Hallandale Beach, 1987

Dan Reiter

The chime sounds, the gilded elevator shrugs open, and the children spill into the Parker Plaza condominium lobby, flip-flops slipping perilously over checkerboard marble as the Bubbe hustles after them, the poor Bubbe, freighted by her tote bags and grim premonitions, flapping behind in her floral dress, blond beehive wobbling atop her head, fearing the worst, always the worst, wait for me––as the middle child, the clumsy one, trips over her own sandals and the Bubbe hears in her own head the crack of the tiny skull on the polished floors––but no, they dash onward, the bubelehs, alive, unharmed, upright for now, wind spirits of these neo-baroque halls, heedless of the Bubbe’s plaints, that’s too fast, wait, their voices like piccolo notes bouncing off the vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers, they flicker behind the colonnade like runners in a stop-motion film reel, scatter down the steps, then reach an impasse at the locked double glass doors, where the Bubbe finally corrals them, clucking, carrying on, slathering their skin with white lotion, murmuring loving schaefelehs into their squirming faces, marveling behind granny glasses at the youngest girl who looks exactly like Regina, those high cheekbones, those big curly locks, and this memory of Elu’s sister, down on her knees in the street and shot in the back of the head by the Nazi soldier, her delicate body crumpling to the dirt, this recurring goblin makes the Bubbe flinch, and she pulls the girl in closer and rubs her downy ears, knowing full well how ridiculous she must seem to these little ones, all arm fat and exposed nerves, an old mopper of tiles, a hoarder of paper sacks, a pincher of pierogies, and yet she is perfectly happy to play meshugenah for these precious American grandbabies, so long as they should never starve, never see their parents killed, or sleep in a muddy hole under the forest floor, never go pregnant-sick on a refugee boat, or blister their feet on the streets of Saint-Laurent, only that they should keep safe, happy, healthy, and maybe give her a little naches in her age. Jangling her keys, her fingers gnarled to tree roots after forty years of wiping and kneading and polishing, the Bubbe thrusts open the glass doors and releases them into the heat of the Florida afternoon––these jewel-children, so fragile, so skinny, living in their house on the golf course, with a doctor for a father, attending their private school, and always in new clothes, not bupkes, certainly their life is not bupkes, but what is it, really, compared to the luxuries of the old country, the white tablecloths, the fresh-baked bread, the silver candlesticks, the rows of apple trees, the fragrant rose bushes, the wild geese, and the horse rides to the mountains in Hrebenow, all of these treasures of the Bubbe’s childhood which seemed so safe and reliable, all ripped away so violently, never returned?––and she chases them across the pool deck, a frantic caravan, they run past the oiled brown body of Lou Weisman, his 18-carat star of David gleaming on his chest, and Rose Levine, white-lipped, sipping her iced lemonade, and the Glazers, lazing like elephant seals under disheveled towels, and Moishe Haifitz’s card players, jowly in their fedoras and guayaberas, yes, hello, hello, the Bubbe nods and smiles to these sun-spotted Jews of the Hallandale Beach high-rise diaspora, leathering themselves in one-piece bathing suits and terry cloth robes, bartering sophic winks, or dimes to be pressed into tiny palms, and some offering Yiddish phrases, Vi geyt es?, who, like the Bubbe, are endlessly fending off visions of wartime Poland, even now, forty-five years later, in 1987, against this tropical backdrop of cobalt and white, while the children patter like shorebirds and a muzak version of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Wonderful” honey-warbles over the hot coral deck, even now these survivors are gripped with evil portents, divinations of death, and the Bubbe, seeing in her mind’s eye the children bubbling and drowning in the sapphire depths of the swimming pool, crosses the deck in a flash of cyan and gold to sweep them up in her arms and explain in halting vibrato how she never learned to swim, you must be extra careful, and how if they promise to hold her hand, she will take them down to the beach to collect seashells. But when the gate clangs open, the boy, the eldest, wriggles free of her grip and air-drops six feet to the sand and sprints for the sea, leaving the Bubbe to scoop the girls down the steps in a panic and watch him shrink into the east and launch his frail, bony body into the whitewater, the poor Bubbe, who never learned to swim, wading now into the shallows, screaming his name, her dress clinging to her thighs, fists like upheld torches, willing him to rise again from the water, and when he does he comes up laughing, staggering in the smuggle of the undertow just as another wave shoves him from behind, drops him to his knees. Now his hands are no longer waving playfully, but signaling for help, and the Bubbe too, she feels herself sucked out by the rip current and she cries, he’s drowning, but no one hears, no one comes, she is wet to her breasts, stutter-stepping in the boil as the boy’s head goes under again, and in that crazed moment she hears herself shouting another name––Bernard, she wails it into the foam, her first-born son, Bernard, burned in the ovens––as the air sizzles like six million shrieks, and she draws a hollow breath and sets her sturdy legs, and when the next wave, white as quicklime, churns over her, she endures, the Bubbe endures, and it is the ocean that retreats, not she, who gave up so long ago on the God of the Parted Waters, not she, who with callused and liver-spotted hands reaches forth and plucks the child from the sea, not she, not the Bubbe. It is not a miracle of faith, but a miracle of perseverance that delivers them both to high ground, the boy wincing under her bruising grip, protesting, I was joking, I could stand all the time, and the Bubbe, her dress soaked, her mound of blond hair slumped to one side. The boy, perceiving in an instant of clarity all the mournful pain in her face, embraces her legs, his heart fills up like a water balloon, and he promises not to tease her again, never, but the air is so thick with salt, the sea hisses on the concrete wall, and the Bubbe hears only the timbre of his voice, not his promises… and what of promises anyway, zuzogen un lieb hoben kosst nit kein geld, when Bernard is dead, still dead, will never not have died, and so, rebuilding the spun bulk of her hair, brushing the kindelahs off in cosseting slaps, she leads them like Moses across the sands, to pluck seashells from the grains and plop them into bright plastic pails––cockles, mollusks, conchs: glinting spirals to display on their windowsills overlooking the golf course, shells to bleach in the Florida sun, to chip at the edges, and some which will go missing or return to sea, and one in particular, a lightning whelk oddly suggestive of the elegant whorl of the Bubbe’s hair, to remain in the boy’s possession for many years, to sit atop his desk as a memento, a stela, an altar––and later, on the slick tile bench of the Parker Plaza washing station, when the Bubbe discovers blots of tar on the boy’s feet, she mumbles an ancient Hebrew lament as she squirts acetone onto a rough green sponge and sets in to scrub, the poor Bubbe, who can’t help but sing like a taut wire, her voice climbing into the upper octaves, you must be hungry, I will make you a good dinner, crouching now to better inspect his toes, flares of sunlight rebounding in her glasses so that the boy is blinded and shields his eyes and squints at her wide, noble face, at the strange shape of her beehive, the Bubbe appearing in that moment as the sphinx of the Egyptian desert, a vision of a golden lioness, a vision that will remain a permanent feature in the landscape of his mind, a memory like a bronze etching, a reminder of the day he nearly drowned (for he really couldn’t stand on his own) but was saved by the Bubbe, along with the puffed green veins of her hands, the sponge like metal wool on his pink feet, the sting of acetone in his nose, and how she scrubbed and scrubbed his burning feet, long after the last black spot was gone.