Dad never talked about that night. My big brother Sam told me years later, after e e too many glasses of wine. Dad was long gone by then, maybe fifteen, twenty years or so. We kids were all grown, with kids of our own.
The youngest of three, I was the only girl. Ten years younger than Danny and fifteen years younger than Sam. Daniel and Samuel. Biblical names. I’m Susie. Not biblical. As a matter of fact, I’m also the only redhead in my entire family, the rest are boys with jet-black hair. Kinda bucks the odds, doesn’t it? Granny had red hair, but she died before I came along. Grandpa and Dad both had black hair before they lost it all. Not momma. Her red hair had always been the talk of the neighborhood from the day she was born. Flaming red, it was. Thick and curly. Like Granny. And me. Momma told us Granny always said her Irish roots were to blame, but nobody believed her. The twinkle in her eye gave her away whenever she said it. We’ve lived here in the Bronx back a lot of generations on Momma’s side. Jewish Yankees. And Yankee fans. But that has nothing to do with the story.
Dad and Momma married back in 1932. Dad’s parents weren’t sure Momma was Jewish after Granny told them about her Irish roots, so they wouldn’t bless them and didn’t go to the wedding. We kids never had anything to do with them. Sad, no? They musta had no sense of humor. Maybe that’s why Daddy had no sense of humor either.
I know I started all of this by saying Dad never talked about that night, but . in fact, Dad never talked much at all. It was his rule that we all eat supper together every night, but he was the only one who never opened his mouth. Once, when I asked him why, he told me he was listening. So everything I know about him I got from Momma. And Grandpa. And Sam. Danny’s quiet like Dad.
Here’s what I know. Dad moved to the Bronx with his parents and four brothers sometime around 1905. He was born in Manhattan, on the lower East Side. His father became a tailor to rich people and moved the family to the Grand Concourse, the fanciest street in the Bronx. All my black haired cousins come from my uncles on his side. Momma was an only child. Dad never finished high school, but he learned to sew and got to be a pretty good tailor, and made enough to keep us going. Momma told me they met at a dance in 1928. She was only twelve when they met and sixteen when they got married. I did the math. If I’d tried that, she would have had my hide! I guess times were different back then. My parents were happy enough, I guess. At least they never had fights in front of us. Dad came home every night for supper. Except that one night.
At a family seder when we were grown, Sam was drunk and couldn’t keep his mouth closed any longer. He asked Danny if he remembered the night Dad didn’t come home. Danny didn’t reply. I told him Dad never missed a night so he smiled and wiped his mouth with his napkin. He pushed his chair back from the table while Danny just looked at me with a crooked grin on his face. All our kids were in the den doing whatever, and my sisters-in-law were in the kitchen. (My husband? Oh, he and I divorced years ago.) So it was just the three of us at the table. My cuckoo clock announced it was eight o’clock. .
“Eight was the time we knew for sure Dad wasn’t coming home,” Sam said. ‘Sometimes he got home at seven-thirty, but never later than that. Momma burned her brisket that night. First and only time. She forgot to add water because she was on the phone calling everyone she knew asking if they’d seen or heard from him, but no one had. She couldn’t even reach Louie.’ Sam’s face clouded over. ‘Sad soul,’ he said. ‘Dad had one friend in the world. Louie. Dad knew him from way back when he lived on the lower East Side and never lost touch. I always wondered what kept their friendship going.’
Sam stopped talking for a second and I jumped in. ‘How come I never met him?’
Sam’s voice went mysterious again. ‘It’s because Louie died a month to the day after that night.’
Now I was getting more curious. ‘What’d he die of?’
Sam put up a finger. ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘By the end of the story you’ll understand everything.’
But I was understanding nothing and getting annoyed again. ‘How long is it gonna take for you to spit it out!’
Danny put his finger to his lips and shushed me. ‘Not long. Here’s a hint. Louie had red hair.’
By then Sam had poured himself another cup of wine, leaving a few drops on the tablecloth. He was drunk and I told him so. He didn’t disagree.
‘Dad was also drunk when he told us the story,’ Sam said.
‘Secrets are sometimes spilled along with wine,’ I told him. He gave me a high five and told me that was a good one. I asked him why Dad was drunk.
‘Easing the pain of burying Louie,’ he said. ‘He had no one to say Kaddish for him, so Dad did it. No one went to the funeral but him.’
‘If he was Dad’s age, he couldn’t have been that old,’ I said.
Danny added another short sentence to the conversation. ‘No, he wasn’t.’
Sam picked up from there. ‘It was Sunday afternoon and Momma had gone shopping, so Danny and me were alone in the house with Dad. Remember, we were only ten and fifteen. He forgot to give us lunch, so by three we were hungry. We passed him on the way to the kitchen for a snack. He was sitting alone on the living room couch in an undershirt and pants, staring down at his slippers with a water glass and a half empty bottle of Schnapps in his hands. You know Dad didn’t drink much except for wine on holidays. It sorta spooked us seeing him that way, so Danny asked him what’s the matter. His eyes were all red and watery when he picked his face up to answer. Danny asked him if he was crying over Louie. We didn’t get it, so we asked him to explain. Dad heaved a big sigh, put the glass and Schnapps bottle on the cocktail table and beckoned us over. “Come here, boys,” he said. We sat next to him, one on each side. Dad put an arm around each of our shoulders and gathered us in close.’
‘Where was I?’
‘Next to the couch in the playpen, napping,’ Sam said. ‘Right there the whole time. Dad talked more that day than either of us had ever heard. And what we heard we never forgot. He swore us to secrecy and none of us ever spoke about it again. But now Momma and Dad are both long gone, so there’s no one left can get hurt by knowing. “Boys. My boys.” Dad said. “Families can cause so much grief.” I asked him if he meant us, Sam said, and he smiled a sad smile and shook his head. “No, it all happened long before you were born. It happened even before your Momma was born.” He emptied what was left in the Schnapps bottle into the water glass and took a long swallow. “Everybody knew everybody else on the lower East Side when I was a kid. The apartments were so small and overcrowded that we basically lived on the street except for meals and bedtime. We all knew each other’s business. Like one big family. If a kid needed a home, someone took him in. No questions asked. We looked out for one another.”
Sam looked up at the ceiling like he was trying to remember, and then went on. ‘Dad stood up, swayed a little then carefully headed for the kitchen. “I need coffee,” he told us. Danny and me joined him at the kitchen table. He had coffee. We had milk. And we shared a box of cookies. Then he started talking again.
“One day, the family upstairs took in a kid none of us knew. They told us he came from the Bronx. A friend of a friend needed help, they said. He looked different from the rest of us. He had red hair, Louie. We two hit it off right away. Not sure why. We just did.” Dad carried his cup to the stove for a refill, Sam said. ‘ “My parents were less than thrilled with him. They had enough mouths to feed without my inviting him over all the time. They didn’t know this kid with red hair. They didn’t know his family. He was scrawny and didn’t speak Yiddish, so the other boys shied away from him. The neighbors upstairs didn’t tell anyone who he was or how he came to them and that made matters worse. Rumors flew. He’s a foster child. He’s here illegally. He’s running from the police. The people who took him in gave him food, clothes and a bed, but little else. Their kids resented him and either ignored or tormented him.” Dad shrugged his shoulders. “Even Louie didn’t know who he was. I know, because I asked him. He told me the first family who took him in as an infant gave him his last name, so he didn’t know his real name.”
Sam came up for air and Danny took over. ‘Dad looked at the two of us and asked us if we knew how lucky we were to have two parents who loved us,’ he said. ‘And grandparents. Then he corrected himself. “At least your Momma’s parents,” he said, shaking his head. “So that was how we lived until my father made enough money to get us out of the lower East Side. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. A big apartment with sunlight and enough bedrooms and two bathrooms. And trees on both sides of the street. And a good school. I missed Louie, but we stayed in touch by phone.”
Danny’s wife yelled in from the kitchen for me to come help clean up. She wanted to know why I should be the only woman not in the kitchen. I told her to go get my daughter- that I needed to stay here and talk to my brothers. “Lazy,” I heard her mutter. I didn’t care. This was much more important than drying dishes. “So go on,” I told Danny. He was done talking, so Sam continued.
‘Dad finally smiled, Sam told me. “Time went by and I got taller and got interested in girls. Then I met your Momma at a dance. You know that story. Like with Louie, we just clicked. We fell in love. Your Granny told my parents the story about her Irish roots and my parents pulled away from your Momma and me. The colder they got, the more your Granny and Grandpa took me in. It was like I had a brand new set of parents. I asked your Granny once how come your Momma had no sisters and brothers.” I remember Dad winced. “Stupid boy I was to ask such a personal question. Granny didn’t answer right away, like she was thinking about what to say. Then she told me God works in mysterious ways and let it go at that. I remember wondering why God would want your momma to be an only child. It seemed like a punishment not to have a big family like everyone else.”
Sam stood up and stretched. I needed the bathroom so I went and came back and Sam started again. ‘Dad invited Louie to their wedding. They hadn’t seen each other in years and they’d both grown up and changed a lot. “When Louie walked into shul I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Dad said. “He looked like your Momma’s twin. Same height, same face, same red hair. What a coincidence, I thought at first. Louie saw it, too. And your Momma. How could they miss it? It was like looking in a mirror. Your Momma and I turned to Granny, who busied herself hiding her face from us behind a large lace handkerchief. She couldn’t meet our eyes.”
‘Nice way to spoil a wedding day, Danny said. Granny got caught in a lie that destroyed her good name and her marriage. Louie found out who his mother was and that he had a sister, and Momma met a brother she didn’t know existed. We never did find out who Louie’s father was. Dad told us he was glad his parents weren’t there to witness it all. Grandpa had his first heart attack not much after that.’
I grabbed Sam’s hand. ‘Are we getting any closer to the night Dad didn’t come home?’ I asked. ‘The suspense is killing me.’
‘Almost there,’ Sam said. ‘Granny and Momma were so close up until then. Dad told us Momma never talked to Granny the same after that. Never trusted her and it broke Granny’s heart. She became more and more forgetful and at the end she didn’t even know Danny and me. Thought we were the neighbor’s grandkids.’
‘And Louie,’ I asked. ‘Did Momma talk to him?’
‘No, Sam told me. Momma saw Louie as her mother’s shame. Couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge him as a brother. Poor Uncle Louie. Out in the cold. Dad was torn between Momma and Louie. He loved them both.’
‘Okay,’ Sam said. ‘I’m there. The night Dad didn’t come home, Louie called him before he left the shop to tell him goodbye- that he couldn’t take being alone anymore and he was going to kill himself. Dad ran straight to his apartment, but Louie was already unconscious by the time he got there. Empty pill bottle on the floor. No note. The ambulance brought him to the hospital. Dad stayed with him overnight, but he never woke up. He lingered for a month before he died.’
‘What did Dad tell you and Momma when he came home the next day?’ I asked.
‘He said he’d made a night delivery and never said another word about it. Until he told us,’ Sam said. ‘So now you know. A tragedy all ways around.’
My hand strayed to my red hair. ‘Uncle Louie,’ I said. The name tasted strange in my mouth, strange and bittersweet. Neither of us had biblical names. I wish I had known him.
Judy Salz, a native New Yorker now living in Las Vegas, is a semi-retired physician who draws on her years of medical practice, patient encounters and life experiences for inspiration. Her short story “Mikey,” published in The Literary Nest in April 2015, won the fiction contest. “Diaspora” appears in the eStory section of the Fall 2015 edition of Poetica Magazine. Other stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, MUSED BellaOnline Literary Review, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Shoggoth.net, Helen: A Literary Magazine, and Gnarled Oak. She invites everyone to visit her webpage at www.judysalz.com