Stella Richter’s Boston friends said her Manhattan apartment reminded them of Miami Beach. They meant it as a slur, and she took it that way. She still played her father’s Bechstein in the corner of the living room every afternoon—Handel, Mozart, Bach—she knew the pieces all by heart and hardly missed a note though she hadn’t taken a lesson in twenty-five years. But her friends ignored that part of her life and chose instead to focus on the plastic-covered sofa that shuttled the room and the wax gardenias in giraffe-necked vases on the windowsills. She had absorbed her husband’s Miami Beach style, become “a true Richter,” they said, and it had spoiled her. She was no longer their Stella, the adoring daughter sitting alongside her elegant father at the piano and turning the pages during one of his Saturday afternoon recitals, nor the book-loving librarian of West Newton, either. Eventually the Boston friends had stopped visiting. And now what they had said and perhaps even wished against her had come true. By moving to Miami she had capitulated entirely, blocked out of memory her father’s mournful, brown-eyed disapproval. She had moved on impulse, without telling anyone. Not even her sister Mary knew the real reason she had decided to come after years of ignoring her relentless pleas to join her at “the Beach.”
Miami: God’s Eden for the Elderly, perpetual Walpurgisnacht for widowed witches adrift on a sea of life insurance. Why had she come? To live out a self-fulfilling prophecy? To carry on her husband’s despised but by now too-ingrained-to-be-cast-off “Richter lifestyle”? Or was she doing penance for being somehow implicated in her son Abel’s suicide?
Designated “the quiet sister,” Mary had defied her family’s genteel Viennese atheism by becoming a Christian Scientist. Not for her Stella’s violent post-adolescent rebellion. Mary would never have left home, as Stella had, to work with hyperactive children, rowing them around Walden Pond in maniacal circles to calm their (and sometimes her own) hysteria. Not for Mary the job in the bank, the hospital kitchen, the purposeful coarsening of delicately-bred piano fingers that could just as easily build an outhouse as reach an octave. Stella had been in Miami for only a week when, hoping to convert her sister to the faith, Mary, who’d been assigned to read a portion of scripture, invited her to a service. And Stella, still bereft and grieving, had agreed to attend. How their worldly atheist mother would have laughed—no cringed—to see her daughters preparing for church together that balmy Sunday morning in Mary’s bedroom, its second-storey window overlooking a narrow canal where three Cuban fishermen had sat aimlessly hunched over their lines never catching anything. Mary’s husband Sy had called it “the prettiest spot in Miami,” adding that hardly anyone knew it existed because their residence-motel blocked it from the street. A retired haberdasher, seventy-five-year-old Sy had lately become a fishing enthusiast. Wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, he’d sit with his Cuban cronies at the canal for hours without speaking, clutching his fishing rod in one palsied hand and, like them, never catching anything.
Mary had retrieved a white lace mantilla from the depths of a captain’s chest at the edge of the bed for Stella to wear in church.
“Should I have worn a white dress, too?” Stella asked.
“No, only Readers like myself. You’re an interested visitor, a potential Scientist. Just act natural, think good, whole thoughts, and the Christ within will be watching out for the rest.” Though seven years older, tall and slender like their mother, with her blond, china-doll looks, even at sixty five, Mary wore her age far better than her gray-haired, short and stocky sister. Stella had been struck by Mary’s newly acquired assurance.
The church, a square, pastel pink building bordered by palms with strangely zigzagged walkways allowing entry from any direction, was located on a tiny cul-de-sac across from an animal hospital. Opening to a small garden on one side, it was dwarfed on the other by its neighbor, a glitzy condo like the one on Collins Avenue where Stella now occupied the hastily-vacated apartment of her dead husband’s mistress.
Seeing her sister standing so erect and confident on the dais intoning excerpts fromThe Science of Health had almost brought Stella to tears. Here was a woman who had suffered in order to find . . . to find what? Stella studied the “types” around her: A pipe-legged organist with red knuckles crammed into a makeshift loft, pumping out dry goyishhymns as if his life depended on it. A chesty chorus girl blond, with last night’s makeup still smeared on her neck, melon-breasts heaving under her long white gown, singing hymns with the spine-grating screech of a peacock. And everywhere the widows . . . well dressed . . . most of them rich, worn down by bad marriages but reflexively primed to try again, ogling the few available liver-spotted crotchets in baggy golf pants filling the pews alongside them—measuring up the men as future “companions.” Victims.
Mary had always been so unassailable in her innocence—and so unreachable. Stella had desperately wanted to please her sister but hadn’t been able to fake an interest in Christian Science. Instead, she’d written a check for a thousand dollars and slipped it into the lace mantilla she left on Mary’s bed later that afternoon. The Christ’s mysterious ways notwithstanding, Mary could always use the cash.
A week later, a man with glossy manicured fingernails and romantic intentions approached Stella as she was leaving the lobby of the Hotel Martinique, her temporary quarters before moving into the Collins Avenue apartment. She’d returned there to retrieve the two small bags containing Abel’s books, his vintage record player, sheet music, his precious horn, and the few records his brother hadn’t appropriated for himself, from the hotel vault. Stella and the man with the fancy manicure tried to get into the same taxi. He might have planned it that way; she wasn’t sure. But she liked to think so.
“No, you were here first, I think.”
They exchanged the usual small courtesies, preludes to the cat and mouse game that lay buried inside her like an archeological ruin. Her late husband Maurice had been coarse but self-assured and hadn’t needed the little tricks, the politesse. He’d sneered at Stella’s “Viennese snobbery,” telling everyone he came from Chelm, home of the stupidest Jews in Europe, when he’d really been born and raised in Brooklyn. The pickup reminded her of her immaculately groomed father . . . .
At least once every summer, Papa had packed Mary and Stella into his high-fender black Ford and driven them out to Concord to pick blueberries. Their mother, who dyed her hair carrot red and had delicate, tiny feet and pretended to have once been an opera singer, was always too busy throwing afternoon tea parties for famous Jewish refugee musicians to join the family on their berry-picking expeditions. Stella’s parents were pretentious, they were delightful. Hard to grow up with for their mocking wit, they’d never been interested in children, only had them because of her mother’s romantic notions about bearing a “love child” and her father’s patriarchal yearning for a male heir. Stella had been his surrogate “son.” Once, at a wedding, with a little schnapps under his belt, he had introduced her as “My favorite son . . .” “Ha! A Freudian slip,” someone, an uncle, had laughed. “No slip. I meant it—Stella is my favorite son,” her father had repeated, his arm, buddy-like, around her shoulder. How could he have known then, in his berry-picking prime, that cancer would seal his throat and that he would die under the surgeon’s knife? How could he know that Stella would betray him by marrying a shyster in a silk suit and that gentle Mary would go mad? Or that Gretta, his “orange anemone,” unfit for anything but Schubert lieder and teacakes and dilettantish Saturday afternoons, would grow hard and greedy and mean?
It was said that Ernest Hermann “gave himself airs,” but so did everyone in his circle of Viennese refugees. What made him different was that he’d been the only one of his peers trained to work with his hands, and that instead of trying to hide this part of his past, he exalted it. “My favorite days were those I spent in a blacksmith’s forge,” he would say, opening countless suppers, poised over a turkey or ham with his scythe of a carving knife.Old Father Time. . . Ah, old father, if only there had been time . . . . Even then his “airs,” the shiny, gold-rimmed pince-nez he wore, betrayed him as he spoke. He was an engineer who would rather have been a pianist, a true remnant of his father’s withering Viennese dream; unsuited to America, stern, seductive in his bristly way, and charming in the eyes of Stella’s friends. And he had read Homer in Greek. Tutored by stolid German governesses, he’d been placed by his scholarly father as a blacksmith’s apprentice at age sixteen “so as to eliminate flabbiness of body and murkiness of mind.” Perhaps, too, for some misguidedly liberal identification in the old man’s straying, carpet-slippery thoughts, with “the Proletariat.” It was the blacksmith in him, Stella believed, that had always impressed her most. Though it lay deep below the surface, the image of her Papa as a shaggy demon hunched over his black forge, had excited her far more than the straight-backed Viennese gentleman with the pince-nez . . . .
Stella let the white-haired pickup talk her into a drink. His name was Charles. He had capped teeth.
“Down here on vacation?”
“I live here.”
They were seated in a zebra-striped cocktail lounge, their knees touching under a Formica table no wider than a chessboard. Every so often his leg would twitch. Too intimate too soon, she thought. Charles had placed her bags behind the bar. A caricature of her father in his three-piece blue suit, he had a smooth manner and a glittering aura of fraudulence. He would be out for her money, of course.
The cocktail pianist segued into a Cole Porter medley.
“Would you like to dance?”
“I only rumba,” she lied. Stella didn’t dance at all. At her son Jonas’s wedding she and Maurice had gotten up to perform the first waltz and her heel had caught in her dress. “Always the cow,” Maurice had hissed, smiling, into her ear.
Charles nodded. She would have to get rid of him soon.
“My son was a musician.”
“What does he do now?”
“How old . . . was he?”
The waiter cleared their table, hovered, and, when they continued to ignore him, walked away in a mild huff.
“Yes, me too,” she said.
“How . . . how did it happen?” He was solicitous, head bowed appropriately, manicured fingers poised to reach out and touch her with well-rehearsed, widow-consoling compassion.
“He jumped out of the window of my apartment in New York six months ago.”
Charles let out a long sigh.
“He was a very promising musician.” Stella glanced at her watch. “I think we’d better be leaving now. I’d like to straighten out some of his things before going to bed. They’re all in those bags you kindly placed behind the bar for me.”
“You poor woman.” Charles was near tears, a miniature cloudburst.
“I’m very rich, really. My husband died and left me more money than I know what to do with. I can live off the interest for a hundred years, or pay off the national debt . . . I don’t know what.”
Charles looked startled. Why should she care about this man with the hungry, startled, lupine face? The bags behind the bar were making her impatient to be at home alone, looking things over in her pink palace. She had torn the flowered and flocked velvet wallpaper from the foyer with her fingernails the day she arrived. Pink everywhere: pink face powder spilled in the bathroom sink basin; pink telephones with curled pink cords stationed on rickety pink tables with bowed Louis XIV legs; a lamp with a pink quartz mountain for a base and a pink-toned light bulb. Maurice’s mistress had left a waterlogged paperback on the pink hamper in the pink tiled bathroom, pages stuck together: THE STORY OF O. . . She could write the story of her own life with Maurice, the man who had “rescued” her, as he said, from her “genteel Viennese ways” in order to show her “life.” Which, for him, was oddly consonant with pissing in front of her as she’d brushed her teeth on their honeymoon night; whistling a little tune and looking up at the ceiling, with his turkey wattle in his hands and his great, spouting tool aimed noisily at the bowl. He’d done it to let her know what she was in for right from the start. Had Maurice pissed in front of the woman in pink, too?
“What was his name?”
“Who, my husband or my son?”
“Your son, the musician.”
“I have another son. Jonas.”
“And what does he do?”
“He’s a lawyer.”
“A comfort to you.”
“A bastard, like his father.”
“I see.” Charles crooked his finger at the sullen waiter and ordered two Cuba Libras. As if on cue, three frilled mariachis had appeared to replace to pianist and were launching into a rumba.
“Rumba,” he smiled, “would you like to dance now?”
The waiter brought the drinks; they’d switched from Daiquiris because they were too sour.
“I don’t rumba either, Charles. I lied because I thought you were interested in my money.”
“You’re a fascinating woman, Stella.”
“Fascinating? That’s a new one! Pardon my bluntness . . . but if you think I’m trying to impress you, you’re mistaken. No impressions to make on anyone anymore. I spent a lifetime making impressions on people I hated. For the past thirty years I ate my guts out impressing the scum of the earth. But now I’m free. I can say what I like . . . do what I like . . . no more impressions, just me as I am. So don’t bother, Charles. Go home and scrape off your nail polish because you haven’t succeeded in impressing me.”
“Take it easy. Here’s your drink.”
Big ungainly tears were sloshing down her cheeks into her mouth. Salt and rum and Coca Cola. The mariachis were headed their way.
“You’ve had it rough, but so has everyone else,” he chided her ineffectually.
She was tight.
“Abel, my little man of sorrows.” Stella waved away the mariachis and cried freely into her drink.
“I’d better take you home.”
“Why? I was just beginning to tell you my life story. Isn’t that what you wanted to hear?”
Instantly sober, Stella pondered her next move. “Okay, get the bags,” she ordered, annoyed at having let him talk her into a drink. Something in his manner had reminded her of her elegant Papa, but there was something there too of Maurice, the con-man. The way he’d slung his raincoat (an expensive English label in the collar) over his shoulder and hoisted the bags like a bellhop, indicating years of manual labor, belying his manicure. Like Papa, the piano-playing blacksmith. . . Stella remembered her father again, now aged by disease though only sixty, just before entering the hospital for the first of four operations, the last of which would kill him. The surgery had been scheduled on a Friday afternoon in New York. They had arrived early and were sitting together on a park bench across the street from the hospital surrounded by litter and pigeons. They had lingered because it was sunny, warm for March. Two Italian crones in black were sitting on the bench facing them discussing a coat one had bought and now had to exchange. Pugilistic faces, fists flailing in the sun-fringed air. One of the women held a ratty-looking dog on a long leash. Papa was not looking at her but was studying the inside rim of his hat. She was not his son. Their family was not to have luck with sons. His forehead was covered with perspiration and he was staring into his hat, looking for the meaning of his troubled life and fearing the oncoming death bearing down on him like the Lexington Avenue Express that had caused him to jump back into her arms on the subway platform that morning.
“He’s the best doctor in the field,” Stella said, gazing down at the littered pavement. What right did that nasty mongrel tugging at his leash have to live and not her father?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?
Her mother, the “orange anemone,” had stayed at home and plied herself with smelling salts, ice packets, and gold-tipped cigarettes from Turkistan. Only Stella had accompanied him. They were living in New York then, on Thirty-Eighth Street near Park Avenue, in the parlor floor apartment of a Stanford White brownstone they couldn’t afford. Mama had insisted on it. The piano stood at the bay window, a jug of fresh violets on it every day.
Papa had long since stopped wearing his pince-nez; he now spent most of his time driving back and forth between New York and Baltimore, where he’d invested all his money in a yet-to-be-patented invention.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, putting on his hat and rising from the bench. “I’m a dead man.” By that time he could barely whisper, his throat hurt so badly.
Thou’lt come no more, never, never, never, never, never! —
Charles took her home, helped her into the elevator with the bags, and waited for her to invite him in. She did not.
“In case you change your mind,” he said after she refused to see him again. “Under more auspicious circumstances.” He handed her his business card.
Leaning against the door with her hand on her forehead, Stella read the card.
Charles’s last name was Blumenfeld and he lived in Coconut Grove. He was an astrologer.