By Peter Aronson
As she did every morning, Beatrice Steingut stood facing her bathroom mirror, examining the tapestry of creases that criss-crossed virtually every inch of her face. She smiled broadly in a vain effort to stretch away age. The crevices weren’t always there, she knew, but when did they start?
In her left hand Beatrice held her toothbrush and in the right her tube of Crest. She shrugged at her forlorn face, because she had no choice, and looked down at the rows of blue and white bristles. She slowly lathered Crest on each and every bristle, slowly, slowly building a pile, a small heap really. Beatrice smiled, a knowing, happy smile, at a heap of minty, greenish toothpaste building to a full half-inch high, a little wobbly, but she thought it would hold. Then, nodding with satisfaction, Beatrice placed the toothpaste tube on the marble bathroom counter, looked in the mirror, opened her mouth wide and tried to peer all the way back, all the way back to black and white, yesteryear’s horizon, Beatrice reveled in those early days – was young Harry back there, somewhere, still? – then she heard a noise.
So Beatrice began to brush, slowly, then a little faster, polishing and scraping the gunk from her mélange of brown-grayish, silver-filled, gold-crowned teeth. Beatrice brushed so hard and so long that soon her mouth was overflowing with toothpaste suds, as if she had been chewing on a bar of soap for a while. Her lips were a sudsy greenish-white, but this was not enough, so Beatrice put down the brush and with her right index finger began spreading suds above her upper lip, giving herself a thick, sudsy mustache, then a few dabs on her chin, voila, a red-headed babe with a goatee. Beatrice smiled as she admired her look in the mirror.
“Bee-a-trix, vhat ah yu duing?” asked Herman, in his thick Slavic accent, who from behind had quietly entered the fancy bathroom, the size of a mid-size bedroom, startling Beatrice, whose smile turned to mock anger. “Rrrrrrrrr,” she growled, as she held up a fist at Herman.
“Yu luk magnificent, Bee-a-trix, like pyret,” he said, “but yu also ah making mess of yuself.”
He tried handing Beatrice a hand towel, which Beatrice ignored.
“Soh boring, yu yung, handsum mahn,” Beatrice sighed, in her thick mock Russian accent. “No imagination, nun vhatsoever.”
Beatrice grabbed her own towel, wiped her face, then tossed the towel aside and reached for the radio and found Benny Goodman’s sublime clarinet. She then hooked Herman’s arm and dragged him, reluctantly, onto the bathroom dance floor.
Beatrice closed her eyes, slowly swiveled her hips and swayed her arms to the irresistible bebop of Bach Goes to Town, a transformative toe-tapper of drum cymbal leading into Goodman’s sublime, mind-altering clarinet. The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, Harry on her arm. Her biggest fear in life: Would Harry understand third base was out of bounds because it was that time of the month? Then Beatrice opened her eyes.
“You know Herman, today is the big day. I mean, the big day with my family,” Beatrice said. “But…”
“But vhat?” Herman said, who then gently took Beatrice’s hand and twirled her ever so gently, softly, slowly.
Beatrice had turned 93 a few months ago, announcing 93 was the new 43, then proceeded to dress herself in four shirts and three pairs of pants, which Herman suggested might be a few too many layers on that hot August day – “You vill svet like pig!” he told her. Beatrice, uncommonly sprite for her age, growled, Herman laughed, then Beatrice laughed back, and they went about their day, a day like most others, the two of them — Beatrice and Herman, a little shopping, a little cooking and a lot of painting. Beatrice loved to paint.
In her suburban, red-shingled, split-level 20 miles north of New York City, Beatrice had converted the dining room into an art studio, covering the antique table with a thick, off-white painter’s sheet, now splotched with decades of hardened oil pastels. On top of the sheet were dozens of tubes of oil paint, about 20 brushes of varying sizes upright in a tin can and a box of rags. Finished paintings either hung on or lined the base of the walls. Yes, Beatrice was an artist of sorts, not nearly as talented as her friend Connie, who could bring flowers so much alive you would think they were growing on your living room walls. No, Beatrice was a competent stick and figure painter, mostly black and white androgynous, dystopian figures, with a single splash of bright color, in the groin, in the hair, in the belly, somewhere, thought provoking, a conversation piece – always a single splash of color, somewhere, like Beatrice’s laugh coming out of nowhere, unexpected, but always omnipresent, like the time she laughed out loud at Harry’s funeral, a full throaty blast in the middle of the rabbi’s eulogy, then and in her paintings, announcing: This character has spunk, thought, relevance – something worth listening to.
The prevailing thought in Beatrice’s family was that Beatrice, the artist, had occupied the dining room so that the family could avoid family dinners. No dinners, no discussions. No discussions, no confrontations. Lacking an eat-in kitchen, Harry, Beatrice and their kids, Joshua and Mary, ate in the living room for 20 years, seated on the couch or a chair, their plates propped on their laps. They tended to eat in shifts, whenever they wanted. No contact, no discussion.
But that was then and this was now, post-Harry. Beatrice, actually, was getting along quite well, even though she knew Herman could not replace Harry. No, never, Beatrice thought, that would not be possible, because Harry, although far from perfect, still fit within the broad definition of the proverbial mensch in shining armor, the father of their two children, the lifelong garmento who brought home enough bacon to pay for 56 years of life together, with enough left over to keep Beatrice comfortable until age 120, at least. Harry also had that certain pizzazz, after all, he introduced himself to Beatrice at a veteran’s dance in 1948 by spilling a Scotch in her lap, because he didn’t have the nerve to say “hello” to the prettiest girl in the room. So, to the crooning of Perry Como, he feigned tripping and doused her and then made such a fuss cleaning her up she had no choice, really, but to say yes when he asked her out to the local movie theatre, to see Key Largo with Bogie and Bacall. Then it was those nights at the Savoy and then later, that weekend trip to Atlantic City, the night she forever giggled about to herself, the wet snow flakes splattering on the hotel window, splat, splat, then sliding down the glass to nowhere, Harry lying in her arms asleep, naked, a handsome man then, oblivious, sleeping, but oh so handsome… and then 50 years of blur, the suburbs, the kids, blah, blah, blah, all those clichés and carpools in a blender, that’s what it felt like to Beatrice sometimes. But Ok, not too bad.
The one serious rough patch was Cincinnati, a frequent business trip for Harry. While Harry was brushing his teeth one night, Beatrice decided to empty Harry’s suit coat pockets. That’s when she found the two Polaroid snapshots of a half-naked Harry standing on top of a bed in a Cincinnati hotel, the reflection of an unknown female photographer barely visible in the mirror. 1976. After six clandestine trips to a psychiatrist, Dr. Clamberbush, paid for in cash borrowed from a friend so Harry would have no clue, Beatrice lit a bonfire of old New York Times piled high in the bathtub, ignited by an entire box of wooden matches and a gallon of leftover kerosene – yes, the local fire department had to come — but there was only smoke and water damage and a slightly charred ceiling. In Beatrice’s mind, the end justified the means: the two photos were burnt to oblivion. When Harry asked, Beatrice said she was taking a bath, had a cigarette and things got out of hand. So ended the one family crisis, never discussed, never happened.
Pretty good life. Or at least not bad. The kids moved out, the varicose veins moved in, years rolled by, as if someone put a brick on the gas pedal, the speedometer raced, and life flew by, yet still having sex, or at least trying to, every fourth month, then every sixth, aka, twice a year, maybe, not really, maybe once a year, then more varicose veins, then the tufts of gray pubic hair and neck skin so saggy Beatrice actually clucked one night when looking in the mirror, and then… then… Harry dropped dead in the Delta terminal on the way back from Florida, 58 years after the Scotch was spilled, 56 years after she uttered “I do” and three decades and four presidents after Cincinnati. The airline was nice enough to ship Harry back to New York for free, the family did the service at the local funeral home on Main Street in the center of town and did the Shiva thing (Beatrice still had frozen rugelach in the freezer from that event), and Beatrice lived alone for five years until she fell and shattered her hip, had it rebuilt with some metal plates, rods and screws, and then her children imposed a full-time aide on her. Enter stage left, Herman, Herman from Latvia, of all places.
Beatrice’s first act of defiance was to take all the food from the refrigerator – the three dozen eggs; the six jars of creamed herring; the four jars of horse radish; pounds of cheese, salami and ham; the jellies and jams; nine-day-old sautéed chicken liver; old, puckered zucchinis; gray, moldy mushrooms; and enough prune juice to keep the occupants of a small nursing home current – and dump it on the driveway, to blockade Joshua and Mary from bringing Herman into her home.
And Beatrice posted a warning.
I will starve myself to death if you invade my privacy, were the words on a large sign Beatrice had duck taped to the front door of the house.
But then Beatrice caught her first glimpse of Herman, a sharp contrast to the stooped, balding, pot-bellied, hairy-backed Harry. Herman had bronzed, glistening skin, blond hair, broad shoulders, a slim waist, all six-foot-four of him, and a smile that appeared to Beatrice to go from one ear to the other, and this was just Beatrice’s first impression from the kitchen window as Herman exited Joshua’s car. Beatrice would learn that Herman was the product of a fisherman from Sardinia and a Latvian opera singer.
Beatrice was momentarily stunned by her sentiments, her flush of emotions. How could the man who someday may need to wipe her butt cause such a sensation? She then snapped out of it and quickly rushed to the front door, opened it and shouted. “Please, help yourself to anything you like on the driveway, the herring is delish,” as Joshua, the 48-year-old school teacher, Mary, the 52-year-old PR exec, and Herman sidestepped the broken eggs, shattered bottles of herring and jams and other food that would soon attract the birds circling overhead.
So this began the next phase of Beatrice’s life. There was the pot roast phase. Now the tingle phase.
Unlike with Harry, Beatrice actually talked to Herman. She talked about the influence of Modigliani’s elongated faces and how painting elevated her to a level above normal artistic consciousness – this from a woman who wrote a $15 billion check to Con Ed to pay a monthly utility bill. She asked Herman if he had ever been to Cincinnati and when he said he had never heard of the place, Beatrice smiled a sad smile and then drifted, which she did often, back in time, her mind slam-stopping at Bob amidst the attic clutter of life’s past, Bob the neighbor, the divorcee who invited Beatrice over for dinner on a night when Harry was away on a business trip, circa 1973, and her kids were at summer camp, the night she didn’t accept that invitation, because, because you know… but, nonetheless, she found herself standing at her kitchen window, a glass of red wine in her hand, peering at Bob’s house, wondering, feeling the slightest of tingles, somewhere south. She never talked to Bob again, ignored him for 30-plus years, didn’t even offer him a pound cake after he returned from the hospital, old and gray, on his way out. Nothing.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgivings were big in the Steingut family – big for announcements. There was the Thanksgiving of 1989 when Beatrice invited the kids into the parent’s bedroom to find Harry lying on his back on the bed, watching a Shirley Temple movie, even though the Giants-Cowboys game was on TV and Harry rarely missed a game.
“No, we are not getting a divorce, even though Saul and Sally are,” announced Beatrice, in letting everyone know that their closest friends were splitting, but they were not.
“And I should add,” Beatrice said, “your dad, your poppa, is not going to die either.”
“Beatrice!” Harry interrupted, while rolling his eyes. “Please be quiet so I can speak.”
Harry then looked at his children. “I have cancer.”
“It’s really like a bad cold,” Beatrice blurted out. “He’ll be….”
“Beatrice, sush,” Harry interrupted back. “They have to cut out half my intestines. I am sure I’ll be fine, but you never know.”
“Well, it is true, you do never know,” Beatrice said, simply unable to control herself. “Remember Dr. Goodenough? They told him they could get it all, too. Well, six months later – poof – in the ground.”
Harry, Josh and Mary all rolled their eyes and shook their heads, almost in unison.
On Thanksgiving in 1995, Josh announced he was marrying Jenny, and then in 2001, as the turkey was being sliced, Mary clanked her glass, and to the surprise of no one, announced she was a lesbian and would marry Penelope in whatever state or country that would allow it.
So Beatrice, despite the intergalactic mayhem going on in her head, recalled vividly that Thanksgiving Day was a day for big family announcements. So now it was her turn.
For the fifth year in a row, Penelope said she was sick and couldn’t make it. Jenny had to visit her terminally ill mother in Idaho (given the times this excuse had been offered, apparently it was a terminal illness with no end), so it was the core family, the famiglia, the kinder and momma, back to the bosom. And Herman. The new man in town. Beatrice’s side kick. Her Tonto. He made sure she didn’t fall in the snow, didn’t slip in the shower, even wiped Beatrice’s butt after Beatrice hurt her arm and couldn’t do it herself. Without Herman, Beatrice might be dead. Dead from loneliness. The number one killer – not cancer, not heart disease. No, loneliness literally breaks, shatters and smashes the heart, to smithereens, makes it stop pumping blood. Dead.
On this Thanksgiving Day, Beatrice didn’t even allow Joshua and Mary to sit down upon arriving. They took off their coats, dumped them on a chair and Beatrice said, “It is Thanksgiving. I finally have a big, fat announcement of my own on this holiest of holy days.”
Joshua and Mary looked at each other, rolled their eyes and only imagined what this could be. Was Beatrice converting to Buddhism and moving to Tibet? Herman had no clue, as he routinely expected the unexpected.
“I want to make my announcement in the studio,” she said, so they followed her as she walked through the living room, past the 10-pound turkey platter, sweet potatoes, peas, stuffing and cranberry sauce sitting on the coffee table.
They all stood in the dining room/art studio, facing Beatrice.
“As someone once said,” Beatrice intoned, “‘I will let my painting speak for itself.’”
Beatrice moved to her left and pulled out a canvass from behind a stack. She turned the canvass around and showed it to her son, daughter and Herman. Within a second there was a loud crash. Herman had keeled over, and his head had smashed through a painting leaning against the wall. Herman was now lying face down on the floor, a small pool of blood forming on the floor underneath his head.
“What happened to Herman?” exclaimed a bewildered Beatrice, as Joshua and Mary rushed to Herman’s side, while still stealing a look at the painting – a life-size color portrait of blond-haired Herman, a red rose dangling from his mouth, dark biceps gleaming, stark naked for all to see.
Beatrice looked at the painting and with a pained look, said, “Isn’t he beautiful?”
Herman moaned on the floor.
“Look at that skin,” Beatrice said, still looking at the painting, motioning with her free hand.
Mary was dialing 911. Joshua had lifted Herman’s head and placed a small pillow under it.
“He’s breathing,” said Joshua, “and his eyes are moving. I think he just fainted.”
“Why would he do that?” asked Beatrice, who was staring at the painting, fixated on the lower half, on Herman’s shiny bronze penis. She stared and then tilted her head, so as to get a different perspective.
“Well, you know, we are,” Beatrice said, unusually calmly.
“You are, what?” Mary asked, not so calmly, as she dabbed a cool cloth on Herman’s head, as the sound of an ambulance wailed in the distance.
“Well, well, we are… we are you know….”
“You are what? What? – I can’t hear you mom!” Mary shouted, as the sound of the ambulance grew closer.
Mary and Joshua were now focused on Herman. Soon after, paramedics entered the house and began working on Herman, checking his vitals.
Beatrice looked at the portrait of Herman, then glanced at the semi-conscious Herman being lifted on to a stretcher. She wondered which one was the real Herman, because there could not be two, could there?
At the ER, doctors examined Herman thoroughly, gave him an EKG and a cat scan and determined he had fainted and then suffered a mild concussion upon smashing his head on the floor. By cushioning his fall, one doctor said, Beatrice’s painting may have saved Herman’s life. Beatrice thought the doctor meant that her portrait of Herman had saved Herman’s life, so she brought the portrait to the hospital for all to see. Fortunately, Herman was in rehab at the time, and he never had the chance to share that experience with the nurses and doctors. Beatrice was asked not to bring the painting to the hospital again.
Soon after, because Herman had no one to take care of him, and because Beatrice would have it no other way, Herman returned to Beatrice’s house, with Beatrice nursing Herman back to good health.
The first night back, after dinner, Beatrice and Herman walked slowly to the bathroom, with Beatrice holding Herman’s arm, steady, one small step at a time. Beatrice helped Herman sit down, then found that sublime sound on the radio, Benny, the dark mahogany bar, martini-sipping Body and Soul, a smoke-filled room of drums, piano and horn, circa post WW II. Beatrice swayed, Herman rocked his head in rhythm, in symmetry with Beatrice’s sway, simpatico, like slow-motion dancers from another planet, their own really, certainly no one else’s. Beatrice drifted, again, into life’s past minutia, recalling the succotash, the portion she served to Harry the first time she cooked him dinner, Benny on the radio then, the moment he laughed so hard during their banter that the diced carrots and peas and beans came flying out of his mouth, right at her, all over her blouse.
Beatrice’s eyes were still closed but she had a huge smile on her face.
Early pot roast, very early. Now late tingle.
Within a month, the roles had reversed to normal. Herman managed to stop Beatrice from leaving the house for a Christmas eve dinner party in her two-piece bathing suit, circa 1963. Life went on happily. Dancing. Painting. The portrait of Herman was hung in the living room, but with a loin cloth as a compromise. Beatrice continued to get up in the middle of the night, working on another secret project. Not even God knew what. One morning she served Herman rugelach – the rugelach that had been in the freezer for five-plus years, since Harry passed.
On the next Thanksgiving morning, Herman told Beatrice he had something on his mind, something important, something he had been thinking about for some time. He said it was his turn to make a Thanksgiving Day announcement.
Copyright Aronson 2015