|The Dybbuk Of Sputyen Duyvil|
by Joe Kierland
My favorite place for lunch was always the zoo. A nice pea soup, a low calorie salad, and some herb tea was enough for me. So when Selma insisted we meet at the Delmomico Deli, just off Park Avenue, I got upset. There was no arguing with her. She wanted super-deli where you gain ten pounds just reading the menu. So I got there early, grabbed a booth, and sat looking at a list of every blintz ever invented. I was about halfway through when I felt her standing over me like some predatory bird. She heaved this long sigh, grabbed the menu out of my hand, and said, "I'll do the ordering, Minnie."
It looked like she hadn't slept for a week. Mascara flaked down her cheeks, and her hair looked like a hamster was living in it. She had on that same green schmata, with the food stains all over it, that she wore the last time we met. I wanted to scream, but when it's your only sister-in-law you sit there like a fool and wait for whatever comes next. "Why don't we share a nice tuna salad?" I said.
"Order stuff like that in here and they'll curse your family and throw you into the street," she said, lowering the monster menu with the gold tassels hanging out of it like a waving tongue.
An old waiter, with a comb over, hobbled to our table toting an extra menu, and just so there shouldn't be any misunderstanding I came right out and asked, "Do you really want all these calories, Selma dear, or should we go somewhere less fattening?"
She doesn't even look at me, and says to the waiter, "We'll split a knish."
I grunted an agreement, thinking that wasn't a bad choice. Then she looks the old guy straight in the eye, and says, "One potato knish...then I'll have a corn beef and pastrami on rye, extra pickles, cole slaw, side order of potato salad, and a Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic. For dessert I want two pieces of seven layer cake (you can put them on the same plate) and black coffee."
I was stunned. Then the waiter looks over at me. "I'll have a white meat turkey on rye, Russian dressing on the side, and a cup of mint tea."
"Bring the potato knish right away," Selma added, handing the old man back his three hundred pound menu. Eating with Selma was beginning to feel like you were being strapped into one of those meshuggeneh rolley coaster cars with a crazy person.
"I'm having an affair!" she said. When I didn't answer, she said it again, louder. "I'm having an affair!"
"I heard, I heard," I said, glancing around to see if anyone else was interested in Selma's sex life. They weren't, but the alter cocker waiter was back with the potato knish, the Dr. Brown's, and my mint tea. Selma started cutting the knish even before the man could get it on the table. The stuffing oozed out and she shoved the smaller piece onto my plate. The last thing I wanted to know was what my sister-in-law did with her spare time, but she wasn't going to leave it alone.
"Aren't you going to ask me how the affair started?" she asked, stuffing a hunk of knish into her mouth. "Go for a bus driver, maybe a dentist, but stay away from musicians."
"I'll try to remember that," I said. "I'd also like to point out that my brother, your loving husband, was none of the above."
"And worse," she goes on. "If he's Italian, don't even stop to scratch."
"So now you're a love expert, Selma."
"You think because your brother's been dead for ten years I haven't gotten laid in all that time?"
I really did think that but just mumbled something about her being "light-headed."
"I suppose you think that water diet you talked me into is making me crazy, eh?"
"I didn't talk you, Selma. That water diet's the most popular thing in the whole country."
"And I'm not light-headed," she said. "I'm not light anything. I'm heavier than ever!"
"I never said you were--"
"Feh! But you think it. Everybody thinks it!"
"Selma, it's just a diet!" I said, through clenched teeth. "Why do you keep saying I'm saying what I'm not saying?"
"You're thinking it!"
I could see the waiter shuffling towards us with our order so I gave with a little quick philosophy. "There are certain things you should treasure and keep to yourself, darling."
"Family matters, Selma. Mishpocheh. Private things."
"I'm in up to my pubik and you're giving with the social graces?" she wailed, just as the old man arrived with our food.
I thought I'd die right there in the booth but the waiter just smiled, and said, "Corn beef and pastrami, extra pickles, cole slaw, order of potato salad, and a Dr. Brown's. White breast on rye for you, my dear, Russian on the side. Enjoy," he said, then headed back to the kitchen like she hadn't shouted into his face.
Selma started in on the corn beef and pastrami. "You wanna hear about this...or what?" she asked, with a crust of rye bread sticking out of her mouth.
"Of course I want to hear," I said, but all I really wanted was to eat my turkey sandwich and listen to the Muzak.
"First time I saw this guy was at the Grand Central Oyster Bar," she tells me. "He's wearing a white double-breasted suit, a black shirt, and a red silk scarf tucked in at the collar."
"They call that an ascot," I said.
"Ascot-schmascot," she yelled. "He's having clams on the half-shell...and you'll never guess what he had under his arm."
She stopped chewing and stared across the table at me like she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. Her eyes narrowed and the lip curled. "That's one helluva guess. You should be on a TV quiz show with a guess like that."
"You said he was a musician...and he sounds dashing."
"In this town, if you're wearing a white double-breasted suit, a black shirt, and a red ascot, you're not dashing, you're Mafioso, or a faygeleh," she said, staring at me through thin slits.
"Selma, what happened in the oyster bar?"
"He was smiling at me over the cold fish display like he'd known me his entire life. My heart began pounding like some squirrel on the run, and I could feel the sweats coming fast. I could hardly finish the clam chowder and the salty crackers."
"What about him?"
"He kept smiling at me through the pink lights while I'm paying for the soup. I'm so scared I drop the change. We're out the door and he's following me. I head for the subway and start looking for a transit cop."
"I actually found one in back of a change booth holding a brace of hotdogs with a very nice looking relish. I tap him on the shoulder and point to the guy with the red ascot. Poof! The guy's gone. Just like that. So I figure I'll tell the cop anyway so he can put it on the blotter...make it official."
"Smart move, dear."
"I tell him about the guy in the white suit, with the red ascot, ta-da ta-da, ta-da. Meanwhile, this transit cop keeps nodding his head at me. When I'm finished, he says, "Lady, nobody dresses like that around here...it's against the law." I feel like an idiot. I'm running away from some guy that looks like a movie star, and I'm getting legal advice from a transit cop eating hotdogs. So I tell the schlumpf to forget the whole thing because the stalker's gone," she says, pushing food in so fast I thought she'd choke.
"Thank God," was all I could get in.
"Believe me, God had nothing to do with it because when I got home and started opening the locks on my front door, I hear violin music coming from inside my apartment. I went into a panic. You live alone you don't let anyone into your apartment."
"Not even the delivery boy," I said.
She gave me the thin-eyed stare again. "You wanna hear this...or what?"
"Of course I want to hear," I lied.
"I'm putting the last key into the lock when the violin music stops. You got any idea how frightening something like that can be?"
"You should've called me," I said. "We're family!"
"Who had time? Besides, when I open the door the apartment is quiet like a tomb."
"The way it's supposed to be when you get home."
"I peek in. Give out with a "Yoo-hoo, anyone there?" It's mishegoss. I'm standing in the hall yoo-hooing into my own apartment. Then I hear this Italian accent say, "Come in, my darling, I've been waiting for you." This time my heart starts beating like it belonged to a hummingbird."
"You should've called me, Selma."
"I got one foot in the door and the other foot in the hall. I don't know if this guy is a Dominican drug dealer, or the monachem movis!"
"Either way...you should've called."
"There wasn't time, the violin started in again."
"What was he playing?"
"A capricio. Da-da, de-da, de-da-de-dum--"
"La-la la-la de-da. I love that."
"I step inside and I'm dumbfounded. The whole place has been dusted and vacuumed, including the kitchen. Right away I figure I'm in the wrong apartment so I start backing out before anyone can see me. That's when the Italian accent says, "Don't go, darling, I've made espresso." And all the while he's playing this lively da-da, de-da, de-da-de-dum. Up and down he's sliding and plucking, and giving me that oyster bar smile."
"And that's when you got out of there?"
"Hell, no. I sat down on my clean couch and listened to this good looking gonif play the violin. I was touched."
"He touched you?" I squealed, and got another one of those weirdo stares from her.
"He finishes playing, we drink the espresso, and he waltzes me into the bedroom."
"On the first date?"
She looks me straight in the eye, and says, "When a handsome guy cleans your apartment, makes a terrific cup of coffee, and plays a fantastic capriccio just for you...you gotta give a little. Besides, I got shtuped like I never had it before."
"Please, Selma, you're talking to mishpocheh here."
"You think I'd tell this to just anyone?"
"So what did he do?"
"You mean what didn't he do," she said. "In the bed, on the chair, against the wall. I lost count. Finally, he takes a break and goes back to playing the violin again."
"And what did you do?"
"I staggered into the kitchen to make a little nosh for two."
"And that's when he told you his name was Niccolo," I said.
She stopped in the middle of chewing and stared across the table at me. "You know him?"
"Slightly," I said, taking a bite out of my turkey sandwich. Not a muscle in her body moved. I gave with a big sigh, and said, "With me, he just showed up on special occasions. My birthday. Certain holidays--"
She bolted straight up in the booth, as if I'd slapped her. "MALTEDS...does your Niccolo drink malteds?" she asked. "My Niccolo loves malteds. Strawberry!"
"Does your Niccolo have a-- a--" I began to stutter, trying to remember.
"A what?!" she yelled, and the old waiter comes running with the black coffee and her two pieces of seven layer cake.
"Selma, sit back," I said, "the waiter's coming--"
"Fuck the waiter!"
A dead silence hits the room, and everyone's watching the old guy put down the coffee, the layer cakes, and some forks. "Is that all, ladies?" he asked.
"Bring me an order of salami an eggs, and a toasted bialy. Cream cheese and lox on the side," she says to the old man, and this time he runs back to the kitchen. "Where was I?" Selma asks, leaning over the dirty dishes.
"You were making a little nosh for two."
"Right...with some leftover lettuce, a piece of challah, and a splash of Caesar that's been in my frig since the year one."
"I hope he appreciated."
"He cleaned the plate, I lit some candles, told him I was a Virgo, and then he dragged me into the bedroom again. On top of the bed, under the bed, on the dresser, across the floor. I got rug burns you wouldn't believe."
"Just tell me you didn't let him sleep over, Selma?"
"I passed out," she said, starting to hyperventilate.
"What happened when you came out of it?"
"He was gone, I'm walking around like a cripple, and my whole apartment was dirty again."
"Selma," I said. "This guy...this musician...preys on defenseless women. I know a few others that--"
"Others?! What others? How many others?!"
My mind started racing so fast I couldn't keep up with it. "Lita Messer...lives over on Kappock," I blurted. She couldn't get rid of him so she introduced him to her best friend...Marion."
"Uber...from the Eastside Ubers," I said. "Married into money...nice girl, but homely. Nobody knows how she managed to nail the Ubers. She left Sputyen Duyvil. Now she lives in the Hudson View Gardens--"
"Minnie, you're babbling!" she said, and rammed the seven layer cake into her mouth.
I waited for her to calm down but she kept glaring at me, so I said, "Niccolo isn't one of your average stay-at-home kinda guys. Know what I mean?"
"I can't believe this," she mumbled, through a mouthful of chocolate icing.
"There are others," I said. "You wanna know, or not?" She took a big swallow and gave with the nod. "Usually...Nicky...I mean, Niccolo...goes after women that aren't getting enough action."
"You mean like you?"
"Think whatever you want, Selma, but when you go on these diets and start playing certain kinds of music...things happen. If you have to play music than do Bach...Mozart. Try Mahler, but stay away from Pagannini."
"I'll kill him."
"Bubkes, Selma. He's just a ghost...a dybbuk."
"I'll kill him anyway!" she said.
I looked up and the waiter was standing over us with Selma's salami and eggs, the toasted bialy, and the cream cheese and lox on the side. He could barely fit it all on the table and when he accidentally touched what was left of Selma's seven layer cake, she growled. The man pulled his hand away as if he'd been bitten and made a quick retreat to the kitchen.
"Selma, darling," I said. "I think it'd be a good idea if you got off that water diet."
"I'm finished with all of that dreck. Niccolo likes me just the way I am," she said, and shoveled into the salami and eggs. Then she stopped, gulped the coffee, and calmly asked, "Those other women...Messer and Uber...are they fat too?"
"Lita Messer isn't fat. She's an alcoholic."
She stared coldly at me and spread the cream cheese on her bialy. "And the other one...Uber...is she a tubby?"
"She's a little zaftig," I said. "Trouble is, she can't stop shopping." I nibbled on my turkey, watched her knock off the rest of the salami and eggs, then start in on the lox. She kept fressing and mumbling until I couldn't stand it anymore. I finally let out a groan, and said, "Selma, you can't go on like this!"
"It's diabolical," she said, giving me the slits again.
"Selma, you're falling apart."
"I'm aware, Minnie," she said, and her eyes glowed. "Did you hear me use the word, Minnie?"
"I heard, Selma."
"Diabolical. How else do you get to play the violin like that?" she hissed across the table. "How else do you get to hang around for all those years, preying on innocent women? The little bastard sold his soul! He's a monster!"
"But you said he cares?" I hissed back. Her eyes went wide like she was going to cry and I stopped nibbling, took a sip of the lukewarm tea, and prayed that the waiter would stay away so she wouldn't order the cherry cheesecake.
"The shit doesn't care about anyone but himself," she blubbered. "Now I see it. If he keeps me fat then other men won't look at me!"
"You got it," I said. "He kept Lita Messer drunk all the time. Bought her all kinds of liquor. With you it's malteds. With me it was ruggala." The tears began to stream down her fat cheeks and she dabbed at them with her napkin. I tried to say something calming, but all I came up with was, "You think it's easy getting rid of that sonofabitch?" She just stared back at me with a dumb smirk on her face. "He's a curse," I said.
Selma's eyes narrowed and she leaned toward me. "How did you do it, Minnie?"
"Get rid of the sonofabitch!"
I looked her straight in the slits and said, "You've got to want it, Selma."
"I want it, Minnie, I want it," she said, staring right through me like I was cellophane.
I looked back into those tear-filled eyes, and said, "I took away the one thing he can never do without."
"You made him suffer!"
"So all I have to do is destroy his fancy white suit and he's finished."
"No, no! It's got nothing to do with the suit."
"You take away his Guarnieri and he turns into a nafish. The magic is gone!"
For a long time she just stared at me, then asked, "What's a Guarnieri?"
"Forgetaboutit, he never lets it out of his sight."
"What about when he's bing-banging?"
She stopped chewing, and said, "You want me to grab his violin while he's shtuping me?"
"Not you. I grab it!"
Her eyes got even wider, and she said, "You mean, while he's... You're gonna... Grab his--"
She didn't move. I watched as she thought it over. "Wouldn't he be suspicious if we were all in the same room? Besides, Nicky and I get pretty noisy when we--"
"I'll be in the hall closet," I said.
She squinted in disbelief. I could feel her trying to back out. "How will you know when to come out of the closet?" she finally asked.
"I'll figure that out later," I said. "All you have to do is make sure he puts his fancy violin down before he drags you into bed."
"That the way you did it?" she asked.
"I had to do it alone," I said. "It was terrible."
"Maybe I should just confront him."
"That if he wants to continue our relationship he can't go around screwing other women!"
"You think that's going to stop a guy like Niccolo?"
She started thinking again. "You're right," she said. "It's got to be his Guarnieri." There was a pained expression on her face as she went through it with me again. "You're in the closet. I make sure he leaves the violin in the living room."
"You take him into the bedroom for the last time."
She started nodding her head, then stopped, and said, "Why don't we have something for the road while we're here? We could share an order of latkes, maybe a piece of cheesecake--"
"You've got to start fighting now, Selma. Latkes and cheesecake only works against you."
She gave with the half-smile, and said, "All right, how `bout a half-order of ruggala to go? We'll sneak it into the movie--"
"Selma, you're trying to tempt me. Besides, you can't have ruggala on your breath when you're about to steal a man's Guarnieri!"
She wiped away her tears, reached over the pile of dirty dishes, and put her hand in mine. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Minnie," she said, and for the first time I felt like she meant it. We were a family again. Mishpocheh. Working together. Helping each other.
The rest of the day I walked with her, talked with her, and took her to some stupid movie about a hotel maid that ends up with her prince charming. Oy, what crapola. All the while Selma keeps repeating what she's supposed to do when we get to her apartment. I thought I was in a looney tunes.
Finally the zero hour arrived. We hit the building like a couple of commandos. Past the mailboxes, up the stairs, down the hall, and when we get to the apartment Selma starts fumbling for her keys while this lilting capriccio comes floating into the hallway. Then like some yekl she throws herself against the door, and yells, "He's in there, waiting for me."
I grabbed her purse, took out the keys, and went at the locks. One by one they tumbled and the door wheezed open. I went straight for the hall closet, kicked a pair of galoshes out of the way, and settled in between a raincoat and a fancy fur collar jacket I'd never seen before. She stood in the doorway like beef on the hoof, so I had to come back out and push her towards the sound of the violin coming from the living room. She walked down the dark hall like a golem, and I climbed back into the closet.
It felt like twenty years had passed before I opened that closet door, moved down the dark hall, and slammed into the couch. The next thing I hit was the easy chair, then the TV, then the coffee table. That's when I saw Niccolo's beautiful violin lying there on top of Selma's trashy magazines. I picked it up, cradled it in my arms, and accidentally hit one of the strings. The clear sound of it flew around the room as I ran down the hall, opened the door, staggered out onto Independence Avenue, crying like a fool, running like a thief.
I hid in my apartment until I couldn't listen to another Sinatra record. It must've been two weeks before the knock came on the door. I waited. It came again. "I know you're in there, Minnie," he said.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"You know what I want," he said.
"I don't have anymore to give," I said, sliding the peephole open. His liquid brown eyes stared back at me from the otherside.
"Please, Minnie, darling. I have to talk with you." I hooked the chain across the door, grabbed the document off the counter, and opened the door just a crack to peek out. "I've missed you," he said, pushing the door open a little more with his foot. "You've missed me too. I can tell."
"Take your foot out of the door, Nicky. We're through."
"Stealing a violin makes a statement, Minnie, but when you do a thing like that twice it makes it a tragedy."
"How do you know I was the one--"
"As soon as I saw it missing, I knew. The others were only flings, Minnie, but you have such fire in your--"
"If I had known that you were Selma's sister-in-law--"
"Go away, Nicky."
"Take the chain off and we'll have tea, darling. I brought some ruggala," he entoned, waving a pastry box so close to me I could smell the rasberry jam.
"Ohhhh, my God," I mumbled, trying to get my bearings.
"Please, Minnie...open the door, you're hurting my foot."
"I'll give you back one of your violins...but you've got to sign this paper," I said, shoving the document through the crack. He grabbed it, and pulled his foot out of the door at the same time. He read the document in silence.
"You even had it notarized," he said.
"You forgot that Lita Messer is a notary public."
"Ahhhh, Lita. Is she still drinking?"
"Sign it, Nicky!"
"You want me to leave Sputyen Duyvil? Where will I go?"
"I don't care. Try the Westside or Brooklyn."
"Those territories are taken. It's getting crowded. Respighi just moved into Forest Hills."
"Not my problem. Just leave us alone!"
"I can't believe that you'd all gang up on me like this."
I said nothing.
"If I go, you'll have to give me both violins back."
"No! One violin. You try to come back and I'll smash the other one over your head." There was a long silence, and I held back the tears.
"Do you know anyone in New Jersey that you could--"
"I'm not recommending, Nicky. Just sign it and get out."
The papers came sliding back through the crack in the door. I checked for his signature, grabbed the violin off the kitchen counter, and started shoving it through the crack in the door, but it didn't fit.
"You'll break it, Minnie. Open the door," he said.
"No, no, no. Go outside, I'll throw it down to you."
"You know how much that violin is worth? It's a 1740 Cremona."
"Wait under my bedroom window," I said, and slammed the door.
I grabbed the ball of bakery string, and tied the odd pieces around the violin. Nicky stood on the sidewalk, three stories down, looking up at me with his chocolate eyes like a lost child. I hung the violin out the window, and began to lower it inch by inch. It swung back and forth, spun in the air like a top, and I could hear it singing in the gentle breeze as it went down along the side of the building. Finally it stopped, and when I looked down he was holding it in his arms. I cut the string and watched it drift down over him. Then I shut the window, stepped back, and let the tears come.
Selma didn't call for almost a month. When she finally did it was about meeting in our old haunt at the zoo. She was there when I arrived, hunched over her watery pea soup and tunafish sandwich. She couldn't wait to tell me about her new diet and how she was going to lose fifteen pounds in ten days, blah, blah, blah, like nothing happened.
When she finished her tunafish, she leaned over the graffiti-ridden metal table and said, "So?"
"So," I said with a shrug. "I made a deal." Her eyes opened wide, waiting for the rest. "I told him that if he didn't leave you alone I'd smash his Guarnieri into little pieces and use them for toothpicks." Selma liked that. She settled back in the rickety iron chair to watch the seals catch the flying fish the children threw at them from the other side of the pool. As for Nicky's other violin, I thought it best not to trouble Selma with something like that. Life is calmer when you don't know everything. It can be a mitzva to let certain things gather dust.
We take care of each other these days. We're not living the high life anymore, but we're not living the low life either. For us, it's family that matters. Mishpocheh.