As he had for the last thirty years, Elliot got inside his car before dawn and drove to work. In that time he could count on both hands the number of weeks he had taken off. At present he was riding a streak of 158 consecutive workdays. Not bad for a guy my age, he thought.
He had some trouble pulling out of the driveway cracks but was soon en route along the expressway, quietly without the radio playing, his wavy hair blowing slightly with the air on. When he reached Roosevelt Avenue, he found a spot near his shop and parked. Though it was still dark out, he knew that someone would need a bra or a panty or even a slip. Or some of the beauty products he recently added to secure the influx of Haitian customers. There were days when his busiest hours were in the early morning, when he was alone in the shop and girls with panty tears would come in for replacements.
When he entered the store that day, a message was waiting for him on the phone (he still didn’t have a cell). “Good morning,” Judit said in her French-Hebrew drawl. “It’s your sister. Remember me? When are you coming to Israel? You say you say you say you will come but where are you? Don’t you know there’s people here who love you?… Mmmuah.”
A guilty smile curved his face and he felt his skin briefly flush. Her he could trust, her he could tell anything and feel safe. She would never badger him if he forgot his slippers in the bathroom or his socks by the stove, nor if he felt like sitting alone with the TV and no one else. With a patient smile Judit would feed him her latkes, add sugar to his tea and talk about politics or history or sports. She never complained about her life, hard as it had been with that wicked now dead husband of hers, Milosh. She never took pills, or had surgery, or went to therapy for her woes. She was like a stone, delicate but a stone, kind of like his store.
It had been six years since he visited her. Elliot dialed Judit up but got her answering machine and didn’t leave a message because he couldn’t stand the sound of his voice and thought others felt the same. He made a few sales and was reminded of Judit again by a waltz on the radio and a brief about an upcoming parade commemorating Hungarian Jews from the war. Somehow it made him wistful and again he called Judit and again didn’t get her. Then his girls—his salesgirls—entered, one by one. His oldest and most trustworthy, Myra, complimented him on his button down shirt with its tiny palm trees. She said it made him look younger.
He didn’t think he was that old or looked old.
“You look even younger if you take vacation,” she said. “All this work—too much.”
“It’s not easy to afford anymore,” he said. “The hotel alone will cost two hundred bucks a night. Then I gotta pay for parking.”
“We go, you and me,” she lowered her voice, then slapped the counter. “I pay my half. Deutsch.”
“My husband is no good,” she lowered her voice again. “He’s a pig.”
“Maybe he and my wife should meet,” Elliot said.
Myra clapped her hands. “That’s an idea, man. We’ll be in Caracas and they in some diner on Roosevelt Avenue.”
“Get to work.” Elliot waved her on. “I don’t have time to dream.”
And yet it got him thinking about boarding a plane and flying somewhere, alone, without Myra, without his wife, without his kids or grandkid, without the cat that hated him. He imagined himself leaving one morning without notice, just calling a cab and going to JFK airport.
Business mounted quickly: by two p.m. they did a whole day’s work without even putting up the lacy Halloween racks. Elliot needed the money. His daughter and granddaughter had moved back into the house, plus he was helping his depressed and jilted son pay rent.
His daughter, Liz, called him around two-thirty.
“How’s it going over there, Daddy? Busy?”
“Of course it’s busy.” He turned and walked toward the back room.
“I have a purse on hold for an actress,” Liz said. “That’s a $1000 commission. It’ll help me pay off my bills.”
“Hopefully she’ll keep her word,” Elliot said after a pause.
“Hopefully. For now, I have all this time and nothing but mirrors to look at. It’s silly but I feel like they’re staring at me. I’m starting to think Dr. Gutierrez didn’t finish the job on my nose. There’s still a little curve.”
Elliot smiled. It was ridiculous that she had surgery in the first place, her nose looked fine. Still he paid for most of it as part of a belated Passover present (belated because she missed the party). The Jew would be written on her face all her life, he thought, as if he had finally taught her something, as if he had duped her into understanding.
“If I notice,” Liz continued, “other people will notice.”
“And then what?”
“And then they’ll judge me.”
“They’ll judge you anyway,” Elliot said. “They’ll say: look how straight her nose is, the bitch! And you’ll judge them back more severely.”
“Stop. You don’t get it. I’m so close to getting it right. I can’t stop now.”
“Maybe Gutierrez didn’t get it right on purpose?”
“What? No, no, no. He’s just extremely delicate and takes his time. He knows how important this is to me. Look…I need a small favor from you. The last, I swear.”
“Can’t do it,” Elliot said, closing his eyes. “My hands are tied.”
“But how do you know what I’m gonna ask?”
He groaned then laughed.
“You’ll get it back soon. By Thursday if not sooner.”
“Between keeping you and helping Andy, I’m at the end. I’ve gotta think about my future.”
“I do my part,” she said. “It’s not my fault that Luke’s a deadbeat dad.”
Bah, I was the one who told you not to marry the goy, Elliot thought. “I’m at work, Liz. I got more to do than stare at myself in mirrors.”
“Fine fine fine. But if it was Andy, you’d help him in a heartbeat.”
He pursed his lips.
Elliot stood scrunching his lips and dilating his nostrils. He could already imagine the scene awaiting him that evening at home. He wouldn’t be able to watch BBC or CNN for more than a few minutes before Liz would start arguing about his favoritism toward Andy, and Rose would start nudging him about the old driveway or whatever else needed repair. And he’d sit there and not say a thing, not a word, a thick roll of bills in his pocket.
He went back to the front and worked the register, handling the money and selling some butter creams and black soaps from his new inventory. He spoke with several customers. One man was of Nigerian descent; Elliot had known him for ten years.
“I’m getting tired of this city, of this country,” Elliot said to him as the man paid for some business socks.
“It’s still the best city, and the best country,” the man said.
“If I gave you a fat check,” Elliot said, getting him his change, “you wouldn’t go back to your country and retire?”
The man frowned and looked offended. “How else am I going to go see the Mets play? Or ride to Main Street for my kimchi?”
Elliot waved him off. “You can get yourself a satellite and a personal chef, and one of those nice projector screens.”
“You dreaming now,” the man said and walked off laughing.
Later Elliot spoke to an elderly woman from Venezuela who was buying knee-highs and heeled slippers.
“To spoil or not to spoil one’s kids,” he said to her, “is the question.”
“I say: try not to have them if you can help it,” she said.
“Questions or kids?”
She laughed softly and said, “I’ve got eight kids myself and they spoil me to death. I thank god for that everyday.”
A little later, in the back room where he had more privacy, Elliot called his son. He felt bad about what he’d said to the woman. He loved spoiling his kids. His mother had spoiled him. He loved Andy more than Liz, it was true. He had more hope for the boy: Andy was still quite handsome and never had a problem meeting girls. In fact, it was one of Elliot’s secret pleasures that his son dated many pretty girls over the years—tall thin and Italian, curvy and curly Israelis. It was a long list and when Andy used to bring them to the old house, he would always introduce them to Elliot, like a token of thanks for giving him the chance to succeed. And Elliot would wink approvingly at his son.
“Andy,” Elliot said when he picked up.
“Dad,” Andy said.
“How’s it going?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“How’s the Zoloft working?”
“I’m going back to the office tomorrow or the next day. I can’t stay home anymore.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“I just can’t get her off my brain, you know? Everything reminds me of Claire: the girl that does the stocks update on Channel 1, this neighbor of mine who I see in the weight room at the gym.”
“Forget about Claire,” Elliot croaked, suddenly regretting he’d called. “You’re not even 40 yet. You’re 30 by today’s standards. You just need to hunt more. You’re great at hunting.”
“Listen: today’s been a good day. Let me get you some tickets to the Rangers game. Take a date out, a nice Jewish girl from Smithtown or Port Jefferson.”
“I still don’t get it. We got back from the Greek Islands and were talking about good neighborhoods to raise kids. And then she just disappears?”
“It happens,” Elliot said looking through the cracks of the door to see if there were any customers he recognized.
“It doesn’t just happen. That asshole broker in Florida didn’t come out of nowhere.”
“What can you do?”
“I just know Liz had something to do with it.”
“Your daughter, the one you like to protect against everyone. She hated Claire. Everybody knows that. You know it too but never said anything. Remember that time Liz bitched her out at the restaurant?”
“She didn’t mean to embarrass you. She just knew Claire wasn’t right.”
“You and mom seemed to like her. And what’s ever right for Liz? What’s she ever right about?”
“She’s got nothing to do with it,” Elliot said. “I can vouch for her.”
Andy laughed sardonically. “I don’t get you sometimes. You let Liz convince you of anything.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Every time she has a problem, you let her back into the house.”
“Should I just kick her and my granddaughter out onto the street?”
“Dad, she’s got a good paying job, great commission, and a monthly check from that lowlife ex of hers. And she’s 40. No—43!”
“She had nowhere else to go.” Elliot began to sweat profusely. “She was all alone. I would’ve done it for you, too.”
“I know you mean well. But I don’t need anything. Kkeep the dough. Buy a new shirt or something. Okay?”
“I work really hard in order to help you.”
“Right, of course. I’ll talk to you later.”
Click. He dangled the phone by his hip and listened to the dial tone. He wondered where he had gone wrong. No one was ever satisfied, everything was either too much, or too little, and everybody pointed fingers at each other. Hell, his wife, Rose, was as much at fault as he. She spent plenty of time raising the kids. But instead of the concert hall or the library or museum, Rose took them to boutiques, to the Polo salon in Great Neck, while Elliot worked long hours at the store.
He returned to the front, but was not himself. He felt a certain emptiness sitting in his chest and he slipped up at the register. Without realizing it, he gave one man back a ten when Elliot meant to give him a five. Elliot even missed a shoplifter walk out with a bright bra in hand.
The store quieted and Elliot sat alone in the back room where it was dark like a bunker. His thoughts clawed at him, they dug not only into his head but his arms and legs. Had I raised them in Israel and then moved here, he thought, they would have been responsible and appreciative of what they have. But Rose wanted to come here as soon as they married. She couldn’t wait to get away from that Jew trap, that desert by the sea.
A rap came at the door and Myra spoke through a crack. “Elly…your wife is on the line.”
Elliot looked up at the ceiling and smiled as if up at god. “Tell her I stepped out, tell her I won’t be back for another hour or two.”
Or three. Or a week.
“She says she knows you here,” Myra surprised him a moment later, again through the crack in the door. “If I you, I wouldn’t take it.” She then came in the room, placed the phone upright on the table, and left.
The cordless stared at him like a mindless interrogator, then blared, “Elllllllly.”
He picked up after a moment and breathed deeply into the receiver.
“What’s the matter with you?”
He cleared his nose, then his throat.
“Maybe you need to see someone, eh? You can’t stand me anymore.”
“Just tell me what you want,” he said. “I’m a very busy man.”
“Very busy,” she said. “I can tell.”
“Let’s go already.”
“You’re lucky I haven’t hung up. Someone else would have already.”
“Hang up, then. What’re you waiting for?”
“Look, the game is up and I need to know—Rolando needs to know. Are we fixing the driveway or not? Just tell me. That’s all I ask.”
Elliot squeezed the phone as if it were a trigger and was about to toss it.
“We can’t afford to wait anymore,” she went on. “My car’s getting ruined and I’m not gonna start riding the train. Not at my age.”
“Fix it then,” he said. “Patch it up!”
“Rolando needs half the money up front. It’s not an easy job.”
“My hands are tied, Rose. Besides, if I can park around those cracks, why can’t you and everyone else?”
“You’re more gifted,” she said. “I’ll look for the money elsewhere. Bye.”
A mild threat. Again he stood with the phone dangling by his hip. What he should have done was take his money and put it back in the shop, renovate the floor, fix the ceiling up front—but would anybody even notice? He let the phone slide down his leg, and hit the floor with a crack. Let her find it elsewhere, he thought, then kicked the phone against the wall where it cracked a second time. For the rest of the day, he sat in the dark, burning up, sweat forming at the tip of his nose. When it was time to close shop, he walked up to the register without looking at anyone. As he counted the money, he noticed they were twelve dollars short—$12.36 to be exact, a large sum, in his mind. Elliot shook his head, then looked from one salesgirl to the next, each of whom was busy straightening a rack. He couldn’t believe that it was he who had screwed up. “Why do I even bother to come to work?” he said. “What good is it?” He raised his voice then flung a dollar bill into the air and watched it land between two bra cups. Then he flung a couple fivers and tens, one of which grazed Myra’s chin, then a twenty and two fifties, then a bunch of ones again. Bills flew and floated everywhere like in a ticker-tape parade and Elliot felt strangely liberated. “It’s all yours, anyway,” he cried, waving his arms. “All of it! You can run the store yourselves. You, Rose, Andy, Liz! Just send me my pension in Israel. Okay?!”
He spit on the ground and walked past Myra and the others girls who all stood staring at him. Elliot walked unconsciously to his car and felt that everything would be in place if he returned: the money would be back in the register, the racks would be in order, the gate would be lowered by Myra. It didn’t even matter; he was going to fly. He got in his car, turned on the radio to the classical music station and sped home to a bouncy symphony. A truck almost clipped him when he tried to switch lanes and he knocked over an orange cone while exiting the highway. Now they’ll have to solve things on their own, he thought with a triumphant grin, adjusting his driving glasses.
When he pulled into his driveway, he maneuvered expertly around the cracks and parked. The kitchen lights were on, and a set of eyes peeked out from behind the blinds. Elliot decided to go through the garage instead; he went quickly though he was thirsty and starving. He climbed the spiral staircase through the living room and imagined everyone sitting on the couch waiting for him—his kids, his grandkid. But there was only the cat that hated him; it stared at him as if making a challenge. Keep the couch, Elliot thought as he stepped into the bedroom upstairs. He could smell Rose’s sweet chicken wafting in from the kitchen, and he could hear Liz’s whiny voice. He paid them no mind and instead looked for a carry bag or a suitcase or something. But he couldn’t find one and suddenly didn’t know where anything was, or what he even needed to take. Israel will accept me as I am, he reasoned. He knew people in Haifa who would open their doors to him.
He glimpsed a pair of sandals in the closet. “It’s hot over there and I can’t rely on Judit for everything,” he said to himself and picked up the sandals as well as a button down shirt with little anchors and sail boats all about. Then he quickly descended the staircase, but this time was met by Rose in the living room. She wore her apron and the cat sat behind her on the couch. They both looked amused.
“Where you rushing off to with those sandals?”
“JFK,” he said.
“Where?!” She looked down the dark stairs. “Dinner’s on the table.”
“If he wants it cold, he can have it cold,” Liz sounded from the kitchen like a second mother.
Elliot got back in his car, turned on the ignition, pulled the stick in reverse, and pressed the gas. The car moved two inches then sunk. His back tire was suddenly stuck. “Motherfucker!” He pressed for more gas and tried to force his way out the crack, but it didn’t work except to raise a lot of leaves and dust and make him feel like the veins in his neck would burst. He heard the front door open and could sense Rose staring out. Again he tried and this time forced his way out and got back on the road. “Woo-hoo,” he yelled. As Elliot drove, his glasses fogged up and his throat got dry and if he were a little younger, he imagined, he would have cried. He realized then that he had little money on him and wondered why he hadn’t taken any before leaving the store. He detested using credit cards as much as leaving messages and decided to stop by his shop before driving to the airport. It wasn’t a big detour. He calculated how much cash he needed and for how long, and the kinds of bills he would take. Back at the store, everything was in order: the gate was up, the door closed, the floor clean, no bills lay anywhere; the Halloween rack was down and ready for tomorrow. Even the register was refilled and when he recounted the day’s earnings it was just as before: $12.36 short. Maybe he had screwed up, he thought and sat behind the counter, as if ready for work. He observed the shop: the soft creamy slips, the silken underwear hanging, the wireless bras and satin nightdresses, the squishy packages against the wall. And it comforted him to think about his salesgirls, of Myra’s respect for him. Elliot hung his head and bobbed it a bit, as if he were davening, as if to say, “yes, yes, yes”.