ISSUE FIVE
November 1998

Miriam Levine

Miriam Levine Miriam Levine's most recent book is Devotion: A Memoir.  She is the author of three collections of poetry, and A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.  Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Kenyon Review. She is recepient of a 1998-99, NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.   Currently she teaches literature and creative writing at Framingham State College in Massachusetts

Shein's Grief

 

Ben Shein, the furrier, lay awake. The moist breeze that blew up from the Passaic River sucked the thin white curtain against the screen. Ben's mind was empty except for the sound of the wind. He drifted. Between waking and sleeping, he saw her, his dead wife Tess as she had been before the cancer that had killed her. He could not force her up out of memory. She came when she wanted. Her blond hair frizzed around her pink face; her blue eyes were hot, her pale skin tight around her light bones. The Polak, he used to call her. Her feet were firm on the ground, her trunk twisted: she was stopped in a dance. She stood in front of him naked. The hair between her legs, thick and honey colored, still surprised him. Her arms and legs were covered in down—invisible except in certain light, as now. A tender slant of light—like a caress. He couldn't read her face. She seemed to be waiting.

"Who made the dress?" Ben asked, though Tess was naked.

"Who did you think?"

"Wise guy. Show me. The hem. You're supposed to be the finisher."

"Deeper," Tess said. "Go deeper."

His palms felt wet. He heard himself talking, but couldn't understand the words. He was crossing over into sleep. He could hear the ocean. He saw himself reaching for her, felt his fingers graze her belly. When he looked at his fingers he saw blood. Something lay across Tess's chest. It looked like a rabbit with its neck broken. Or was it a child? In Tess's chest, just above her breast was a small jagged hole. Tiny drops of blood dripped from the wound. A look of agony closed her face. He heard her moan, but it was his own cry. He tried to cover the wound with his hand. Unaccountably she smiled, "It doesn't matter," she whispered. Her voice was so light-hearted that Ben knew again that she was dead. He might have been far out at sea on a moonless night, the stars covered by low thick clouds, so black was his sleep.

When Ben left the house, a little after six, a rosy light washed the sidewalk. The mist from the Passaic River had burned off and the sky was blue and pink. Ben walked down Broadway, into the center of Paterson.

The streets had not obliterated the landscape. They lay loosely buckled over red shale and sandstone. Decaying red shale turned the soil of Paterson a raw dark red. The city was bound by a deep curve in the river. Paterson was a peninsula with river water on three sides.

From the sloping street he could see the green woods of Garret Mountain. When he got to Four Corners, he heard the roar of the Paterson Falls. The rain gorged river dropped seventy feet into the narrow chasm filled with mist. The buildings of Four Corners, their deeply carved facades, rosettes, curving leaf-shapes, the recessed windows like open space in their darkness between the incised half-columns—looked like a temple route to the green glades of the mountains and the rushing roar of yellow water.

Farther on, clouds of starlings rose from the City Hall where they nested in the arches, balustrades, deep cornices. They would come back at dusk, the loose clouds whirling into a spinning funnel, so closely packed on their perches that the City Hall looked draped in black bunting, as if Paterson were in official and perpetual mourning. Just before night, their chirping throbbed like a prayer from the City Hall into the surrounding streets. There had been a plan to poison them, which, because of what opponents called its "murderous cruelty," had been replaced by a scheme to frighten the birds away by exploding Roman candles in a gorgeous public display. Again the lovers of starlings protested and won. The starlings remained sacred—temple birds, protected in their defecating, in their devouring. Their going out and their return framed the business day.

The Shein Salon was on Ellison. Whoever had built it had looked back to art noveaux, simplifying the curves. Across the narrow street, the Quackenbush department store fronted Market. The Shein Salon was elegant and spare in the shadow of the massive gothic palace of Quackenbush.

Before they had built on Ellison, the Sheins, new immigrants, had set up shop on Broadway. It was the twenties, before the crash. Ordinary people had bought fur coats. "Not just well-to-do women," Ben had said. "Girls. Not even high school graduates. From the factories. They save every penny. For what? A coat." In five years, he had bought the building on Broadway, rented it and built a new store on Ellison Street.

The crash had almost finished the fur business, but by then he was married to Tess. It had been her idea to set up a fabric and notions shop next door to the fur salon. In Paterson the farmers would come down from the mountains and buy. Even women who had never sewn before were making their own curtains and pillowcases. Tess's shop had made money and carried them through the worst years of the depression. And Ben had been able to hold on to the Shein Building, which had cost him so much. He gave his customers quality.

There were no breaks on quality. Unless you were the maker. Unless you were inside the family of the maker. The makers knew the truth. "Hudson Seal" was muskrat. Musk rat. Rat. "Persian" lamb was actually from Russia. Lamb was lamb. Customers heard that word but they didn't hear. As the skin was cut from the lamb and became "Persian," so the word "lamb" was further removed from the actual lamb, from the ages of the lamb—hours, days, months. But the makers did not forget. "The best Persian comes from the karakul. We take it before the curl loosens," Israel had told Ben. They did. From the youngest lamb, the silkiest, a week old. A nursing. Toothless. The teeth-buds still deep in the soft gums. For the best quality pelts, the slaughterer skinned the animal while it was still warm. The skin was bloody, the skinned animal bluish red like a fetus. Ripped flesh stuck to the skins. With rare exceptions, the skin of the most darkly furred animal was white. White under dark. White streaked with blood.

The customer didn't know, didn't want to know, didn't have to know. The customer had to pay. The furrier had to pay too: He had to know.

Eventually what Ben made was beyond him.

Only once in a blue moon did Ben Shein make a coat without a customer. He didn't need to fill the vault with his creations. Besides, it would have been too expensive. But in order to sell, he had to fit fur to a woman's body.

Ben Shein came to his salon on Ellison. Its two bow windows, their glass panels held at angles by butterfly-shaped clips, were like a pair of full-length three-way mirrors in which the mannequins stared at themselves. Ben refused to hire a window dresser. He did the work himself. One window was bare except for a dressing table and a plush-covered stool pushed back as if "someone" had just put down the silver backed mirror, risen from her seat and left. In the other window stood the mannequin, who, in Ben's illusion, had made herself up at the dressing table and passed into the second glass chamber where "she" stood in a close-fitting dress of thin violet wool.

Ben let himself in. He chose a long brace of silver fox tails from the vault and, carrying it in two hands, brought it to the window. He arranged the thick rope of fur so that it fell just below the hem of the violet dress. Ben went out to the street to judge his work. The fur did not hang right. He climbed back into the window through the narrow glass door. Hunched in the small space between the wall and the mannequin, with no room to extend his arms, he adjusted the fur, slowly moving his wrists as if he were working a pulley. He had chosen the pelts, as he did for all of his coats. When he got the skins, they were bloodless, "fleshed"—the flesh scraped away. He matched skins. He had eyes that fed on color then narrowed as he finessed the shading. He cut. He stitched. He wetted the skin-side and nailed the sections over a pattern. They dried. He pieced the sections. He fitted.

Ben went back to the street to judge the effect. The fur looked wild and fresh against the fine violet wool. Finally he was satisfied.

He entered his store again. He walked over his own name set in the mosaic.

The salon took up most of the first floor. The vault was at the back, and the workrooms upstairs, reached by a spiral metal stairway that rose above the vault.

Ben turned on the ceiling fan, opened the back door, and looked quickly around the room, checking the low table between two chairs near the door. The black glass candy bowl was half-filled. Ben took a bag from the drawer in the table and ritually heaped the bowl with hard candy, coffee-flavored Hopjes, His dead wife's choice. He couldn't get away from Tess, the thrust of her voice, "Tokas, it's the real Hopjes." Tess would mutter these words under her breath when a customer would ask whether the mink was really mink and not rabbit. Ben twisted the bag and pushed it deep into the drawer. The hard, dark candies like black coffee.

July was a slow month. The Sheins refurbished coats, stored them, made repairs to the store. Ben's helpers were on vacation, except for his assistant, Moe Black who would soon arrive. Brona came at nine to open the showroom.

Upstairs at his desk, Ben, who usually took this time to sketch new designs, to straighten his files, now planned his life. Why not? he asked himself. I could get married again. He rested his chin on his hands. His skin still gave off the smell of his lemony shaving soap. He got up from his desk and walked to the mirror above Moe Black's table. He appraised himself without looking into his own eyes. "Why not?" he said out loud. "I could do it." He clenched his fist to fight off his hidden adversary. Instead he summoned him. He heard his grandfather Israel's voice, the voice that had soaked into Ben's head day after day of his childhood, "Happiness comes like a streak of light across a table." Ben answered him back, "I'm too old to wait again." His eyes tightened in anger. Against fate. Against Tess. He pressed his hands against his ears. Tess, Israel—all night, all day: he didn't want to listen to them anymore.

Ben heard the sound of feet, a hum, a whistle, a sigh. Moe Black came up the stairs—fat, balding, his thin hair combed forward and wetted down that morning had dried and lifted from his head like brittle frosting. "Ben," he crooned in a low whisper as if he were meeting him at a wedding or a funeral. It was difficult to know if he were offering congratulations or condolences.

Ben smiled, "I've got a coat for you. Mrs. Gayner."

"The same coat?"

"The same schmata. She could afford a new one. The woman has money. What it costs her to bring this rag in every year, I could make her a beautiful coat. But no. Look at it. The coat is dead."

"Not dead, worn out." Moe held the coat by the collar. He flicked it with the back of his plump fingers. He turned it. The skins were dry. "What does the Bat do?" Moe asked. "Put it on the radiator? It's stiff. Like wood. Believe me, this Bird ain't got otter."

"Otter," Ben repeated. He knew what was coming.

"A black like you'll never see," Moe rhapsodized. "The silkiest."

"I know," Ben answered. His grandfather Israel had worked on otter; Ben would not.

"A regular pogrom. No more. The Russians got them all. Not one pelt have I seen for years," Moe chanted.

Ben heard again the elegy of his childhood. "Mrs. Gayner," he said. "I'll sell her a new coat."

"For The Behind, I'll make this one like new. The Behind don't need you, Mr. Perfect, Norman Norell—first the black thread then the white thread, the coat is too wet, the coat is too dry, talk to the customer don't talk to the customer, the store is too hot the store is too cold."

Ben laughed, "Genug. Mrs. Gayner."

Moe lifted the coat high. "We'll put in a new lining, with big initials. What's The Behind's first name? Dora? How about a middle name—Olga? You know why she don't buy a new coat? She does it to get him, the husband. To shame him. For years he got someone else. A Polish woman."

Moe knew every story. He had once told Ben about a coat that a daughter had brought in. Her mother had died in the coat, in a car accident. Thrown through the windshield, over the hood, she had landed face down on the road. The fur was stiff with dry blood, the front of the coat scraped to the skin where she had slid along the rough pavement. She had hit so hard, even the pockets were gritty with dirt. Out of one pocket Moe had drawn a white handkerchief. "Folded. Like a letter," Moe had said. "I kept it. Then I lost it."

Ben looked at himself in the mirror. His silk tie glittered. The spender answered the saver. "You," Ben said. "You think you can bring back the dead."

The owners of the stores along Market Street locked and unlocked their front doors, letting their help out one at a time, holding the heavy doors open partway, one arm extended, leaning forward toward the street. To open the door all the way they would have had to step outside like doormen. The departing women passed close to them, slipping through the narrow opening, laughing their goodnights, their bosses courtly, fatherly—for the moment. Most of the lights in the stores had already been turned off.

The saleswomen walked out into the bright light of the July evening. The day had seemed over inside the store, like the end of a movie in a dark theater. Now the day began again. Cars drew up as if to a theater. Here and there a car door opened; a woman entered. The rest, carrying shopping bags—some women had shopped for a few groceries during lunch hour—walked toward home. There had been a brief violent storm in the middle of the day; the gutters were still wet, and the sound of the falls mingled with the noise of the traffic. Ben Shein and his brother Nat walked toward Four Corners. They met once a week to eat together at the Ding Ho Palace, two flights up at Four Corners.

Nat was the outside man for the Shein businesses. He did the same kind of work he had once done for Paterson bootleggers: he drove a truck; he picked up and delivered. He could not stand to be in the store all day, could not stand to be anywhere. Nat raced ahead.

Ben puffed. "Slow down. What's your hurry? I don't have time to go to the gym like you."

"Why didn't you say something?

"I did."

"OK," I heard you. Nat Shein reined himself in. His large head shot back. His legs jerked. His glossy rag-whipped shoes skidded on the pavement. He had thrown a dressy suit jacket over his open necked work shirt and gabardine pants. The suit jacket strained across his broad back.

"Where did you get that jacket?" Ben asked. "It's too small."

"From Mendy. Ready made. He let it out."

"But not enough."

"There was no more. I like the material."

"A good piece of goods. You know what a good piece is."

When the brothers got to the restaurant, they found crazy Joe Mavet squeezed against the wall of the small downstairs hall. Nat pushed forward to the steep stairs. Ben stopped and was already reaching into his pocket.

"Ben Shein, Ben Shein," Joe Mavet sang in his high voice. He wore, despite the July heat, a heavy black overcoat held closed with safety pins. He had pinned a sock around his neck, the large safety pins in the front. His long filthy hair stuck out from his apple pie cap, which looked new.

Somebody must have just given to it him, thought Ben. "So how are you?" he asked in a soft voice. Though he had known Joe for years, ever since Joe's sister had worked in the Shein's fabric shop, he still stared, his heart contracting.

"I've got news for you," Ben. "In my house, from the icebox, comes voices. From the radio. They know all about me. Also from the radiators. Noises."

Joe had flung the radio out the back window, but he had not been able to move the refrigerator to reach the plug. He had covered the refrigerator with blankets and tied the blankets with clothesline. The sounds of the motor turning on and off came through the blankets. He had covered the radiators to muffle the spit of the steam, to staunch the moist hisses coming up through pipes that, in Joe Mavet's mind, sunk deep under Paterson into the molten center of the earth, into the mouth of mouths. Wired with menace, the world hummed with murder; the dentist drilled for blood.

"Joe," Ben said in a reasonable voice.

"I know. They tell me. I listen. That dentist Essie made me go to is not a real Jew. He's a German. The fillings have wires. They are talking. I know what God says. They will kill us. Our children. I don't have. You got. Yours. What's-her-name. What is it?

Never mind."

"Yours. They'll eat. Everybody. Watch out for her."

"Come on."

Joe lifted a lock of his filthy hair. "Under my hair is a number. I try to hide it. You have to take a microscope. In the scalp, deep—a number. Maybe you have one too."

Joe held his hands close to his own eyes and made a fussy cutting motion as if he here sewing. His hands were surprisingly clean. When he visited his sister Essie, she would trick him into washing. She would pile dirty dishes in the sink and coax him to wash them with her as they had done when they were children. They played and washed. She hummed and coaxed. The water turned black; she dried her brother's hands on the kitchen towel. She felt his bony hands through the coarse fabric. Joe left with a package of food. Hers was the only food he would eat. After Joe left, she would wash the dishes again.

"How's your sister?" Ben asked.

"How's your daughter?" Joe answered.

"Fine, fine. Susan is fine."

"A Susan you got? I got an Essie Sister. Sis. She's OK too. But she's going to die. They can go just like that. Joe snapped his clean fingers. Joe's eyes were gleeful. He opened his mouth wide, showing his large square teeth. His laugh was a howl. Tears ran down his face.

Ben took the charge of Joe Mavet's galvanic laugh. It thrilled him, the dutiful son, the good son, the tender father. He laughed himself, released from the burden of virtue. He thought that he was laughing at Joe's foolishness.

"You're cock-eyed," Joe said, pointing a finger at Ben's eyes. "You better hurry up, your brother is hungry. He'll eat the wall. An animal."

Ben looked over his shoulder at Nat, "He doesn't know what he's saying, he doesn't mean it."

Nat's black eyes turned darker in his pale face. His muscled neck swelled. He shook his head. A lock of his black hair, which he wore combed straight back, broke from its stiff glaze and fell across his eye. He raked it back.

Ben turned away and handed Joe a twenty-dollar bill.

"Ben Shen, Ben Shein," Joe Mavet sang as he walked out to the street.

"Meshuge," Nat said. "How can you give him money? Twenty dollars. He'll throw it away. They should lock him up."

"I like to give him. In the hospital, he'd get worse. This way his sister can take care of him. He knows my name; he talks to me. No one should be alone. It's not good. He has good days."

"This? You call a good day?" Nat's voice rose.

"Don't get excited. It's nothing."

Nothing? What do you need Joe Mavet for? You got me. The fucking stooge. The Lugger. You're the genius, the Bar Mitzvah boy, not me.

"What are you talking about? You're my brother."

"Who needs it? Give him money."

"I give you."

"For what? Buy another Shtarke."

""You're good for the business," Ben lied. In this family of makers, Nat couldn't make a thing. "People know you. You can make your own time."

"My own? What's my own?"

"You can do what you want."

"Leave it." Nat took the steps two at a time, ahead of Ben.

Swaddled in white, the Ding Ho Palace was silent. The tablecloths dropped to the floor. The napkins were large as towels. Two layers of white curtains filtered the sun that at sunset still burned hot and yellow.

Ben handed his brother a menu, "Whatever you want." He'd make it up to him, he'd take care of him.

When they had slept together as children, Nat—older, sturdy, his muscles already strong—would wake up in Ben's thin arms, his head resting on Ben's chest, in the vee of the pajama top. Against his ear, his brother's smooth skin, the bump of bone, the beating heart. Nat would be comforted. He had turned to Ben in his sleep, never the other way. Yet Nat, years later, had comforted Ben when Tess died. Ben could remember Nat's leading him away from Tess's coffin into the kitchen—she had been buried from the house, the way they did it then. Nat had cupped the back of his head, drawing him against his chest when Ben had called out, "I don't want my wife in that box, I don't want it." His tears had soaked into Nat's shirt. Nat had not pulled away from his shuddering sobs. It seemed to Ben that Nat had drawn them from him, drawn them into his hard body where they sweetened—once. Once was not enough for Ben. He wanted always. He wanted again.

The waiter, his white apron falling to his ankles, brought the heavy covered dishes that sunk into the thick layers of linen without a click or a clatter.

Ben raised the cover of the shrimp in lobster sauce.

Nat repositioned his knife and fork so that they lay perpendicular to the table edge. He yoked his restlessness to order. He grinned, inhaled, and for a moment forgot himself.

They both loved the succulent richly spiced food. They loved the white meat pulled from the shells.

Nat brought the meat to his mouth and ate.

Ben watched his brother's face, "I want to get married."

"You want to get married?"

"You're surprised?"

"You were married."

"So what?"

"So what?"

"Enough already."

"What about Susan?"

"Don't worry."

"I worry."

Children forget," said Ben, who could not forget.

"Who's the woman?"

"No one."

"You haven't met the woman yet and you want to get married?"

"I'm out of circulation. In the store, who do I see? Married women. I don't want to start with them. Where do I go? I'm inside all day, not like you. You get whatever you want."

"I get whatever I want," Nat repeated. He put his hands palms down on the white cloth. They were small, stroked with fine black hair. His skin was blue-white—the family pallor. He tilted his head back. His dark brows lifted. The shining cap of his hair slid back. High up close to the hairline: livid scar, a present from his last lover.

He had been wild to have her on her knees in her father's house, her lace-trimmed underwear disheveled, his cock in her mouth. He had gotten what he wanted. More: he had looked down while she knelt, her mouth on him, and he had seen his toes with their thick yellowish nails curled into the floor, like talons, and he had driven his cock deeper into her mouth, hurting her as he came. At the end, he had came away from their lovemaking, his mouth sore, his back bloody where she had raked him with her sharp red-painted nails. He had become afraid of his cruelty. "I should put my cock in a sling," he had told himself. "Pack it up with all that." When he broke with her, she had opened up his head with a crystal vase. Drunk when the doctor had stitched up the deep gash, Nat had been ashamed to go back to have the stitches removed. He had leaned close to the bathroom mirror and, with a tweezer, gasping from the pain, he had pulled out the black stitches, reopening the wound.

None of this did he tell his brother.

"Lover boy," Ben said. "What do you think?"

Nat went on eating, his face hard, like a hammer.

"Tell me?" Ben pleaded.

Nat put his fork down. His mouth opened in a little smile.

Ben waited.

"I do know someone. Lillian Tondow. Works for lawyer Redstone. Divorced from Dave Tondow, the gambler. The one who's in jail."

"Did you?"

"Did I what? Nat's voice rose.

"Never mind."

"I helped her out."

"You helped her?"

"I talked to her. I listened. After the husband went away. She finally got rid of him."

"A divorced woman?"

"You want a virgin?"

"Ben laughed. "I don't know what I want."

"I'll talk to her," Nat said. "Tondow's a good scout, smart. I lent her money. She paid me back. I'll be a matchmaker. Me." He pointed to his broad chest.

"You. It could happen." Ben took courage. Nat would stand with him—a dark blue suit, a white carnation. Both of them in blue.

"Tondow'd be good with Susan. No kids from the gambler but she's calm. Ben stared at the table. What happened to the bill?

"I got it. I'm fast.

"When you want to be."

Nat opened his jacket. He held the bill against his chest. "Let me."

"OK." Ben raised his hands and moved them against the air as if he were searching for a wall in the dark. For once Nat could pay.

 

THE END

 

Miriam Levine: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FiveThe Cortland Review