Paper on pallets, freshly printed cutoffs, crosshatched and shrink-wrapped, lifted on the prongs of forklifts and loaded on trucks. Paper shreds in canvas gurneys. Paper in rolls like giant wheels of cheese. Butts of paper, too small for commercial printing, left out on the curb for butchers and art teachers to carry off under their arms. Maybe after the attacks the work slowed, but now, a few years later, the printers were recouping their losses: every investment house in lower Manhattan was rushing out a prospectus or a shareholder's report, and the narrow cow path streets were choked with the scrimmage of business. When a good wind blew the autumn air filled with paper like snow.
Penelope dressed like the traders and stock analysts: she studied how they looked and talked. On the street, dodging the hand trucks and dumpsters, she might have been mistaken for one of them. But when she returned from a quick lunch to her place of employment, she did not walk through a marble lobby, past a security guard and a sign-in book. She entered a dented metal door without so much as a sign or a window to distinguish it, so corroded and smoke-stained it blended into the brickwork; if a passerby bothered to notice the door he might think it led to a boiler room or an obsolete coal cellar. That's the secret of lower Manhattan—there's manufacturing going on all over the place, a shadow economy that runs below the financial district like a subterranean river of ink. Once at a party, she told a woman that she worked in a print shop on Vesey and the woman said, without irony, "I didn't know those places still existed."
After she shoved the metal door open she could hear the thumping of the web press, the shouting of the press operators, the rhythmic chomp of the three-knife guillotine. Paper. She loved the smell of it, the feel of it in her hand—she could tell you blindfolded if you gave her a forty-pound vellum or a forty-eight-gram newsprint. She had to cross the factory floor to reach the office, which she shared with three other customer service reps, two salesmen, a receptionist, and a human resources specialist. It was cordoned off from the pressroom by glass and sheetrock and insulation, and the insulation did a surprisingly good job of keeping out the noise. Every time an operator came in for a press check or to ask the HR specialist about his benefits, Penelope and the other office workers had to yell "Shut the door!" so the thrum of the machines wouldn't drive them crazy.
Ernie, the male receptionist—and that was his designation, not theirs; he greeted customers with "I'm Ernie, the male receptionist"—pushed himself from his desk when he saw Penelope. "We just got a call from Miller-MacDonald. Rush job. They printed half a million forecasts with some bargain-basement printer before they caught a typo. Now they need the whole run reprinted by four tomorrow morning."
"Who did they go to with the original job?" Penelope asked.
"They didn't say."
"That's dandy. When are these people going to learn you get what you pay for?" But she was pleased. An emergency like this and she could charge whatever she wanted. Even with overtime costs they'd make a fortune. She called the client and named her price, upholding enough professionalism not to point out what happens when you try to save money by going to a cut-rate printer. Then she went out to talk to the press foreman about sending half the crew home so they could rest up and come in to work the overnight shift. When she got back to the office Ernie was sulking. She could tell by the slope of his shoulders.
"Hey, this is good news," she said.
"I know. It's just that my job is the one getting pushed aside." Ernie was trying to build a client base of his own. "It's a new account. No big deal or anything. Just a print broker. But it's our first job with him so I wanted it to be on time."
"Do you want me to talk to him?"
Ernie shrugged and turned away. "I don't know if it's such a good idea. He's Orthodox."
"I'm good with the Orthodox."
"I don't think they care for women in the industry."
"Nonsense. They're shrewd businessmen and do what they have to. Besides," she added, swiveling in her chair, "I'm a good bat mitzvah girl myself. I can always play that card."
"You are not," Ernie said.
She raised her hand in a pledge. "Scout's honor. What's the client's name?"
Ernie opened his drawer and picked a business card from the pencil tray. When Penelope took it she said, "I know him."
"I do. I know him." She dropped the card in her purse. "I'll go over there."
"He's all the way in Brooklyn."
"It'll make a good impression. I'll go over there."
Penelope's bat mitzvah almost didn't happen. It was the result of a long, complex, contentious negotiation between her mother and father. From upstairs she could hear them arguing, her mother's machine-gun voice, hardly stopping for a breath, and her father's exhausted interjections.
"Why should we capitulate to some medieval rite of passage to satisfy the expectations of people we hardly know?"
"What do you mean, hardly know?" her father answered. "They're our family."
"Your family. Not mine, Stuart."
"So a rabbi says a few words and poof, she's a woman? That's so paternalistic. Did it ever occur to you she becomes a woman on her own? Through her experiences?"
"All right already."
"This is so typical of organized religion. You need a man to stand up and tell you when it's O.K. to move to the next phase of life."
"It doesn't mean anything to us. It means something to them. I thought it would be a small price to pay."
"And then what? Gift certificates? Jewelry? What kind of values are we teaching her?"
"We can ask for contributions to charity."
"What are we now, noblesse oblige?"
"I said forget it."
A few minutes later her mother was sitting on Penelope's bed, explaining what to expect on her bat mitzvah. That's the way it was with Mother. Usually she ended up conceding, but only after a good fight. Fighting was her oxygen. Penelope's mother was not at Woodstock. That's the way she put it: "I was not at Woodstock, Penelope." She might have been; she was the right age and she had friends who were there. But Mother sniffed that Woodstock was nothing more than unserious people taking hallucinogens and listening to bands—some of which had talent, she'd allow—deliver substandard performances. Women were on their backs in the mud. "On their backs," she stressed, while Mother remained in the hot city, cranking flyers out of an old Gestetner mimeograph for a rally to legalize abortion.
"It just shows how superficial your generation is that you hold Woodstock up as some romantic emblem of the counterculture."
Penelope shrugged at this point, not aware that she held Woodstock up as anything.
"It had all of the depravity and none of the politics."
Once Mother acquiesced to the idea of the bat mitzvah, the three of them sat at the kitchen table to make plans. Penelope would not read from the Torah. She didn't speak Hebrew, and even if she learned enough to fake it, like the other thirteen-year-olds did, it would be an act of hypocrisy to recite the teachings of an ancient (and deeply sexist) spiritual text. Instead, Penelope would take on a research project under the direction of Rabbi Pearlstein (who was Reformed, and a good man, for a rabbi—an old anti-war activist) and deliver a short talk to the congregation.
"It can be very creative," Mother said, now warm to the idea. She was very touchy when it came to her husband's family. She always suspected they hated her. Hated that she kept her own name, hated that she wanted only one child, hated that she was uninterested in synagogue or Hadassah. Before every family event she was nervous for days, and her nervousness took the form of bolstered militancy. She perceived misogyny everywhere, even on The Cosby Show. "They both work, right? So how come she's always unpacking the groceries? Why can't his ass unpack the groceries?"
Then there was the gathering, during which Mother would remain cool and silent. Penelope could not understand how her mother picked up so much hostility; the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and many cousins on her father's side always seemed warm and receptive. And after the visit, she endured the stages of Mother's grief: sniping on the car ride home ("I can't believe your cousin Denise is pregnant again. What is she, a cow?"), followed by a tantrum once they reached the house ("One question—they can't ask one question about how I'm doing? Would it kill them?"), followed, the next day, by a period of depression ("Am I a monster? Am I such a monster that they want to shun me?"), followed, a couple of days later, by penitence ("Denise! It's Vera, Stuart's wife. Listen, I need your address so I can send a little gift for the baby").
Penelope learned early there was no comforting Mother. If she tried to commiserate, saying something like "Yeah, they're pretty old-fashioned," Mother would snap, "Since when are you so judgmental, missy?" If she tried to reason with her, saying, "They weren't really mean," Mother would accuse her of being on "their side." Better to stay quiet.
Still, when she was riding high, Mother was better company than anyone. On Penelope's favorite days they took a field trip to Greenwich Village, where they revisited Mother's youth, and Penelope learned exactly where the Stonewall Riot began and where Dylan was photographed with his girlfriend for the cover of Freewheelin'. These visits would end up at the Café Figaro where Penelope, feeling very grown up, would drink a hot chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon while mother had a cappuccino and told Penelope about her favorite movies.
"Breathless was a revelation. Jean Seberg with that haircut. I wanted to be just like her, with that androgynous sexuality, you know?"
Penelope nodded, unsure what androgynous meant.
"Poor Jean! She tried to speak truth to power. Nice girls don't do that. But we're not nice girls, you and I. Are we, Penelope?"
"Because we speak truth to power. Even when it's unpopular. The rewards are few but they are deep. Like Atticus Finch, when he walks out of the courtroom. Remember?"
In fact, Penelope had not yet seen the movie, or read the book. But her mother had described the scene so many times and in such detail she felt as if she had. Stand up, Scout. Your father's passing.
"Stand up, Scout." Mother shivered. "That gets me every time."
When Penelope began to prepare for her bat mitzvah, she had decided to research the Holocaust. But she was sidetracked by the TV news, footage of boys and girls throwing stones at Israeli tanks. The tanks swiveled their gun turrets, faceless like robots. Penelope was rooting for the children.
"How's your research coming on the Holocaust?" Mother asked.
"Actually, I decided to do something else. I'm going to talk about the establishment of Israel."
"Israel?" Her mother compressed her lips.
"I thought it would be more relevant."
"The Holocaust is always relevant."
"Rabbi Pearlstein said this would be good, too."
"Oh. Well. If you and the rabbi have discussed it."
"Don't worry, Mother. I won't disappoint you."
Penelope was free to concentrate on her research while Mother arranged everything else. The reception would be catered by a friend. The guests would consist mostly of Dad's family. Mother's family, resolutely secular, thought the whole thing was a bad idea, so she didn't invite them. She asked Penelope if she wanted to have any friends from school, but Penelope didn't; this was a family event. Besides, Penelope was too busy to issue invitations, since she had two papers to write: one that she would give to Rabbi Pearlstein for his approval, and the real one, which she would read during the actual service. It was a guerrilla action, planned with precision. At night she paced her room, practicing her talk, picturing the ruckus it would cause when she told the truth, and how she would emerge, battle-scarred but saintly. A Jewish Joan of Arc.
The morning of the service they woke up early to get ready. Penelope wore a red dress. Her mother, in exceptionally good spirits, put on makeup and perfume. As Penelope watched her at the bathroom mirror, Mother said, "How about a little sparkle?" And Penelope closed her eyes with pleasure as Mother applied gold eye shadow, first on the left lid, then the right, with her gentle thumb.
The synagogue lobby was already buzzing by the time they got there, and Penelope suddenly understood why girls pine for their bat mitzvahs. All these people—to see her. They all wore their best clothes and brought boxes wrapped in gold from Tiffany and Godiva and Macy's and piled them on top of a glass table with a huge lilac vase. Penelope wanted to head straight for the presents, but she restrained herself. She knew what the protocol was. And all the introductions—there was Uncle Ira who pinched her cheek, hard, and Second Cousin Ramona with hair as stiff as ironwork, and Great Aunt Sadie with her big brown eyes that seemed to be filled with tears, but they were just rheumy. There was Cousin Zach with MS who zipped around on a motorized wheelchair and at one point crashed into the table, nearly upsetting the huge vase, as a general cry went up from the crowd. Aunt Celia ushered three boys, Ethan, Daniel, and Yael. "You remember? You and Yael used to play together?"
She did remember, once, somewhat sickeningly, when they were about four, running up to her room and pretending they were married. Now Yael was a thick boy with a round face and freckles.
Celia kissed her and immediately took out a tissue to wipe off the lipstick.
Mazel tov! Mazel tov! Such a blessed day. So many well-wishers. Penelope began to have misgivings about the talk she was about to give. Maybe it wasn't too late. She could switch to the one the rabbi had approved. Then she saw her mother in the corner of the lobby, aloof and alone. On her own daughter's day she was all but ignored. Penelope had to honor her, make her proud.
She sat in the front row between her parents while the rabbi said a few words about the solemnity of the occasion. She was too nervous to listen. Then he called her up, and in the silence the room seemed to be alive with the movement of ions. She took shallow breaths, her legs like water, but somehow she reached the podium.
The mic squealed feedback. She stepped away, startled by the sound of her own voice, amplified.
"For my talk this morning, I would like to address the question, what does it mean to be a good Jew?"
Some movement: Yael and his brothers kicking each other in the third row.
"And in these troubled times, does being a good Jew mean the unquestioning support of Israel?" She waited for discomfort: nothing. She continued. "Today, as we watch on television as Palestinian children throw rocks at Israeli tanks, we must remember how the state of Israel began."
Penelope caught sight of her Aunt Celia nodding appreciatively, the gold light from the window catching her earring. The temple smelled deeply of Obsession.
"On April 9, 1948," Penelope recited, "two militia groups, Irgun and the Stern Gang, attacked the peaceful Arab town of Deir Yassin."
A sharp motion to her left: Uncle Saul lurched forward. Cousin Yael had a weird smile pasted on his face.
"According to The New York Times, over two hundred and fifty people were murdered. The militia men sealed families in their homes before razing them. They beat children to death and threw the bodies into wells." People in the audience turned to each other, shaking their heads. Yael kept grinning, wider and wider.
Penelope's heart beat faster. "Women and girls were raped and killed." The words echoed.
"Shame on you!" That was Cousin Zach, rocking his scooter back and forth in the outside aisle. Penelope fixed on Yael's smiling face. A shadow fell on her script; Rabbi Pearlstein had left his seat to stand next to her.
"Today, as I become a woman we remember the girls of Deir Yassin who never reached womanhood."
"All right, dear," the rabbi murmured.
She talked rapidly. "And we remember the names of the men who led the assault. Begin! Shamir!" She looked for her mother's face in the crowd and, not seeing it, returned to Cousin Yael's.
"All right, then." He put his hand on her back. "Let's call it a day."
Staring straight at Yael, who grinned wider than ever, she blurted out her last bit before the rabbi could drag her off. "Therefore, in answer to the question does a good Jew support Israel, we must answer perhaps, but not a good human being."
"O.K., O.K.," the rabbi said. He stood there while Penelope took her seat on stage.
Penelope's Great Uncle Mordy, waking from a long nap, called "Mazel tov." His voice cracked the silence.
"We must remember," Rabbi Pearlstein said, "at times like these, the passion and idealism of youth. The young may have much to learn, but if this passion can be harnessed it can be used to the good of the Jewish people."
Penelope sat on the stage and winked at Cousin Yael.
Only about half the guests stayed for the reception, and Mother greeted them all graciously. Some of the gold-wrapped presents, Penelope noticed, had disappeared. It was a small price to pay. She had spoken truth to power.
During the car ride home only one thing was said, around the time they crossed the Brooklyn-Queens border. Her father said, "At least the food was good."
Penelope sighed. She was looking forward to being alone with her mother.
Later when she was in her room, hashing over the triumph of the day, her mother knocked on the door and slipped in. Penelope, sitting on the bed, hugged her knees in giddy anticipation. Her mother was in a bathrobe, her makeup washed from her face and her hair held back in a ponytail.
"Hi," Penelope said shyly.
Mother closed the door behind her. "How could you do this to me?"
Mother grabbed the sash of her robe and yanked it like a noose. The skin on her knuckles was translucent. "Do you want to kill me? There are easier ways to do it, you know."
Penelope turned her head. She could feel the vertebrae grinding in her neck. "I thought you'd like it."
"Like it? We're officially banished from this family now. You understand that?"
"Oh, I don't know."
She shrugged. In a day or two her mother would come around. "Maybe that's a good thing."
The client's office was in a row house on a shabby street in Crown Heights. He was just a broker, a middleman: he took in jobs from customers and meted them out to printers, but he didn't do any real printing himself. Penelope reminded herself that each client had to feel like the most important name on the roster. She mounted the front steps and pushed open the door. The corridor was dark, with dingy white and black tile in a faux Egyptian pattern, some of the ceramic chipped, and the building had a mix of smells: sauerkraut, fried onions, metal, cat piss. It felt very comfortable to her.
She saw an open door on the right and peeked in. It was a mess of a room, jammed with file cabinets, a wood desk, on old chair on casters, piles of job jackets and cutoffs haphazardly tilting toward each other or away, and a cat or two on top of the piles. An old computer sat dead on the floor. A few color wheels from ink manufacturers hung on a wall, and a single, high window let in a beam of yellow light on sparkly particles of dust. Penelope called a couple of times, and finally she heard the flush of a toilet and a door at the opposite side, which she hadn't noticed, unlatched. The broker emerged, wiping his hands with a paper towel.
He was enormously fat. His pants had a front panel like a sailor's that accentuated his belly, and he wore a synthetic-blend shirt that gaped between the buttons, revealing patches of his undershirt. Although she knew he was her age he looked as if he were from a different generation. On his head sat a purple yarmulke embroidered with gold. When he saw her his tongue moved, and a lozenge clicked against his teeth.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm the senior customer service agent from Blackwell O'Donnell," she said. "I've come to discuss your job."
"The job was due this afternoon. I assume if you're here to discuss it you missed the deadline."
"It is late," she admitted. "But I thought we could offer you some favorable terms."
He balled up the paper towel and threw it toward an overflowing wastepaper bin. "Could you wait one moment please?"
"I want to hear these terms of yours. But wait one moment please."
He didn't offer her a seat, so Penelope stood in the corner of the office, trying to take as little room as possible. He steered himself past her, into the hallway, and called down the corridor. "Joel! Asher! Ben! Come here, please."
He walked back into the office, and in an instant three pale young men crowded in the door. Penelope flattened herself against a file cabinet and the broker lowered himself into the chair.
"All here?" he said. "Very good. You see this woman? This woman has come all the way from Manhattan to tell me that the job her firm has promised to do will miss its deadline. Did she pick up the phone to call? No. Send an email? No. She came herself, the senior customer service agent, with her heart in her hands, in order to negotiate new terms. This is a woman who values her customers. This is an honest woman. Listen! And learn." He turned to Penelope. "Go ahead, please."
With the young men looking at her, their mouths slightly open, she explained that a longtime client came in with an emergency, and out of loyalty she had to give his job priority. But, because the broker's job was late, she would give him a fifty percent discount, and if his customer would be willing to have his job on forty pound offset, they could use the leftover rolls from the previous job, and incur no cost for paper.
The broker clicked his lozenge. "No paper cost?"
"None. We should have plenty left."
"That's very reasonable." The young men lingered in the doorway, like shirts on hangers. "I'll have to discuss this with my customer, of course. But I will pass on that I think these are excellent terms."
"We do value your business," Penelope said.
"Yes. I'm very impressed."
After a silence, Penelope said, "Don't you remember me, Yael?"
"I'm your cousin. Penelope."
Yael stood, swaying slightly. "You boys can go." The young men scampered down the hall. Yael took a folding chair that had been resting against the wall and set it up for her. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dusted the seat. "Please. Please. Sit down."
Penelope sat. The office was so tiny their knees almost touched, and she had to twist uncomfortably to avoid grazing him.
"I was sorry to hear about your mother," he said.
"Thank you." Then, remembering her manners, she asked, "How's your mother?"
"Oh. Good. You know. My brother Ethan is a physician. Daniel runs a garment factory in Montreal."
Penelope tried to attach faces to these names. She could barely remember them.
"I never saw you after my bat mitzvah," she said.
Yael sucked on his lozenge and nodded. "That was some day."
"I always wanted to thank you."
"I remember how you smiled at me. It was encouraging."
"Did I? Probably it seemed funny to me. In those days everything did."
"Still, you seemed very kind. Over the years it's cheered me up to think about it."
Yael's chair squeaked as he leaned back. "I'm sure I didn't mean it that way."
"I think I pissed off a lot of people."
"Nobody blamed you."
"But it was my doing."
"Nobody blamed you. It was the mother."
Penelope took a moment to understand: he meant her mother. The use of the third person seemed rehearsed. Maybe he had told others the story of her bat mitzvah. Maybe several times.
"It wasn't, though. She had nothing to do with it."
"No." He waved his hand dismissively. "It was her."
She realized what the bat mitzvah looked like to Yael: a youthful folly. In fact, it shifted everything. It wasn't so long after that her mother started lighting the Sabbath candles, waving her hands over the flames as if she were summoning courage. Then she had a rabbi—not Rabbi Pearlstein, but a rabbi who smelled like fish—come and torch the oven to exorcize non-kosher demons. At first, Penelope's father accepted his wife's sudden zealotry with a shrug, but after a couple of years he left her. That didn't stop Mother's march toward Orthodoxy. She charged on with blinkered determination. When Penelope was about sixteen, Mother announced she would take a mikvah.
"A mikvah?" Penelope had asked. "Isn't that about washing away the shame of menstruation?"
"You're so linear," her mother replied.
On the morning of Penelope's Regents, Mother waded into the sacred water. After darkening an oval, Penelope dropped her number two pencil on her desk and said aloud, "Oh, Mother." She imagined her at that moment, Mother's body thin from self-denial, her breasts falling, nipples dark, her pubic hair rusty and wild, stepping into the pool and letting the water lap her—this woman who, as a tough-talking nineteen-year-old, organized the first feminist printing collective in New York—rinsing the sin from her womb, erasing the ligature left by Penelope's umbilical cord.
"Your mother didn't live to see the attacks, did she?" Yael asked.
"No. She had her heart failure the January before." It was actually the elections that did her in. Her mother grew obsessed with chads and absentee ballots. "Everyone's worried about Florida," she told Penelope. "But it's Ohio. Ohio's what you gotta watch." Penelope was encouraged by this brief flare of interest in secular life, as if it might signal a return. But eventually Mother just lost strength and gave up.
"Maybe it's a blessing," Yael said.
"I don't know. She was only fifty-three."
"The things we live to see."
Penelope changed the topic. "Are you married,
He shrugged. "Of course."
"Three boys. Just like my father. You?"
"Don't waste time. Married life is a joy."
Men always told her that. She wondered if married life was such a joy for Yael's wife. "How long have you been Orthodox?" she asked.
"Since I met my wife, actually. It's a good way to raise children. You give your day some structure."
Penelope nodded. She wasn't sure if there was anything left to say.
"Why don't we have some tea?" Yael said.
He picked up an electric kettle that had been perched haphazardly over some Pantone books, went to the bathroom and filled it with water, set it back on the books and plugged it into a surge protector. From a filing cabinet drawer he pulled out a sleeve of Styrofoam cups and a box of Tetley teabags.
"My mother became Orthodox, you know," Penelope said. "Late in life."
"It didn't matter." Yael place two cups on top of a job ticket and draped a teabag in each. His words stung her. "It didn't change a thing."
"I think I drove her to it."
He smiled a little. When the kettle snapped off the overhead light blazed a little brighter.
"And my mother," he said, "isn't too happy with my direction. She thinks I'm moving backwards. This is what we crawled out of, she says." He poured the boiling water into the cups. "Sugar or cream?"
"Do you have any Equal?"
He held the kettle high, looking exasperated.
"O.K., Sugar," Penelope said.
"Crawled out of, like a cave." He fetched a couple of sugar packets from the filing cabinet and flapped them. After he sweetened her tea, he handed her the cup. "Like you, I wasn't raised this way," Yael said. "My parents wanted to fit in. But as soon as I met my wife I felt like I was home."
"It's Portuguese," Penelope said. "Something I heard on the radio. People of the diaspora say it. It's a nostalgia for a place you've never been."
Yael's breathing was labored. She could tell he was moving around more than he was used to. "Not that I don't want to fit in," he continued. "It's just fitting into a smaller space."
"I think I understand."
He settled into his chair and placed his cup of tea on a stained job jacket. "That seems to be the way with our generation." He brought his hands together and divided them, as if he were doing the breaststroke. "Either you become Orthodox or you leave the life completely. My brother goes to a Unitarian church. He says Unitarians don't believe in God, so it doesn't count. I say, ‘If they don't believe in God, what's the point of their church?'" He rested his chubby hand on the job jacket. "It's his wife's doing, of course."
Penelope noticed that in Yael's moral universe trouble seemed to begin and end with women.
"But look at you," he said. "Big-time businesswoman."
"I just dress the part."
"You're good at what you do. I can tell. I work with printers all the time. You're good, all right."
"And you. Three pale lads down the hall." She tilted her head toward the adjacent room. "You have your own apprentices."
"My wife's nephews. What choice do I have? They couldn't get a job bagging groceries at D'Agostino's."
"I'm running a nursery school for adults. About this time in the afternoon I feel like I'm supposed to serve them Hawaiian Punch and graham crackers."
Penelope smiled blandly. "So you're funny. It must be genetic."
"You kidding? Our family wouldn't know a joke if it ran over them with a Zamboni. They're too busy gossiping."
"About what?" she asked, half-dreading the answer.
"Don't get me started. There's more scandal in this family than—you remember Zach?"
"The guy in the wheelchair."
"Not how you think. He died of food poisoning. Turns out he was on one of those sex tours of Thailand."
"Come on! He was in a wheelchair."
"They make accommodations. The Disabilities Act has opened up all sorts of activities for the handicapped. The differently-abled. And Uncle Mordy, you know about him."
"Married to Estelle forty years. Turns out he had three kids with the maid."
"Why would I lie? They live around here, his kids." He gestured toward the street. "I see them in the neighborhood from time to time. If you can imagine three black kids with Mordy's nose."
"I wanted to hire them instead of my idiot nephews," Yael said. "They seem like nice enough kids. What can you do? I have to keep her happy."
Penelope nibbled on her Styrofoam cup. "You're a nice man, Yael."
"Not really. And all of that's nothing compared to my mother. After my father dies she pulls out a photo album. My mother in a beehive hairdo and a tight sweater standing next to some greaseball, leaning on a 1963 Tempest. ‘That's Eddie Falnieri,' she tells me. ‘He died in Vietnam.'" Yael paused for effect. "‘And he's your father.'"
Penelope gasped. "Is it true?"
Yael rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. "Does it matter?"
"Yael! Don't you want to know who your father is?"
"I know who my father is. Bernard Himmelfarb. Unless I stand to inherit that Camaro, I don't see any reason to say anything else."
"You must be curious."
"I would look swell in that Camaro."
Without asking he poured more hot water in her cup.
"They lie, you know," he said. "Our parents. They lied all the time. It always threw me off balance."
Penelope watched the caramel light pour through the window. It was cozy: the light, the lively dust, the stacks of papers leaning like decaying monuments. The three dim-witted nephews. She said, "My mother always told me her favorite part of To Kill a Mockingbird was when they say 'Stand up, Scout.'"
"I never saw To Kill a Mockingbird," Yael said.
"Or read the book."
"Well, there's this scene where all the poor black folk are up in the balcony of the courthouse, and the little girl, Scout, is hiding up there with them, watching her father defend a man who's about to get lynched. When he walks out of the courtroom they all stand in his honor."
"Well, it turns out that's not what they say. A few years ago I watched the movie three times just to make sure. The old man says, ‘Mary Louise, Mary Louise. Stand up. Your father's passing.'"
"Well. I heard Bogart never said ‘Play it again, Sam.'"
"She lied to me, though. My mother."
"That's not a lie. That's just forgetting."
"But it's completely different. It changes the whole meaning of the line. That old man was too obsequious to have called her Scout. Besides," she said, "it's not cool, all those Uncle Toms bowing and scraping in the balcony. They should have taken Atticus Finch out back of the courthouse and beaten him up for losing their case."
"Keep going and you'll start spouting off about Deir Yassin."
She slapped her hand over her mouth. "I'm done."
He looked at her sternly, from underneath his bushy eyebrows. Then he winked.
"As lies go," he said, "it could be a lot worse."
"You could have had a wop father."
He turned away, his big shoulders blocking out half the room. Penelope wondered if he found her worthy of conversion, if he'd invite her to his home to meet his kosher wife and three boys, to light the candles with them as the Sabbath evening fell. Shtetl life—people helping their relatives, living busy and purposeful lives. Everyone in his place. She wouldn't mind spending more of her days wedged into Yael's little office, watching him pour tea and listening to his stories about the blood they shared. If he asked her she would say yes.
Yael cleared his throat.
"It's getting late," she said preemptively.
Yael hoisted himself from his chair. "I'll see you out."
The wind was beginning to kick up as the sun dropped. It smelled like fall. Yael lowered himself down the stone stairs one step at a time, wincing slightly, as if he had a bad hip.
"I'll get in touch with my customer right away," he said. "Explain the terms. Like I said earlier, they're very good terms, so I don't expect a problem."
She wanted to kiss him, but realized it would be improper, out here in his community. That much she understood.
"Just let us know," she said.
"I'll call—what's his name? Ernie?"
"Ernie, yes. He'll be looking forward to hearing from you."
She waited for him to extend an invitation, to determine a next time for them to talk. But no invitation came. And she understood she wouldn't see him again. Not socially. He had no reason to include her in his life. And not in business; he was too humble a client for her to oversee personally.
"Goodbye, Yael." She offered her hand.
He looked at it. "I'm sorry."
She looked at it too, thrust pointlessly between them. "Oh."
"I can't. I'm sorry."
"I know." Men don't touch women in this universe, she remembered. Even cousins. There's too much stench of disgrace. Still she found herself unable to drop her hand, and Yael regarded it as if she'd bared her breast.
"I'll be in touch with Ernie."
He lumbered back up the stairs. Penelope looked up and down the street for a cab, and she started to walk. The wind created little cyclones of trash at her feet—coffee cups, newspapers, Chinese take-out menus—and pieces of paper wrapped around her shins. As she walked, more of it collected on her. Auto glass circulars, slam poetry fliers, parking tickets, pages from the Daily News, People en Español, and the Forward clung to her thighs and arms and chest and forehead. She had to walk deliberately, as if she were wearing a coat of mail.
Copyright © Katherine Karlin 2008.