“Don’t tell me you haven’t phoned Izzy yet,” Mom said, as if she knew exactly what I was thinking through the phone line and three thousand miles of air.
“Mo-ther,” I said. “It’s only been two days.”
I’d just stepped off the plane on Friday, we were having the first of our Sunday calls from the dorm pay phone, and I had no intention of phoning my Uncle Izzy.
“Deborah,” my mother said in a tone that warned she’d tolerate no disrespect.
“It’s hot here,” I said, changing the subject. I told her my hair had frizzed and I had bumps on my forehead like prickly heat. She recommended cream rinse and calamine lotion. I didn’t tell her about the pungent smell of pot in the dorm. Or that I wasn’t wearing the sleeveless blouses and Bermuda shorts she’d packed for me but had picked up a couple of UCLA tees and a flowered skirt from a sidewalk vendor. My father would put money in my checking account every week and wouldn’t ask how I spent it. Already I felt older in California.
Izzy was my mother’s brother, the reason she’d allowed me to fly cross-country for UCLA summer school, a shockingly daring move for her in that summer of civil rights unrest and anti-war protest. She wasn’t particularly close to Izzy—he’d been east for my sister Susan’s wedding last fall, and I couldn’t remember when before that. But family was family.
Mom insisted I give her the number of the hall pay phone, in case of emergency, and an hour later a tall girl in hip-huggers and halter top knocked on my door to tell me I had a call—Izzy inviting me for dinner the following Friday at an Indian restaurant near campus.
That first week was so full—and I don’t mean with schoolwork—that I almost forgot about Izzy. I tried pot in the hip-hugger-and-halter-top girl’s room; her name was Kim, and she taught me how to hold the clip without burning my fingertips and how to inhale without coughing, but I must have done it wrong, because instead of spending the night with one of the bearded guys in her circle I ended up back in my room writing a lab report that got an A. Strolling Bruinwalk every noontime, I listened to anti-war spiels and collected protest flyers, nervous about getting hooked up with kids who weren’t students, discovering I couldn’t tell who was who by the ratty hair or the ragged fatigues.
On Friday night, when I didn’t have a date and couldn’t decide between parties or political meetings, I gave up and walked to meet Izzy at the Indian place. Mom always made Shabbos dinner on Fridays, just like her mother—a chicken and a challah—and then went to temple with Dad. Clearly Izzy was not a Friday-night Jew.
I spotted him right away by his famous red hair, just starting to fade from flame to rust. He was tall but soft, more like the long graceful branch of a tree than the sturdy trunk. That was another defining feature of Izzy in family story—the kid who was no good at helping Grandpa on a plumbing job. The good brother, the one who could bend pipe with his bare hands, was Uncle Joe, a doctor now, what more could the family ask? While Joe and Mom were both dark like their parents, Izzy had freckles. He didn’t look Jewish. He was a writer for TV, supposedly very successful—supposedly, that was my mother’s word.
There was another man at the table. “Jeffrey,” he said, sticking out a hand for a firm shake. The roommate. That’s what my mother always called them, the roommates. They belonged to the part of Izzy’s life that the family didn’t talk about, at least not in front of the children.
This one was an actor, suntanned, with a mustache and no socks. He’d been a regular on that Wednesday night doctor show—played a psychiatrist, he said, had I seen him? “But if I was a real psychiatrist, I wouldn’t have fucked up my life,” he said, “pardon my French.” Jeffrey’d gotten divorced two years ago and moved in with Izzy. He had no job at the moment, an ex-wife who hated him, and a son he rarely got to see. “I could get work in soaps,” he said. “They always need doctors, and I still have the white coat. But I’d have to move to New York, leave the kid.”
In the sixties, parents didn’t leave children. At least not my parents back in New Jersey. My mother didn’t even believe in children leaving parents. When I’d first suggested a summer in California, she’d said no so fast, you’d think I was proposing to cross the country in a covered wagon. I’d asked at dinnertime, thinking she’d be distracted by the carving and carrying, but it was only hot dogs that night, a one-step meal in a bun, and she wasn’t budging from the table.
My father, who’d docked in California with the Navy after the war, said, “Izzy’ll take care of her.”
“Like he’s around to take care of Ma and Pop?” my mother said, slathering relish on her dog. She never let us eat hot dogs out of the house, had a thing against non-kosher dogs even though we weren’t otherwise kosher, so a hot dog at home was a treat.
“Just because she’s never been anywhere,” I fumed.
“Your mother,” my father corrected me, “not she.” It was usually Mom who was the stickler for calling your parents by their respectful titles, never he for your father nor she for your mother, a ridiculous argument I’d fought with her many times and lost.
“You, too, now?” I said, “with the pronouns?”
In the end it was Dad who convinced her, said UCLA was a good school, dragged out the Barron’s college guide for proof. In my family, education trumped all.
“At least it’s not Berkeley,” Mom said. We compromised on one four-week summer session, home by August. She and Dad even bought tickets to come out for my last weekend and fly back with me, a chance for Mom to see California on her summer vacation from school teaching, or else insurance that I’d actually come back home. Then she took me shopping and showed me how to pack my clothes neatly rolled in cleaner’s plastics so they wouldn’t get wrinkled in my new Samsonite suitcase.
“Phone every Sunday,” my father said when he took me to the airport, “your mother will miss you.”
“Why can’t she leave me alone?” I said.
“Your mother,” my father reminded. “And call Izzy when you get there.”
At the restaurant, Izzy ordered for me—delicious puffy bread served warm from the oven and a dish of chicken chunks in pretty pink sauce, not at all like the white slices my mother would be carving off the roasted breast at home.
“Chicken and bread on Friday night,” I said. “I can’t escape.”
“No kidding,” Izzy said, although he seemed to have managed. Then he settled down to some kind of meatballs in a white sauce, maybe yogurt, not much like Grandma’s potted meatballs in brown gravy she used to bring over when I was sick.
Jeffrey did most of the talking, showing me how to wrap chicken pieces in the bread, which he called Naan. “Not like the girl,” he laughed, when I called it Nan. “N-a-a-a-n,” he said. “Say aaah, like at the dentist.” Then he dipped a torn-off chunk of Naan into the pink sauce on my plate and popped it into my open mouth. “Have you been to the beach yet? We’ll take her, won’t we, Iz? This is California—they’ve got policemen at the airport, don’t let you leave the state without a tan.” I thought he was funny and charming, the kind of guy I’d been hoping to meet in California, not like the groping college boys I was used to back home.
At the end of dinner, Izzy signaled for a takeout container for my leftover pink chicken. “Take the Naan, too. You’ll study tonight, you’ll be hungry,” he said, for a moment turning into my mother.
On Sunday, I gave my mother quick answers to the questions I knew she’d ask.
“Fine.” I was taking chemistry, easier to fit in the lab time during the summer session. I was good at math and science, the smart girl in high school, a dubious distinction. My mother assumed I’d be a scientist, like my father, both of us most comfortable on the solid ground of facts, except I would become a teacher like her, a good job for a woman she always said.
“How’s the weather?”
“Hot.” This she relayed to my father, putting a hand over the receiver so I heard a muffled hot. My father was always interested in the weather.
“You’re making friends?” Friends were important to my mother. She had Lillian and the two Ethels from when they were kids. She called them the girls and gabbed with them every week over the bridge table. Even Millie, who’d moved away to Brooklyn, kept in touch, sent a card every year on Mom’s birthday.
“Sure.” There were boys on my floor—I was learning to walk to the bathroom in my pajamas without a robe, nothing to hide. This I did not tell my mother. The dorms back east were going coed in the fall—she’d find out soon enough, unpacking my stiff cone-shaped bras into undersized dorm-room drawers come September, hearing masculine voices reverberate through the thin walls from the next room.
I was surprised she accepted my one-word answers. But then finally we got to the point. “You saw Izzy?”
“At his house?”
“A restaurant. Near campus. He treated.”
“Was he there?” she asked, “the roommate?”
“Jeffrey’s out of work,” I said. My mother believed in feeding the needy.
Then I switched to the complicated story I’d prepared about Kim next door who knew someone who’d lived in this dorm last winter and she’d passed along the secret to making free phone calls, even long distance. “All you need is a ballpoint pen,” I said. “There’s this tiny hole in the wire, see? In the rubber coating around the wire. And you just stick the point of your pen in the hole, and you get a dial tone and you can dial anywhere. You don’t even need a dime. Too bad I didn’t know last Sunday.”
“No wonder the operator didn’t get on today, just your voice, you’d think you were around the corner.” My mother was pleased. She liked a bargain.
By Wednesday of my second week, I was ready to skip class and browse the thrift shops with Kim. She was year-round at UCLA and knew where to buy used jeans for a dollar, which I wore that night when Izzy came in his beat-up Pontiac for a trip to the art museum on Wilshire Boulevard. The jeans were worn-in just right in the thighs, knees, and crotch, and I ignored my mother’s voice whispering in my head, wash before you wear. The air conditioning in Izzy’s Pontiac chugged along in vain, condensation collecting on the windshield, his shiny forehead, my underarms. I tried to think how long he’d been in California, if this could’ve been the car he’d come cross-country in, not the flashy convertible I’d expected.
“You’ve never seen a museum like this back home,” he said, “brand new, five years I think.” Five years ago I’d been in junior high, another era, before Moses as my mother would say.
The shady green arms of palm trees lined the streets, while in the sky above, the sun shone so bright it hurt to look. Then a sudden clap of thunder and the unexpected rain—it was that time of day when hot and cool collide. We stopped at Izzy’s apartment for an umbrella and ended up staying to share a pizza with Jeffrey, never making it to the museum.
“Too bad,” Jeffrey said, “Izzy could teach you a lot about art.”
I must have looked confused—my mother was always telling me to close my mouth—because he added, “From his job? … the store?”
It turned out Izzy wasn’t a TV writer after all. His real job was in the bookstore at CalArts, selling textbooks and tubes of watercolor to skinny kids in black, as Jeffrey told it. I tried to think how much younger Izzy was than my mother, ten years, maybe more, and how he’d fit in on campus. He had the right glasses, wire-rimmed circles, but his hair was too short, his clothes too neatly pressed. Jeffrey looked more the part, rumpled cut-offs and hair curling over his collar, younger than Izzy although obviously not close to college age or he’d be in Vietnam instead of safe from the storm eating pizza with me and Izzy.
“Have some more,” Jeffrey said, tearing another slice from the box. “Don’t be shy.” The pizza had green vegetables and an unusually sweet flavor. In California even a simple thing like pizza was different.
When I called on Sunday, Mom handed the phone to my father, who said first thing, “Next time, call collect. No more cheating the phone company.” She’d told him about the wire and the pen.
“It’s not like the phone company is a waitress,” I said. My father had taught me to carefully add up every restaurant check, even if I just had a burger and Coke, and to always point out any mistakes, even if it meant I owed more. Otherwise they’ll take it out of the waitress’s salary, he always said, and she can’t afford it.
“It’s dishonest,” he said now, “and we don’t behave that way.” Behave, that was one of my mother’s words.
It was during the third week that Kim took me on the bus to the city, where she slipped Hershey bars into her backpack at Woolworth’s and tried on combat boots in a shoe store then walked out wearing them, leaving her broken sandals in one of the boxes stacked neatly under her chair. I didn’t know what to say, but shared one of the Hershey bars when I got hungry on the bus ride back to campus.
That Sunday, it was my father who answered the phone. “I’m glad you called,” he said, like it was a surprise. “I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he continued, when I expected him to hand the phone to my mother, “in case you ever need me, well, don’t phone me at the lab. It’s just that, well, I’m not there anymore.” My father had worked at the food-inspection lab all my life, leaving home every morning at eight with his briefcase, back again at five-thirty for supper.
“Huh?” I said, trying to picture him in a different office. “Where are you? Some kind of transfer?”
“They let me go,” he said, calm and polite as always, “found someone younger.”
“Just now? On Sunday?”
“A while ago. But I’ll find something, don’t worry.”
“What do you mean a while?”
“Around Thanksgiving, actually,” he said, followed by a little cough, “after the wedding, thank God.” Susan had gotten married way back in the fall, Columbus Day weekend.
“And you’re just telling me now? Why didn’t you guys tell me?” I realized I didn’t hear my mother in the background. Dad wasn’t repeating everything I said for her benefit, as if my words didn’t exist if I didn’t hear them echoed back.
“Don’t blame your mother,” he said. “She didn’t know. I just told her now. Today,” he added, as if now needed defining. “We’ll see you next week,” he said. “We’ll talk then.”
After he hung up, I used the pen to phone Susan. We’d been writing letters but hadn’t spoken all month, avoiding long distance as we’d been taught, even if it was free.
“You talked to Daddy?” she said as soon as I said hello.
“Me neither. Lucky.” And she laughed, not a big laugh, but still. Susan had bought me my first bra when Mom said I didn’t need one. She used to take me into her bed when I was six, dreaming of monsters, and gave middle-of-the-night advice when I was sixteen, dreaming of boys.
“What’ll I tell Izzy?” I said. “He’s on his way to pick me up.” We’d been planning this trip to the beach all month, Santa Monica with Jeffrey and the son, Michael.
“Let Mom tell him,” Susan said, “if she wants to.”
So I put on my new California bathing suit—a two-piece, though not a bikini, safely covered by one of the UCLA tees—and climbed into the steamy back seat when Izzy pulled up to the dorm. Michael was already there, sprawled out, barely inching over to make room. He turned out to be a teenager, someone I’d actually have to talk to. But he didn’t say a word in the car, just slunk down with one bony elbow hanging out the rolled-down window even though Jeffrey said several times, “The air’s on.”
The sand was hot, the waves rough and roaring, a concession stand up the beach flying a giant hot-dog balloon overhead. Izzy spread Coppertone on my back; Jeffrey tried doing the same for Michael, who refused to take off his shirt. Then they shooed the two of us off to swim. Jeffrey was squeezing lotion onto Izzy’s right shoulder when he called after Michael, “You watch out for Debbie, she doesn’t know this water.” Then, “Are you listening to me, Michael?” If he was a real psychiatrist he’d know how to talk to his son.
Michael had already dived into the surf, white and frothy and wild, unlike the rolling waves I was used to at the Jersey shore. The Pacific Ocean, I thought, jumping back as the first sharp spray hit my legs. Michael kept disappearing under wave after wave as if he could do it all day, barely needing to breathe never mind look at me or talk. Eventually I got bored and went back to the blanket, only to find Izzy and Jeffrey splayed across it, asleep, Jeffrey’s arm draped over the small of Izzy’s back.
So I lay on my towel listening to someone’s nearby radio, flipping over whenever the song changed (for an even tan, or burn, or whatever I was going to get), studying the parade of muscular suntanned bodies in skimpy bathing suits (men and women alike), until Michael finally came back. He plopped down with such a thump and a spray of sand that Izzy and Jeffrey woke up. They, pulled out their wallets and walked up the beach to buy lunch. Michael still wasn’t talking. It was amazing, I hadn’t yet heard the sound of his voice.
“You mad about something?” I finally asked, knowing I was the one who had a right to sulk.
“Nah,” he snarled.
“You don’t have to hang around me if you don’t want. I’m OK by myself, you know. I’m used to it.”
“You?” He stared into the distant blue as if hypnotized by the ocean. “You and your uncle.” And he made some kind of nasty spitting sound. “My dad hadda leave on account of your uncle, y’know. Even if he tried to come back now, Ma’d kick him out.” Then he really did spit, projecting a globule that landed too close to my towel. “And here we are at the beach, one big happy family.” He flopped down on his belly in the sand, turning his head away.
I understood about Izzy, couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t. I’d absorbed the knowledge, like osmosis, without anyone having to tell me. But I wasn’t about to discuss it with Michael. We didn’t talk about that in New Jersey.
Izzy and Jeffrey reappeared with hot dogs and sodas and ice cream bars, which we ate first because they were melting, so I could say I was full and skip the dog, my mother’s it’s-not-kosher warning echoing in my head. Then they grabbed my hands and raced me into the surf without waiting for time to digest.
My last week was a whirlwind of final lab reports and packing and saying goodbye to the kids on my hall, none of whom had turned into my new best friend, or my new boyfriend. I stayed up all Wednesday night memorizing facts and formulas for my chem exam Thursday morning, then dragged myself back to borrow the dorm vacuum—Mom was coming on Friday. Dad, too, but he wouldn’t comment. I finally collapsed into bed after supper, pretty sure I’d aced my exam, sound asleep when Kim pounded on the door to report a phone call.
Dad, calling me, and it wasn’t even Sunday.
“What’s wrong,” I said. I hadn’t looked at the clock and was too groggy, anyway, to calculate the time difference. Weren’t they supposed to be at the airport or even on the plane already, flying out to get me?
“Nothing,” Dad said. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Can’t we talk tomorrow?” I leaned against the wall.
“I’m not coming,” he said.
“But Mom wants to see California.”
“Your mother’s coming. I just dropped her at the airport.” There was a pause that I didn’t know how to fill. “We have to tighten our belts a little,” he said. “Just for a while.” There it was again, a while. I’d finally gotten used to appearing in the hall in pajamas when at any moment a guy could walk by, but now I shivered in my flimsy baby-dolls, naked legs.
“I should’ve stayed home this summer,” I said. “I could’ve worked at the library, like last year.” The Doors were blasting Light My Fire from Kim’s room. I must have been shouting.
“Don’t get upset, Deb,” my father said. Maybe he was sorry he’d ever told me. “This isn’t your problem. We have some stocks.” His voice was the same as always, calm and steady, a reassuring port in any storm. “And I sold the necklace.” I knew right away what he meant. My mother had lots of earrings, some bangles, and a couple of gold chains, but she had only one piece of jewelry that was called the necklace—a heart-shaped diamond pendant that my father had bought for their twentieth anniversary to make up for the diamond engagement ring she never had on account of no money back then plus the war. She kept the necklace in the vault at the bank and only took it out for special occasions, Susan’s wedding last fall. Oh my God, she was sure to want it for my cousin Sydney’s wedding in September.
“I’ll tell her,” my father said, “before Syd’s wedding,” as if reading my mind. “For now it’ll just be our secret. I know I can trust you.”
When I called Susan this time I didn’t mention the necklace, waited to see if she’d bring it up, which she didn’t. Was I the only one who knew? Or was she being cautious, too, both of us thinking we had to keep Dad’s secret?
“Why do you think they fired him?” I asked. “What’d he do?”
“Nothing!” she said. “Just got old is all. Since when is that a sin?” How old was my father—fifty? It was Mom’s birthday we always marked with parties, and even then we didn’t discuss age.
“Howard thinks we should offer to lend them some money,” Susan said. Howard was her new husband with a high draft number and a good job in his father’s oil business while he tried for med school. “But there’s no way I’m discussing that with Mom. He’ll learn.”
Are there words to describe that weekend with my mother? Long. Sweaty. My whole body clenched in spasm like she always threatened if I went swimming too soon after lunch. The air felt electric with static, as if on the edge of a storm.
My mother pretended nothing had happened, holding her head erect, shoulders back. My tall mother, who always looked even taller because of her straight carriage, a lady doesn’t slump. She wanted to see the campus and the beach and the fancy shops in town—she was tireless that weekend, in her walking oxfords, ready to go. She bought me another flowered skirt and a tank top—not at the fancy shops but in one of the thrift stores Kim had shown me.
“Daddy should’ve come,” I said when she pulled cash from her pocketbook to pay for my clothes. “Did he at least get the money back on his ticket?”
“It turns out he’d only ever bought the one ticket,” my mother said. But I didn’t believe her.
On Sunday night we met Izzy for dinner at the Indian restaurant. No Jeffrey this time, just us. I wore the new skirt and tank top. “You’re not putting on a bra?” Mom said.
Izzy was early, at a table when we arrived, watching the door. He jumped up, wrapped my mother in a hug, towering over her, taller than I’d noticed all summer, and she started to cry in his arms. Who knew a brother could be so much like a sister?
She started in on her story about Daddy over one and then two and maybe three glasses of wine. It was Indian restaurant house wine, cloyingly sweet and thick as motor oil, and she was so distracted that I managed to sneak a couple of glasses myself right in front of her, which made me have to pee. On my return from the ladies’ room, my mother was leaning into Izzy, so I only caught a snatch of whatever she was saying: subbing… full-time… benefits… My mother had been a teacher ever since I started kindergarten, in recent years eased back to subbing so she could have Fridays off for the beauty parlor and Wednesdays for bridge with the girls. When she noticed me, she sat up straight and wiped her nose on the cloth napkin from her lap, something she’d normally kill me for doing.
After that, we ate without talking, until the waitress brought the bill. “How can I ever trust him again?” my mother said, covering the check with her hand.
“It’s not Daddy’s fault,” I said, pushing the necklace out of my mind. “Isn’t he the victim here?”
“It’s not just the money,” she said. “It’s the lying, the secrets. But I shouldn’t be talking in front of Debbie.”
Izzy put his hand over my mother’s. “I guess we know a thing or two about secrets, Ruthie,” he said, his eyes connecting only with hers.
He might have looked my way—all it would have taken was the slightest turn of his head, just an inch—but he didn’t. He just slid the check out from under my mother’s hand and passed it with a twenty to the waitress, transforming his face into a smile. “Besides, what’s that thing Ma always said?” He produced a grunting laugh. “If two people know, it’s not a secret.”
Izzy drove us to the airport to catch the redeye home. In the plane I got the middle seat in a row of three, with a fat lady snoring on the aisle where Daddy should have been. My mother took Ladies’ Home Journal when the stewardess came around and then studied it as if it were one of her usual serious library books until dinner arrived, a lump of gray meat hidden under gravy.
I pushed mine away, nauseatingly full from our Indian dinner, but my mother craned her neck at the hot dog kid’s meal the stewardess was delivering to the row behind us and asked if she could have one of those. Maybe she had a death wish, my mother who’d practically taught me a non-kosher hot dog could kill you. The kid behind us seemed to be traveling alone, no mother to stop him from kicking the back of our seats or eating an airplane hot dog.
“I’m going back to work full time in September,” my mother said while we stared at our trays. “Also, Daddy won’t be there when we get home. He’s decided to move out for a while.” I was getting sick of those words, a while.
“You kicked Daddy out?” I blurted, Michael’s words coming back to me.
“If you only knew how I found out,” my mother said, her face flushed and shiny in the beam from her overhead light. “Not from him. You think he told me? He didn’t tell me.” He, not Dad or Daddy, not even your father. “It was the bank, calling about the mortgage he apparently hadn’t been paying. The fucking bank.” I’d never heard my mother use that word before.
Just then the stewardess appeared with a leftover kid’s meal she’d found for my mother, who squeezed out mustard from a packet and opened her mouth wide for a bite. If I nearly gagged at the sight of that alarmingly pink hot dog flesh disappearing behind my mother’s glistening white teeth, it was only because that’s what she’d taught me.
“You think it’s me with the rules about hot dogs,” my mother said, knowing what I was thinking without even looking up. “He’s the one.” She was chewing now, chewing and swallowing. “Him and his rules, his rules from that fucking lab. It was always him. You don’t know a thing.”
Elizabeth Edelglass’s short stories have been published in Michigan Quarterly Review (winner of the Lawrence Foundation Prize), Lilith (Short Story Contest winner), In the Grove (William Saroyan Centennial Prize winner), American Literary Review, Passages North, New Haven Review, Blue Lyra Review, and more. She has won a Connecticut Commission on the Arts fellowship, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Summer School” is part of her collection that was a finalist for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize from BkMkPress. She is currently at work on two novels.