Chapter One - Picking the Bones
No strangers lurked near her casket or behind the hedges. No apparent or misbegotten fortune hunters. The only people not paid to be at Rose Hips’s funeral were the family members my grandmother had either cajoled or embarrassed into attending. None of them knew how to contact her sole child, Flora, missing for many years. The gravedigger could have been her ex-husband, a man no one had seen in decades. And now, they each measured how somber they should act.
“She probably died of a sex disease,” said Cousin Muriel.
“Quiet. You don’t want the rabbi to hear you. He might put it in his eulogy.”
“She died of a heart attack, like you’re supposed to,” said my grandmother Ida of her sister.
But Rose Hips, known for whistling for cabs with her pinkies tucked in the corners of her mouth, seemed too vigorous to have died from a common heart attack. Her very nickname, Rose Hips, arose from the way she danced. She moved with such abandon that her hips did not appear to be attached to her body. If she had not been wearing clothes, they would have flown from her body and circled the room. This was wildly different than the adult who as a shy girl and so thin there didn’t seem to be room enough for her intestines.
Later in life, there had been hints and rumors that Rose Hips had been involved with all sorts of men, shadows who disappeared leaving only stories without references. Some suspected she danced the hoochie-coochie, as Fern would say, with anyone. Negroes. Commies. Anyone. Rose Hips knew people talked about her, and she thought that was acceptable.
She would remain out of communication with her family for long periods of time. Her most famous and longest spell without seeing anyone or even a letter came between the wars. Years later, she insinuated that she had spent that time in Paris and was a confidante of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. But she spoke no French, was not a real or wannabe writer or painter, and knew nothing of philosophy, whether it be simple or pretentious. Some speculated that she posed nude, although no one had seen such a painting. There are always those who think the worst. But most thought that she had spent those years somewhere in Brooklyn and simply wanted to be left alone.
Fortunately, the family had engaged an experienced and glib rabbi to preside over the funeral. When no one could offer gentle anecdotes or information that did not require confirmation, the rabbi invoked every cliché he could muster. A verb. A pronoun. An adjective. Mad Libs for the dead.
At the conclusion of the service, Cousin Yudel whispered to his wife, Fern, “Let’s ransack her apartment now.”
“Show some respect. We should sit shiva first.”
“We have a whole week for that, and I’m afraid someone might get there before us.”
“Did you see anybody?”
“No. That’s what bothers me.”
Yudel turned to my father. “We have to ransack the apartment now.”
“Shouldn’t we sit shiva first?”
“Sure. Later. But first we have to lose the rabbi.”
“OK. But we’re not going to ransack the place. Just look.”
“Thank you, Rabbi,” Fern said. “It was very touching. Call me if you need a recommendation.”
“That was very good. You should be a full-time rabbi. Somewhere,” Cousin Tummler said.
“From now on when I think of death, Rabbi, I will think of you,” my mother said.
My grandmother had the “just-in-case” key for Rose Hips’s apartment, allowing the family to tiptoe in. An awkward danse macabre. Although they all had seen Rose Hips lowered into the ground just hours before, a few feared that they might find her dead again or gently napping on her couch.
“I hear voices,” Fern said.
“Voices? No, no. It’s the radio.” Which was still playing softly, its wooden cabinet warm from being on continuously for days.
“This apartment is nice. I wonder if it’s rent-controlled,” Muriel said.
“You know, people read obituaries just so they’ll know when apartments are available,” my father said.
“I would hate to move into a dead person’s apartment.”
“How do you know you haven’t?”
Rose Hips’s apartment was neither musty nor perfect. Nothing was frayed or old or smelled like an old woman. They had expected it to be dark, with a faint hint of the unworldly, but the window shades were high and white, allowing the sunlight to brighten the room. The walls were adorned with a few Maxfield Parrish prints plus a few family photos, each perfectly framed, most perfectly square. It all seemed a step above her situation.
“No pictures of Herb, the bastard.”
Everyone claimed to have met Rose Hips’s ex-husband Herb at least once, somewhere, sometime, but no one remembers the circumstances, what he looked like, or even whether he wore his pants high or baggy. Depending on with whom you gossiped, Herb was either a drunk, a gambler, a philanderer, a fraud, or a Yankees fan. No one could even recall his last name, not surprising after a marriage that lasted such a short time—seconds, it seemed. And Rose Hips always used her maiden name, a rebellious choice for her time.
“Look. Here’s a picture of Flora. Do you think she looks like Rose Hips?”
“How old was Rose Hips, Aunt Ida?”
“Aunt Hilda would know, if she was alive.”
“How about a guess?”
“A hundred forty-seven.”
“Maybe we’ll find something with her birth date. If we don’t, we’ll just make something up for the headstone. No one will know but us.”
When my grandmother and her sisters arrived in America, they had no idea when they were born. There were no records. In fact, records were often used against them and were to be avoided. The sisters randomly chose American holidays for birthdays and spread them out over various months so there would be celebrations throughout the year. My grandmother picked Columbus Day, Hilda settled on the Fourth of July, and Hattie selected Arbor Day. No one knew exactly what Arbor Day commemorated, but there were no national holidays in the spring. Rose Hips chose Lincoln’s Birthday because it celebrated the birth of our ugliest president.
“I wonder if Rose Hips had a will.”
“So how much money do you think she had?”
“The only thing she had was a sex disease from one of those sailors she entertained,” Muriel said.
“Genug with the sex diseases.”
There weren’t enough seats for everyone in a tiny apartment of a Lilliputian elderly single woman who lived alone for many years. My blind grandfather, who still had a bit of mud stuck to his shoes from the visit to the cemetery and dinner, found a spot on a petite couch along with the smaller of the women. They settled back comfortably, their heads resting on yellowed antimacassars.
“Before anyone looks for anything, listen to me,” Yudel said. “I know these things. People hide stuff where they think other people won’t look. But I know. So, someone look in the freezer for jewelry. Don’t be fooled. If the package says chicken, it could be diamonds. Steak could be bracelets. Also look on the underside of drawers for envelopes taped there that might have money or savings bonds. And don’t forget the backside of the drawer to see if there are envelopes taped there. OK, everybody got it? And remember, you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
No one actually accepted a specific assignment but everyone, save my grandfather, spread out to search the apartment. There were no treasure maps, but that did not diminish their hopes. Some slammed drawers and closets, while others were gentler when opening and closing them, ever respectful of the dead.
“Look at what’s in this drawer,” said my grandmother. It was filled with matchbooks from various Manhattan and Brooklyn nightclubs. That did not surprise her until one flipped open. She read to herself the handwritten notations on the inside covers. Ben Maksik’s Town and Country-Pocket Vito 9. Then another. Cotton Club-Patrick 9. And more. The Elegante-VTH 10, El Morocco-Rocky Times Bastard 0, and Copacabana-Mickey 7. My grandmother was unsure what it all meant but knew it wasn’t good. A few had phone numbers.
“Just matchbooks,” my grandmother said to no one in particular as she threw several into her purse.
“I feel like a dybbuk,” said my mother.
“A dybbuk only attaches itself to live people to possess them, not to dead people. They look for live people who are incomplete,” my father said, trying to reassure her.
“Incomplete? What the hell does that mean?” asked Yudel.
“It means, they have a hole in their soul.”
“What the hell is a hole in your soul?”
“It’s like the hole in your schmekel, only higher.”
My father became mesmerized with Rose Hips’s television, as if it were the center of all things wonderful and alien. The television was a heavy piece of compact furniture with a bulbous screen and dials the size of small apple pies. He managed to push it away from the wall and yelled, “I’m checking for money in the TV, like you said.”
He stuck his head into the back, searching for greater wisdom, and found a browned, crispy paper schematic, toasted from the heat of the crude vacuum tubes. The diagram showed the position and the model number of the diodes, pentodes, and tetrodes but not their function. Although he didn’t know a single program on the air, my father coveted the television set.
Tummler watched all of this and said, “You gotta turn it on.” Which he did, while my father’s head was still inside.
“That was not very clever. I could have been electrocuted or gone deaf.”
The sound of the TV attracted everyone.
“How could she afford a TV?” my mother asked.
“So that’s what the note I found means,” said Fern, “‘Enjoy the TV. Love VTH.’”
“Who the hell is VTH?”
“I knew she couldn’t afford a TV. She was just a bookkeeper.”
“But whatta bookkeeper.”
“I wonder who she kept the books for.”
They all drifted away again to complete the task at hand: greed. The crescendo of slamming doors and drawers again filled the apartment. They mostly found necessities: neatly folded clothes, spare pillows and blankets, and one or two overused pots.
“What are we going to do with all this stuff?”
“We’ll divide it between us. Who else’s going to take it, Temple Beth Dreck?”
“God is going to strike you dead ’cause you say those things. He’s going to strike you dead, so say those things in the hall. Away from me,” Muriel said.
“She would have wanted her things to go to a Jewish organization.”
“How come people always know what dead people want, when they didn’t know what they wanted when they were alive?”
“Boy, do I know what she wanted when she was alive,” Muriel said.
“We better finish cleaning out the apartment by the thirtieth so we won’t have to pay an extra month’s rent.”
“Screw the landlord. Let him evict a dead woman.”
“Maybe we can keep the apartment and use it as clubhouse?”
“Who are you, Mickey Rooney?”
“She was a bookkeeper. She must have money or bank accounts somewhere,” said Yudel. He took out his black pocketknife, the one with all sorts of gadgets including a small screwdriver, and started to remove the face plate from an electric switch. “Ha,” he barked. He had found a wad of cash among the old coarsely insulated wires.
“How do you know about that?”
“I just know.”
My mother meanwhile had rooted around a closet and found three metal boxes. My father helped her take them down and then called to the others, “Come here.”
“Is that a good ‘come here’ or a ‘Someone-else-is-dead’ come here?”
“Just come here.”
They all bent over the three metal boxes, each a different size and color.
“What’s in them?”
“How the hell do I know?”
With great anticipation of secrets to be revealed and untold treasures, they realized they didn’t have keys. The locks looked like they could be opened with an angry glare. They all stared silently at the boxes as if their concentrated power would make them pop open.
“Has anyone tried this?” With that, my grandmother simply opened the top of one. It was unlocked and exploded with decades of yellow receipts from money orders for the rent, gas, electric, and phone.
“Smart,” said Yudel, “No checking account; no trail for the tax man.”
But the lid for the largest box would not open. Yudel jimmied it open with the side of a blade.
“Watch it! Don’t cut anything.”
Everyone’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion except Fern’s, whose eyebrows arched in recognition of the contents.
“What the hell are those things?”
“They look like kitchen thingamajigs.”
“Some are just rubber,” said Tummler, holding one up to the light to inspect it. “But not this one.”
By now they all were fingering them and turning them upside down with quizzical looks.
“This one seems like you could use it to unclog a drain. Here, let me plug it in.”
Fern, who had been silent up to now, yelped, “Don’t.”
Among the objects were yellowed and tattered pages from Sears catalogs and Home Needlework Journals. Fern took one of the magazines and read aloud for all to hear, “All the pleasures of youth…will throb within you.”
“So what does that mean?” asked my grandmother.
“Here, from Sears,” Fern read from the Wish Book. “‘An aid every woman appreciates,’” she said, emphasizing the word woman.
“Maybe we should put these things down.”
“They help women feel better,” Fern said.
“They’re for sex!” Fern’s husband, Yudel, said. “How come you know about these sex things?”
“Maybe I should get one,” said one of the other women.
“And they’re old. Look at the dates on the magazines. April 1926. Look, that one has dust on it.”
“She’s had them for twenty-five years.”
“And she bought them before the Depression.”
“People were happier then.”
“There are secrets and then there are secrets,” my mother said. “Let’s open the last box and hope for the best.”
“Aha, this is what we’ve been looking for.” Everyone grabbed something. There was jewelry, savings bonds, and cash, some of which was in little red envelopes that the Chinese give as gifts on joyous occasions to unmarried people with the hope they would not need the little red envelopes the following year.
“Why couldn’t she have cash like normal people?”
“Look! Here’s an envelope from Flora,” my mother said, “but it’s empty.”
“What’s the postmark?”
“Los Alamos, New Mexico.”
“Isn’t that where Davy Crockett died?”
“That’s not good,” said my father. “That’s where they had those atomic bomb tests.”
“Maybe she was a nuclear scientist?”
“She did things with her fingers,” said Tummler.
“You mean sew?”
The family had long been enthralled by Flora’s various skills. But her true talent was creating itchy, fringy cushions inscribed with sayings such as “The Seven Pillows of Wisdom,” “Pillow of Strength,” or just the word “Talk.”
Before her inexplicable disappearance, she was working on interchangeable word pillows. A few in the family thought that, no matter how talented she was, she was asking too much money for her products. Fern thought that if Flora had asked for less money and stayed in Brooklyn, she would be alive today. She departed to sell her wares to that most American of retail establishments, the gift shop, and on that trip, disappeared somewhere in the United States. Well, maybe she was alive. Or maybe she was dead. It’s always difficult to prove nonexistence.