Giving his spouse carte blanche in matters of interior decoration had year in and year out proven to be a wise move. Paul Hirschberg knew that no matter the trends of the day, his dependable little Rose would err on the side of light and airy. The prospect of accessorizing a room would bring fleeting agony, resulting in a relief of objet d’art that hardly seemed worthy of a second language. Paul never interjected his own opinion, believing that a marriage comprised of two people who each had at least one passion in life that the other didn’t care a whit about was destined to be a happy one.
Rose’s tastes and touches tended towards the lively. The living room was always bathed in white and off-white, and splashed with light blues and pinks. She had read that these colors encouraged tranquility. The dining room contained a table of cottage oak, touched on all four sides by a total of eight chairs. The walls were painted robin’s egg blue, a decade-old family photo set inside an ornate steel frame the only decoration.
It was between the dining room and kitchen that Rose and daughter Dana bustled, barely-heard and not-at-all seen by Paul, who contented himself on the other side of the house. His way of dealing with Dana, in light of the recent tragedy, had been devised in the six-minute drive from home to office: Let her be. Let the grief do what it must, to make her into the person she needs to become. No matter how deep the wound, how long it bled, it must be let alone. That was how a person kept small things from ballooning to an unmanageable size, and if Paul had been unable to follow that philosophy regarding his physical self, he had mastered it for his emotional self. He and Rose had never experienced a significant period of separation in twenty-two years, which he had reminded her of just the evening before when she’d expressed reservations over his hands-off approach.
“We’ve never had something like this happen,” she’d insisted.
“We’ve experienced deaths in the family.”
“Yes, grandparents, parents. People who have lived long and full lives and it was their time to go. Jim was so young.”
Paul couldn’t stop running his hands over surfaces. The desk, the coffee table. In the three months since his cardiac episode, he’d dropped twenty pounds. Excess weight once worn well now hung softly. Before, he swung his flesh around with ease, in the dapper attire associated with men of his profession. He commanded far more than he demanded.
The long-sleeved cashmere Polo and dark fleet-front pants he’d chosen for the evening went a long way towards salvaging his after-work appearance, at least in his eyes. (His wife eagerly agreed, and while her approval wasn’t necessary, it was appreciated.) These pieces of clothing also fell victim to Paul’s happy hands, which he figured were a byproduct of the cardiac rehabilitation recommended by his doctors. Alongside the standard suggestions of increased exercise and healthier diet was a plea to “streamline” his work schedule, to recognize opportune times to push away from the desk and take a reinvigorating walk, to concern one’s mind with matters besides foreclosures and short sales, to talk about topics besides settlements and title abstracts, with people other than realtors and mortgage lenders.
The transition from “not caring much” to “caring as if your life depends upon it because it now does” was a challenging one. The strain of it varied depending on whom Paul was speaking with.
“Things are almost back to normal,” he would tell his peers.
“I have moments here and there, but nothing I can’t handle,” he would tell his wife.
“Half of the day is an uphill struggle, and the other half is a downright breeze. I just wish I knew in advance from day to day which half was going to be which!” That for his sister.
“It’s horrible. I’m scared of my own body. I worry that one of these days I’ll just up and drop dead. I might die in my office and it’ll be an hour before anyone finds me. The doctor told me, ‘Go outside, Paul, take a twenty-minute walk. You’ll do your heart a world of good.’ So I do, despite the fact that every time I get besieged by these horrible images that flash flash flash in my brain—me, my body, sprawled out on the sidewalk, or on someone’s lawn. Face first into a flower bed. Dying, or maybe I’m dead already.” That for himself
The window by his desk allowed a clear view of the gibbous moon as it beautified the treetops. The thermostat was set to seventy-two degrees, but watching the wind move branches to and fro transported the outdoor chill into his body, where it wrapped around bone and broke down collagen. He could hardly wait for the weekend, when the moon would be full, and he would sit at his desk, lamp switched off, curtains pushed to the sides, gazing at the sky in a victory for common sense over folklore.
He shuffled his bulk around the ten feet between desk and couch for close to a minute before deciding that the occasional clatter of faux-ostentatious silverware and the consistent chatter of fastidious women could not be the only sounds available. With no light stronger than the twin flames from the pair of unscented candles sitting on the coffee table, Paul walked to his desk, reached out a hand, and flicked on the radio.
101.3 WCPG—“Hagerstown’s number one station for classic rock!”—was his standby. The volume dial was always set to “6”—enough to keep him entertained without becoming disorienting. As “China Grove” chopped along, Paul sat on a couch built to handle three average bodies; or, him and one other average body. Most of his recovery time was spent on the couch navigating escape routes.
Reading her eldest child’s temperature used to be as simple as placing a glass tube into her mouth and waiting. Without a tangible instrument to depend on, however, Rose found the task much harder. (The recalibration process took far too long for starters.)
As mother and daughter went about the business of pulling out dishes and watching numbers, they spoke lovingly and extensively about Kayla Ridenhour, who was spending time with her other grandmother at Dana’s apartment.
There were other, less-adorable topics of discussion. Rose fretted over Dana’s eating habits (even as she conceded that the curves of her own body were still nonexistent) and her sleeping habits, but the young woman’s protestations were supported by the overhead lights that allowed no deceptions. Rough patches and raw circles would be unmissable. But Dana’s face was still the same smooth creamy white that reduced so many other girls and women to bitterness.
Rose wasn’t among them; she was forty-nine going on thirty-five, with a figure further flattered by the sheath dress she wore that evening (although advancing age meant a wavering confidence with certain colors).
“Sweetheart! Could you come give us a hand, please?”
When Paul popped into the kitchen, his wife sprinted over, lifted herself on tiptoes, and touched her lips to his.
“Why do you insist on two candles on the coffee table? One large candle, in the middle, would suffice.”
“Could you grab the silverware and set it out, please?”
“I could. I suppose I should.”
“Thank you, Daddy.” Dana’s smile was all his. He did not ask for it back.
“And you might as well stay up, I have a feeling that Natalie and Danny will be arriving soon,” Rose called as he shuffled off to the dining room. Usually she asked one of the girls to perform the sacred ritual, but usually she didn’t have any problem with Dana wandering off any further than three feet from her sight.
Fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right.
He shook his head at his wife’s handiwork. All five plates were set one inch up from the table’s edge; Paul at the customary head position, two plates on each side. He made sure to align the lower edge of each utensil with the bottom rim of each dish.
On his way back to the living room, he adjusted the thermostat from 72 to 71. His hands went from head to thighs, smoothing out short paths. He wondered what the reaction would be if he barged into the kitchen and firmly insisted, in full attorney mode, from voice to stance, that plans were off? “I hereby put the kibosh on this gathering forthwith!” Sent Dana home. Waited for Natalie in the driveway just to tell her to turn the car around.
When Jim and Dana announced their plans for a non-denominational outdoor wedding to be held sometime in the summer, Paul offered his heartiest congratulations—then stepped into a daydream wherein he walked his daughter down an “aisle” created by the wooden ceremony chairs rented from the venue. His fragmented visuals were less concerned with the bride, or the guests. The groom was truly the man. Standing there, waiting, looking absurd in a suit-and-tie, smile quivering, eyes struggling to focus. Totally unsuspecting. Then—POW! Paul hauled off and busted his future son-in-law right across the chops. No animosity, no ill will, just a ”heads up, son.” Jim’s family didn’t approve, but since the fantasy didn’t originate in any of their heads, their butts remained glued to their respective spots as the father of the bride—the bad-ass father of the bride—made his way to the empty chair by his wife, her eyes shining with pride.
Back on the couch, one leg up on the coffee table, Paul had to admit that it was indeed a shame about Jim Ridenhour.
Danny waited until he turned the Civic into the Pleasant View suburb before verbalizing the question that had been jumping atop his brain for the last quarter-mile.
“What’s the plural of ‘cul-de-sac’? ‘Cul-de-sacs’?”
“Culs-de-sac,” Natalie answered.
Her lack of hesitation aroused his suspicions. “Is it? That doesn’t sound right. Did you just make that up?”
A smile ghosted across her face. “That is the right word. You can ask my dad.”
“This is the best time of the year. The sun goes down at five.”
At the end of the cul-de-sac, set back ten feet from the narrow path of pavement that might have provided a fine walk for a few Munchkins, was a three-floor rancher with a two-car garage. During spring and summer, the yard was lined with wax begonias, petunias, tulips and heliotrope marine. With fall hitting its stride, the regeneration process was underway, and bark chips now covered the soil.
“Every year mom says she’ll redesign the flower garden. Never does. Never will, either. She has a million excuses. Every year.”
Danny glanced over to confirm the smug self-satisfaction he thought he would see. “It’s always been a dream of mine to live somewhere that doesn’t have parking spaces,” he sighed. “And to see a game at Camden Yards.”
Natalie had no response, still envisioning her mother, seated in her home office, large purple thermos of freshly-brewed coffee at the ready, staring down at the sketch paper. She was in no rush to rejoin the real world, as evidenced by her befuddlement when she found herself standing on the concrete pathway that led to the front door, waiting for Danny to catch up. The boy tended to lope.
He grinned sheepishly upon reaching her side, mistaking her overcast eyes for irritation. He turned his head to the rows of homes across the street. All showed signs of life bar one; Natalie swore someone lived there, but could offer no evidence more compelling than the testimony of her parents. Danny imagined a retired widower, armed with a rifle that was also considered a family heirloom, seated by a window, colorless eyes peering through a man-made slit in the curtains.
They entered through the unlocked front door and approached the dining room, Natalie breaking ahead.
“Natasha! Danny, come in here, don’t act afraid of our family.”
“Toasty in here,” Natalie observed.
“Because you still have on your coat! Give it here. Your father touched the thermostat last, so if you have an issue with the heat you can go tell him. I need to get the food on the table. Go.”
They backtracked their steps, passing across the foyer into the living room. Paul had blown out the candles and flicked on a lamp, blanketing nearly half of the room in a glow commonly associated with dream states. Natalie giggled at the sight of her father, head thrown back, hands out at either side, drumming arrhythmically on a pair of throw pillows.
Paul’s head shot up. “Hey hey!”
“Hello, Danny,” the older man nodded.
The interrogative and inquisitive side of Paul Hirschberg had been forced into hibernation after their first two meetings, which suited Danny fine. Taken alongside his mild stammering, the slight twitching of an unshaven face, and lanky build covered in flannel and denim, Danny was sure he’d left a less than optimal first impression on the nattily-attired, flesh-blessed attorney. He hadn’t picked up on any overt signals—What is this erectus trying to pass among us sapiens?—but some things couldn’t stay hidden. He liked Natalie’s dad, especially the way he said “Hey hey,” like a makeup-free version of Krusty the Clown, so keeping him at a safe distance prevented Danny’s feelings from developing.
Paul stood and instantly found himself enveloped in a hug. Danny turned his gaze toward the bay window, wondering if the hypothetical crazy old widower had a scope on his rifle.
Seeing father and daughter embrace for the first time, Danny had been tickled by the visual dissonance. Paul practically engulfed his youngest child, stooping to plant a kiss to the tip-top of her head. Amusing; until the embrace broke, until the look between parent and child that made Danny feel like an intruder.
“How are things, Dad?”
Paul’s eyes cast down. “Your sister’s going to be moving in with us for a little while. Until she can find another place for her and Kayla.”
“Not looking forward to it?”
Paul seemed as though he may let the subject drift out. Then he reached out, grabbed said subject by the scruff, and yanked it ashore.
“She’s been telling me, practically from the moment I came to in the hospital bed, ‘You’ll be fine, Daddy, you’ll be better than ever. The doctors are saying it was just a mild heart attack.’ A mild heart attack, she says. And somehow her mother doesn’t slap her across the face. Do you, either of you, know what a mild heart attack is? Think, now. Really think.”
Natalie rubbed the tip of each index finger against the opposing thumb. She looked briefly to her boyfriend before meeting her father’s expectant gaze.
“Um…one that doesn’t kill you?”
Paul’s face relaxed. His eyes managed the smile that his lips could not.
“That’s it, sweetie. That is it precisely. A mild heart attack, she says. I’m frequently unsure about your sister, Natalie, nowadays more than ever.” He stood as straight as he could manage. “Lord above forgive me. I have spoken aloud some terrible words and kept to myself some horrible thoughts, but I’ve never been a liar. Just a lawyer.” He dropped his gaze to the carpet. “Sometimes…ah, sometimes I think your mother and I would have been just fine with just you. Now I don’t always think that, but”—he looked up to Natalie, knowing instinctively that she comprehended his oscillations, loved him despite them—“sometimes I do feel that. Then I remember my granddaughter. And I know, I know I shouldn’t be so hard on Dana, now of all the times….A single mother! Or maybe not. Your mother is going to be even more of a presence in her life, every day…oh, that could turn into a real situation. I may be compelled to intervene.”
A pause. A sigh. Another smile that fell short.
“One grandchild is fine. Understand that, you two? Now. I gotta go take an old man’s trip to the bathroom. Go tell your mother not to start dinner without me. I’ll be anywhere from five minutes to three years.”
“The doctor says I can’t have lox.”
“Those are kind of like lox,” Dana nodded at the heaping plate of salmon cakes sitting in the middle of the dinner table.
“Right,” Paul remarked sharply, regarding his eldest with narrowed eyes. “The same way that champagne is like wine. Or Florida is like Egypt.”
“Oh sweetie, we’ve never been to Florida.” Rose reached over to swat at her husband’s left shoulder.
“I do have to admit, these stink pretty good. Are you familiar with lox, Danny?”
“I am not, sir, no.”
“Lox is salmon that’s been brined. It is delicious and unhealthy. And you could smell a plate of it even if said plate was buried under six feet of worms and dirt.”
“Daddy, we’re trying to eat!”
“And who’s stopping you?”
The full meal was comprised of salmon cakes (crafted to the dimensions of a hockey puck), dill sauce, Brussel sprouts and marinated carrots. Rose believed color to be every bit as vital as flavor; in weeks past, she’d treated her family to kosher-style corned beef (reduced salt) with stuffed cabbage, veggie chili, beet salad and broccoli knishes. Stimulating multiple palettes while remaining kind to her husband’s battered heart.
“No lox. No latkes. You girls know how I can knock down a stack of latkes. No blintzes. My God. Sometimes I just want to say, ‘Rosie! Fire up the stove and get some blintzes going! Don’t even bother putting them on a plate when they’re done, just take them directly out of the pan and toss them over to me. I’ll catch ‘em in my mouth like a trained seal!”
The meal commenced. The efforts of the chef were given their just due; she accepted graciously. Danny noted that Natalie’s fingernail polish was the same shade of orange as Dana’s sweater (“You’re seasonal sisters!” Rose exclaimed). The only substantive words passed were between Paul and Natalie, regarding the latter’s impending entrance into the world of higher learning.
“Still leaning towards Business Administration?”
Natalie let a bit of time pass before answering. Time enough to scan for admonishing undertones. Time enough to nod and take a naked bite of salmon cake. “I know it’s not as glamorous as Criminal Law.”
“Nonsense. You’re a people person. That’s a big deal. People who walk around with their heads tucked into the front of their shirt collars aren’t cut out of the business world or the legal world. Frostburg is a good place.”
“I went there.”
“Your mother went there.”
“No, thank you.” Paul smiled warmly, hands raised. “Through.”
For two of her four years at Frostburg State University, Rose waited tables, and the skills she picked up during her salad days at burger joints endured. With a ballerina’s delicacy and a pronghorn’s quickness, she collected and stacked the various dishes and silverware before disappearing into the kitchen.
Since nearly losing the family patriarch, Rose had been making an effort—concerted, determined, demented—to remain in close touch with her children. The days of hearing from them via phone call two or three times a week, of seeing them three or four times a month, were over—at least for the foreseeable future.
The visitors grabbed their chairs and followed Paul’s unhurried steps to the living room. He switched on the desk lamp as the others picked their spots near the couch and coffee table. Dana and Natalie were in the midst of small talk when their mother entered bearing dessert plates, forks, and a Jewish coffee cake.
“Are you and Mom handing out candy this year?”
“Kayla’s second Trick or Treat! I think I want to dress her up as a marshmallow this year.”
“Oh my, she is going to be in heaven,” Rose smiled.
“And we’ll be in hell,” her husband retorted.
They tucked into dessert, stopping only to give more effusive praise to the chef. Paul had been given the smallest slice, and sought to extend the experience.
“How’d the apartment hunt go, you two?”
Noticing his girlfriend’s reticence, Danny spoke. “Oh, it went okay. It’s over on Broadway.”
“Broadway? Sounds fancy.”
“Oh, it’s solid. A little dull.”
“That’s what decorating is for.” The discerning ear would have detected the smidgen of condescension in Rose’s tone. As it so happened, Natalie had both of the discerning ears in her relationship.
“Not everyone places a premium on filling up every room with things,” she countered, a tenuous smile plastered on her face.
“Of course. But there’s something to be said, sweetie, for making a place your own, no matter where it is.” Rose’s words came out measured, and damn near pleasant.
“When you say, ‘your own,’ do you mean what the person wants for themselves, or what they’ve been pressured into thinking they should want for themselves?”
“I don’t follow.”
“You do. You do. Which is what I’m getting at.”
“Think it over.”
She’d leaped, twirled, and stuck the landing.
Ruffled, yet determined to not stoop to the declasse depths of huffing or fake-tittering, Rose placed her plate on the coffee table and fixed her husband with a luminescent display of teeth. Paul temporarily stopped picking at the piece of cake on his own plate and asked, wordlessly, what in hell she was so cheery about. Rose covered his left knee with one small, soft-skinned hand. “I’m just happy you’re here,” she said at last.
He beat a bemused tune against the flowery china with the tines of his dessert fork. “So am I!”
“You look better every week, Dad.”
“It’s a gradual process,” he grumbled. “Slow and steady. I’ll never be a hunk.”
“You don’t have to be. Just be healthy.”
“Healthy over hunky, Daddy,” Dana piped up.
“He’ll be fine,” Rose assured them. “He’s got God’s hands on him.”
“The Buddha said, ‘Each man makes his own destiny.’”
“God is always with His children. At every moment, God is watching. He helps us to become better people with His love.”
“An individual can decide what’s right for themselves. Dad was given a second chance to change for the better.”
“Which he has been!” Rose’s nostrils flared; she stared at Natalie in a sort of dare, as if she were a queen who had been content to let the princess shine but was now ready to reaffirm her position.
Seeing no safe exit, Danny disappeared into a sinkhole of his own imagination. He considered Paul, who still somehow had two bites of coffee cake left on his plate. Danny figured the man was used to such dead-end bickering. His hands—rigid and wide—seemed possessed of sufficient power to snap the saucer resting on his lap in half, and it was this vision that he played over in his mind. He could much easier imagine Paul Hirschberg committing senseless violence against a defenseless plate than popping a hood and dirtying his hands up. Dad told me that without a strong motor, a car is useless. It can be pretty, even gorgeous, but without that one vital component….
A panorama of chrome. The art of impact absorption. Ocean City, eight years old, passed out in a bumper car from sheer excitement.
“Why do you insist on calling me ‘Natasha’ still?”
“Because that’s what I insisted on naming you!”
“Mom…I had my name changed, legally changed, and you are the only one—“
The east window was always shuttered. Next to it stood the most expensive item in the entire house, a slender-legged Kingwood and Ormolu-mounted King Louis XVI-style vitrine. Just a touch over two feet in width, just a hair over five feet in height, with inlaid panels, bow glass door, and brilliant marble top. Danny’s eyes gravitated to the contents: six Wizard of Oz commemorative plates, two on each shelf. He concentrated on the middle shelf, particularly the plate to his left: Dorothy in the foreground, eyes alight and face in bloom, clutching onto her faithful canine friend, as Emerald City gleamed in the background.
“I’m not spacey, Mom! I know what you think! I’m airy. There’s a difference, and it’s important!”
Danny pressed two fingers against his right temple and rubbed with careless strength. Three days of the prior seven had been spent in battle with a champion-caliber migraine, and it was threatening a comeback, complete with inspiring montage over a soundtrack courtesy of the distinctive and disharmonic voices filling the room.
“Just watch the sugar and the fat.”
“Listen to what the doctor says. Just because you hate him doesn’t mean he’s not smart.”
“If you want someone to go walking with you, I’d be glad to. Dad, are you listening?”
“Do you hear me, Dad?”
Danny concluded that being a father to a daughter had to be even more exhausting than running a marathon on sand with a backpack full of bricks that you would promptly be beaten about the body with once you’d crossed the finished line.
Paul turned to face his children, slapping both hands on his thighs, an unnecessary gesture that made a quite loud noise. “Girls, listen. I am being good about diet and exercise, I assure you. I cut out the lox, I cut out the blintzes. No potatoes, no alcohol. I do what I need to do more than what I want to do, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact it’s probably the secret to life. Doing what I wanted was sending me to an early grave. I had to regain control over my life, and I couldn’t do that alone. I promise, I will do whatever I have to for the sake of my heart. Even if I never taste lox again. So that heart attack was either the best thing to happen to me or the worst.”
“It all depends on whether you see the glass half-full or half-empty,” Dana squeaked.
Paul bristled. “I see it as both. You know why? Because it is both. One half of the glass contains liquid, the other half contains no liquid. The glass therefore is not, furthermore cannot, be considered by any intelligent person to be only one or the other. The continued popularity of that asinine saying is a depressing testament to the insanity epidemic in this country.”
Danny thought he would love to be just like Paul Hirschberg in twenty years’ time. Compromised ticker and all.