The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

 

XIII

It was a bus.

Nostrand Avenue.

The B44 if you must know.

Everybody said she had the light.

Everybody said she looked both ways.

She always did.

My beautiful Bubbe got crushed.

Along with the halvah she bought for me.

Chocolate halvah.

*  *  *

February 18.

14 Adar I.

That’s what it said on the board near the front of the room.

Above the candle burning in a tall jar.

The day she died.

We are an efficient people.

Get ‘em in the ground.

As fast as we can.

You are disgusting.

It has nothing to do with the smell.

At least not these days.

Life is for the living.

She was dead.

We weren’t.

A time to mourn.

A time to dance.

Today we were mourning.

And tomorrow?

*  *  *

I had never been to Riverside Chapel.

Let’s face it.  I hadn’t been in the City that often.

We didn’t know anybody who lived there.

And I hadn’t been to a funeral home that often.

Or ever.

Not too many five year olds hang around funeral homes.

Smoke and makeup.

And formaldehyde.

It was crowded.  I choked. They were crying.

It didn’t stop them from shmearing me with lipstick.

Including Mrs. Goldberg and Mrs. Schwartz.

Uncle Irving was telling jokes.

Mrs. Schwartz covered my ears with her hands.

I had a book.

A Child’s Garden of Verses.

I wriggled away and went to sit in the back.

To read.

Until it started.

She made me sit in the front with her.

I knew better than to resist.

The rabbi walked in quickly from the side.

Bubbe didn’t have a rabbi.

He wiped some sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

Without unfolding it.

Placed the handkerchief back in his jacket pocket.

And started talking.

“Family and friends.”

None of us had ever seen him before, at least as far as I knew.

Before yesterday.

Which I don’t think made him family.

Or friends.

*  *  *

“We do it for the living,” I heard him intone orotund from my bedroom the night before.

The living evidently wanted none of it.

“She didn’t have much money.”

“If it were up to me I’d burn her.  That’s what she would have wanted.”

“I know how hard it is for the bereaved to make such decisions.  A mere five hundred dollars more and you’ll have given her all of the dignity that befits a distinguished Jewess in accordance with the laws of our great tradition.”

“She had plenty of dignity without five hundred more.”

“And do not refer to my mother as a ‘Jewess.’”

“Ever.”

Sometimes she made me smile.

“Let’s just do it,” he said.

“It’s worth it to get him out of here.”

.  .  .  .

“Fine.”

Somehow the rabbi was still talking as I fell asleep.

*  *  *

He droned.

“I never had the pleasure of knowing Sonia Stern but I have learned from her family what a loving and wonderful wife and mother she was and how devoted a grandmother she was to little David.  I have learned that she liked cards and mah jong and was known among her family and friends as the Queen of the Beach Club, that her cabana was her palace. I have learned that she was a generous and devoted friend and an excellent cook.  I have learned that she sustained her family single-handedly after arriving in the City from Poland in 1928.”

I perked up.

The City?

Bubbe lived in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn was Brooklyn.

The City was the City.

Now I started paying attention.

This guy didn’t know anything.

He wasn’t even wearing a yarmulke.

How were you supposed to know he was a real rabbi?

“And I have learned from her friends and her loving family that she will be sorely missed.”

What this rabbi hadn’t learned was when to shut his mouth.

Maybe it was the smell.

I started to gag.

He leaned across her and gave me the look.

I sat straight.

Gagging stopped.

The putative rabbi’s voice grew louder.

He lifted his hands toward the heavens.

His eyes followed.

He slipped his cuff and checked his watch.

The hands came down.

He talked faster.

I opened my book.

Straight to Happy Thought.

She read me that one all the time when I was little.

It was bullshit.

She was in a box.

Don’t be creepy.

Of course it was closed.

Who wants to see a dead bubbe?

Stretched beneath the rabbi.

Bubbe would have been furious.

Or she might have just laughed.

The rabbi was babbling about how he wasn’t going to fear neevil.

Holding his hands aloft again he walked around the side of the podium and stood before the box.

Uncle Irving, Uncle Sol, Uncle Jack, Uncle Phil, and a couple of other guys I didn’t know picked up the box.

Irving’s side started to drop.

“Shit!”

Everybody laughed.

Even Irving.

Too loudly.

It took an embarrassingly long time to stop.

Nobody cared.

The rabbi led them out.

Still babbling.

Hands still aloft.

And lit a cigarette as soon as he got outside.

In front of Bubbe’s box.

I was quite sure that by now she would have smacked him.

*  *  *

I sat next to her in the back of a long black car.  A torn black ribbon pinned to her dress.

He got in the seat in front of us.

“Damn rabbi wanted to ride with us. I told him to get into Goldberg’s car.”

He started to direct the driver who I’m pretty sure knew where he was going.           What did I care?

It made him feel better.

What control did he have anyway?

Not even over himself.

It was a long drive.  Queens already was too expensive and, besides, out on the Island was where the Sterns had been buried ever since we came to this country.

It was like a family reunion.

In the house of forever.

I ran around putting pebbles on grave stones.

I had watched her do it.

I stashed a few in my pocket.

Just in case.

On the ride back.

We sat quietly.

I asked her.

“Why did this have to happen to Bubbe?”

“Who else should it have happened to?”

“Why does it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did Bubbe do something bad to be punished?”

“I don’t know.  I mean, no.”

“So why?”

She slapped me.

“Don’t ask.”

It was ok.

It had been a long day for all of us.

*  *  *

I crawled out of my room and slithered along the hallway past theirs.

Their bed was piled high with coats.

I stood against the wall.

There had never been so many people in our apartment.

Onions

I could feel cold blasts from the windows.

Through the steamy human heat.

Uncle Phil winked at me as he passed by my hideout.

I smiled back.

Turned and dashed to my room.

Sitting on the bed.

Stevenson on my lap.

Uncle Jack filled the frame.

Gently knocked on it.

Handed me a plate.

Bagel, lox, potato salad, rugelach.

A piece of chocolate halvah.

I nodded my head in silent thanks.

Devoured the food.

Went to the bathroom.

The noise in the apartment drowned out the flushing of chocolate halvah.