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“Daddy’s having an affair,” Gertrude Kirschenbaum shouted into her cellphone as soon as she got home from the Jewish Federation, where she worked as a fundraiser. “Get over here.”
“What?” her brother Ansel said, but Gertrude had already hung up.
She stormed through the townhouse in search of her father’s admission paperwork to the Compassionate Hebrew Home. Passing through the kitchen, she cursed Jimenez the gardener, who had once again forgotten to trim the bougainvillea that had burgeoned riotously over the summer and was now blocking the sunlight from the greenhouse window, yelled at her teenage son Trevor, who she suspected was jerking off in the locked hallway bathroom, and snapped at Seymour the Newfoundland, whose slumbering immensity was obstructing the entrance to the den that served as an office.
Why me? she asked whatever God or ghost was lurking behind the pale blue walls or listening through the optic white ceiling, why is this my problem? Why the hell had the Administrator of the Hebrew Home called her about her father instead of calling her brother, the lawyer, or her father’s brother Harry, who still had most of his marbles, or her mother, who was his wife, for God’s sake?
Neither God nor ghost replied.
The next afternoon, Gertrude and Ansel sat in front of the Hebrew Home Administrator, Elaine Markowitz, and the Home’s visiting psychologist, Dr. Edie Bloom. Gertrude’s left arm became stuck in her blazer as she struggled to remove it before she had a hot flash. Her brother looked at her helplessly, as if a tyrannosaurus had her halfway swallowed and there was no way to rescue her from its jaws.
“Grab the sleeve,” she hissed, already incensed at what she anticipated would be another burden for her to shoulder. Ansel reached over apprehensively, fearing his sister might smite him if he failed to disengage her arm.
“Thank you both for coming,” Elaine Markowitz began.
“Did we have a choice?” Gertrude mumbled, folding her blazer carefully before placing it in her carryall.
Elaine Markowitz smiled stiffly, having dealt with many menopausal adult children of aging parents in her eleven-year reign as Administrator.
“We have a challenge,” she began, the word problem permanently excised from the Hebrew Home’s lexicon. “Jacob has formed a romantic alliance with another resident.”
“Are you sure?” Ansel said, still struggling to comprehend that his decrepit, senile father was having an affair.
“I told you, pop’s in love with another woman,” Gertrude said, loud enough for anyone passing in the hallway to hear.
“Well, not exactly,” Dr. Edie Bloom interjected. “The object of Jacob’s affection is a gentleman named Herbert.”
“Dad’s not gay,” Ansel said, glancing quickly at his sister for validation.
“Oh my Gawd,” Gertrude wailed, as if she’d just been given a cancer diagnosis.
“Their public displays have been upsetting the families of other residents,” Elaine Markowitz said. “I’m afraid we may have to ask you to place your father somewhere else if he doesn’t stop.”
“What about the other guy?” Gertrude demanded.
“Herbert was here first,” Dr. Edie Bloom said.
“But what if he started it?” Gertrude persisted.
“It doesn’t matter,” Elaine Markowitz said.
As soon as the meeting ended, Gertrude went to the doorway of the Hebrew Home’s lounge, looking around at the residents, who had already finished their dinner by 4:30. The whole place had a smell she couldn’t identify – not bleachy like cleaning solution, or yummy like banana bread, or pungent like boiled cabbage or fried fish. It must have been old-people-smell, she thought, that sickly sweet odor of lost muscle mass and sagging, spotted flesh.
“Which one is Herbert?” she asked a woman playing canasta.
“Who?” another woman asked the first one.
“Herbert,” the first woman said.
“Who?” the third canasta player asked, looking up from her cards.
Was everyone here hard of hearing, Gertrude wondered. The place sounded like an owl sanctuary.
All three canasta players twisted around in their seats to look for Herbert.
“Over there,” one of the women said, pointing to a dapper little man sitting by himself at a small round table, working on a crossword puzzle.
Gertrude went over to him and sat down in an empty chair.
“I hear you and my father are friends.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Gertrude repeated herself, louder.
“I’m not hard of hearing,” Herbert said with a pleasant smile. “I just don’t know who you’re referring to.”
“Ah, yes, Jacob. A lovely man, despite the—” He stopped short of the word dementia. “You look a little like him.”
“My father’s married, you know.”
“To my mother.”
“Uh-huh,” Herbert said, his eyebrows raised questioningly.
“He’s not gay,” Gertrude said.
“I see,” Herbert said, fidgeting with his pencil point as if it needed sharpening.
“He’s not a fairy,” she said, in case he did not know the current terminology.
“All right,” he said, nodding, and opened his palms in anticipation of her point. “So?”
“So you should leave him alone.”
The old gentleman looked dismayed. “Have I done something to—?”
“Mrs. Markowitz said you two are playing hide-the-salami.”
“Having sex. And since my father isn’t homosexual, I’m assuming you’re the—” She wondered if there was a less inflammatory word than perpetrator.
“I think the person you’re looking for is Herbert Schlosser. I’m Herbert Marcus.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Gertrude said, turning bright scarlet and scrambling to her feet. “I’m so sorry. Those women said—”
“That’s alright,” he said without rancor and returned to where he’d left off – 18 across, seven letters, another word for folly.
Gertrude headed for the front door and burst into the moonlight as if she’d been launched. By the time she reached her Lexus, she was fighting back tears.
The following Saturday, Gertrude belted her father and Herbert Schlosser into the back seat of her car like two boys she was chauffeuring to Little League.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“Pink,” her father said.
“Pinks? You want hot dogs?”
“Yes,” her father said, giggling at Herbert like a little girl.
“Hot dogs,” Herbert agreed, his lips leaking a little saliva in anticipation. Then he made a grab for Jacob’s cell phone, and a scuffle ensued.
“Behave yourselves,” Gertrude shouted, glaring at them in the rearview mirror. What had become of her masterful father, the former owner of the largest Toyota dealership in Santa Monica, that shrewd, virile hero of her childhood? A terrifying specter of her own geriatric future vaulted across Gertrude’s mind.
She had wanted to see how her father and Herbert interacted with each other outside the Home, still hoping that their relationship was innocent. Okay, so they crawled into bed with each other like boy scouts camping out. Did that mean they were gay? It suddenly occurred to her that maybe boy scouts did fool around with each other sexually when they camped out, maybe that’s what Trevor had done.
“Ugh,” she said out loud, squirming in her seat. Who needed to think such thoughts?
That night, in bed with her husband Maury, Gertrude worried aloud about her father’s attachment to Herbert.
“They’re like a couple of six-year-olds,” she said. “They squirted ketchup and mustard at each other at Pinks until I threatened to spank them. And on the way back to the Home, they wouldn’t stop kissing each other.”
“You took them to Pinks?” Maury asked at the tail end of a yawn.
“They wanted hot dogs,” Gertrude said. “Do you think they’re really messing around with each other?”
“You mean sex?”
“Isn’t your dad kind of old for that?”
“I don’t know. How old is too old?”
“Fifty-eight,” Maury said, reaching out and embracing Gertrude, whose back was turned to him.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Messing around. All that sex talk—”
Gertrude turned over to face him. It was the first time he’d initiated anything in months.
“So the idea of two old men screwing each other is turning you on?” she asked.
“Keep that up and it’ll go away.”
Gertrude’s hands moved toward her husband beneath the covers, reaching for the familiar warmth of his skin. “I don’t want it to go away,” she said, kissing him happily on the mouth.
A few days later, Gertrude invited her mother to lunch at Joan’s on Third, one of Essie’s favorite restaurants. Gertrude ordered the three-salad combo. Essie opted for the Chinese chicken salad. They found a small table at the back of the restaurant, where it was less crowded and noisy.
“So, Mom,” Gertrude began. “How are you holding up?”
“You probably think I’m upset about daddy, but I’m not.”
“Who told you?”
“That little shit. He promised he wouldn’t.”
“Your father was insatiable, Gerty,” Essie said, something Gertrude would gladly have spent the rest of her life not knowing. “And don’t think this is the first time he’s been unfaithful. I say, let some other woman deal with him. Good riddance.”
“It’s not a woman.”
“Oh, really?” Essie looked surprised but then she began to laugh.
“Mom! It’s not funny.”
“Of course it is.”
“You won’t think so if they kick Dad out and he has to come home and live with you again.”
“Like hell he will,” Essie said. She had been an adverting executive in a large agency before she retired and didn’t tolerate anyone pushing her around. “Gerty,” she’d lectured her daughter as a teenager, “somebody punches you, you punch them right back. That’s how you make them see who’s who and what’s what.”
“There are eleven couples having affairs in the Hebrew Home,” Gertrude announced to Elaine Markowitz, who looked especially tired that Friday after two health emergencies in the morning and Shabbat looming. “Ten of them are men and women,” Gertrude went on, “so obviously your problem is with homosexuality, and that’s discrimination.” She had spent Sunday gathering gossip about the residents, and Monday checking out the law.
“Look, Mrs. Kirschenbaum, we know there are romantic liaisons between some of the residents, including a few gay ones. They’re usually fleeting, and we don’t object unless their behavior gets out of hand. But sometimes the husbands and wives of the residents feel rejected and betrayed by their spouses and they want us to intervene.”
“My mother doesn’t give a damn about it,” Gertrude said.
“Unfortunately, Herbert’s wife does.”
The next weekend, Herbert’s wife brought their grandson to visit and the little boy kept playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” on his jack-in-the-box.
“All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey fell down and oh, what a sound, pop goes the weasel.”
After the twelfth repetition, Jacob popped along with the weasel, jumping onto the four-year-old and throttling him violently.
“He doesn’t know how big he is,” Gertrude argued later in her father’s defense. “He thinks he’s a little kid.”
The next night, Gertrude and her brother moved their father out of the Hebrew Home and settled him temporarily in the Kirschenbaum’s guest room. Herbert’s wife had taken her husband out for dinner that evening so the two men wouldn’t make a scene. Jacob didn’t seem to understand what was happening.
In bed with Maury later, Gertrude began to cry.
“I feel so bad for him,” she said. “First he lost his mind and now he’s lost his friend. It’s like the whole world has played a dirty trick on him.”
Maury pulled her close and rocked her.
“Sometimes, honey, forgetting is a gift,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow he won’t remember today.”
“My grandpa’s a fag,” Gertrude overheard her son say on his cellphone as he munched on a gargantuan chocolate chip cookie.
“He is not!” she shouted from the kitchen. “Who are you talking to?”
“Hang on a minute,” Trevor whispered and quickly retreated to his room.
Gertrude finished putting the dinner dishes into the dishwasher and came into the living room, dropping down on the couch next to her father with an exhausted sigh. Jacob was watching, or at least staring at, the movie Mamma Mia! At least he was sitting quietly, she thought, and not crying anymore.
On the weekdays, a nursing student was keeping an eye on Jacob while Gertrude and Maury were at work. Saturdays, Gertrude’s mother took over the vigil although Jacob no longer recognized his wife of forty-seven years. On Sundays, Gertrude’s brother and sister-in-law babysat Jacob while Gertrude and Maury played golf. But in the evenings, Gertrude was on duty, keeping her father company and helping him get ready for bed.
“Daddy,” she said, smiling at him and gently patting his hand. He looked at her with hazy familiarity, as if he’d met her long ago but couldn’t quite place her. Gertrude began to notice that the dead flower odor of the Hebrew Home was permeating the living room like a creeping fog.
It’s temporary, Gertrude reassured everybody while they searched for another placement for Jacob, but it had already been a month of polite and not-so-polite refusals from most of the better venues and the family was running out of steam.
Jacob kept asking for Herbert, though he could no longer remember Herbert’s name. “Where is he?” he repeated, gazing tearfully at anyone within earshot. “Herbert is fine,” they all answered, except for Trevor, who said, “Face it, Grandpa. You fucked up.”
Trevor got a kick out of humming “Pop Goes the Weasel,” hoping to get a rise out of his grandfather. “By the way,” he explained to the old man after googling the nursery rhyme, “it’s not about an animal at all. The weasel’s part of a spinning wheel that goes pop. Isn’t that weird?” When Jacob didn’t respond, Trevor shouted, “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop!” until his grandfather clapped his hands over his ears and shrieked.
“Why are boys so cruel?” Gertrude asked her husband as they were out walking Seymour that evening.
Maury shrugged. “Girls can be cruel, too. You know, ‘mean girls.’”
“It’s not the same,” Gertrude said.
She loved her son, of course, but at times she wished he’d been a daughter, someone who ran on estrogen rather than testosterone so they could commiserate.
“Wait ’til you get old,” she chided her son after putting his grandfather to bed. Trevor, who’d been stretched out on his bed playing Candy Crush, looked up at his mother as if she had just offered him a lap dance.
“Are you crazy?” he said, his dark eyes wide with disbelief. Before Gertrude could tell him that nobody thought they were going to get old, especially when they were young, Trevor rolled over, emitted a dismissive little fart and returned his attention to the game.