The House of the Living (Excerpt)

THE following is the beginning of The House of the Living, a “long” short story by Bill Gladstone. It is a romance-mystery of Jewish genealogy. Genealogist David Lazarus assists a married lady named Sarah Blum to discover what happened to an uncle who disappeared from her family, and changes his life in the process. Originally published in the Canadian journal Parchment, the piece is the first story in a newly published collection, The House of the Living and other stories by Bill Gladstone, published in January 2012 as a Kindle e-book. If you like the excerpt below, please consider purchasing the full story collection online. Click here to view the Kindle book on Amazon. 

 

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The House of the Living

I

Sarah Blum stepped briskly through the coronary care unit to Room 607 and found her mother, Pearl Beiderman, sitting on the bed in her own clothes, no longer in one of the hospital’s blue gowns. As soon as Sarah stepped into the room, Pearl slid down from the great height of the bed with her overnight bag hanging at her elbow. Sarah hurried over and took her arm.

“Easy does it,” she admonished. “Remember what Dr. Rappo—”

“Oh, doctors!” Pearl said. “I’m sick of them!”

Sarah brought the wheelchair around and, once the diminutive woman had lowered herself into the seat, wheeled her out of the room and down the corridor.

Outside, on the sidewalk, Pearl began grappling with the plastic identification tag on her wrist. “Do you have scissors or something to cut this with?” Sarah found some nail clippers in her purse and snipped the plastic; Pearl rubbed her wrist like a grateful prisoner freed from a shackle.

Always a careful driver, Sarah became exceptionally safety-conscious when her mother was with her in the car. Avoiding the highway, she kept to a crawl in the curb lane. Even so, she noticed her mother occasionally pushed her foot to the floor as though pressing a brake pedal.

In its own silent way the house seemed to acknowledge their arrival; or so Sarah thought, having developed a special attachment to the modest bungalow whose two front windows seemed like big square eyes. This was the house in which she had grown up and in which Pearl, now two years a widow, lived alone. Sarah opened the door using the key she had been given as a girl. She left the wheelchair in the trunk; Pearl wouldn’t need it indoors.

Sarah was happy to see a glow return to her mother’s face. “Home sweet home!” Pearl exclaimed, unbuttoning her coat. She walked down the short hall, glancing into each of the rooms as though to reacquaint herself with their layouts. She sunk a probing finger into the potted ferns and benjamina tree in the living room and, satisfied of their good health, thanked Sarah for taking care of them. Then she went into the kitchen and flipped through the stack of unopened mail on the table.

“Take off your coat,” Sarah said. “The place is warm. I put on the heat this morning.”

“Oh, you’re an angel. I think I need a rest.”

Sarah took her mother’s coat and helped her into the bedroom; Pearl stretched out on the bed. After a few minutes Sarah brought her a cup of tea and two digestive biscuits on a china plate.

“How thoughtful of you, darling, but won’t you have some too?”

Sarah shook her head. “I’ve got to pick up Josh from school. I’d better leave now if I want to get your prescriptions and groceries.”

“Just a moment, please,” Pearl said, opening her hospital bag. “There’s something I want to show you.” She produced a tattered envelope, withdrew an old black-and-white photograph, and glanced at it before offering it to Sarah.

Sarah, who loved old family photographs, studied it with growing interest.

“I’ve never seen this before.”

“Aaron and Cynthia found it among Uncle Jack’s things.”

It was a photo of the Galanters, Sarah’s mother’s family, taken in the bygone days when people dressed up for photographs. Wearing solemn, almost imperial expressions, Sarah’s grandparents were sitting on two throne-like wooden chairs, their numerous children arrayed between them. Her aunts, still girls, were wearing black dresses; her uncles, not yet grown to men, wore stiff black suits.

Nobody was smiling. The smallest child, a girl with thick black curls protruding from a white bonnet, was held in her mother’s arms. The year 1918 was written in white in the corner.

“Mother, that’s you as a baby, isn’t it! How gorgeous you were!”

Pearl beamed, and for a moment Sarah could still see the child in the old woman’s face. “Yes. I was the apple of my parents’ eye. At least they made me feel that way.”

“And look at the clothes you wore!”

“Bubbie and Zaidie made them from scratch. Buying clothes from a store was unheard of in those days.”

Sarah checked the partial list of names of the back. With Pearl’s assistance, she soon identified most of her uncles and aunts. However, between Sidney and Rosie was a boy she had never seen before. He had dark eyes, protruding ears, and a cowlick in his hair. He looked about fourteen. To judge by his placement, he was the second oldest.

“I thought there were seven children in your family,” she said. “Here there are eight. Who’s that?” She pointed to the unknown face.

“That’s Morris,” said Pearl. “He was the black sheep.”

“The black sheep?”

“Yes—he disappeared from the family.”

The mystery was deepening.

“When?”

“When I was a little girl.”

Feeling a warmth all over her face, Sarah realized she was blushing.

“You had a brother and you never told me about him?”

“No one ever talked about him.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Something bad happened. There was a lot of crying and shouting and tumult. Then he was gone.”

Sarah turned back to the boyish face in the photograph.

“Something bad? I wonder what it was?”

“Who knows? And now there’s no one left to ask.”

“But certainly you must have tried to find out long before now?”

“Feh!” Pearl said dismissively. “We never talked about it—that’s all I can say. Whatever happened happened. It’s just spilt milk and there’s no use crying over it. Life goes on.”

Sarah doubted that her mother was really as indifferent to her family’s history as she pretended. She wanted to ask more questions but it was getting late. She put the photo on the night-table and zipped up her coat against the October chill.

“Speaking of milk, I made a grocery list,” she said.

“Take the photo with you, please. I don’t want it.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You keep it, darling.”

Sarah placed the photo in her purse and pulled out the shopping list.

“Milk, bread, vegetables, prunes, cottage cheese, melba toast, bananas. Is there anything else you’d like?”

 

II

Sarah’s slender pinkie finger, with its clear-lacquered nail, flitted over the photograph, pointing out each family member in turn.

“Those are my grandparents, Bubba and Zaida Galanter, may they rest in peace.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And that’s Sidney, Rosie, Sophie, Julius, Esther, Isaac who went by the name of Jack, that’s my mother Pearl, the baby—and that is Morris.”

“And when do you figure Morris disappeared?”

“My mother was seven years old. That puts it about 1922.”

“What do your aunts and uncles know about him?”

“It’s impossible to find out. They’re all gone, except for my mother. And she doesn’t remember.”

According to David Lazarus, a genealogist had to be a detective. That had been the gist of the talk he had just delivered to the synagogue group in this finely decorated Forest Hill parlor. Most of the others were getting coffee and cake in the dining room when this woman approached and introduced herself: Sarah Blum, her name was. She wore a string of pearls over a black cotton dress and had cascading auburn hair that curled just beneath her delicate white shoulders.

He returned to the dark eyes and sombre face of Morris. “He looks a bit like Franz Kafka, doesn’t he? People generally didn’t smile for the camera in those days. Having your picture taken was usually regarded as a serious occasion back then.”

“Kafka? I never thought of that. But he is quite a mysterious figure. I never even heard of him until recently. Now I feel compelled to find out everything I can about him.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, exactly, but it’s not just for myself. My mother’s been sick lately and I suspect she’d also like to know.”

Some guests straggled back and an elderly couple came and stood next to Sarah, evidently wanting to consult with the guest speaker.

“So you’d like to find out the fate of the boy in the photograph? Maybe trace his family if he had one?”

“Yes. Do I need to hire a professional genealogist for that?”

“Not necessarily. You can do it yourself. All you need is—”

David Lazarus stopped speaking as a thin man, much older than either he or Sarah, interposed himself between them.

“It’s getting late,” the man whispered, addressing Sarah.

She stepped back and paid him a small smile.

“David Lazarus—this is my husband, Peter Blum.”

David stretched out his hand and the lanky man in the fancy suit nodded curtly as he accepted the handshake.

“Sarah,” Peter Blum continued in a low voice, “Judge Oliver wants to see me in his chambers at seven-thirty in the morn—”

“Yes. I’m coming.”

“Thanks. I’ll get your coat,” he said, turning abruptly.

She put on an embarrassed, slightly rueful smile.

“Any quick suggestions?”

“You could track down former friends and neighbors who may have known Morris,” he said. “You could also go to the North York Central Library and search the old phone books and city directories, year by year.”

“What clever ideas.”

“You might also look for him in marriage registers. Non-Jewish, of course. My hunch is, your uncle married out of the faith.”

“Yes. That’s my theory, too.”

Peter Blum reappeared and handed Sarah a black cape. She draped it over her shoulders, unassisted.

“It gives you pause, doesn’t it?” she said. “That someone can just disappear like that.”

“Doesn’t it.”

She slipped on a pair of black gloves. Her husband was practically hustling her to the door.

“Good night. Nice to meet you. And thanks.”

 

III

He was tracking through the unbroken snow of Roselawn Cemetery when two low tombstones caught his eye. He detoured along a row of graves and stood before them. The name GALANTER, thrown into sharp relief by the morning sun, was chiselled identically into the dull pink marble of each. Galanter, he remembered, was a name someone had pronounced in his ear only a couple of months earlier. Now who was it? Suddenly he remembered Sarah Blum and the synagogue group in Forest Hill.

One of the stones was decorated with a Jewish star, signifying a male, and the other bore the female symbol of a menorah: they obviously belonged to a man and wife. He approached the man’s stone and cleared away the high snow with his boot. The name Samuel came into view along with the dates 1875-1938 and the legend Beloved husband, father and grandfather. You will live forever in memory.

He couldn’t recall the first name of the man Sarah Blum was seeking, but he knew it wasn’t Samuel. Besides, this Samuel was too old to have been a child in the photograph she had shown him; perhaps he was the father. He considered phoning her: he could easily attain her number from the leader of the synagogue group. But what would he say? That he had found a tombstone that, in all likelihood, wasn’t the one she was looking for?

He gave a parting glance at the two headstones and continued through the snow.

 

IV

Driving Josh home from school one afternoon, Sarah made a detour into Forest Hill and pulled into a familiar driveway.

“Hey! This is Bubbie’s house,” the boy said.

“Yes, angel.”

“Is she home now?”

“No. She went to Florida.”

“She isn’t sick any more? She’s all better?”

“Yes,” Sarah said. “So much better that she went to Fort Lauderdale.” Sarah recalled that Pearl’s doctor had approved of the Florida trip at Pearl’s three-month checkup.

She let Josh play in the backyard so he wouldn’t have to take off his winter things. Inside the house, as soon as she had taken off her boots, she went to one of the back windows. Josh was walking diagonally across the yard, cutting a fresh set of tracks through the snow.

She watered the plants, checked the thermostat, collected the flyers from the side door. As always, the framed photograph of her father, dashingly handsome in his army uniform, caught her eye. She stopped by the stairs to study his face. Even after two years, how she missed him! As if to find comfort she looked in the yard again at Josh, now on his knees, struggling to push a snowball as big as himself.

Sitting for a moment in one of the kitchen chairs, she listened to the reassuring sounds of the empty house; the subdued hum of the refrigerator, the hushed whoosh of the furnace, the tiny reverberations from the world outside this protective cocoon. Sometimes at moments like these, she believed that houses had spirits—spirits that were occasionally malignant, it was true, but more usually benign, watchful and loving.

Afternoon shadows were lengthening. She got up, put on her coat and boots, and went to get Josh for the ride home.

 

V

It was a prematurely warm, overcast Sunday morning in spring—early May, to be more exact—just before the high season for unveilings.

Despite the slight drizzle, a lean, dark-haired man was standing amidst the tombstones, clipboard in hand. When the drizzle suddenly became a downpour, he shoved the clipboard under his arm and raced to the undertaker’s brick shed by the fence. He stopped in the doorway, half protected by the eaves, standing apprehensively as though unsure what the shed might contain.

The interior was dark and at first he didn’t see her. She was sitting on a bench, surrounded by shovels and hoes and a few dishevelled cartons of old religious books, awaiting ceremonial burial. She was dressed in a windbreaker, kerchief, modest skirt and boots.

“Why, hello there! It’s David Lazarus, isn’t it? I was wondering when I might see you again.”

“Sarah Blum! Why, hello!”

“Please come in—you’re getting soaked.”

Lightning flashed as he crossed the threshold and entered the brick shed; he left the door open. He removed his drenched jacket, wiped the drops from his clipboard, shook the rain from his head, and gestured hopelessly at the wetness of his things.

“This,” he said, “is what the weatherman calls a ten per cent chance of precipitation.”

She laughed. “I startled you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Well, you did, just a little. What are you doing here?”

“Searching for my grandparents.”

“The Galanters?

“Yes. Sam and Minnie.”

“I think I can help you. I believe I spotted them last winter in the B’nai Abraham section. When the rain lets up, I’ll show you.”

“How fortunate!” she said. “You must have a photographic memory.”

“Not really, just selective. It’s an unusual name.”

“Yes it is. My grandfather used to claim that everyone with that name was related.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised; it’s a rare name. It comes from the Polish word for ‘haberdasher.’ In the early nineteenth century, when most Polish-Jewish names were fixed, one of your ancestors might have been a haberdasher.”

“Really! I never imagined a name could reveal a thing like that.”

“You’d be surprised. Sometimes you hear a name and you know exactly what region the family came from. Sometimes even the town.”

“I had no idea.”

“The past always draws a cloak of silence and darkness around itself, yet it often leaves clues and traces. It’s up to the genealogist to find and interpret them.”

This sounded vaguely familiar to Sarah; then she remembered she had heard him speak those words, or others very similar, to her synagogue group. There was a dull, distant roll of thunder, and she shifted on the bench.

“I watched you working out there, writing things down,” she said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m one of the volunteers recording the burials of Roselawn Cemetery. We’ve been transcribing the tombstones for three years now. It’s our Beit Ha-Chaim project.”

“Beit Ha-Chaim?”

“That’s the Hebrew name for a cemetery. Literally, it means ‘the house of the living.’”

“How odd. I wonder why they call it that?”

“When you spend time in a cemetery, you begin to understand. The stones come alive. Each one tells a story.”

“Is that what you do? Write down their stories?”

“Sort of. We record inscriptions. Eventually we’ll put the whole cemetery into a computer database.”

Lightning flashed, momentarily illuminating the interior of the shed. Sarah looked out at the rain plummeting onto the grass and the stones. The storm seemed to be easing up a little.

“How many graves are there at Roselawn, any idea?”

“We figure about ten thousand.”

“Do you happen to recall seeing one for Morris Galanter?”

“Your uncle? Was he buried here?”

“I’m not sure that he was buried anywhere. He was born about 1905, and I have no conclusive proof that he’s dead. But wait. He probably wouldn’t be buried here, anyhow, since I found out that he became a Christian.”

“Just as I had suspected. You’ve confirmed it?”

“Yes. I tracked down a former neighbor—using old telephone books, like you said. Reuben Golembek lived right next door to the Galanters. He’s now in his late eighties and lives at the Baycrest Terrace.”

“Excellent work, Sarah. What did he have to say?”

“He told me that Morris had fallen in love with a girl named Mary—an Anglican. Her family wasn’t particularly keen on Jews. As you know, that was the era when No Dogs or Jews signs were put up at the Beaches. So Morris converted at the age of nineteen.”

“I surmise your grandparents weren’t very pleased.”

“It broke their hearts. They disowned him and threw him out into the street. You have to understand—my grandparents were orthodox. For them, to have a son convert was a rejection of everything they held sacred. Afterwards they sat shiva for him as though he had died. They supposedly never saw him again, and never permitted his name to be mentioned in their presence.”

“That’s rather extreme, isn’t it?”

“By today’s standards, yes. But that’s what many Jewish people did in those days.”

“Does your mother remember any of this?”

“She was six, maybe seven, at the time, so it’s entirely possible. But I haven’t told her about my detective work. I’m waiting to see where it leads.”

A parade of raindrops was dripping from the eavestrough, drumming rhythmically against the ground, and the sky was still concealed by dark clouds. But a woman walking along the sidewalk had tentatively closed and lowered her umbrella.

“Looks like it’s stopped,” David said. “Maybe you’d like to visit your grandparents now?”

“Please.”

They stepped from the shed, threaded a respectful path between the graves. Near the B’nai Abraham section she slipped on the grass and he caught her—and held her for perhaps a moment longer than strictly necessary as she regained her balance. It seemed an awkward, forbidden place for such a casual intimacy, and this more than anything made her pull away from him with considerable determination. . . .

(End of excerpt)

From The House of the Living, by Bill Gladstone. Available as a Kindle e-book. Click here to see the e-book on Amazon.com.

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