As Annie lay dying in her bed, she tried to remember a time when she had been truly and completely happy. This was the way she began each day—sifting through the debris of her life. After the sponge bath and the pills and the long, painful trip to the bathroom.
Lately she had taken to reviewing her past chronologically. This morning she was up to sixth grade, the year she started puberty. She was remembering her morbid fascination with her strange new body, how she would lock herself in the bathroom and examine the two tiny mounds of flesh that had sprouted on her chest and inspect the little hairs that had started to proliferate under her arms.
Her mother’s knock at the bedroom door invaded her reverie.
“I made soup,” her mother said, entering the room tentatively, the shabby dress draped over her thin frame like a shroud, the wisps of white hair sticking out of the gray head scarf she always wore. She put her lips to her only child’s forehead.
Annie made a weak attempt to jerk her head away. “I’m not hungry.”
“How are you going to get betta if you don’t eat?” Her mother sat down on the chair by Annie’s bed.
“I’m not going to get betta, Ella,” Annie said, mocking her mother’s East European accent. “Didn’t you hear what the doctors said?”
“The doctors!” She waved her hand in the air as though she were shooing away a fly. “I’ll go get the soup for you now.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want any,” Annie said, but her mother was out the door before she had finished her sentence. Annie’s life had consisted of a series of submissions to the will of this stubborn old woman. The rigorous worship of a God she didn’t believe in, the desperate pursuit of the husband she had never wanted; all her pathetic little rebellions were ruled by her mother as well. Annie couldn’t think of a single thing she had ever done of her own volition.
Ella came back to the room a few minutes later, carrying a tray with the soup. Pulling a chair next to the bed, she dipped the spoon into the bowl and brought it to her daughter’s lips.
Annie turned her head toward the wall. “I told you. I’m not hungry.”
Ella continued to hold the spoon and Annie knew she would hold it like that forever if necessary.
“I can feed myself,” she said, grabbing the spoon and sending its contents splattering over the quilt. “Now look what you made me do,” she said, collapsing back into the hollow of her bed.
Ella had already left the room and in less than a minute was back with a wet washcloth. After vigorously scrubbing away the stain, she repositioned herself beside Annie with the soup spoon. Annie opened her mouth and swallowed. The soup tasted like metal; everything tasted like metal now. “No more,” she said. “I’ll puke it all up if I eat any more.”
“Maybe later,” Ella said, putting the tray on the bureau with the flock of white geese painted on it, a deceptively sweet and simple relic of her complicated childhood. The geese were faded and scratched and one of them was missing half a wing, but they were all still there, and they would be there after she was dead. As would everything else in this room: the bed, the needlepoint pillows, the watercolor of a hut in the woods that reminded her mother of the house where she had spent four years in hiding during the war, the sterling silver candlesticks she had dug up from the garden behind her parents’ house in Bardejov after the liberation of Czechoslovakia. All these things would outlive her, but eventually they, too, would die. Maybe a thousand years from now they would be unearthed by archaeologists searching to discover the secrets of the dreary lives of the people who had once inhabited Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, lives that would be rendered fascinating by the passage of the ages. The needlepoint would have rotted away by then and the furniture couldn’t stand the ravages of time either. Perhaps the candlesticks would survive. But maybe there wouldn’t be any people by then; or maybe there would be no earth; or maybe there just wouldn’t be any more Jews. Considering all that, give or take a couple of years, what did it matter when she died?
Ella walked over to the trunk at the foot of the bed and took out another quilt, for it was a cold winter day, and Mr. Schweid refused to allow the thermometer in the drafty apartment to go a degree above the minimum temperature required by law. The rents in the neighborhood had skyrocketed in recent years and the landlord would have liked to have gotten rid of them long ago, but whenever he tried, Ella called Rabbi Rothstein and Mr. Schweid never had the nerve to say no to the great rabbi. One year, when her mother had to take three months off from her job at the brassiere factory because of a fractured hip, Rabbi Rothstein had even gotten him to lower the rent.
Ella tucked the extra quilt under Annie’s chin. “I’ll wash your hair later?” she said as she bent down and buried her face in Annie’s head.
“Just let me sleep,” Annie said, closing her eyes.
Ella pulled a chair up to the sewing machine. “You sleep, I’ll sew,” she said. “I’m making kitchen curtains for Mrs. Lipschitz. She thinks the man across the street is spying on her. Like anyone would be interested in a mieskeit like her,” her mother said as she opened the bottom drawer of the bureau and took out a swatch of blue-and-white-checkered material.
“Why are you making curtains for her when you hate the woman?” Annie asked, opening her eyes.
“She needs, I make,” Ella said.
“The bum who sleeps in front of the subway station on Avenue T could use a little privacy. Why don’t you make him curtains?” Annie said, to which her mother responded with a sly grin. She proceeded to measure the fabric, expertly pulling it from her nose to the length of her arm. Her mother had always been an enigma to Annie. It often seemed to her that somewhere beneath all the grief she thought everything was one enormous joke.
“Mrs. Lipschitz?” Annie said. “The Mrs. Lipschitz who’s always going on grapefruit fasts?”
“The famous dieter,” her mother said. “You should see her at kiddish. She wraps the rugelach in a paper napkin and hides them in the pockets of her coat.”
Annie didn’t respond. She seemed to have drifted off to sleep. That’s good, Ella thought to herself. Sleep is the best medicine. But Annie wasn’t sleeping. She was resuming her excavation of her wasted life. The narrative of it was fixed in her mind like the plot of a movie she had seen too many times and never wanted to see again. Still, she was certain there was something that wasn’t part of her usual stash of memories, something wonderful that had happened a very long time ago. She could almost touch it with the tip of her tongue, but it kept slithering away, like one those fantastically illogical morphine dreams that would reappear to her in bits and pieces. Maybe if she didn’t think and just let the thoughts flow through her mind of their own accord.
It suddenly struck her that her long-lost memory had something to do with God. She thought about that day, it was her sophomore year of high school, when she and her friend Sheila Tannenbaum were going on one of their long Shabbos afternoon strolls. They had been talking about their favorite subject, death. She couldn’t remember who came up with it first, but they spent the entire afternoon walking around the neighborhood saying to each other, “We’re all going to die anyway.” They walked around like that for hours, repeating the words over and over again to each other. “We’re all going to die anyway. We’re all going to die anyway,” until they had rendered the words meaningless, and the idea of death itself meaningless as well. She and Sheila used to have long talks about the inconsequentiality of life in the face of the inevitability of death. They would argue about whether the soul lived on after the body died. They agreed that since none of it made any sense anyway, they might as well believe whatever gave them the most comfort. It was usually at this stage of the conversation that Sheila would point out that that same logic could be used to support the belief in the existence of God.
Sheila was the only person Annie had ever told that the God she had been praying to all her life didn’t exist. Annie remembered the stunned look on her best friend’s face and the way the bright noonday sun made Sheila’s braces sparkle when she opened her mouth in shock and surprise; she remembered the itchy feel of the heavy woolen socks she was wearing that day and the deep indentation the rubber bands that held them up made on her calves, and the stiff feel of her jaw when she made her confession.
Sheila had noticed during the morning prayers that Annie wasn’t moving her lips in silence the way everyone was supposed to, and later during recess in the schoolyard, after they had finished their egg salad sandwiches, Sheila asked Annie about it.
“Your lips weren’t moving? Why?” Sheila had asked.
“Because I wasn’t davening,” Annie answered matter-of-factly.
“Why weren’t you davening, Annie?”
“What’s the point of praying to a no one?”
That morning the rabbi had shown them a film about the Holocaust. It wasn’t the first time Annie had heard about the Holocaust. Far from it. The Holocaust had been a constant presence in her life for as long as she could remember. Her mother had told her about those four years she had spent hiding out in that attic so often that she felt as though they were her own memories. Annie’s father, who had died when she was five, had spent the war in Theresienstadt and her mother told her stories about his life in the concentration camp as well. How he made fur coats for the Nazis, how he had taken the bodies out of the showers.
She knew the story of the Holocaust the way other children knew the stories of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs”; still, seeing those images of the emaciated bodies thrown one on top of the other like rag dolls made the stories she had been hearing all her life assume a reality they never had before. Perhaps, she imagined with jolt, the bodies projected on the screen were the very same bodies her father had been ordered to dispose of.
Afterward the principal called an assembly to talk about the film. He explained that if the Holocaust hadn’t happened Israel would never have come into existence. “But how could Hashem let this happen to His Chosen People?” Annie had asked him, to which he responded that it was a test of the Jewish people’s faith in Him. But she knew that was bullshit. This God, her secret friend, with whom she had shared all her joys, all her sorrows, all her love, was a liar and a fraud.
The last time Annie had seen Sheila was fifteen years ago. She had run into her at the vegetable market on Kings Highway. Like all the other girls in her class, Sheila had married in her early twenties. She was wearing a wig that was styled into a short, neat pageboy; Sheila’s hair had always been wild and curly, and she had had a sexy body, with a flat stomach and a big ass, but being a baby factory had left her as fat and shapeless as all the other Jewish amoebas who could be seen walking around Sheepshead Bay, schlepping their children and their groceries, the latest addition to the Tribe strapped to what used to be their waists. It seemed to Annie that the old Sheila was gone, and she pretended not to see her, but before she could make an escape her friend spotted her.
“It’s a wasteland. An intellectual wasteland,” Sheila told her, getting right to the point. It had been years since the two friends had seen each other. Sheila had moved to an ultra-Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, and their lives had taken such different paths that they had had no choice but to drift apart. Annie was surprised and happy to see that, despite her frumpy appearance, Sheila hadn’t lost her spark
“So, I take it all this doesn’t agree with you,” Annie had said.
“No, as a matter of fact it does,” Sheila responded. “It’s kind of nice having everything spelled out for you.” It startled Annie to see that Sheila’s nihilism ran even deeper than her own; to embrace this way of life without even believing in it was cynicism of the highest order, it was as though Sheila were dismissing her entire existence with a shrug. Annie was trying to formulate these thoughts into words, but then Sheila’s baby started crying and the children were hungry, and her old friend cut her off, saying that it wasn’t a good time to talk.
“I’m going to bring the curtains over to Mrs. Lipschitz now,” Ella said, interrupting her thoughts. She was wearing the blue coat Annie had given her five years ago, and had a long blue scarf wrapped three times around her neck. Bundled up like that she looked like a kid getting ready to go out and play in the snow and Annie felt a sting of affection for her mother.
“I’ll pick up your medicine on the way home,” Ella said. “And some farmer cheese. Later I’ll make blintzes.”
“They say there’s going to be a blizzard,” Annie told her.
“So, I should be afraid of a little snow?” her mother said, and she was on her way.