The Kindness of Neighbors
Published in Grey Sparrow Journal, Spring 2011
Midday drinking was not one of the stereotypes assigned to Jewish women. That had always worked in Shirley’s favor.
She looked at the front door as if someone would be there, and pried open the stand-up knitting bag without looking down. Her fingers ached as she wriggled through the balls of yarn and size ten needles. Tomorrow, no more. In the meantime, with a quick twist on an already-loosened lid, Shirley Goldberg could watch All My Children without aggravating her arthritis.
After her story, Shirley walked out on onto the stoop and watched girls jump double-dutch in the middle of Beaumont Avenue, her home for fifty years — even longer than that Erica Kane had lived in Pine Valley. The girls’ black-brown ponytails bounced in time with the crack of the ropes on the blacktop. Sol’s words in Shirley’s head were in rhythm. Get. Out. Of. There. Go. Live. In. Flor. Id. Ah. He would have wanted her to pack-up when the first Dominican family settled-in five years ago as the last of the Steins and Cohens died or relocated for sun, canasta and early-bird specials. Young Jewish families now skipped the not-quite-middle-class-anymore neighborhood and moved into trendy zip codes with coffee shops on every corner.
She shook her head to erase memories the way the kids shook an Etch-A-Sketch to erase boxy artwork. Shirley felt flushed, her polite term for buzzed. She held the railing and sat on her frayed, woven strap, metal lawn chair on the small cement patio until the street lights came on, when everyone’s skin glowed the same shade of copper. That sameness filled her up along with the Amaretto.
“Would you like to sit out with us, Senora Goldberg?” Julio from 1108 had said the same thing every night since June. Tonight she nodded.
“Bueno,” he said.
Julio climbed the steps two at a time. Like an acrobat, he was. Shirley held her breath until he reached her side. He looked over his shoulder and shouted in Spanish. Two of Julio’s four sons joined him. Shirley’s heart raced, not a good thing at eighty-five. One of the boys offered his arm. She linked hers and stood. The other son closed the chair and Julio took her hand. He led her with care, stopping full on each step until they reached the sidewalk below. He opened her chair and placed his large hands on her back, guiding her into the seat. Through her cotton blouse, Shirley felt the warmth of kindness and the roughness of a hard day’s work. Sol’s hands had been smooth and small like a boy’s. Someone handed Shirley an open, cold bottle of beer with a label she’d seen only when clicking past the Spanish channels. Josefina from 1120 leaned into her ear.
“It is not good to be alone all the time, Senora Goldberg.”
She nodded and drew the bottle to her lips then stopped. “This, I know,” Shirley said, holding up the bottle.
Josefina stood straight and did the same with hers. She looked around as if scolding a group of children. The men and women of Beaumont Street looked at her with reverence and held up their bottles, cans and paper cups.
“Salud!” Julio said.
The crowd mimicked him. The voices bounced off the cars on both sides of the one-way street and rang in Shirley’s ears.
“L’Chaim,” she said. Her neighbors stared, which wasn’t very nice. She shouldn’t have joined them. Then, Shirley knew. They weren’t staring, they were waiting. “It’s Jewish salud,” she added. “Now, you say.”
“L’Chaim,” they repeated with gusto.
And though Shirley had never heard it said with a Hispanic accent, a disheveled familiarity eased her into a trance. She never sipped the Medalla, she didn’t need to. She just moved the cold wet bottle across her forehead, erasing prejudice.
Josefina handed her a paper cup filled with chunks of something orange sprinkled with what looked like paprika. Shirley discovered with one bite that it was not paprika. She speared the spiciness of the red pepper and the dripping sweetness of the mango with the plastic fork.
She could have swapped the scene for when Crestview was a Jewish neighborhood, when the mango would have been a knish, the beer, some Manischewitz . The plentiful smells and tastes were different but still delicious. The browns, coppers and coffee-colored skins, the Spanish jump rope songs that trickled through the double-hung windows offered Shirley something new to look at and listen to besides her stories on TV. New was good. The neighborhood’s Spanish signage made a trip to Larson Avenue an adventure instead of a chore, also good. Sometimes she didn’t know if the store she entered was going to be a delicatessen, Laundromat or a clothing store. Shirley often closed her eyes and guessed, except when she got a little dizzy. Not good. Either way, the surprise inside was always as delicious as the spicy mango.
Shirley no longer spoke the native language, but the neighborhood was her home.
* * *
She woke from the smell of tar. The clock said 7:01 which meant Josefina would let herself in within the next half hour. As a surprise Shirley planned to brew a pot of tea and insist that God would not mind if her friend sat for a cup and conversation before Mass.
“They’re fixing the potholes,” said Josefina when she spotted Shirley on the sofa. “I cannot believe they are finally fixing the potholes. And Tomas was hired by that plumber you recommended.” They grasped hands and swung their arms like school girls.
“A difference, those letter made. I told you the Mayor would listen,” Shirley said. “And that Mr. Plumber Company, it’s a good one. This old lady,” she added, pointing to herself, “She knows some things.”
“You were right,” Josefina said, pouring tea. “And do you know about the playground? It’s gone.”
“Gone?” Shirley’s knees creaked as she rose from the sofa. “What do you mean it’s gone? The children, they need a place to play.” She headed to the front door, even though the playground was blocks away.
“My Shirley,” Josefina said. “They are building a brand new playground, right here in Crestview on that empty lot. I cannot imagine how that happened. Our neighborhood is always forgotten.”
“Back in the day, it was really something around here. A place to be proud of, to show off,” Shirley said.
Josefina pointed up. “Maybe someone up there is remembering how it used be.”
“You must be right,” Shirley said, sitting down and sipping. Someone down here is remembering too. “Now drink your tea so you can get to Mass and your new job on time. To be late is not good.”
Josefina stood and gathered the cups and saucers.
“I’ll do that, hija,” Shirley said, pleased with her use of Spanish.
Josefina smiled and left the dishes on the coffee table. “Adios, mi amiga,” she said.
* * *
“It’s time, Ma,” Gerald said in the same upbeat tone he used when he wanted his grandchildren to think he was taking them to the park to play and he was really taking them to watch him play cards.
“Time, shmime,” Shirley said, mindlessly knitting a row. She wasn’t making anything but Gerald didn’t know that. “Shh, I’m counting.”
“OK, finish your row,” he said.
“I’m not moving, Gerald. My friends take good care of me, you have nothing to worry about. Are you hungry? I have fresh empanadas in the refrigerator. Angela, 1100, on the corner? She makes them herself.”
“No I’m not hungry. Empanadas? Look, I know you think these neighbors of yours are your friends, Ma, but they’re not. We want you closer to us. Out of the city and in the suburbs.”
“Suburbs, schmuburbs. I like my street and my house and my neighbors. This is my home.”
Gerald frowned and shook his finger. “You’re going to like them until they rob you blind,” he said.
“You’re meshuganah. From me, they take nothing. Although come to think of it, I did make that nice Ruiz family a pot of matzo ball soup when all little ones had colds. That nice boy, what’s his name, Antonio? He carried the whole pot down to them hot and then the next day he brought it back sparkling clean.”
“Very nice, ma.”
Gerald drummed his fingers on his pants. The sound was soft but hurt Shirley’s head.
“Shh, I’m counting.” She knitted a row. It could be a scarf or an afghan, or it could remain her ally, as a decoy. “These are hard-working people and this neighborhood is just like you grew up here. Okay, the little ones go to religious classes at Most Holy Rosary of the Something-or-other, not Hebrew School at Temple Emmanuel and their parents talk Spanish not Yiddish – but it’s the same.” She said it all without looking at Gerald or dropping a stitch.
“Now you’re an expert on these people?”
“Yes, I am an expert on people, Gerald.” Shirley sighed and looked at her son, grown, almost old. “I don’t know if there’s a Spanish word for mensch, but these are good people. Josefina checks in on me every morning before she goes to Mass and that’s even before she goes to work. And last winter, when Josefina had that bird-pig-flu-thing that was going around, then Rosa, who lives at 1109? She came every morning.”
“Yes, ma, you told me, but…”
“No buts. I sit on the patio or stand at the door every day when the kids come home from school. They’re, what do you call it? Patch key kids. They wave and I wave back.”
“Latch key kids, Ma. It’s latch key, not patch key.”
“Whatever, I just make sure they’re all home from school. And last month when they had an early day and I wasn’t at the door – only because no one told me – I heard a knock and the tatelehs were all at my door, worried. I gave them cookies.”
“Very nice, I’m sure, but wouldn’t you like to be with your own kind?”
“I am,” Shirley said. “And I could say the same for you. What’s that new wife of yours’ name? Tinkerbell?”
“Debbi, Ma, it’s Debbi you know that.”
“Right, Debbi-with-an-i.” Knit one, pearl two. Knit one, pearl two. “Are you happy with Debbi?”
Gerald wiped sweat from his forehead. “Yes, ma.”
“And she’s young enough to be your daughter. It works for the two of you, being different?”
“This isn’t about Debbi. I just don’t understand why you won’t move near us – or at least just away from here.”
“And I just don’t understand why you don’t want an empanada, Gerald, I hear your stomach growling. Does the princess even feed you? You’re looking flaco these days.”
Gerald put his hands on his hips.
“It means too thin,” she said. “In Espanol.”
“Ma, you’re speaking Spanish for God’s sake, Spanish. You should be speaking Yiddish. You’re living in a ghetto, eating Mexican food.”
“It’s Dominican food, Gerald. I’m happy here. Listen with those ears God gave you.”
“It’s not about goddamn happy.”
“Watch your language. You might be sixty but you’re not too old to show some respect to your mother.”
“Where’s the Amaretto, Ma? How much are you drinking?”
Shirley shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She hadn’t had a drink since her first night sitting out with the neighbors last summer. “It’s not like I was a drunk, it just calmed my nerves.”
“Look, you’ve been drinking my whole life, or at least for the past forty years. I can’t believe it was that easy to stop.”
“It helped me get through the days after your father died, may he rest in peace.”
“Yeah, and before that — after Kennedy was shot, after Nixon resigned, after Reagan was shot, after Clinton was impeached, after 9-11.” Gerald gulped. “After lunch.”
Gerald went through two divorces and various configurations of kids, step-kids, pets, wives and ex-wives. He gave Shirley enough tsouris to excuse drinking a case of Amaretto. A week.
Debbi knocked on the door.
“You left her in the car? What? Snow White is too good to come and see her mother-in-law? I liked Connie better, Gerald. And the one after her, the chubby one.”
Gerald opened the door. “My mother’s still speaking Spanish,” he said.
“It’s good to learn new things,” Debbi said. She leaned over and kissed the air next to Shirley’s cheek. “Keeps you alert, wards off Alzheimer’s.” She sat on the sofa and patted Shirley’s leg.
Did she look like a poodle?
“She’s going to end up spending her money on those people, if she hasn’t already.” Gerald said, lifting one eyebrow.
“Your mother’s not stupid.”
“Your mother is sitting here in the room,” Shirley said.
Gerald looked at her and frowned. “I just don’t want those people taking advantage of you.”
“No one makes me do anything I don’t want to do. Not even you, bubelah.” Gerald walked in circles, making her dizzy. “What time is it?” She’d forgotten to wear her watch. “I’m expecting Josefina. I have to make tea.”
“It’s Sunday, Ma. You don’t have to make tea.”
Shirley patted her taped sideburn curls in an attempt to muffle Gerald’s voice.
Debbi squeezed her knee and then left her hand there and tapped. “I’m sure you don’t have to worry your mother, in her housecoat, watching All My Children, being targeted for anything other than to bring bagels to the next fiesta. They just think she’s a nice old lady – because she is a nice old lady.”
“The nice old lady is still sitting here,” Shirley said. She slid her hand between the cushion and the arm of the sofa. The bottle was where she left it. She pushed it further away but could still feel its slick coolness with the tips of her fingers.
Gerald sat on the coffee table. Debbi moved and cuddled up to him. He was a lucky man, sixty and starting over — again. That’s all Shirley wanted.
That’s all anyone wanted.
“This neighborhood looks nicer than the last time I was here,” Debbi said.
Debbi-with-an-i talked too much.
Gerald looked at his mother. “You have anything to do with that, Ma?”
She coughed. “What’s so bad? I give them ideas for how to get things done.”
“Nothing,” Gerald said. “If that’s all it is. Dad didn’t leave you five million dollars to spend it on…”
“On what, Gerald? I go on a cruise with Ethel every year, my treat. And let’s not forget who pays your granddaughter’s bills at that ivy-league college of hers and some of your fakakta what-do-you-call it — palimony.”
“Alimony,” Gerald said. He crossed his arms. “Just promise me you’re watching your money.”
Shirley looked at him and held up three fingers on her right hand as if she was the world’s oldest Girl Scout then laid the knitting on Debbi’s lap. Alas, even on her Twiggy-like new daughter-in-law, her creation would never serve as an afghan. Shirley stood, walked through the living room, parted the sheer white curtains and looked out the window.
Julio was patching the sidewalk and glanced up as if he sensed her. Shirley waved. The girls playing hopscotch on the newly paved street turned and smiled in her direction. Two young women pushed strollers toward the new playground. A city worker on a cherry picker replaced the rusted, white Beaumont Avenue sign with a bright green one. She smiled wide and the curtains brushed her cheeks like Sol had so many years ago.
Shirley smiled at the past — and then, toward the future. “Don’t worry, Gerald,” she said. “My money? I watch it very carefully.”
Copyright 2016 Amy Sue Nathan