Oct/Nov 2013  •   Fiction


by Paula McGrath

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns

Judy shifts and swallows her way out of sleep, brushes at the damp patch on her cheek with the back of her hand where she drooled. Her ankles come into focus where she has them raised on a footstool. Swollen. Around her, the dogs are yelping, wanting out. One of them might have done something already in the house, there's that smell again. Frank will go nuts. He hates the dogs and he'd as soon lift one of them with his foot when he's passing as not. She better straighten the place out, not go giving him reasons.

Besides, it's Tuesday.

She hauls herself out of the chair, scattering the coupons and newspapers she forgot were in her lap. Frank hates her coupons. Says he doesn't need food stamps, thank you very much. She gave up explaining the difference long since. Besides, he already knows the difference; he's just being contrary. She keeps cutting the coupons because she can save five or ten dollars a shop, but since Frank drives her to the store, she never gets to use them. She must have ten cookie-tins-full by now, most all of them out of date. She plans to sort them out one of these days.

She puts the dogs out but she's wheezing hard from the exertion. It's the weight slowing her down. She didn't always used to be this heavy. She really should try and reduce—Now where did I put that darn—She finds her inhaler, in the pocket of her muumuu where it should be, takes three short puffs. This darn heat. Tugging the synthetic fabric free where her dress has stuck to her thighs, she shuffles to turn the AC up a notch. That ought to do it. Should be nice and cool in time for the kids' lessons. The kids. A whoosh of well-being washes over her and the heat isn't bothering her nearly as much.

Tuesdays are good. After Paulie Walsh—bless the child, and music is for everyone, and he has just so much energy, but he is completely without talent —after Paulie's lesson, it's Kane. And after Kane—As usual Judy has no one coming after Kane. She likes to let his time run on as long as possible, whenever his mother will allow it. Every lesson culminates in a tiny struggle, because both of them want Kane to keep playing, but Judy knows the mother can't afford more time but is too proud to let his time run without paying. So much potential. And only six. She will have to give him up soon, pass him on to the Music Institute. She worries the mother won't be able to afford their enormous fees. She will tell her today they must work hard, stay late, to make sure he wins one of the scholarship places. She's feeling pleased with this plan, but it saddens her too, because she doesn't want to lose Kane.

There's that prickle behind her eyes again, but she can hardly help it. Kane is so much like her Joseph at the same age. Such talent. It was her mother all over again, playing through his fingers. His gift, his wonderful, wonderful gift. At least he never followed his father into the used-car business, at least she can be thankful for that.

Judy moves around slowly, straightening things out. Tuesdays are good. Joseph is in the city Tuesdays. She knows, because she saw him drive by the house. She was standing by the window, just looking out at nothing, when she saw his car go straight by, without even slowing down. She could not believe it.

—I could not believe it, she exclaimed to Frank that evening. Straight by, without even slowing down. Without even looking at the house. His own home.

—What's not to believe, Frank said from behind the sports page.

—That he could—

—I know what you mean, Frank said levelly. I just don't know why you are surprised. That's all.

—Well—Judy was flustered. Frank was right. Joseph never called by. Not unless he really had to. Thanksgiving, Christmas. That was about it.

—Well, I'm going to pick up the phone right now and find out why a son would not call in to his own mother when he's passing by.

But Frank had raised his paper with that slow deliberateness of his, and was no longer listening. No reasonable conclusions could be reached by discussing their son, she ought to know that by now. They each lived with their own private version of disappointment where Joseph was concerned, and there was no overlap. There was nothing left to say on the subject.

On any subject, Judy sometimes thought.

She did pick up the phone.

—Um—Joseph said.

—You know, busy—Joseph said.

—Next time—Joseph said.

Judy picked him up on it in a flash.

—Next time you're—

—You know, next time—the wholesalers—

—So you go to the wholesalers, every Tuesday.

She could imagine Franks bushy eyebrows lifting behind his newspaper. And Joseph had conceded yes, every Tuesday. Then he modified it to most Tuesdays. Most Tuesdays he was in Chicago at the wholesalers, and yes, he would, one of the days when he wasn't so busy, stop by to see his mother.

—There, Judy put the phone down with a flourish.

—He's not gonna come over, Frank said, without looking up.

But you never knew, he just might come over. She doesn't know when she saw him last. He's just so darn busy. Frank drives out there sometimes. He doesn't go there to see his son. He goes to keep an eye on his investment. Well maybe next time she will surprise them both, take a drive out with him. Soon as the weather cools down a bit. The fall, maybe. It's nice, being in the nature when the leaves are turning. Yes, that's what she's going to do.

She lowers her bulk onto the piano stool, smiling as she imagines herself in the passenger seat of Frank's Cadillac, leaving Chicago behind, heading out on the open road into the heart of mid-western America. She will take that tour of Joseph's farm, try out some of his vegetables. She wonders what might be in season in the fall. Corn? Pumpkin? She will make Mother's pumpkin challah. She can already see herself, taking the hot yeasty loaves out of Joseph's oven. But then she remembers. No challah. Mother is long gone, but Frank is of the same mind as her mother. No Jewish cooking. No Jewish anything. Funny how she can't seem to get it into her head, even after all these years.

She glances at the clock. If Joseph is coming he'd better hurry, because the children will be here soon. He'd never come after, not if there's any chance Frank might be there. Poor Joseph, having to take a loan from Frank that time. It must have killed him. No, they do not get on. She does not want to think about them, toe to toe, not getting on.

Maybe she will make him American pumpkin pie instead when she takes that drive out. They'll sit in Joseph's kitchen, filled with cinnamon smells, and talk. In her mind's ear they are talking in German. But that would never happen, not with Frank around. She wonders if Joseph remembers, when he was little, chatting away to her in the language she was not able to forget, even when Mother insisted. That was when he was still playing piano. When he still chatted to her. The happiest time of her life.

Her fingers have crept onto the keyboard, remembering a jolly little song, one of the very first Joseph learned. He played it by ear when he was hardly more than three. Straight in, starting at an ef. But then she plays a-flat, not the a belonging to the tune. With b, c, dissonant, melancholic and unfinished.


Yehudit is six. They have been walking for a long time. She is tired, but Mother is even more tired so she carries her own small bag. In it is a piece of hard bread, and the photograph. Then there is a train, then more walking. It seems to be night for a long time, and it is still dark when they reach the end of the road. A wooden bridge is slung across black water to a boat. Mother flinches when the man there puts out his hand to help her across. He pulls his hand back, says something in a language Yehudit does not understand, steps a little away. Mother seems very tall and all alone as she walks across. She does not hold the ropes, even though the bridge rocks and sways.

The boat takes a long time. She plays with the other children, Adam, Solomon. She can't remember the other girl's name. They hide all over, even in the Captain's quarters. He is nice to them and smiles a lot, but still he seems sad.

She is American now, Mother tells her, with one of those same, sad smiles. This will be their home, this small apartment with one bedroom, a toilet on the landing. She does not know why Mother cries the day the knock comes on the door and the two American men bring in a piano.

—There ya go, missy, one of them says, mussing Yehudit's hair.

But the piano is not for her, it is for Mother, and she cries when she playes it, probably because she is remembering the pretty dress, the tall handsome man leaning on another, big, shiny piano, smiling down at her while she played: the people in the photograph.

Mother was sad the day Yehudit came home from school crying because everyone was speaking in English and she did not understand what they were saying.

—You will, Yehudit. In time you will understand.

She said it like You-dith. Except at school they said Ju-dith. The teacher even spelled it wrong in the roll book.

She made some friends after a while. Wait up, Jude, they called, rushing to link arms on the way to school, the way girls do. Only, Mother heard Wait up, Jew. Judith tried to explain but it didn't matter. From then on, Mother stopped observing the holiday and reading the Torah, and Yehudit became Judy. Mother looked sad again when she heard Judy's friends call her. It was impossible to make Mother happy.

Later, when Judy got in from school Mother was tired as well as sad. She had to cut back her hours at the store where she worked, but before long she was too tired even for that. When Mother was too ill to work any more, Judy said goodbye to high-school and her friends and stayed home to look after her. Even when she had done everything, helped her to take sips, to swallow her pills, cleaned her up, fixed her pillows, she could tell Mother was still in pain. She didn't say anything, but Judy could see it in her eyes. Then, when she could not take the pain away with pills or comfortable pillows, Judy played piano. Mother had been a patient teacher, and Judy a good, though not gifted, pupil, and as she stroked the keys into melodies from her mother's past a temporary peace crept into the apartment, enveloping them both.

When there was no more money, sixteen year old Judy did not know where to turn. The neighbour across the hall was good to them, but she had not much herself. Go to Maxwell Street, she told Judy. There, old man Rosenberg would give her cash for anything she had to sell. Judy went. She put her head down and wove her way through the pandemonium of upturned boxes and crates heaving with their wares, the cacophony of accents, German, Irish, Italian, and more, peddling lamps, television sets, bikes, strange-smelling clothes, all competing with the sliding blue notes of harmonicas and guitars. The pullers called to her, tugged on her sleeve, tried to entice her in to the stores. She pulled her coat more tightly around her and hurried on until she found it: Rosenbergs Jewelry.

He was about a hundred but he was the one sitting her down and getting her water to drink.

—There, he said in Hebrew. You feel better, eh?

Judy nodded, still feeling weak, not trusting herself to speak, in any language.

—You are Laila's girl? he asked gently.

Judy nodded again.

—She is not well, I hear.

She shook her head.

—Laila, Laila, it took all her strength from her.

Judy did not know what he meant, but the old man was talking more to himself than to her. He seemed to have gone to another place, as if he had forgotten she was there.

—Terrible, terrible, he was saying. Terrible times. All the poor little children. Poor Laila. Poor Jacob.

Then he seemed to remember again she was there.

—I knew your grandfather, he said softly, and he counted out far too many dollars in exchange for her mother's watch.

When there was nothing else, Judy sold the piano, and when her Mother begged with her eyes for some music, Judy could only stare at her hands where they sat palm up in her lap, her fingers as useless as the flailing legs of an upturned beetle.

When her Mother died, Mr. Grube, the store owner took pity on her and gave Mother's old job to Judy, though she knew nothing at all about counting and measuring, and she was too quiet to be any good with the customers. But she turned up in good time every day with her face well scrubbed and hair in a tidy braid, ready and willing to do her best. When a certain Frank Martello started coming often the owner winked and told her she'd want to look out for those Italians. After that, Judy blushed every time he came in. She fumbled his change and stammered answers to his questions, so it came as a complete surprise when he leaned his elbow on the counter and asked her how she'd like to come work for him, in a nice office job. Mr. Grube joined in from the store-room.

—You going to pay her well, eh?

—I'll double her wages, Frank replied, quick as a shot, with a wink to Judy, who blushed to the soles of her feet.

—Then get outta here fast as your feet can carry you, Judy, Mr. Grube said.

Frank was as good as his word. He gave her such an easy job, she wondered if he thought she was an idiot, but she was happy to hide away in the quiet office behind his own at the back of the lot. Every day he came in for a chat, to put her at her ease. He was such a talker. That was why he was so good at selling cars. He talked her into filling in at reception before long, and when she protested she couldn't possibly, looking down at her faded skirt and well-washed sweater, he took her by the two hands and danced her out of the office and into one of the fancy sporty cars, the best in the showroom.

—Then we're going down town, pretty lady.

He brought her to State Street, to the famous Marshall Fields.

—Pick out what ever you want, Frank said grandly.

Judy had never dared set foot inside the door of Marshall Field's before. The doorman intimidated her, the perfumes overwhelmed her, and she hardly dared to lift her eyes.

When Frank noticed, he grabbed a sales woman by the arm.

—My girl here could use a little help finding something nice.

That was the first day he called her his girl. Frank was kind back then. He bought her a caramel twinset and a mustard dirndl skirt and a box of Frango mints.

After they got married, Frank didn't like her working in the lot any more.

—What do you want, hanging around those guys all day? he asked, and she didn't have an answer to that. She didn't have answers to many of the questions husbands ask because she had never heard them answered; she did not remember her father and mother together, only in the photograph. She spent her days in their new home on the South Side. She was lonesome, but she told herself they would soon fill those empty bedrooms.

The bedrooms stayed empty, and Judy found it harder to count her blessings every day. Living with Mother had been like living with a shadow, moving silently about, getting everything done with the least amount of fuss. Frank was the opposite. He never talked when he could shout, he left doors open, and the television was on from the time he got up in the morning, and again from the moment he got home, with the volume up high. It took some getting used to.

Sometimes she didn't know she was crying, and when he'd ask her what in tarnation was the matter she'd have to put a hand to her cheek and feel it wet to realise. She knew he'd started to wonder who this strange young woman was. When he looked into her dark eyes she could see his incomprehension, but she also knew he did not want to understand what he saw in there; he did not want to know what those dark eyes had seen. He covered his fear with impatience, then with anger, so the house fluctuated between oppressive silences and frustrated outbursts, frequently followed by a slamming door, then silence again.

—What? Frank asked her when he came back from whatever bar he'd gone to. What do you want from me?

He sat heavily onto their bed, where she lay with her back to him, her face pressed into her damp pillow.

—What do you want, Judy? he asked, more gently.

She whispered it, so he didn't hear at first.

—Ya what?

She lifted her head so he could hear better.

—A piano.

Frank liked people to know he could afford the best. He pulled the blankets off with a flourish.

—What do you think, Judy? Think this'll make her happy, boys? he asked the delivery men, his audience. They were standing back, two Irishmen, letting him have his moment, probably hoping for a tip. What do you say we get her to give us a tune? What about one of Johnny Ace's. Come on, baby. Never Let Me Go. Can't have these boys saying you weren't worth the top of the range.

Judy had never played for anyone except her mother before and she could feel her hands trembling. She moved to the piano, then looked around her vaguely.

—A stool...?

Frank's look turned dark, until he spotted the smaller object by the door. Then he was all smiles again.

—A stool, boys. Give the lady a stool.

The stool was unveiled and placed behind her.

Judy knew the melody; Frank was fond of playing it in his car at full volume. She brought her fingers to the smooth ivory, releasing a single pure note with only the lightest of touches, and another. Then another, all in minor thirds. There was something in the resonance fixing them all in the stillness that made even Frank shut up. Then, when the last whisper of the chord died away, Judy's right hand picked out the melody they wanted to hear, and her left hand joined in with the simple runs the song required. Forget about tomorrow my darling ... never let me go, Frank accompanied her loudly, off-key.

On their way down the front steps, after pocketing a five dollar bill, one of the movers said under his breath, feckin' eejit, and something about shooting himself. Judy didn't know they were talking about the singer, Johnny Ace, and the accidentally loaded gun he'd shot himself with.

The house became filled with the music Mother had taught her. Frank complained it always sounded sad, but she couldn't help it, the melancholy seemed to go further back than she did, maybe back to her mother, growing up in a place Judy didn't know, and couldn't imagine. Or couldn't remember. But it was what she heard resonating in her ear. She had to remember to wipe the tears away before Frank came home. Though she wasn't unhappy, he would not understand.

Then Joseph came. Judy played him into being. He was dark-eyed and dark-skinned, and Frank said he was the image of the Napoli Paolini's on his mother's side, but Judy knew he was of her. As soon as he could reach the keys, he played. At two or three he copied what she showed him, her shadow treble, her shadow base.

By the time he was six Joseph could play Mahler as well as his small hands would allow. Though he didn't understand the music, the feeling of angst, seeping from the fingers of his small son, made Frank frown, so Judy taught Joseph to play Debussy's Feuilles Mortes and Ravel's dreamy, melancholic Oiseaux Tristes instead. Frank still grumbled but he left them alone.

The day before Joseph's seventh birthday they were doing finger exercises, Joseph speeding up and down the keyboard in finger-perfect semitones. Every note was a dart in Judy's flesh, because she was preparing Joseph for the Music Institute entrance exams; he was too good for her. They had already come out to hear him play, the President of the Institute himself, and another woman. They had stopped in the porch —Judy saw them through the window —listening to Joseph practicing. They shook their heads, and looked at each other, and nodded their heads. This was all before they even pressed the bell. The exam was a formality, they said when they were leaving.

Up and down the keyboard, four octaves, Joseph's tongue protruded slightly in concentration. Neither of them saw it coming: the little hands, side-swiped off the keys, the lid slammed down. Frank looked at them while the wood resounded in their ears, daring them. In his hand he held a mitt and a ball and a bat.

—That stuff's for little kids, Joey. Little kids and sissies. It's Little League from now on. Time to forget about all that music.

Judy has a surprise planned. Young Kane will make a start on the Symphony No. 5 piano transcription, Mahler. Half-German, that's what his mother said when they first came. It was close enough. The mother was Japanese, and she wanted her son to learn the Suzuki method. Kane stood beside her, serious and quiet, while Judy explained she could only teach the method she learned from her mother. It didn't have a name, she said.

Her fingers are giddy with anticipation, but before she can tease the keys with the opening bars the doorbell rings. Paulie Walsh. As she goes to let the child in she sets aside the familiar, dull disappointment preceding the child's lesson every Tuesday —because Joseph didn't come —and she fills the vacant place with enough justifications to make it right.

Paulie is red-haired and freckled and he looks, as always, with his hair sticking out and his clothing all askew, as if he just fell from a tree-house. He makes Judy think of that show Joseph used to like to watch, Leave it to Beaver.

—How are you Paulie? Judy asks, with a wave to Paulie's mother, who is waiting in the car.

—Ya know, Mrs. M., same ol' same ol'.

Judy laughs.

—I hope not, she says. You promised you would practice this week.

—Yes, Mrs. Martello, Paulie says, his step losing some of its bounce.

Judy lets him have a go at his piece, a simple little tune he's been torturing for months now, and as expected, it doesn't go well.

—Let's try this, she says. We'll sing it. I'll sing first —lala lala laaa —now you—

—La la la la la, Paulie intones miserably.

—Lala lala laaa? Judy tries again.

—La la la la la.

Judy inhales, then slowly exhales. She was getting too old for this. If it wasn't for Kane—

—Clapping, she says. We'll try clapping out the music, Paulie. It's all about rhythm. Let's go.

But the clapping is a failure too. Judy glances at the clock. Too soon to let him out to his mother. She will have to have a chat with her one of these days.

The piece is illustrated with lambs, frolicking on a hillside.

—I know, Judy says. Colour. We will colour the picture.

She lumbers to the sideboard to rummage for materials. Paulie gives her a cynical look, which changes to resignation when he, too, glances at the clock. To its too slow, metronomic increments Paulie scratches away at the lambs with a crayon.

—Thanks, Mrs. M, Paulie calls, as he bounds down the steps.

—Practice, Paulie, Judy says as she waves him off.

She is already distracted, looking up and down the road to see if there is any sign of Kane. His mother usually walks with him from Grand station. They come all the way from Evanston, have to change trains twice. Usually, they are there, waiting on the steps. They are never late.

She goes back inside eventually, not wanting the neighbours to witness her anxious waiting. She's wheezing again. Her inhaler—Where is it—? Ah. She takes three puffs. She waits. She looks at the photograph on the piano, her beautiful mother looking at her father looking back at her as she plays. The only sounds in the front room come from the second hand of the clock, pressing relentlessly forward into the second half of Kane's lesson, and the far-away whine of her own inhalations.