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Zhid

Mrs. Popovitch grew the most beautiful flowers in the neighborhood. Everyone said so. In the frontyard she cultivated lilies, proud as princesses, white as snow.

Within their sheltering midst was a plaster sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus in the folds of her painted blue dress. Sonya wished the children didn’t have to see this. But her husband Ben said, “Be glad it’s not a crucifix.”

In the backyard, Mrs. Popovitch tended dark red roses, heavy heads almost as big as the cabbages Ben peddled up and down Delmar Avenue. When the roses withered and dropped their velvety petals to the black earth below, Mrs. Popovitch gathered and then ground them into fragrant rose petal jam. Sonya had never been invited to try, it for she was a tenant in Mrs. Popovitch’s house and therefore not deemed worthy of the delicacy, but she had seen the crimson filled jelly jars lined up neatly on Mrs. Popovitch’s pantry shelf.

Sonya had been renting the top floor of Mrs. Popovitch’s three story wooden house for almost two years. Mrs. Popovitch and her husband had the two spacious lower floors to themselves; Sonya, Ben and their children Edith and Milton shared the rooms above. Though Sonya didn’t like to admit it, she admired Mrs. Popovitch. Although just thirty, the landlady was capable and clever in a way that Sonya, only a little younger, could not imagine ever being. With her thin lips and cool gray eyes, Mrs. Popovitch was not beautiful, but she seemed aristocratic, even regal.

Sonya knew that Mrs. Popovitch had come from a poor family in Poland. Yet here she was with her own house, white story book flowers growing out front, red ones out back. She had first come here as a maid for old Mr. Popovitch. He married her and when he died, barely a year later, he had left her the house and most of his money.

Mrs. Mrs. Popovitch married again, this time to a much younger, extremely handsome man. Sonya’s mother, had she been alive, would have spit twice on the ground when she saw him. The man was an idler who spent the day in a green brocade arm chair leafing through magazines and puffing silently on a cigar whose foul smoke always found its way into Sonya’s clean kitchen. The one time Sonya saw him standing, it had been to comb his abundant, wavy hair before the mirror in the front hall.

But Sonya’s mother would have conceded that Mrs. Popovitch was a balabusta, a housewife beyond reproach. When Sonya went downstairs to pay the rent, she had to acknowledge the shining floors that were swept and waxed daily, the pressed yellow gingham curtains, the white dish towels that Mrs. Popovitch made by slitting open and inverting empty flour sacks, then hemming the edges with her meticulous stitching that was as fine as embroidery, as unique as handwriting.

Sometimes, Mrs. Popovitch would take the handle of her broom and rap it sharply against the second floor ceiling. Sonya understood that these knocks, coming up through the floor, were Mrs. Popovitch’s way of summoning her downstairs, often to translate something she saw in the newspaper or to help her write a letter. Although Mrs. Popovitch spoke English well, her reading and writing lagged far behind and she relied on Sonya for assistance. Other times, Mrs. Popovitch would climb the stairs to Sonya’s apartment on the pretext of borrowing a cup of sugar or some tea. How could the ever-provident Mrs. Popovitch have run out of anything? No, Sonya thought, she was coming up to snoop. She saw the way Mrs. Popovitch looked around the kitchen, taking in the well-scrubbed linoleum on the floor, the smooth oil cloth that covered the table because linen or even cotton was too dear. “I had no idea the zhid were so clean,” she murmured admiringly. Sonya flinched. Though she was from Russia, not Poland, the word zhid—here they would have said kike—was the same in both languages.

Yet the woman could be kind; Ben was a Kvays pointing that out. Since they had no telephone, Mrs. Popovitch let them use hers. That way, Ben could call and let Sonya know when he would be coming home. When they were late with the rent, Mrs. Popovitch said, “You’ll pay me when you can.” And on Christmas Eve, she invited all the children on the block—including Edith and Milton—to see join her and her husband for hot cider and cookies.

Sonya was of two minds about the Christmas visit. She felt uncomfortable about the tree and all it represented. But Edith and Milton begged, and she hated to deny them this small pleasure. “You’re making too much of it,” said Ben. “Juice and cookies. It’s not like she’s going to convert them or anything.”

“That’s how it starts,” said Sonya, who relented anyway. Her one condition, however, was that they appear at Mrs. Popovitch’s holly-wreathed door immaculate and shining, as if dressed for the High Holiday service sat the shul on Burlingame Avenue.

“Ma, what difference does it make?” whined Edith as Sonya yanked her hair into smooth, tight braids. “She sees us every day in our regular clothes.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Sonya, using a dab of her own pomade to slick down some stray wisps. “If you want to go, you’ll stand still.” Only when they were bathed, coiffed and dressed in their best clothes did Sonya allow them to descend the stairs. She wasn’t going to give Mrs. Popovitch the opportunity to say that the zhid’s children were dirty.

When they had gone, Sonya went quietly downstairs and out the door. It was snowing lightly, and standing there in only a house dress and an apron, she shivered. She could smell cinnamon, and through the wet, misted windowpane, she saw the tree presiding over the room like a queen. There were her beloved children—Edith with her round, dimpled face, Milton with his perpetual cowlick—eating and drinking with the goyim. Sonya was ashamed, not just of them, but also of herself, for envying them. When she finally went inside, her dress was soaked.

Later, Edith and Milton trudged upstairs too stuffed with cookies to want any supper.

“I think there should be Christmas for Jews,” announced Milton.

It was some time after this that Sonya was summoned downstairs by the imperious rapping of Mrs. Popovitch’s broom. It was too early in the day for Ben to be telephoning her so it must be something the landlady needed. Sonya had been making chicken soup and the front of her apron showed golden dots of grease and shreds of carrot. When she entered Mrs. Popovitch’s kitchen, she was sorry she had not thought to take it off as Mrs. Popovitch was not alone. Sonya recognized the heavyset woman with the curly hair, a friend of the landlady’s. The man was a stranger. But they, like Mrs. Popovitch, were so engrossed in examining the soft, shining pelts of fur that covered the table that after a quick nod in her direction, they didn’t look at her again. Mrs. Popovitch’s husband was nowhere in sight.

Sonya moved closer. She had never seen so much fur, so close up. There were shining brown stoles, a glossy black jacket, a silvery gray hat, a honey colored muff. Some of the garments were made of fur that was long and fluffy; others, from fur that had been sheared and was now as soft and dense as velvet. Mrs. Popovitch was stroking the furs reverently. Finally, Sonya took a closer look at the man.

He was seated at the table, arm stretched out over the fur in a proprietary manner. He wore navy blue pea coat from which the buttons were missing and threadbare trousers of the same dark blue. Something about these clothes looked familiar; it took Sonya a moment to place them but then she realized he was dressed in a uniform from the Russian navy. Though it had been many years since she had left Russia, reminders of her homeland still brought on the urge to weep. She looked carefully at his face, which was very handsome. Unlike Mrs. Popovitch’s husband, whose looks seemed overly groomed and almost feminine, this man’s features were rougher. He had high, slanting cheekbones, full lips and straight, thick blond hair that fell in a spray over his forehead. His eyes, Sonya saw, were a clear, light blue, like the sky that floated over their summer house, all those years ago.

Seeing him made it all come streaming back: the summer days with Mama and her sister Irena, sitting on the sun porch and eating the berries they had picked together. The maid washed and placed them in crystal dishes that she carried carefully on a heavy silver tray. Solemnly, she poured cream over the berries before setting the dishes down. Sonya dribbled cream all over the front of her linen dress but Mama only smiled. In winter, she and Irena were taken to a carnival, where there were Gypsy dancers, a puppet theater painted with gold stars and a stall that sold bits of fried dough that were dipped in powdered sugar. She could still remember how steaming dough warmed her chilled hands and how the sugar drifted down and mingled with the snow.

Then all the other things came back too. In their rush to be remembered, they fell all over one another, like the game of dominoes Edith and Milton played. There was the talk of revolution that made all the grown-ups frown; Papa’s sudden disappearance; Mama’s hands laced so tightly together that the knuckles turned white as she waited for news; Papa’s broken body coming home at last in a blood-stained mail sack; the burns around Mama’s mouth after she had drunk the poison. Then came the time when windows of the house erupted in explosions of wood and glass and mattresses were stood on end in the places the windows had been, waiting alone with Irena for Mama to return with food, the agonizing boat trip with everyone vomiting and calling out to God for deliverance.

Sonya willed herself to look back at the furs. Seeing the way she gazed down at them, Mrs. Popovitch’s friend said, “They are beautiful, no?” Her accent, when she spoke English, was thicker than either Mrs. Popovitch’s or Sonya’s own.

Before Sonya could reply, Mrs. Popovitch said, “I want you to write something for me. A contract.”

“Of course,” Sonya said. “What should it say?”

“That I, Anna Popovitch, am buying these furs—” she stopped to tick off on her fingers the number of stoles, jackets, hats and muffs—” from this gentleman for the sum of five hundred dollars.”

“Maybe we should say exactly how many of each, and what kind?” suggested Sonya.

“That’s a very good idea,” said Mrs. Popovitch. “Here, let me get you paper and a pen. You—” she pointed at the man, “get up so she can sit.” He stood and stretched, running his fingers through the thick sheaf of his hair. Five hundred dollars! But the man hardly seemed excited; in fact he barely paid attention to what Mrs. Popovitch was now dictating to Sonya. He paced around the kitchen, stopping at the window to look out, and pressed his hands to the back of his neck.

“That’s two stoles, both beaver,” Mrs. Popovitch said. “Another of silver fox—”

“So many Anna!” murmured her friend. “What will you do with them? You can’t wear them all at once.”

“That shows how much you know,” said Mrs. Popovitch. “I’ll sell them. For a profit too. Do you want to buy one?”

“Me?” The woman patted her curls and smiled. “Oh no. But maybe your little friend here…” she said slyly, indicating Sonya.

“No, the zhid won’t be buying this time,” said Mrs. Popovitch as she counted out the bills into the man’s open hand. Sonya’s face burned but she kept writing.

When the contract was completed, Mrs. Popovitch, the blond man and Sonya all signed their names to it. Sonya saw that his first name was Sergei but she was unable to make out the last. “You’re the witness,” Mrs. Popovitch said to Sonya. “Don’t forget.” Sonya was ready to leave but before she did, something made her turn around. The man was looking—no, staring—at her with those pale blue eyes. His expression was one of pure supplication. But what could he possibly want from her? Sonya averted her eyes and hurried upstairs.

“You should have seen them!” Sonya told Ben later that evening when children were in bed and she was serving him supper. “The whole table covered with them. Dark ones, light ones. As many as in a furrier’s shop!” Ben chewed his pot roast thoughtfully—even after hours of cooking the meat was still tough—and turned a page of the newspaper. “You’re not listening to me,” Sonya accused. “I wait all day long for you to come home so I can talk to someone and then you don’t listen to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, pushing the paper aside. “I’m listening. You want a fur coat? A stole? Look, I’d like to buy it for you Sonya. But how? With what?”

“I didn’t ask you to buy it for me,” Sonya said. “It was just something to see. Something to talk about.”

“Why talk about what you can’t have?” His eyes strayed toward the paper again. Sonya got up from the table.

“You don’t understand,” she said. And he didn’t. Back in Russia, his family had been as poor as Mrs. Popovitch’s. He didn’t know what it was to want fine things not because of the things themselves, but because they reminded you of who you had been before so much had been taken from you.

Sonya didn’t see Mrs. Popovitch for several days after that. The weather turned brutally cold and the strong winds that came off the lake went right through Sonya’s thin winter coat. She thought of the furs she had seen but not touched.

Then she arrived home from the market one afternoon to see Mrs. Popovitch’s flushed face peering out at her from the front window. “There you are!” she said, opening the door for Sonya to come in. “I’ve been waiting!” Sonya stepped into her landlady’s kitchen without even going upstairs to drop off her bundles.

“Read this!” she commanded, thrusting a newspaper in front of Sonya’s perplexed face. “I want to know what it says here!” Sonya set down her bags and began to read aloud.

FUR SCAM SWEEPS DETROIT NEIGHBORHOOD
A man posing as a wholesale fur dealer has been swindling residents near Delmar Avenue, police have reported. Claiming to offer fox, beaver, mink and raccoon at rock bottom prices to unsuspecting clients, the man, a Russian emigre, has instead been peddling stolen furs that are believed to have come from….

“How will I ever sell those furs now?” said Mrs. Popovitch. Her face had lost its flush and was now as pale as the lilies in the front yard. “I’ll find him and when I do. I’ll kill him with my own two hands.”

“But you have a contract,” Sonya reminded her. “I wrote it all out for you.”

“Contract!” spat Mrs. Popovitch. “I don’t want money. I want blood!”

“There’s a number to call, ” Sonya said hesitantly. “If you have anything to report.”

“Then read it to me!” Mrs. Popovitch said. She might have been giving a firing squad the command to shoot. Sonya’s voice trembled slightly as she read the number aloud.

“Can you imagine Ben? The whole thing was a fraud. That man, the one I told you about? He was selling stolen goods.” Sonya spread the newspaper out in front of her husband that evening.

“Well,” he chuckled as he leaned over to read the story. “So much for Mrs. Popovitch’s get rich quick schemes. You don’t get something for nothing.”

“She did get this house, didn’t she?”

“Yes, but she had to sleep with the alte cocker first.”

Mrs. Popovitch wanted Sonya accompany her to the police station to help make an identification. They set off together one morning after Ben had left for work and the children for school. The day was sunny though bitter. Under a blanket of snow and dark soil slept Mrs. Popovitch’s red roses, her pallid lilies. Sonya wondered what had become of the furs, which the police had demanded and not returned. But Mrs. Popovitch said nothing about them. She walked briskly along in her black suede boots, her face was composed, yet merciless. Sonya had to hurry to keep up.

At the police station, they were led into a large room that contained a raised dais and rows of wooden benches, almost, Sonya thought, like a shul. Or a church. Mrs. Popovitch took a seat in the front and Sonya sat beside her.

On the raised platform, several tables were lined up end to end. Metal chairs were placed behind the tables. “Okay, you can bring them in,” called the sergeant. One by one, the men shuffled in, walking first past the tables and then behind them until they reached the chairs. Sonya watched carefully. The first man was too tall by head, the next too dark, with brown hair and olive skin. Sonya felt she would know him anywhere, with that shock of gold hair and those pale, azure eyes. The third man was blond and the right height but his hair was wispy and thin. Mrs. Popovitch stirred nervously beside her. “Do you see him?” Sonya shook her head.

Then he walked onto the dais. At least Sonya thought it was him but he looked much thinner. His hair had been cut, nearly shaved off, his forehead was laid bare. Sonya had trouble seeing the color of his eyes.

“I think that’s him,” said Mrs. Popovitch, digging her sharpel bow into Sonya’s side.

“I’m not sure,” Sonya said. “His eyes…”

“Sergeant,” Mrs. Popovitch said in a loud voice, “I think I see the man. Can I get closer?'” The sergeant nodded and Mrs. Popovitch took Sonya’s arm and moved right up to the dais.

It was the same man. Not only did Sonya recognize the face with its full, pouting lips and slanted bones, there was no mistaking the eyes. Without their golden cover of hair, they seemed naked and vulnerable. The man looked not at her, but into her. This time, however, Sonya steadily returned his gaze. And that was how she saw him mouth in Yiddish, “Have pity on a poor zhid.” She sucked in her breath and shut her mouth.

“Now I’m not sure,” said Mrs. Popovitch, as she continued to peer at him. “He looks different. The hair for one thing. I don’t know. I want to identify him, but I have to be sure it is him.” She turned to Sonya. “What do you think?” The man’s eyes held Sonya’s, blue as the skies of childhood summers, clear as tranquil water. Not even her babies’ eyes had been so blue.

“No, it’s not the same man,” Sonya said in a bold voice she scarcely knew as her own. Mrs. Popovitch stared.

“You’re sure then?” she asked tentatively, as if Sonya’s sudden display of strength had leached dry her own.

“Positive.”

“I didn’t really think so…,” muttered Mrs. Popovitch. “Though I was hoping of course…” She allowed Sonya to lead her away.

“All right then ladies. You’ll have to come back next week. When we have some more suspects,” said the officer.

“Next week,” said Sonya confidently. “We’ll come back.”

Leaving the building, they walked in silence. Mrs. Popovitch was the first to speak. “You’ll come again,” she asked in a hesitant tone Sonya had never heard her use before. “To the line-up.”

“I already said I would,” Sonya said, allowing her impatience to seep through. But it wouldn’t matter. The man would be long gone by then. Sonya imagined that he would choose some place warm: Florida, Mexico, Argentina.

“I’d like to thank you,” Mrs. Popovitch said, her voice almost shy. “For coming with me.”

“You’re welcome,” Sonya said.

“If there is something I could do for you. A favor perhaps… “Mrs. Popovitch continued.

“A favor,” repeated Sonya, thinking of the furs and their varying hues: chestnut, ebony, silver, wheat, honey. But the image drifted away like smoke, replaced by an image of roses, Mrs. Popovitch’s roses, crimson and dark in the brilliant sunlight of a June morning.

“The petals,” she said out loud.

“What?” asked Mrs. Popovitch.

“The rose petals from the garden. That you use to make jam. I’d like to taste them.”

“But of course,” said Mrs. Popovitch, still not understanding. “I’ll bring you a jar tonight.”

The two women arrived at the house, where Mrs. Popovitch opened the door. Sonya could see into the parlor, where Mrs. Popovitch’s husband dozed in the armchair, mouth slightly open. She could feel the landlady’s eyes on her as she ascended the stairs, but she kept her head high, high as the lilies.

She imagined herself seated at a table that was no table she had ever seen. There was a heavy white napkin in her lap, a silver spoon in her hand and she was eating rose petal jam from a porcelain dish, the kind she had not touched or held for years. The taste of the jam was complex; along with its ineffable sweetness, she detected a hint of orange, of clove perhaps and of vanilla. She kept it on her tongue for a long time before she swallowed. At her feet there was a carpet of broken blossoms, bright as blood, staining the floorboards below.   

Yona Zeldis Mcdonough’ s first novel, The Four Temperments, will be published by Doubleday in August 2002.