Enjoy our WTP Spotlights, notable selections featuring artists
and writers from our Woven Tale Press magazine. To read the
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Ann S. Epstein’s awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her novels are On the Shore (2017), Tazia and Gemma (2018), A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve. (2018), and The Great Stork Derby (2021). Her stories, creative nonfiction, and craft articles appear in North American Review, Sewanee Review, PRISM International, Ascent, The Long Story, Saranac Review, The Madison Review, The Minnesota Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. In addition to writing, she has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and MFA in Textiles, which shape the content and imagery of her work. Her work has been featured previously on the WTP Blog.
From WTP Vol. IX #9
I peeked through a slit in the living room shade as Mrs. Sullivan, our landlady, parked her blue Cadillac in the driveway, crossed the scrap of front yard, and inspected the boxwood hedges on either side of the door, which my father had trimmed before he went to work. Her pinched face, topped by hair permed and dyed the color of Red Hots, swiveled between the bushes. Then she got back in the Caddy and I watched its grinning grille glide to the garage behind the house. Soon Mrs. Sullivan’s high heels clicked through the back entrance. I heard her slide the clear panel that propped open the glass door so that air could come in through the screen door. It was only mid-morning, but I was already shvitzing buckets. By the time Mrs. Sullivan climbed the winding stairs to her apartment, the panel had jumped its track and the glass door had slammed shut.
The house had two stories. We lived on the first floor, the landlady on the second. My baby sister Reva, who’d been awake and feverish all night, had just fallen asleep in the back bedroom we shared. When the door slammed, I heard her wake and wail. Wake and wail. The “a” and “ai” both made a long “a” sound. So did “ay,” “ey,” and “eigh.” I could spell all the other vowel combinations too, even though I wouldn’t start third grade for two months.
My mother’s scuffed slippers raced from the kitchen to soothe Reva. I went back to being bored. My parents could afford only two weeks of camp, which had ended. Other neighborhood kids were still at camp or traveling with their families. That day was especially awful because, with Reva sick, Mom couldn’t even take us to the playground. In desperation, I took out the paper dolls I got last Chanukah. “Sweetie Pie Twins: Jane and Jean” it said on the box. I’d almost changed their dumb names, but I liked that they were the same letters rearranged, like poem and mope. I refused to dress them in matching outfits, though. It was bad enough twins were stuck with the same birthdays and faces. They deserved their own clothes. If I put a dress on Jane, Jean got pedal pushers. But now, in July, the paper tabs had torn off. Not even tape could fix them.
I drew new clothes on colored construction paper and was about to cut out a snowsuit when my mother handed me an envelope. “Sharon, take the rent upstairs. I’m afraid to leave Reva, even for a minute.” My sister did look kind of pukey.
“Why can’t Daddy do it?”
“He’s working until eight. The store is having a sale on gardening supplies.”
“So? He can give the landlady the money when he gets home.”
My mother stuck her nose in the air. “Mrs. Sullivan is very par-tic-u-lar that the rent be delivered by six o’clock. She’ll charge us an extra day if we’re even a minute late.”
I almost told her to trust me with the baby and take the check herself, but Mom was already grouchy, and if I behaved myself, she’d give me a dime for a Popsicle when the Good Humor truck drove past our house at three. All the same, I dragged my feet going up the spiral staircase. I’d never been to Mrs. Sullivan’s apartment. A widow without any children, she gave no sign of liking them. I don’t know when or how her husband died, but her gray roots told me she was too old to be a war widow. She was older than my mother but younger than my bubbe.
We’d moved here last fall. Our one-bedroom was too small after my sister was born. This apartment had two bedrooms, a big kitchen, a dining room, a living room, and a vestibule with a coat closet. The war was ending, and housing was scarce, so we were lucky to find it. My dad had served in Europe, which explained the eight-year gap between me and Reva. He could have gotten a deferment, on account of being a father. So when my bubbe found out he’d enlisted, she’d scolded my mother. “Perl, Leo belongs home with you and Sharon.”
“His family’s trapped in Austria. How can he not fight those Nazi shvantzes?” Mom used stronger Yiddish curses than “pricks,” although she watched her mouth around us kids. Dad said Mom had a sharp tongue because she was Hungarian. She was never short of words, except when we found out all my father’s relatives had died in the camps. Reva was named for his mother.
I liked our new apartment. So did Mom. In addition to being bigger, it was near Mount Pleasant Elementary School, the playground, and three blocks from the bus Dad took to Cole’s Hardware Store. It was the perfect job for him. He was good with his hands and patient when customers tore their hair out because they didn’t know how to fix something and had made it worse trying. Some of my friend’s dads who’d been in the war hardly spoke, or got angry for no reason. My father wasn’t like them. He was friendly and even-tempered.
In those days, people didn’t lock their doors. All the same, I knocked and waited to be asked in. Mrs. Sullivan’s plucked eyebrows shot up when she saw me. I expected to hand her the envelope and skedaddle, but she motioned me inside, where my eyes bugged out at the antique gilt furniture and silk lamp shades. I knew “gilt” was spelled differently than “guilt,” but if I told her, she might call me a show-off. “Missy,” she said. She wouldn’t like me reminding her of my real name either. “Tell your mother to tell your father to re-trim the boxwoods. The hedge on the east side of the walk is half an inch taller than the one on the west. Can you remember that?”
I nodded, although I wasn’t as good at geography as I was at spelling.
“And remind her to remind him to fix the glass door. Again.” With that, she snatched the envelope from my hand and practically pushed me out the door. I took the stairs two at a time.
Reva was still fussy when I got back to our apartment. I didn’t want to set my mother off on a rant about the landlady, but I was too curious to stay mum. “Mom, why does Mrs. Sullivan live in Mount Pleasant? She’s rich enough to live in a fancier neighborhood.”
“Thirty years ago, when her husband bought this house, nice neighborhoods didn’t sell to Catholics and Jews. Jews are still excluded. Even if our family got rich, we’d be restricted to suburbs like Cleveland Heights.”
“Mrs. Sullivan’s Catholic. Couldn’t she move to a better neighborhood now?”
“Maybe she’s not as rich as she looks. Or she likes living here so she can lord it over us poor schmucks.” Schmuck was another Yiddish curse word she’d say in front of me.
My mother harrumphed when I told her what Mrs. Sullivan said she should tell my dad. I was glad to get back to my paper dolls. Later we ate cold cuts on rye with sliced tomatoes for supper; Dad would eat when he came home. Reva’s fever finally broke and she fell asleep. Mom and I sat in the kitchen, she drinking iced tea and me cherry Kool-Aid. I drew more doll clothes, the kind rich ladies wear. Mom didn’t know how to spell peignoir so I looked in the dictionary. It took a long time to find because first I went through words starting with “pen.” My father came home just as I finished making the tabs.
My mother shook her head when she told Dad about re-pruning the bushes. “It’s Fiona, that old prune, who’s cockeyed. If she’s so finicky, she should trim them herself.” It was worse when Mom told him about the glass door. She slammed Dad’s plate on the table. “How many times have you fixed it, Leo? A dozen? It’s kaput. The old battle-axe needs to buy a new one.”
“Now, Perl. Mrs. Sullivan is a widow.” He said that word with reverence. “How many times are we commanded in the Torah to take care of the widow and the orphan?” My mother never quoted the Bible. According to her, my father only started after Hitler killed his family.
“Poor widows and orphans. Fiona’s not poor. Just cheap.” My mother chewed her nails, a sign she was angry. Also, while my father called the landlady by her surname—which sounded like “sir name”—my mom used her first name, spitting it like an insult. “You let that woman walk all over you, Leo. She ought to pay you for your work, or give us a break on the rent.”
My father piled pastrami and sauerkraut between two slices of rye bread and bit into his sandwich. “Mmm, that’s good.” He winked at me. “I’m teaching Sharon to respect her elders.”
“You’re teaching our daughter to be a doormat. Teach her when it’s okay to get angry.”
Dad used a heel of bread to wipe up the sauerkraut juice he’d dribbled. “I have a slow fuse, Perl. Isn’t that why you married me?”
While I helped my mother wash the dishes, my father put Al Jolson on the record player. Quietly, so it wouldn’t wake Reva. Then I sat on the couch watching my parents dance. Even at eight, I thought Jolson was schmaltzy, but my folks played him over and over until I thought Mrs. Sullivan would complain. That night they replayed his newest hit, When You Were Sweet Sixteen, until I was ready to complain. Still, I knew why that song was their favorite. My parents met when they were sixteen and married right after high school. Neither had ever dated anyone else. Nothing, not even Mrs. Fiona Sullivan, could keep them at odds for long.
I was glad when school finally started. Spelling was still my favorite subject. Mount Pleasant had spelling bees at three levels: class, grade, and school. Whoever won the school bee in the spring went to the state competition in the summer. I was pretty sure I could win the weekly class and monthly grade bees, and maybe even the school bee in May. By the end of September, I’d already finished the third-grade words: double consonants (apply, better); double vowels (beet, root); and contractions (can’t, doesn’t). My teacher gave me the fourth-grade list. I liked the odd spellings: burglar, not burgler; sandwich, not sandwitch. Better yet was learning new vocabulary words. My favorite was “indignant,” which was how my mother felt toward Mrs. Sullivan.
Best of all was discovering compound words: baseball, bedtime, goldfish. I loved them like my parents loved Al Jolson. There was no limit to how many words you could make, and the new word made you think about the meaning of the two making it up. That’s why I found myself thinking about “landlady.” It didn’t fit Mrs. Sullivan. For one thing, she owned a house but no land, unless you counted the tiny yard. For another, she wasn’t a lady, although my mother called her a royal pain in the tuchus. So I made up my own word. Mrs. Sullivan was a “housewidow.”
On the Friday after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, my father announced that 5708 would be extra sweet. He waved his paycheck under Mom’s nose. “A real raise!” Construction was booming after the war, people were buying and fixing up houses, and the hardware store was thriving. Dad filled his and Mom’s glasses with Manischewitz and gave me a drop, adding about a gallon of water. Everyone was giddy until my mother served the brisket. She made it like always, the Hungarian way with paprika, which is how her mother, my bubbe, had taught her.
Dad pushed the slice of meat around his plate. “I miss my mother’s brisket.”
Mom shot back. “Then tell her to cook it …” Her hand flew to her mouth. Dad put down his fork. I felt my face turn as red as the paprika. That bubbe was dead. My mother wrapped her arms around my father. “God. I’m sorry. Me and big mouth. I know how much you miss Reva.”
At the sound of her name, my sister banged her spoon and babbled unspellable words. Dad lifted her out of her seat and swung her around. “Not you, silly. You’re gonna live to see your grandchildren. Isn’t that right, Mommy?” He smiled at my mother.
“It is,” she said “Sholem bayess, peace in the home.” We raised our wine glasses and drank again. Then Mom said she had an announcement of her own. “I’m pregnant. Sharon and Reva are going to have a baby brother or sister come April, in time for Passover.”
Dad gave Mom a big smooch and called for another toast. My glass was empty; I didn’t ask for a refill. Instead, I looked at my baby sister and asked, “So soon?”
My father made googly eyes at my mother. “We’re making up for lost time.”
Now her face turned red. “With Daddy’s raise,” she told me, “we can afford it.”
You didn’t know about his raise before you got pregnant, I thought, but kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to spoil my own news. “I have something to announce too.” I said. “I won the class spelling bee, which qualifies me for the third-grade bee.” I waited for them to propose another toast, but Mrs. Sullivan barged in without knocking or waiting to be invited inside.
The landlady wore a fur coat, even though it wasn’t that cold yet. She walked up to Dad without so much as a “good evening.” “Rake the lawn. Clear the leaves out of the gutters. And fix the glass door before winter.” She left as suddenly as she’d come, without so much as a “thank you.” The Caddy’s headlights illuminated the shade as she backed down the driveway.
Mom cut loose with words I’d never heard before. “How dare Fiona waltz in while we’re eating dinner and present you with a list of demands like she’s the Mistress of the Manor.”
Dad had that stubborn look he got when they argued about Mrs. Sullivan. Like a boulder that can’t be budged. “Please, Perl. We’re happy here and it’s a small price to pay to stay. It would be hard to find another apartment, especially with a baby coming. Besides, Mrs. Sullivan has no husband to help with the chores. It’s our sacred duty.”
“Don’t make religious excuses. She’s a damned lousy landlady, Leo.”
“She’s not a landlady,” I said.
“Huh?” My parents asked at the same time.
“She’s a housewidow.” It took them a few seconds to get it, but then they laughed and looked at each other all lovey dovey again. We finished dinner, in peace.
Later in bed, I listened to Mom and Dad sing along with Al Jolson. They were happy. For the four years that my father was in the war, my mother listened alone and it made her sad. I was closer to Mom than Dad, because he was gone the first half my life. Dad was closer to Reva than me. Mostly, though, my parents were close to one another. They were glad to have kids, but there wasn’t much room between them for us. I didn’t know how they’d squeeze in a third. I wondered if they were happy that I’d won the class spelling bee. True, they didn’t have time to react before Mrs. Sullivan barged in, but they didn’t propose a toast after she left either.
On Sunday, Dad’s day off, I asked if I could help him fix the door. Not to take his side—my position with my parents was on the outside—but to spend time with him. He said I could watch. He’d brought home two rubber strips from the hardware store. Mom said Fiona should pay for them, but he said they hadn’t cost much after his employee discount. Mom let it go; she was busy knitting booties. As I watched Dad glue the strips in place, I saw that the door’s metal frame had warped. It was hard to make a straight channel for the panel to slide along. Still, in his patient, methodical manner, Dad did his best. He let me put my hands over his to press down the strips while the glue dried. I smiled up at him, but his eyes were glued on the door.
Later, I asked my dad to quiz me on spelling words. I’d already begun to prepare for the third-grade bee. I’d long since memorized the regular word list; now I was drilling myself on the advanced ones: believe (“i” before “e”), pray and prey, temperature (which everyone pronounced “tempracher”), and triumph, which I hoped would be mine come February.
“Leave Dad alone,” my mother said. “He works hard all week. He deserves one day off.”
“He helps Mrs. Sullivan on Sunday,” I pointed out.
“You’re not a widow,” my father said.
“Or, thank God, an orphan.” Mom squeezed Dad’s hand.
Not only were my parents united against me, I’d lost out to Mrs. Sullivan. I pulled out my worksheets and wrinkled (silent “w”) my nose. I vowed not to lose the spelling competition too.
The next month, my father set up the landlady’s Christmas tree in her apartment and hung lights at the front of the house. Since we lived on the first floor, the lights were actually around our windows. My mother tried to stop him. “For God’s sake, Leo. We’re Jewish. Tell Fiona the lights belong outside her window.”
Dad patiently untangled the wires and screwed in the little colored bulbs. “She lives on the second floor, Perl. Would you rather I climb on a ladder to hang them up there?” Mom gave up and resumed knitting a baby blanket. But she bought a big menorah for our window and a new pack of construction paper so I could make dreidels and Stars of David. Then we sprinkled them with glitter. Framed by the Christmas lights, they sparkled the whole holiday season.
The rest of the winter passed by without any arguments. My father shoveled the walk and driveway, and repaired wind-damaged shutters. The big activity was inside our apartment, where he laid new linoleum tile in the kitchen, dining room, and hallway—faux marble squares of white and beige. The old sheet linoleum had been dark brown and the new tiles brightened up the whole house. My parents also switched bedrooms with me and Reva. They took the smaller one, and my father built a divider in the bigger one. Reva and I shared two-thirds of it and the other third became a nursery for the baby. Reva got a real bed, and I got a new bedspread.
When my mom wasn’t knitting, she cooked like crazy. All the Hungarian favorites she’d learned from my bubbe: goulash, schnitzel, and a potato-egg thingamajig called rakott krumpli. Best of all, when I announced in February that I’d won the spelling bee for the whole third grade, she made flodni, a dessert with apples, walnuts, and poppy seeds between sheets of dough. I’d grabbed the crown with the word “monarch.” My parents congratulated me. Reva didn’t know what we were celebrating but she got in the spirit and banged her spoon. We drank a ginger ale toast. The bubbles made Reva sneeze and she cried until she hiccupped. That put the kibosh on the party, but not my happiness. Winning the bee and my parents’ attention were a double prize.
My brother was born just before Passover and named Emil for my dad’s father. Mom and Dad were ecstatic. You’d think he was another baby Moses come to lead our people from downtown Cleveland to the promised land of the suburbs. A few weeks later, I won the school spelling bee, beating the fourth grader with “referee,” fifth grader with “accede,” and sixth-grade champion with the seventh-grade word “quandary.” I would represent Mount Pleasant Elementary at the Ohio Spelling Bee, held at the Ohio State Fair, with a grand prize of twenty-five dollars.
I planned to make my grand announcement that night at Shavuos dinner, which marks the day when God gave Jews the Torah on Mt. Sinai thousands of years ago. My father would tell the story of how the mountain quaked and the people, awed, swore to obey God’s commandments, including, I assumed, his favorite. There would be wine to make Kiddush and to toast my victory.
Mom had made hideg meggyleves, sour cherry soup, a Hungarian tradition on Shavuos because the holiday coincides with the late-spring cherry harvest. I set the table and played with Reva so Mom could relax. I wanted her to be in a good mood. Even Emil cooperated by taking a long afternoon nap. When I saw my father walking home from the bus, I raced to meet him. He didn’t say “Shalom Sharon,” like usual. Maybe he was tired. Spring was a busy time at the store.
My mother lit the candles but instead of smiling and blessing the wine, my father looked like he had a stomachache. In a quiet voice, he announced, “The accountant was arrested this morning for embezzlement.” I didn’t know that word, but the double “z” sounded bad.
Mom, sitting across from Dad, swallowed. “How much did he take?”
“I don’t know. Enough that the store may have to close. Mr. Cole told us before it made tomorrow’s paper. Poor man almost cried. The store is his life. It was started by his grandfather.”
“Your job?” My mother looked at me and Reva, then Emil in a basket on the tiled floor.
Dad shrugged. He filled her wine glass and his to the brim, then poured a little for me, without diluting it. Even Reva got a trickle, although Mom added water to hers. Dad finally said Kiddush. The sweet wine tasted sour. Mom served the soup, which tasted as sour as our mood.
Hoping to cheer them up, I raised my glass. “Here’s some happy news.” I told them I’d won the school spelling bee and would be its delegate at the state bee this summer.
“That’s nice,” said Dad. Mom wiped Reva’s soup-smeared cheeks. No one proposed a toast. I lowered my glass. My mother put away the gefilte fish. Hungarians are superstitious that fish are unlucky because they take good fortune with them when they swim away. She did serve the blintzes, another tradition, which she fills with chopped nuts, the same way Dad’s mother did. We usually gobble them up, but the platter was nearly full when Mom cleared the table.
Everyone went to bed soon after, even my parents. There was no Al Jolson, but I heard my parents talking late into the night. As I listened to my sister snore, I was sorry I’d told them about the spelling bee. If I’d instead said nothing, I could have secretly congratulated myself.
A week later, at the end of May, there was an early heat wave. On the last Saturday of the month, my father was still working. Mr. Cole was keeping the store open during the investigation, hoping to recover enough of the stolen money to stay in business. My parents warned me not to say anything to Mrs. Sullivan, who might worry that they wouldn’t be able to pay the rent and not renew our lease. It was bad enough Bubbe might have to help feed us if Dad lost his job. It would be worse if we had no place to live. But I never talked to the landlady anyway.
The shades were down to block the sun. We’d gotten new ones so I couldn’t look through the slit any more, but I peeked around the edge when I heard the landlady pull into the driveway. She was wearing a pale yellow sun dress. She marched into our apartment and said, “Missy, I have two flats of annuals in my trunk. Help me carry them to the porch. Tell your mother to tell your father to plant them in front of the hedges tomorrow.” Then she marched back outside.
I went to my room to change into dungarees. My mother, who’d just put talcum on Emil’s prickly heat rash, came in and asked why. I told her what Mrs. Sullivan had asked me to do and said I didn’t want to get my new pedal pushers dirty. “Tell her to pay you,” Mom said. “With Dad’s job iffy, we need every penny.”
“If I win the state bee, I’ll get twenty-five dollars. Twenty-five hundred pennies.” I would give the check to my parents, who’d hug me between them and toast me as “the family savior.”
“That barely buys half a week of groceries.” My mom repeated, “Tell her to pay you.”
“Won’t she get suspicious? I’ve never asked her to pay me.”
“She’s never asked you to help her. Don’t give her a reason. Show her you’re not a patsy like your father. Shame her into paying him for everything he does, which will add up to more than a measly twenty-five bucks.”
I bent and rolled up my pants to avoid looking at Mom. “I can’t ask her. She’s a widow.”
“For Pete’s sake, Sharon. I’ll ask Fiona myself. Better yet, I’ll tell her. Wait here.” She started for the door, but Emil began to cry so she turned back. I fled while I had the chance.
The landlady stood on the porch and pointed to where I should unload the flats. When I finished, she got in her Caddy without thanking me and parked the car in the garage. As I headed inside to wash up, I heard her come in the back entrance, prop open the glass door, and climbed upstairs. Less than a minute later, the door slammed shut. I looked at the new tiles in the hallway. The house looked spiffy. So would the scruffy front yard once the flowers were planted. That door, however, was beyond repair. Only a new one would solve the problem.
Mrs. Sullivan was waiting outside when my dad got home, and followed him into our apartment. My mom was putting dinner on the table. “Fix the glass door,” the landlady said. “Now. Before you eat.” My father said nothing. Neither did my mother. I was teaching nursery rhymes to Reva. We grew silent. Even Emil stopped whimpering. Dad kissed Mom on the cheek and us kids on the tops of our heads. He went into the bathroom and I heard him wash his hands.
When my father came out, he was smiling. He walked to the back door. I followed him, wondering if he’d let me help him fix it again. My mother followed me. Dad flexed his hands. Then, in one swift motion, he ripped the glass door off its hinges. He carried it up the winding staircase. My mother ran after him, hanging onto his shirttails. “Leo, opshtel.” Over and over, she pleaded with him to stop, first in Yiddish, then in English and Hungarian. There was a loud crash in Mrs. Sullivan’s apartment. My father came downstairs, still trailed by my mother, kicking shards of glass out of his way. “Perl, take the children into the living room,” he told her.
While we watched from the doorway, my father strode to the kitchen and got the knife my mother used to slice brisket. Then he slashed a big “X” in every linoleum tile in the kitchen, dining room, and hallway. When he was done, he came into the living room, turned on the radio, and plopped himself down on the couch with a beer. From then until the baseball game ended, he listened to the Cleveland Indians play the New York Yankees. Cleveland lost, but my father continued to smile as he calmly walked to the bedroom and went to sleep.
On Sunday morning, the five us stood on the street with two suitcases, waiting for a cab to take us to Bubbe’s house in Glenville. We’d stay for a week; I didn’t know where we’d go after that. Mrs. Sullivan had given my parents until Wednesday to move our furniture and the rest of our clothes. My dad looked worried, but not sorry. In fact, the smile that flickered across his face was the same look he got when he’d finished repairing something. Relief after solving a problem. But what problem in this case? Was he simply happy to stop worrying about everyone else and satisfy himself for a change, even if it was only for a little while? Was he glad that with the landlady out of his life, he’d removed a source of tension with my mom? If so, they’d be closer than ever.
My mother chewed the nails on her left hand and clutched Emil to her chest with the right one. It was the first time I’d seen her look scared and only the second time she was speechless.
I wasn’t scared. My parents had always taken care of us, and would find a way to do so now. But I was upset. Since we no longer lived here, I couldn’t be a student at Mount Pleasant Elementary and represent them at the Ohio Spelling Bee. I kept this thought to myself, not from fear my parents wouldn’t say anything again, but because they would. Something like, “We have more important things to think about.” Then they’d turn their backs on me and huddle together.
I climbed onto the porch, where the flowers waited in their flats. They resembled daisies, but bright red, like the housewidow’s hair. I yanked a flower from its pot and plucked the petals, one at a time. “They love me, they love me not.” The cab pulled up before I could finish.
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