [he wrote]

 

How are you doing? I’m ok. I’m sorry I missed your birthday, but I hope it was a good one anyway. Did you have friends there to celebrate with you? I hope so. Mom says you wrote her you were very cold, and that it was boring and lonely a lot now; probably things will get better when the spring comes, so hold on (if you want to.)

As you probably heard, I’m out of school for awhile. I don’t know what I want to do but I know I don’t want to be a doctor. Of course, everyone thinks I’m nuts; let them: It’s my life. (A radical idea in this family, y’know. You’re lucky you escaped...) I’m taking piano again (good for my head); and working in the store (bad.)

Well, it’s bad in the ways it’s always been bad, not just because of Pop. I mean, the same old farts come in to waste your time, and the place is still a mess, and there’s no stock and no money to get any. And now Richie’s there, pushing me around, as good as Pop ever did. Nanny doesn’t come to town that much, but I think it’s just that she knows R. and I will be there. Because she actually seems pretty okay about things. And so does Mom. It’s Richie who’s the most upset.  I didn’t really realize how close he and Pop were until the funeral.

 

At which point, the aerogram literally flew from my hand, and fluttered to the bed. I picked it up, that terrible last word leaping at me again, and reread the opening of the letter, the word now a sort of translation key. And then read on. Past “the funeral” to the real funeral, to my grandfather’s real death, which to my brother was old news. He was in a rehashing sort of mood, I suppose.

 

I guess we’ve been pretty lucky so far; hardly any deaths in the family . Remember we wanted to go to Uncle Moe’s funeral just to see what it was like? But Mom said no, we were too little. You know Mom. I was almost surprised she didn’t tell me to stay home for this one too.

 

As she’d arranged for me, I thought. Somehow, though, she’d failed to tell him, pledge him to secrecy.

 

The place was on Queens Boulevard, right near Alexanders.  Weird, like we were all going shopping, or out to eat, or something. We, I mean the Immediate Family, had to stand at the door on the way in and afterward, and shake everyone’s hand. There were people we never see, mostly from Nan’s side, and quite a few I didn’t know at all, more people than you might’ve expected. A lot of customers showed up. It was amazing. All those bad feet, coming all that way.

Richie was late, as usual. I think he even doubl-eparked his Jag out front. So he rushes in late, and rushes over to see Pop. And then, standing there looking down into the thing, he starts crying, like I’ve never seen anyone cry. It was unbelievable. He couldn’t stop. You know how little kids work themselves up to a pitch? Like that. Mom and Nanny, who had started out cool and calm, went over to him and put their arms around him, and pretty soon they’re all hysterical. Then they took him outside for awhile. Dad went out after them a few minutes later.

I stood there all alone until everyone finally went into the chapel. People kept coming up to say hello, and tell me how sorry they were. Some of those cousins you never see unless someone dies...they’re like vultures. And I had to thank them for coming.

The service was worse. The rabbi was this nebbishy guy who married Mom and Dad; they didn’t know who else to get. So of course, he didn’t really know or care anything about Pop’s life. It was depressing hearing him bullshit about my grandfather. You know? Afterward, everyone came back to our house to stuff their faces with lox and bagels and bullshit about themselves. No one mentioned Sam. Sorry to be so cynical, but it really made me kind of sick.

 

I was sorry he couldn’t just tell me that he missed Pop, but I guess he knew I would know.

 

Anyway, nothing much has happened since. In the store, every day is pretty much the same: Open at eleven, a hamburger for lunch at one, close at six. And no customers to speak of. Richie is as manic as ever, but now he’s down too. He hasn’t snapped out of it yet. I never noticed how much he looks and talks and thinks like Pop (or was it vice versa).

 

The rest was nothing, wisecracking about the heatless kibbutz winter, a reminder that his own birthday was coming up. I sat huddled on the bed for a very long time after I had read and reread the main part of the letter. The room was growing stuffy; I would have liked to have drifted back to sleep but that was impossible. Not that I thought I could absorb all of this in one sitting, this knowledge I wasn’t supposed to have. Sam, dead. It was hard to imagine him reduced again to the sad figure in the raggedy robe, and I felt glad, momentarily, that I hadn’t been there to see it. Then, cold dread descended, not because he was dead precisely, but because I was here and he there and I could not for the life of me remember saying good‑bye to him. I would never have another chance, for hello and good‑bye.

Even the people who didn’t care about him had that. Even —I was startled by the simple force with which the realization struck me—she had, hadn’t she? It was so strange, the way she was simply here, in my thoughts, after...what, four years it was. Right here. I couldn’t have said why. It was all but forgotten. Yet she pushed right into my mind, here, beside Sam, almost pushing him aside. It must mean that she had been there too. Suddenly, I was surer about this than about anything Steven had reported first hand, except for the event itself.

My brother had described Sam and Ruth’s relatives as vultures. But they were just sad, scared old people who disliked one another less than they feared death, and so diligently gathered together to attend every funeral as if that might excuse them from their own. No, the real vulture was someone no one suspected, maneuvering her way in, mourning Sam as if she had any right...

A sense of my own insufficiency swept over me, like the sleety gusts that drenched and discouraged us in the fields every winter morning. I couldn’t do anything about her, then or now. Maybe he had never even given her up, maybe it had gone on and on and on—until death. Maybe she had said good‑bye. Of course she had. Maybe I was the only one who hadn’t. And so what. So what. Sam was dead.

Such a safely distant death, already a past simple fact, yet on closer approach, there was nothing simple about it, it was strung all around with barbed wired. Like the pine trees that surrounded my simple hut, my simple life here, were. I wondered what Sam would have thought of me as I lay down in the dank, dusky room, and closed my eyes against tears of anger and a childish chagrin.  Real sadness waited to be sifted from the ashes of the future.

 

My grandmother made no changes in the store, but it seemed changed. I had been away a long while, had stayed away from the store even longer. And Sam was gone. It was more natural to think of him as gone than as dead. He seemed to have simply disappeared in my absence, as if he had taken off on an extended trip just before I returned from mine. Like in the old days, when he would unaccountably vanish for five days at a stretch, only to turn up with a carload of trout he had caught upstate on a solitary fishing expedition.

But what was, more subtly, gone from the shoe store he left behind made coming home to it easier for me. The secret pain and conflict, the disquieting associations of recent years, were being slowly and steadily effaced. Without my grandfather’s eyes upon me, a surer kind of forgetfulness was possible.

Much earlier memories, colored by the nostalgia of distance and utter pastness, claimed me again: Pushing open the door of Archway, I could almost hear our childish laughter reverberating, could sense the old fascination of the big store, cluttered with curiosities, could relish its comfort as a center of family life without rejecting its shabbiness.

We all loved and hated Sam’s shoe store, as he had. Part of growing up was growing to resent it, to feel superior to it, to mock it mercilessly. That all came so easily to me, even before everything happened. But with Sam gone, my feelings softened. For me, the store became a sort of shrine to its own past, not in the sense of a memorial to a dead man, but simply as a place where Sam had been, a place he had made his, a place you could almost imagine he would return to sometime. In Sam’s absence, I could conjure the Pop, and Pop’s shoe store, I wanted.

I lived in the city now, my first apartment, a small furnished flat on the East Side I sublet while finishing school. I visited Ruth in the store pretty frequently, at first to see how it would feel and later because it felt alright, and because Ruth needed the company and help. I didn’t have the knack for dealing with the customers. Even Steven, who had had years to refine his loathing of them and their knobby toes, managed to turn his distaste into a dryly humorous approach to which they responded. I just got impatient and snippy. I was more suited to working the register and organizing receipts (a rare form of employment) or shuffling unpaid bills from one file to another (a more common pasttime). I made some new signs for the windows, sent the kangaroos to the dry cleaners, and made Steven take down the elk.

Eventually, I went down to the cellar. By this time, there was no question of using the toilet, the water had been turned off long ago, and the Blarney Stone’s ammoniated facilities were as familiar to me as the beery breezes that blew from their kitchen onto the sidewalk we shared. No, Ruth kept telling me I might find old books stored down there, valuable old books I could keep or sell at my discretion.

Her memory was notoriously unreliable, and I barely considered investigating, until one afternoon, when I happened to be watching as Minnie the cat crashed out from behind a tower of shoeboxes on the cellar landing and dashed straight down the stairs. I turned on the light to see if anything had fallen onto the steps or beyond. Minnie now sat placidly at the foot of the staircase, gazing up at me. The basement, if not exactly inviting, at least looked to be no hellhole. I recalled the books and, illogically encouraged by the company of the cat, descended.

There wasn’t much to see, even after I had found the elusive overhead light chain. The floor was neatly swept and clear. Two big grey plastic trashcans stood, half‑filled, against a peeling wall. The bathroom door was propped next to the doorway in which it had hung, the space half-boarded up with splintered two by fours, barring entrance to everyone but the cat and the rats and mice she stalked down here. No ghosts hove into view. I stood staring at that little room, that little shithouse whose influence in my life was so disproportionate. Ludicrous. Laughable! And I did, then, smile a bit to myself.

I moved on to the dim little cluster of ante-rooms which at one time held half of Sam’s inventory, stockpiled in dusty shoeboxes stacked in endless rows. Now, there were ancient cartons thrown here and there on the ground, spilling their contents onto the concrete, or crushed closed. As I bent closer to pick through what had been so carelessly left behind, I saw that the whole lot was women’s shoes, very old shoes, of a sort that, far from being grotesquely orthopedic, had been the height of fashion forty or more years ago, and were actually coming into a kind of retro vogue again.

There were brightly colored straw pumps with little straw flowers set at the toes; narrow-heeled wedgies in bright primaries and in black; high-heeled shoes of clear and ruby acrylic. The tiniest sizes predominated, the measure of a child’s foot; and indeed, I recognized some of the flat models from my own childhood closet. I was surely the only kindergartner in the United States of the fifties to sport perforated black patent wedges. And how I hated those “lady” shoes! They made me feel freakish rather than special, or grown up. In those days, no child wanted to make a fashion statement. But now, impelled both by that suddenly tickling memory and my own matured taste for arcane attire, I began to seriously search for the size nines.

I had been hard at work for awhile when I came upon the first pair, and I did a little dance that raised a cloud of dust and sent the skulking cat flying. They were nothing special, black suede sling-backs, nearly flat and open-toed with a small wedged sole. But they were perfect, size nine, narrows. It was as if they’d been left for me, for this moment. A gift from Sam, special salvage to redeem this forsaken place. That was, anyway, more romantic than acknowledging that they were probably here because they were unmarketably large for their day, just as the tiny‑lady shoes might conceivably have been samples, too small to sell.

The next pair was of pale blue straw, a sunnier sandal with white leather trim and tiny faux seed pearls setting off the toe. They were stiff and uncomfortably round-toed, but they seemed very beautiful to me, and I thought I could get used to them. The third pair was my favorite: Brilliant carnelian low-heeled leather pumps, and more supple than any shoes I’d ever seen. Nearly overlooked, hidden in the yellowed tissue paper lining of the box, lay a pair of small rhinestone shoe clips. The shoes advertised their own versatility: To work; or, to dance. Since I did neither, I briefly wondered where I might wear them. But there was no question that the red shoes, too, were meant for me.

I went through every box that remained, abandoned, in the basement. I found nothing else, no other sign that I might recognize, or hold to the light to interpret. My spirits were high. I thought how pleased Ruth would be that she could give me something. After food, shoes would do. But that wasn’t it. The pretty shoes were a link to Sam, I knew that much. In their antique prettiness rested some power of moving backward, and then moving on with my life. I don’t suppose I had even the dimmest awareness, though, that these three pairs of time‑capsule shoes would one day constitute my entire legacy from my grandfather. Or that I would treasure them as precious souvenirs, the only physical evidence on this earth that Sam’s shoe store had ever existed.

 

I didn’t think of them that day of the fire either, didn’t unwrap the crushed tissue and touch the worn leather and stained fabric to press the connection past its time, past disaster. Things were much too flat and real for that scripted sort of self-dramatizing gesture. Facts numbed my sense of feeling, of knowing how I felt.

If the store had been gradually returning to itself, slipping back into a haze of safeness and goodness lost that terrible day years before, this burning was another radical twist, another wrenchingly terrible day. Here was the real refining fire for my memories. In my numb detachment, I resisted it for all I was worth. Yet I could sense something, some spark of clarification, waiting to burst into consciousness. 

But there, beating her wings, a hungry shadow, hovering over me, was the vulture again. She couldn’t stay away, couldn’t even leave me alone with my grandfather’s memory. Yes, this was a public cremation, anyone could gawk all they wanted. But I was absorbed by such deep, speechless misery that her unanticipated presence here was the rudest possible jolt, short of seeing Sam himself. It had sent me skittering away, as if she were some fearful graveyard phantom.

But that was wrong (and my steps slowed as my thoughts quickened): She was nothing but a pushy bitch who made it her business to butt in, to ruin things. I was letting her do it again, right here, at the scene of the crime. I was letting her off easy. If I walked away, that is, if I didn’t finally push her back, push her out of our lives.

My forehead throbbed as I reached the end of the block opposite the gutted row of stores, and halted at the curb to let a car make the turn onto Third Avenue. I glanced back, and thought I could still see her, small and solitary on the sidewalk before the fallen Archway Shoes awning. I didn’t cross. I went into one of the small stores on my side of the street, I don’t remember which, but there were magazines, greeting cards. I stood near the front, in the window. “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still you had the feeling that you wanted to stay,” Sam used to croak hoarsely when I was a kid, I think because someone once told him he sounded like Durante. Do something; do it now, I thought. Through the steamy window I thought I saw her begin to move off in the opposite direction, uptown. I started after her.

For what, I didn’t have time to think. I was trying to find an opening, in the traffic, and among the tense phrases that were quickly replacing one another behind my thick‑tongued silence. The avenue stoplight finally shone green. I ran across and slowed only slightly to an easy walking stride, quickly closing the distance between us. We were alone on the block, and she turned at the sound of my footsteps approaching in the dark.

She didn’t seem as surprised to see me as I felt on the first close look at her face. Her eyes were reddened and puffy. Her careful face paint had been deeply eroded in places and smeared in others, as if with a damp sponge. Even her once‑perfect, luxuriant hair seemed dull and disheveled. Now the wind, picking up in the chill night air, whipped thick strands around her high, wide forehead and across her pale lips.

“Lois,” I said heavily, as if it were enough of an indictment, and stopped several feet from her.

She knew me, but couldn’t, it seemed, think of my name quickly enough.

“You’re...”

“Jane Markowitz.”

“Yes. Jane,” she sighed, and smiling faintly, smoothed one hand back over her hair, her palm lightly brushing her ear. A diamond stud earring glinted on the small, white lobe. “I’m afraid I must look a sight,” she said, still smiling, perhaps in an attempt to charm.

As if I cared what the hell she looked like. The evidence of her mourning suddenly seemed theatrical.

“I’m glad you came back,” she pursued. “I didn’t mean to startle you before and I’m sorry you got upset but...”

“Never mind about that,” I said roughly. Her eyes fluttered, opened wider. “What are you doing here? Who sent for you?”

She blinked once, very deliberately, as if to shut me out long enough for comprehension to come. Perhaps no one had ever asked her such a thing before. Perhaps (very likely, it seemed to me) she had always simply belonged, no questions asked, had made her way around by belonging.

“What do you mean? I’m here for the same reason you are, I...”

But I cut her off, my voice too loud to my own ears. “What do you know about me, or my reasons? Who do you think you are? This was my family’s store, my grandparents’ place. How do you come to be hanging around like some evil fairy at every disaster? I’m sure you wouldn’t have missed his funeral for the world...”

“Well, of course not,” she interrupted. But this confirmation cut into me. I countered, wildly.

“And now this. You seem to like sick thrills: You should have been here while it was burning down.”

“Well, I wasn’t,” she interposed softly, her eyes steady.

“Too bad.” I knew I was desperate, taking refuge in sarcasm. “What a nice scene that would have made, mystery woman grieving at tragic inferno,” I fairly snarled. Then, I put it to her again. “What are you doing here? What do you want from us?"

“You know that your grandfather was a good friend of mine,” she said, as if she hadn’t even heard my harsh questions.

“No, I don’t know that, why would I know that when it’s not true?” I flung at her. But I was suddenly afraid. I hadn’t really counted on her talking back at all.

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” she said, slowly, undefensively, and began to weep again.

“What does it matter to you, that I come to say good‑bye, like anyone would? How does it hurt you?” She was crying furiously now. I was silenced not so much by her distress as by the satisfaction that I had, in some way, contributed to it, had managed to maneuver past the haughty air she affected.

She pulled a crumpled, soiled handkerchief from the pocket of her fur and dabbed at ther streaming, streaked eyelids She took a few deep breaths.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking at me again, her gaze more opaque. “I’m sorry you don’t understand. I can’t talk to you here on the street. I can’t anyway, with all this shouting and bad feeling. Maybe if I knew why you are so angry, I could help...”

“I don’t need your help,” I snapped.

She continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “If we could talk quietly, somewhere else, over coffee, maybe.”

A moment’s silence. It was, in a way, a challenge. She knew that as well as I. If I refused, I became someone with no case, nothing but a crazy girl, really, and she, my poor, innocent victim.

On the other hand, if my whole aim had been to exorcise her once and for all this time, why would I want to put myself in the way of hearing the unthinkable, of thinking the worst of Sam?

“All right,”" I said abruptly. “Where do we go? I don’t have a whole lot of time.”

There wasn’t much in the way of a pleasant place for coffee and talk in that neighborhood. But it didn’t promise to be much of a talk anyway, and it certainly wasn’t going to be pleasant. We stopped at the first faceless coffee shop that presented itself. We settled a noisy argument with the owner (who insisted on sticking to his posted one dollar minimum even though the dump was empty) by ordering toasted muffins with our coffee. I was starving by then, but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of ordering real food. I didn’t want to prolong the meeting either.

Following a trip to the bathroom, Lois returned to the booth, looking pretty well recovered. She must have realized that I was waiting for her to begin in earnest when a feeble joking remark about the ambiance failed to elicit even a charitable smile. I was much too keyed up, I suppose, and no way could charity enter into this. I had promised nothing. It was enough, maybe too much already, that I was here with her tonight.

“I don’t know what you told your grandfather, or what he told you, because he never talked about that with me afterward. But I know you must have thought that was the worst day of your life, the day...of course you know what I’m talking about. It was the worst day of my life, and probably of Sam’s. But that’s not your problem, and I make no excuses. It was an awful thing.”

“It was a long time ago. There’s no point in discussing it now,” I said, as if it weren’t the whole point, the only common point between us. She paid no attention to my mild protest.

“We didn’t think we were doing a bad thing, then. At least, I didn’t. I had such love and respect for him. But after that, there was, for him, no question of going on. That was it, finished. Because of the family, his marriage, his whole situation, he said. And then it turned out he thought of me as a fling, anyway. A fling!”

The hurt in her face was as fresh as if she were facing Sam instead of me, and hearing the word for the first time. “When I said, ‘No, Sam, I’m in love with you’, he laughed and told me to stop talking nonsense. How could a young woman like me love an old shoe store man?” I wondered if she had just stopped herself from saying, beautiful young woman.

“I had just lost my husband the year before. He was only a little younger than your grandfather. Maybe I needed someone like that, a strong person. I don’t know. But Sam helped me laugh again, when I never thought I could. And he put me in touch with some good people to take care of the unfinished business, too. But then, after—what happened, and after our conversation, he would never discuss our friendship again, would never listen to me, listen to reason. It was just finished.”

I was less startled to know that Sam had told me the truth (approximately), than I was to realize I was beginning to hear her point of view.

“...I’m sure you don’t want to hear this,” she was saying, in her too-familiar way, “But I have always believed he did love me, a little. Again, I don’t know. But he closed me out so completely, after all those years of knowing each other, that it seemed too hard of him, not like Sam, not what he would have chosen if he had been able to act freely.”

“Eventually I didn’t even come into the store anymore, it was too...the way he wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t look at me. I would have liked to have started over, just as friends, nothing more. But there was no way. Still and all...” She sighed with a longing I wished I didn’t understand. “I cared for him very much. He was a man, your grandfather, very proud and in some ways hard: But he was a man, he had been my friend, and I loved him.”

She seemed to have come to the end. She looked down into her coffee cup and then back at me. Her gaze, already uncomfortably intense, was now positively piercing. It seemed as if she were waiting for something from me.

“You’re right about one thing,” I said deliberately, taking a slow sip from my own cup to give myself time. “I don’t want to hear this. Not any of it. What’s it supposed to mean to me now?”

She didn’t seem taken aback, only a shade disappointed.

“I thought, if we could talk like adults...”

“The problem is we’re not talking like adults, as you put it. You’re talking to me as if I’m the kid who just ...” And here I hesitated, because I wanted my choice of words to tell, “Who just caught you fucking my grandfather in a filthy toilet.” As I’d hoped, her face went paler, hearing it said out loud.

“But I’m not that kid. And you and I have no connection now, as ‘adults’,” I added, giving the word a sneering emphasis. “That’s what you’re not talking about, and what I’d still like to know: Why you’re here, why you keep coming around where you have no business and no—no connection.”

But if I had anticipated that complete denial would mean the end of this wretched conversation, I had badly miscalculated. Lois suddenly reached across the table, seized my wrist with one of her smooth, manicured hands, grasped it tightly. Her voice rang with contempt.

“"If you’re saying you still can’t share him, can’t even share his memory, then you are that kid.”

I tried to twist out of her grip. With a grimace of disgust, she flung my arm free. We watched one another in dead silence for long seconds.

She spoke first, her flash of temper steadied by something more obdurate.

“My connection, as you call it, is as clear as it can be. But you can’t admit that. You’re too busy with your own feelings to feel what I’m saying. Listen to me now: I never owed you any explanation or apology. I came here on my own. To hear you out, to talk, just to be sad with someone, I suppose. And I understand now there’s no way for us. It makes the day so much sorrier. But I’m not sorry I tried. It’s important to try. And maybe sometime it’ll be important for you to see how I’m like you. I’m just a woman who cared for him and had to let him go. Even before you lost him. Before we all lost him forever. And now the store.”

Her eyes seemed to hold and reflect my image as coldly and indifferently as her diamond earrings might. I can see now, at this distance, what she must have been seeing from across the booth: My fear and pride, my solitary anger clung to as a prize, a living link to my grandfather. The blood in my wrist throbbed beneath the impression her urgent fingers had pressed into it.

What of the fact that my grandfather hadn’t lied to me after all: Sam—self-centered, strategic, simplifying things—Sam had hurt everyone, and spared only himself. And then died before we were ready, before we had sorted things out, leaving us trapped in our ignorant habits of loving and hating. Oh, how deceitful my grandfather’s truthfulness seemed to me now.

When she looked away finally, her eyes searching for the waiter, it was as if she were done with me, for good. There was no sadness in it, only a sort of brittle weariness. I had been uneasy, imagining her playing the knowing older woman, taking charge. But that was before. Don’t leave me alone now, I thought. Something is happening.

She snapped open her purse and took out a small red leather billfold from which she extracted several one dollar bills. “Check please!” she called to the waiter as he passed again with only a sullen half‑glance in our direction. She lay the bills on the table before she gathered her fur from behind her in the booth, drawing it about her shoulders.

“I think that should cover it,” she said briskly. "I hope you don’t mind if I don’t wait for him, I’ve really got to be going, it’s almost seven."

I murmured something as she slipped out of her seat and stood behind me in the aisle.

“Good‑by Jane,” she said. I looked around as she held a now‑gloved hand out to me. “Good‑bye,” I said, looking away.

Lois, I thought; Lois. Goodbye, Lois. Her heels tapped a lone tattoo across the empty coffee shop. Apparently no one ate dinner there, at least not on Sundays. Our own food was untouched, our coffees barely drunk. The waiter grumbled as he put the check on the table. Could it be that he disapproved of food going to waste? Or disliked the impropriety of one leaving the other behind? He snatched the money and the check before I had even looked at the figures. I didn’t care, let him have all of it, so long as he went away.

I sat still as he walked off, humming along with a whining bouzuki tape I noticed for the first time. It was possible that I was going to cry. But not here, not with these seedy guys hovering, the drone of cheap Greek pop music in the background.

Help, I heard myself think. It was, suddenly, a clear and distinct point of focus. I fitted my mouth around the unfamiliar sound, as unfamiliar as crying: Help, I whispered, almost dizzy with a new panic, as I rose and rebuttoned the coat I hadn’t taken off, wound the scarf around my throat, which ached in an odd, tender way, and went out past the owner cooking short orders for no one at the greasy grill, past the drowsing woman at the register. If she were still outside. If she hadn’t left.

The dark avenue was nearly deserted, the weather raw and threatening rain. I breathed in gulps, as I looked up and down the street, and found I could move in neither direction.

If the store were burning now, instead of having turned to ashes in the unseeing dawn, the night sky would be crackling brilliantly and the light and sound would draw crowds around me. Even I, so out of touch with such things, should have known that one person can’t make a proper Kaddish. And the heat from such a blaze, and such a crowd: It would have been enough until morning. Everyone did have to go home to sleep in her own bed sometime. But not in this freezing, lonesome darkness.

Oh Pop, oh Sam. Did you ever really know what the old place was? Not just a crummy rundown shoe store, but a small haven in the big city, a place to come into from the cold, the bitter cold. If there were no shoe store, if there were no good place left here for me, then there was nothing of my grandfather. He was gone too, really gone. He was dead, dead, dead. Dead and gone forever. Oh Pop, oh Sam, this is more than I can stand. I wish you were here. But what was the use of wishing? Besides, this scene of destruction would have hurt you more than death.

Tears still stung beneath my eyelids, but refused to fall. It was harder for me to cry than it was for most people to hold it in. Which made me seem tougher than I was, friends said, even uncaring. I suppose that must have been the original point of learning how not to cry. To not-care was to have grown up. But now, everything about me seemed as merely childish, as maladaptive, as this inability to weep.

I scraped my fist along the bricks edging the greasy glass facade of the luncheonette. As little flecks of crimson rose to color my knuckles, some tears rolled down one cheek, and then there was no stopping the rest. I crossed the street against the light at a trot, as if I could see, or knew exactly where I was going. A couple, black, middle-aged, came toward me as I walked quickly uptown, my face streaming. She seemed to slow down as they approached me more closely. But he pulled her along. I don’t know if she turned to look at me again.

On the next block, the blackened, collapsed structure of the Turkish discount joint loomed, momentarily concealing the ravaged row of shops with which it had shared years of customers and a few hours of flames. I was stopped from crossing then by a huge truck turning onto the avenue, and as the truck cleared the corner, I saw her standing in the street, just where my grandfather might once have parked his car. She was facing the scant oncoming traffic, her arm raised for a taxi. Had she waited after all, and then given up? Another few minutes, and I would have missed her. But now a cab shot out from a side street and screeched to a stop before her. She put her hand on the door handle, pulled the door wide and moved to get in.

“Lois!”

A raw-throated shriek rang out. I had never heard myself scream before. I felt my hand rise as if to cover my mouth. She turned, fingers tensely clutching the edge of the car door from the inside. It seemed we could see one another much more clearly at this distance than before, for a moment that seemed much longer than the quarter-hour we’d spent together. She might have been silently counting off reasons and reasons. Then, she bent her body into the cab, pulling the heavy fur coat after her before she slammed the door, signalling the driver to speed her up Third, away from me.

I have thought that it would have been perfect, really, if the moon had risen just then behind the ruins of my grandfather’s shoe store, where I took up my solitary vigil once more. But there was no moon that night at all. Even the streetlights were out, their cables melted, and then, raindrops began to fall, faster and faster. A heavy, soaking rain fell steadily down on the city. As it was surely falling upon my grandfather’s grave. There was darkness everywhere, and no flames, nor even smoke, to warm us.