(This short story appeared in Red Rock Review, Issue Seventeen, Summer 2005.)
Honey Stein stood at the carved mahogany console in the foyer of her tiny Upper East Side apartment. The plastic telephone receiver cooled the palm of her hand. Hillside 2-4516. Amazing how she could remember a phone number from almost fifty years ago when she couldn’t remember what she ate for dinner last night. But that’s what Dr. Snyder had said. She would lose her short-term memories but be able to keep the ones from long ago. And he had said it as a consolation, when the truth was, 99 percent of memories, who needed them? So where was she? Oh, yes, the area code. That she could not remember.
Honey dialed the operator and wrote it down. There, she had it, the whole thing. Ten little numbers? Is that all there was between her and the mother she hadn’t seen or talked to in fifty years? It seemed too simple. Impossible. It felt as though a giant vacuum hose had sucked up her whole life in one big whoosh.
She looked into the gilded, framed mirror that hung above the console table. Fifty years. Her mother would be going on ninety, most likely frail, quite possibly in a wheelchair, her glorious dark curls gone to white wisps, the pink sheen of her cheeks ceded fully to the olive base tones. But her eyes, surely her eyes would still be full of holding.
Fifty years. Honey couldn’t believe it. So then where did that put her? One fat step past the middle of life, that’s where, and now with the Alzheimer’s, maybe more toward the end. She flicked her bangs, and her reflection flicked them back at her. If she had to say so herself, she didn’t look bad for sixty-seven, not at all like someone near the end. And she certainly did not look like someone who had Alzheimer’s.
Honey leaned in toward the mirror for a closer inspection. She looked past the clouds of her face, her flattened eyes, to the sunshine of her hair. Boyle did do a fabulous job. He had taken her the whole gamut. Brunette, then auburn, and finally blonde in a nice, natural mix. Blonde was good. Every woman should be a blonde at some point. It was happy hair. She could still be eighteen. Fifty years simply could not have gone by. The idea of it scared her heart into pounding and that made her feel more alive. She picked up the receiver and dialed. What if her mother were not . . . ? The ring on the other end startled her.
“Hello.” A man’s voice. Definitely not her father.
“May I please speak to Ishbella?”
“No one here by that name.” A television clamored in the background. Maybe she should ask him to turn it down. She raised her voice instead.
“Ishbella Bloom.” She hated having to repeat herself to anybody.
“No. No one here by that name.”
A baby’s cry pierced the earphone. It ripped through her eardrum and rattled her skull. She hung up. She must have misdialed. There would not be a man with a baby in her mother’s house. She dialed again. The same man answered. Had they taken in boarders?
“Ishbella Bloom, please.” She tried to sound commanding, not irritated, and held the receiver away from her ear, as protection against a possible infant encore.
“You just called. There’s no one here by that name.”
“This is not the Bloom residence? Isaac and Ishbella Bloom?”
“Sorry, lady, you have the wrong number.”
Honey hung up. No, it was the right number. There were certain things that just stayed inside you, no matter what, and one of them was your mother’s telephone number. She redialed. Again, it was that exasperating man. And the loathsome baby. Wasn’t anyone else at home?
“I’m sorry to trouble you again, but I’m quite sure I have the right number.”
“You’ve called here three times. It’s still the wrong number.”
“Just tell me, is this Hillside 2-4516?”
“I don’t know about Hillside. We’re 4-4-2.”
“Maybe it was the old exchange.” The baby was crying loudly.
“Wait a minute. Okay, yes,” he yelled over the baby. A car engine roared from zero to sixty on TV. “Right number, wrong person.”
The dial tone droned, strangely soothing. How did this get started with men taking care of babies? Now what was she to do? A colicky baby and a man who obviously knew nothing. All of this in the house. Where could her mother be? People in Tylersville did not move. Ever. Period. Maybe he knew. But surely he would have said something. Maybe he just wasn’t thinking straight. That crying could drive anyone nuts in two minutes flat.
Honey decided to try one more time. Because he just had to know. The man answered. But it was shockingly quiet on his end. Honey ratcheted down her voice level.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a pest, but I was just wondering if you happened to know anything about Ishbella Bloom.”
“I’m a relative, a long-lost relative you might say, and it’s a matter of the greatest urgency that I find her.”
“Never heard of her.” Three long, electronic beeps broke into the silent backdrop on the other end of the line.
“Maybe she died?” she asked.
“Well, the county would know that, wouldn’t they?”
“Jefferson County, Death Records.”
“Oh, yes, thank you, I’ll try that. And your baby? I don’t hear it?”
“Conked out.” The same three beeps sounded again.
“But what’s that noise?”
“Oh! The microwave. My popcorn. Gotta go, lady.”
Before she could say she adored popcorn, Honey heard the dial tone again. She jotted down “Jefferson County” on her memo pad and decided to think about it over lunch. When she got into the kitchenette, she still had popcorn on her mind. She wracked it for the last time she had had any. For all she knew, with this memory business, it might have been yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that. She rummaged through her dry goods and found an extra-large container. Almost full. Good. So then what was it that she had eaten yesterday? That day seemed like ancient history, a long desert she had crossed with not a scrub brush of recollection about a meal (soup? toast? tea?) to mark her path, blown to the sands even as she traversed it. Maybe she should start making a list of what she ate each day.
She wouldn’t need a whole new system. She could piggy-back something onto her current constellation of memory minders, maybe jot down her food on her daily schedule. But she had gotten into the habit of throwing the schedule away at night so as not to mistakenly live the same day twice. Well, let’s see, she could set up a little menu bin for her food lists and place it right next to the standing accordion file, or better yet, at the end of the day, drop each list into the file, which was slotted with a month full of days. It would be there in the morning when she made out her schedule. But then, would she also need to put a reminder note on the front of the file? This was getting too complicated. Maybe, honestly, no one really remembered what they ate yesterday, memory problems or not. She would ask someone. Floyd, next time he brought up the elevator.
The jar was so old the plastic had yellowed. Dry corn can’t expire, she told herself, especially in a cool, dark place. Was it nutty to have popcorn for lunch? Well, with Alzheimer’s, she was entitled to be nutty, wasn’t she? What the hell. She took out her big pot, poured a half-bottle of peanut oil into it, turned on the flame, and dumped in the entire contents. The bottom was several inches thick with orange nuggets.
While she was waiting for it to heat up, it occurred to her that it might be a good idea to write down her thoughts, to prepare for the phone call to Jefferson County, because in all likelihood some lazy bureaucrat with a dog-eared rule book was lying in wait to prove what a tough cookie he could be in the face of the simplest request. She went into her bedroom, straight over to the yew wood desk wedged in under the window, where she found a pen and a piece of creamy stationery. Embossed in burgundy ink at the top was her name, which she crossed out.
Now, how should she start? Her mother’s name, Ishbella Bloom. While she printed, her hand shook. It took maximum concentration to hold steady to the end. She heard a funny sound somewhere. What else would they want? Her mother’s birth date, maybe. She didn’t know. But wait. Hadn’t she figured her mother’s age? She could work backwards. Stumped on how to go about that, she decided to see if it was really needed.
Her mother’s maiden name, probably. Konstantinovsky. Rimona and Boris Konstantinovsky. Her hand stumbled through to K-O-N. The pen seemed to flip itself out from between her thumb and index finger. Well, the county person would know the farm. They had the best fed and the biggest chickens, bar none. There couldn’t be more than one Konstantinovsky chicken farm in the county.
What was that noise? It sounded like the gun caps Bernie (may he never rest in peace, the bastard) used to get for the Fourth of July up in the Catskills, but it wasn’t July. It was November. No doubt about that. She remembered it from The New York Times she picked up first thing outside her door every morning and the religious habit of checking it against her refrigerator calendar and then transferring the day and date onto her daily schedule.
“Hey, good for me, I remembered,” she said. The noise flashes persisted, like fireworks on the rise. It really did sound strange. She left the desk and followed the noise, as it got louder, now like a crackling fire, all the way into the living room.
Popped corn, like bullets, zinged through the doorway of the kitchenette. Honey screamed, stepped back, and then peered in. A barrage of kernels exploded from the stove. Oil sputtered. She was afraid to try and turn it off. Heaps of popcorn rolled over the top of the pot and caught fire. Steam and smoke hovered above the char. She should call Floyd, but she could not move. She watched the white puffs eject from the pot into the air and bounce off her cabinets and ceiling. A fascination she could not pinpoint held her, as when the inner eye suddenly sees itself in the world and is riveted in stunned, unnameable recognition. It was snowing popcorn in her kitchen.
Honey waited through the final pings and pops and then stepped into the white, quilted carpet of fluffy popcorn that covered her patch of kitchen floor. She turned off the flame and let out a sigh that the danger had passed. She picked up a piece. It looked like a miniature cloud. She tasted it. Pushing aside a heap, she sat down on the floor and began to eat the puffs, one at a time, each soft outside collapsing onto a chewy crunch between her teeth. She leaned against the cabinet and scooped up a handful. Butter would be better. No, forget it, she was done with the stove for today. Salt would help, but she wasn’t going to start dumping salt on her floor. That really would be crazy. So she sat and munched.
Oh, God, if anyone could see! That would be the end of it. Adele would call her a heathen and never go out for lunch again. Her daughter would pounce on it as grounds to have her put away. This was definitely the kind of experience you had to be there to understand. And anyway, by the next time she saw either of them, she knew she most likely would have forgotten.
As she sat, she wondered again why it was that she could remember some things and not others? Dr. Snyder had said there was no predicting the course. It was up and down, forward and back, and no one really understood. Each brain was unique, like a fingerprint. If that was the case, then her only hope was to understand her own pattern. She held an index finger up so the light fell on it, where a secret swirled round in the whorls of the soft pad. But was a faulty brain capable of knowing itself? It was like trying to run a race with only one leg and a cane that some invisible bully from behind was trying to grab away. Sometimes it seemed easier to give up and just limp along with things as they presented themselves.
Honey tossed a piece of popcorn in the air, tried to catch it in her mouth. It missed, hitting her on the chest, and dribbled to her lap. She laughed out loud at her effort and tried another and another. “Made a basket,” she said, when the fourth piece landed on her tongue. A curious sense of promise arose. It was such wild fun, eating popcorn off the floor. It gave her the feeling that life was worth it, after all. She continued to toss and gobble until she had her zany fill, then decided to return to the project of finding her mother.
Honey got up, brushed herself off, and stepped through the debris of kernels, too blackened to eat, back to the telephone in the foyer. Before she picked up the receiver, she stopped to deeply appreciate the fact that she remembered this, her most important mission. How was that? The question made her brain feel like a pretzel. Go on, she told herself. Better not to waste precious reserves on trying to understand the unknowable. Then Honey called the operator, who explained how to locate Information for Jefferson County, which she did and got the number. Carefully, she dialed.
“Death Records.” The voice was female, and the way she pronounced the word death, lilting and friendly, not ominous and mean, sounded helpful.
“I want to locate a record.”
“You have to come in and fill out an application.” There it was: page one, rule one.
“I can’t possibly do that. I’m in Manhattan.”
“I can send it to you, then, and you can fill it out and send it back. With a ten-dollar check or money order. We don’t accept cash, except in person.” Rule two.
“Tell me, please, what’s on the application?”
“Just a few things for our records.” She sounded young, maybe in her twenties and a bit of a bumpkin. Honey looked in the mirror and, with her hand underneath the back of her pageboy, tossed it up from her nape.
“But what? What do you need to know?”
“Just basic stuff. Let’s see, here’s the boxes. Requestor. That’s you.”
“Honey Stein.” She pulled a strand of hair along the full length of her chin.
“I know that. Wait a second.” The coil of phone cord just reached into the kitchenette to her posted calendar, where heavy, red felt-tip pen X’s marked the squares of days past. The soles of her shoes smashed a few kernels flat. “It’s November twelfth, nineteen ninety-five.”
“Yeah. I already have that from my Page-A-Day. So, then, the next box is Deceased.”
Hopefully not, the mind of her heart formed a desperate prayer. “Ishbella Bloom.”
“Date of Death?”
“Listen . . . Miss?”
“Candy’s fine. You can just call me Candy.”
“Candy, may I give you this information over the phone and have you fill in the application for me?”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Well, I never have, anyway. I’d have to ask Lois, and she’s at lunch. But I don’t think so.”
Rule three? Or four? She would never wade through them all. Honey pursed her lips at herself in the mirror and allowed the melodrama of self-pathos, the real drama of last chances, and the steely, seasoned determination to get her way all scramble to the surface and mold into one complex expression, a stance, a role.
“Candy, dear, please, this is so important. I am looking for my mother. I have not seen her for fifty years.” Honey paused for effect and lifted her eyebrows at herself in the mirror. “And I don’t know whether she’s dead or alive.”
“You don’t know if your own mother is alive? That’s so hard to believe. My mother,” Candy slurped something through a straw, “she died last year. From breast cancer. It was horrible. See, I’m only twenty-three and she was my best friend. We used to talk to each other every single day. I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t talk to Mom. I don’t know how I’m going to go on my whole life without ever being able to again. At least I know where she is.” She slurped again. “But you said you didn’t know for sure if she was dead. Your mom, I mean.”
A large swallowing sound glugged over the wire. Probably a diet drink, thought Honey. She sounded overweight. Honey was almost certain that she had the young woman on the hook. In the mirror, her face transmogrified into as much sympathy as she could muster.
“Oh, dear, I am so, so sorry about your mother. Really, I am. That must be awful for you. And no, I don’t know if mine is dead. But if she is, then I can stop looking. But listen, Candy, dear, I don’t know how to ask this. I need you to make a teeny little exception.” Honey softened her voice as though about to share a secret. “I . . . well, I wouldn’t tell you this, but . . . I already feel so close to you, I will.” Honey heaved a noticeable sigh in order to suspend the secret another split second. “I . . . I have a little problem with my handwriting. It’s because of the Alzheimer’s. I won’t be able to get through the whole application, not on a promise or a prayer, so if you could just take this information over the phone and help me, I would be oh-so-grateful.”
“Alzheimer’s? You have Alzheimer’s?”
“I’m afraid so. Just a tinge.”
“My grandma has Alzheimer’s. And now that Mom’s gone, I go feed her everyday in the nursing home. Well, as well as I can. She doesn’t always remember how to swallow anymore, so sometimes I have to pat my finger on her throat, the way the nurses showed me. ‘Triggering the reflex,’ they call it. Then she swallows. Thank the Lord she was too far gone to understand when Mom died. Oh, no, what am I saying? I’m so sorry. It’s my big mouth. I didn’t mean it that way. Truly, I didn’t. Yes, yes, of course, here, let me get a clean form.” She heard a heavy drawer opening on metal sliders and paper rustling and then a more composed Candy. “Here we are.”
When Honey was done giving all the information, Candy put her on hold. While she waited, she tucked her hair behind her ears. Candy came back sounding elated.
“She’s not dead, Mrs. Stein. No record for Ishbella Bloom. An Isaac Bloom, but no Ishbella.” The image in the mirror stood stark-still.
“Isaac? But that’s my father.” Honey’s breathing seemed to cease. “What does it say, his death certificate?”
“It says here, are you there?”
Honey pulled on the telephone cord.
“Yes, please read it.”
“It says he died in Tylersville.”
“That little town way up north, near Canada?”
“Yes, anything else?”
“It says on March twenty-fourth, nineteen forty-six. Wow, that was a long time ago.”
Honey’s breath held still and pushed against her chest. The same year and month. “That was right after I left.” Her mother had been alone all these years. Good God, why hadn’t she ever called home? How could she have lived her whole life without knowing?
“You left home, Mrs. Stein?”
Honey spoke automatically while her memory presented a picture of her own hand pulling closed the door in Tylersville behind her. “I eloped.”
“Oh, how romantic.” Candy’s voice went dreamy. “I’m going to get married, too. Not ‘til next June, of course. Or maybe the one after that. It’s sad because I’m picking out my wedding dress without Mom, and I’m just, you know, just not always sure what’s right for me. She always knew. She was really good at that.” The sound of two hands struggling with a foil bag crackled in the receiver. “I have a lot of magazines and catalogs though.”
Poor girl, there was such a hole in her life.
“Oh, Candy, I’m sure you are very beautiful, dear, and you will find just the right dress.” Honey considered adding some maternal advice, to stay away from tulle and brocade because they emphasize heavy hips and stick to simple silk with an empire waist, but she wanted to get on with her own business. She was not, after all, a bridal consultant. Still, a heartstring had been plucked for the orphan and, even more so, for the woman denied her daughter’s big day. “You will have a lovely, perfect wedding. And your mother will enjoy it from wherever she is.”
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Stein. You’re just the nicest.” A sharp, splitting-open noise ripped in her ear.
“Candy? There on the paper, does it say how he died?”
“Umm. Head wound.”
“Can you send me a copy?”
“Oh, I really have to get the fee first. Lois . . .”
“Right, Lois, I understand. Okay, well, that’s good enough for now. Thank you, Candy. You’ve been very kind.”
“Good-bye, Mrs. Stein. Good luck.”
“Oh, wait, Candy? You don’t happen to know anyone by that name, Ishbella Bloom, do you?”
“No, I wouldn’t. We’re not near Tylersville either, Mrs. Stein. But I could ask around. Who knows? Can’t hurt. I do so hope you find her before . . . oh, whoops, sorry, I didn’t mean . . .”
“That’s okay. I hope I find her, too.”
“I just meant it really would be so great if you could have one good talk with her. Just one good talk. Oh, if I could only have one more good talk with my mother, I would be so grateful.” Her teeth snapped on something crispy and fried.
She’s going to end up a size twenty and never find a dress if she doesn’t cut that out, Honey thought. “Thank you, Candy. You’re a sweet girl, just like your name.”
After she hung up, Honey froze in place. Her father was dead. Her hand lay welded to the receiver. And so soon after she had left. She stared into the mirror, no longer seeing her reflection, and her ears went numb. So that day, when she had been finally on her way out for good, she had tiptoed around his body on the floor. Passed out, she had figured. But for the blood near his head. What had happened? It hurt her brain to be at such a wall. Well, maybe this was enough for one day. And there was all that popcorn needing to be cleaned up.
Slowly Honey took out her broom and began to gather the cold popcorn into piles. She swept aimlessly at the kernels and remembered the last day her family had set foot upon the Konstantinovsky farm. Isaac had told his stern and distant father-in-law, Boris, that he was not interested in praying. “Prayers did not save my father from TB. Nor did your God help me when I had to make my way north with a sack on my back.” He was building a store in the back-country, her young father told Boris. He would be a success in the American tradition. But he needed all the business he could get for his little family to make it. It was too risky to be the only Jews in town, especially with the news bits about Europe he picked up on his buying trips back to the Lower East Side. It was safer to blend in.
“Out!” bellowed Boris. Spittle mist had flown from her grandfather’s mouth, and Rimona’s pleadings fell on deaf ears. The most her grandmother could do was sneak them a kerchief of eggs, which Hannah (it wasn’t until she eloped with Bernie that she became Honey) held on her lap all the way home, remembering that very morning when her father had woken her and led her outside, her little, pudgy hand in the trust of his big, hairy one. The stars had started to disappear from the paling lavender of the sky. Their shoes ground the straw underfoot, still moist with dew. Inside the coop was close with the smell of warm nests and weathered wood. The chickens popped up and down. He lifted her up, and she locked her legs around his waist so she could see the eggs, each one glowing white like the moon. Later he gave her a pebbly handful of corn to toss on the ground for feed. “Hanny Bananny,” he called her, “my little chicken.”
Honey stopped sweeping. Tears came into her eyes. It was all so mysterious, her father at one time tender and sweet and then in the end so scary that she had to get out of the house. How had this happened? And why hadn’t she gone back to her mother, at least? She could not answer that question. She could only feel herself, as she had felt, pulling away from the heat of her mother’s body beside her in bed and then the slap of cold floorboard on her soles as she stood up. The aperture of her mind’s eye opened on the last sight of her mother’s body curled up around its bruises. She sighed now, as she had then, over the sad, raven-haired beauty in the gray light before the dawn, when she pulled the covers up to her mother’s face. She hated herself for it. Nothing made sense. She began to cry fully and deeply, leaning onto the broomstick as though it were a planted tree offering real shelter.
Then she realized that Ishbella might never have seen her own mother either, after that earlier day. Come to think of it, Honey had not even one later recollection of her grandmother. She wept as she remembered eavesdropping once on her mother’s Friday circle. “Rimona was her name, Rimona of Valor they called her,” her mother had said, while the country womenfolk were clicking their crochet needles and pulling endless lengths of colored yarn. “And she let me marry a Jew who for the Sabbath cared not.” Then she told them about the day they were all banished. “So she lived never again to see me, her only daughter.” Here Ishbella had paused. The needles held motionless in mid-air. Her voice cracked, “So to know I was safe from the hands of her own husband.”
Honey grew quiet with what could not be beat back. What could one make of a memory shred across a half-century? And why had she let it all slip away? Burnt corn called for a dustpan. She found it in the bottom of the broom closet and swept the scorched bits and crumbs into it. Why was the truth, a piece of paper in Jefferson County, the seepage of memory, so confusing? She dumped them in the garbage and sighed.
A fresh vitality in the vision of her aged mother surged in on a wave over the inner, interstitial spaces from which the tide of loss had momentarily subsided. Her mother was somewhere. Not in their old home, obviously. But somewhere. She was alive. Honey was sure of it, a hundred percent. She had to find her.
Honey replaced the broom and dustpan in the narrow closet and shut the door. She stood in the middle of her kitchenette with her hands on her hips. The Alzheimer’s would be a handicap. But look how far I’ve come today, she thought, all the way through that obstinate man, struggling valiantly with his colicky baby, the tempest in the kitchen transformed into a popcorn festival, and Candy, touching in her hopelessness, having to go without mothering for the rest of her life. Whatever the truth, she could manage. Oh, there was one missed piece on the counter, snowy white. She would go on, figure it out. Everything depended on it. Because there was this to be sure of. She tossed the little cloud fluff into her mouth and chewed. Lifting her fingers toward her neck but not touching it, she paid attention to the way her tongue scooped the morsel to the back of her mouth and pressed against her palate. Then her throat lifted its muscles and down tumbled the last kernel. There was still a chance for one good talk.