The House on Lincoln Avenue
You’d laugh if you saw where I live. It was fine when we first moved in, my husband Harry, our eldest daughter Joanie, and then, to our infinite sorrow, Peter. He has the family disease. Summers I sit up on the front porch like a queen reigning over her tiny kingdom of houses.
Though not exactly a castle, it’s a large, stately white home with pillars on the front porch. Strong, egalitarian, freshly white-washed by Peter, who serves as my page, I am sorry to say, for he’s never left home. He takes medicine and though it dampens the voices, he’s too frightened to leave Mama’s side. Our neighbor, Carmen Pileggi, the famous landscaper and builder of parks and a little league baseball field, hired Peter to work for him. It did not work out. Peter’s voices got harsher and meaner. When he disappeared one night, and I was wild with fright, the police brought him home at four in the morning. He was sitting on the grass near the railroad tracks.
My breasts have seen better days. Whereas my once starburst melons dazzled my late husband and a beau or two after he was gone, I don’t have to tell you what they look like now. Simply check “National Geographic” at Burdick’s Newstand in neighboring Hatboro, Pennsylvania. “Mom,” said Peter, as he stuck his head through the front door. “I’m going to put the chicken in the oven.”
“You do what you want, Pietro,” I said and held up the book on my lap. “I’ll come in after a while. This is my reading time.”
As the door shut, I glimpsed our jeweled mezuzah on the doorpost. God must have had his reasons for making Peter the way he is. After many years, I stopped praying for his recovery. Slipping my bookmark into the book, I looked around at the view–the sun was slowly closing her eyes and making ready for the show she puts on every single night. Reluctant as toddlers are to fall asleep, the sun would carry on for hours, with a show of seemingly endless beauty. One never tires of the spectacle.
Naturally, my thoughts always turn to Peter. This now 63-year-old man, who walks with the stoop of the shamed, once stood tall with pride. To see him now, looking quite the pale, balding fool, you would never believe he was headed to Harvard and was captain of the football team. From our house on Lincoln Avenue, you can still hear the roar of the crowd at the Upper Moreland Stadium, two miles away, and on dark nights, when not a star shines in the sky, the stadium lights shoot into the sky like silver moonbeams, making me believe I am young and beautiful again and that everything is possible.
His first symptoms were barely noticeable. He began to avoid parties.
“Oh, I’m just tired, Mom, and want to stay home.” He’d lock himself in his bedroom, turn on loud rock music and not emerge until morning. I believe, in hindsight, the voices had arrived and he used the radio to mask them.
A legion of young women would call him. He was very popular. But Beth, Rhoda, Marilyn, and Joanne never received call backs. The disease was their rival, entrenching itself in his brain. Destroying it, bit by bit, like a ripe peach rotting on the tree.
Do you know how many psychiatrists we saw? How much money we spent? My Harry took time off from the orchestra–he was first violinist of the Philadelphia Orchestra–and we did the rounds of every psychiatrist from Philadelphia to Princeton to New York City.
Every single one of the sons of b’s gave my Peter the same unsavory diagnosis, which I have never accepted. Just the mention of the ugly name and you want to propel yourself to a distant star. Oh, certainly, he hears voices in his head. And, certainly his life is, sorry to say, not worth a peppermint melting on your tongue.
My handsome Peter began to lose his good looks as he lurched into his thirties. That’s when life was the worse for him, with remembrances of who he used to be, and who he had become. The muscles he’d acquired as an athlete–football, tennis with the girls, jogging around the Upper Moreland High School track–turned to flab and his whole countenance changed. He was now a man you would pass on the street and never glance at. He had nothing to offer.
He continued to walk the streets of our town. What else was there to do? He was unable to sit still. The voices pushed him onward. You should have seen those boy’s sneakers worn almost all the way through. Years ago, he and I had a battle. The left shoe had a huge hole, which he stuffed with cardboard like a homeless man. My boy will never be homeless, though God only knows where he’ll go after I croak.
He began to visit a small church, whose roof I could see from the front porch. He made it part of his daily routine.
“Mom,” he told me one day when he was in his early forties. “I’d like you and Dad to come meet a new friend of mine.”
We got into our black Buick and Harry drove down our long steep driveway–never in reverse, you’d get the feeling your brakes would give out and you’d speed into the street–and within 10 minutes, the three of us arrived at the tiny, white-steepled Willow Grove Bible Church.
It was right before Christmas, not our holiday, and a carpet of red poinsettias lined the hallway as we entered Pastor Ken’s office. A beautiful wooden cross hung on the wall. A window gave a view out onto the town of Willow Grove, with a famous spaghetti and meatball restaurant across the street.
Pastor Ken was younger than Peter, with a thick shock of steel-gray hair which flopped onto his forehead. A shiny silver wedding band stuck tight on his finger. The pastor, you could tell, loved to eat, with his tweed jacket draping over his well-fed belly. Harry, Peter and I sat in upholstered blue chairs at a round table, and the pastor joined us. What kindly blue eyes he had.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Schneerman,” he said.
“Please! Freda and Harry,” I said holding out my hand.
He launched into a passionate story of his life.
“I was quite the rebel,” he said, “until I learned the ways of the Lord.” He’d flown in the Air Force and embarked on the usual profane ways of servicemen. Staring up at us, as if looking for forgiveness, he said, “I was quite the prodigal son, drowning in debauchery.”
Of course I thought about Harry, sitting there in his dyed black hair in a blue plaid shirt, who had a similar reputation at the orchestra. Women love men in authority. Men who were sure of themselves. “I’ll never divorce my wife,” he would tell them, and in spite of his Lothario ways, we had a wonderful marriage.
The pastor smiled and steepled his hands.
“Your Peter reminds me of my twin brother,” he said.
Twin brother? What was coming next? I wondered.
“Karl had a most unhappy life. We were very different. He met his death when–Peter knows all this–when he thought he was Peter Pan and flew off the roof to his death.”
He put his hands around his face and we could hear him breathing.
Harry and I shook our heads, while Peter seemed not to have heard a word.
“What I’m thinking,” said Pastor Ken, “is that if it’s amenable with the two of you and Peter, I’d like to have him volunteer for the church. Little things. At Christmas, we deliver care packages to the poor and needy.”
Harry and I looked at one another and nodded.
“We’ll let him use the car,” I said to the pastor. “He’s a very good driver.”
This is how Peter, for the first time in 40 years, began to live a life of meaning. The next day, Peter and I drove out to the church.
“We have a saying in Yiddish,” I told the pastor. “B’shert.” Finding what is meant to be. Peter rarely participates in conversations, either because they don’t interest in him, or because his voices demand his full attention. The pastor helped us load our black Buick with care packages and red poinsettias. Frozen turkey dinners, whole hams, cans of pineapple and cranberry sauce, and whole frozen pies from Mrs. Smith. Peter took great pleasure arranging them neatly in the car. I thought I even saw him crack a smile.
The pastor had given us a map of all the houses and apartments where we’d deliver the goodies. As Peter pulled the car into the Westbury Manor Apartments, he began to talk.
“Joanne Rubin lived here, Mom. She was one of the girls who liked me back when I had a brain.”
I laughed. “You’ve still got one, dear. Where do you suppose it’s gone?”
With his hands on the wheel, he said, “I always think of it as buried under a backyard rock. You know, that big black boulder in the backyard where Skippy and the rest of the turtles are buried.”
I wondered if he had told his psychiatrist, Murray Schatzman, about this, or anything else.
He steered the car into the parking lot of Westbury Manor.
“Her mom was a widow. They didn’t have much money.”
“I remember her,” I said.
He backed the car into a space and, with a quickness I hadn’t seen in decades, unloaded a couple of boxes filled with bounty from the kindness of these Christians.
The two of us carried them up the two flights of stairs. I was youngish back then, with plenty of energy to spare. He put his head to the door, which had a pinecone Christmas wreath on it.
He shook his head. “Don’t hear anyone inside,” he said, as he rapped loudly on the knocker.
“Coming!” we heard from a distant room. Then, “Mom’s not home and I’m not supposed to let anyone in.”
“We’re from the church,” I said.
“That’s different,” said the high-pitched voice, opening the door.
She was a cute little thing, blond hair, wearing an apron with flour on it.
“What’s your name, dear?” I asked.
“Annamarie,” she said in a lively voice. “And you’re in luck. I have two angel cookies that are cool enough to eat,” she said, running back into the kitchen.
We followed her and laid the two care packages onto the dining room table. Mail was strewn across the table and an open window looked out over bare trees.
Peter stuffed both cookies, replete with powdered sugar, into his mouth.
He nodded. “You’re a good cookie maker,” he said. “Thanks and a good holiday to you.”
Back in the car, I congratulated my son on his good manners. Don’t mind if I tell you I said a silent prayer, thanking God of this new opportunity to become a man.
The two of us made the rounds of a dozen houses. We were treated to pizelles, sugar cookies cut into every shape possible, including penguins, oatmeal cookies studded with chocolate chips, and lemon-chestnut cookies baked by an old Italian lady. Harry and I were so filled with hope, we felt like we were having our second honeymoon.
We invited his boss to our house for dinner one night, Eugene Ormandy, the famed conductor, Jewish, originally from Budapest.
“Madame Schneerman,” he said, kissing both my cheeks and speaking in his carefully crafted English. “You remind me of Manon in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.”
I laughed and gave him a playful shake on his shoulders.
“You men are too much,” I said. “Flattering a poor, gullible woman who loves every moment of it!” I laughed like a girl.
I winked at Harry, and invited the maestro to sit in the living room. Around the coffee table, I had placed long-stemmed wine glasses.
“Harry, how about a toast?”
Ormandy had dined with us before, and was very fond of my cooking. When we moved into the kitchen, I brought out the baked salmon with cucumber yogurt dressing, putting it on the place mats of peacocks we’d bought in Paris. Conversations focused around composers, divas, hardships of travel, and losing your luggage. The maestro, who was born Jeno Ormandy-Blau in Budapest, Americanized his name to Eugene Ormandy, and discussed the necessity of Gustav Mahler converting from Judaism to Catholicism in anti-Semitic Eastern Europe.
“You may laugh at me, Gene, but I still listen to the recording of you playing Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony,” I said. “Best version ever recorded.”
He blew me a kiss from across the table.
“Was there ever a more perfect piece than that?” smiled this robust, balding and vigorous individual.
Ormandy inquired about our son. We told him the good news about his volunteering for the church.
“Let him convert!” said Harry, pushing a Brussels sprout, covered in cheese, to the corner of his plate. “Let the boy live a life, finally!”
Peter wasn’t home. Since his new work at the church, we didn’t see much of him. A good kind of invisibility.
Yet, we were not really surprised when his volunteer work came to a halt. He returned home one day, locked himself in his room, and that was the end. Life repeating itself. I didn’t even call the pastor. Too sad, I suppose. Nor he did he phone me. What was the point?
The years went by. My poor Harry dropped dead of a heart attack while rehearsing a sprightly Handel piece at the Academy of Music: Music for the Royal Fireworks. Life returned to its normal ebb and flow. I volunteered at the hospital, continued to teach English composition part-time at the windy campus of Bucks County Community College, and Peter spent time locked in his room. His music had inexplicably changed to booming, pounding gospel. From our aerie on Lincoln Avenue, we could see the antenna of the gospel station in nearby Jenkintown.
We lived our separate lives except for the increasingly infrequent sharing of dinner. Gone were the days when he’d put the chicken in the oven or the frozen dinners in the microwave. Even into my eighties, I refused to think of the future. What would become of him without his white-haired mama.
At the Giant supermarket, I would ride in the aisles in a little wheelchair cart they provide for the elderly. It made it so much easier. And then a nice man, Fred, would put the grocery bags in the car. No tipping was allowed, but I pressed a few dollar bills into his hand.
I was probably the oldest person who shopped at Giant. It was not uncommon to meet friends and acquaintances, and we’d stop to talk, or meet in the coffee shop to have something to drink or eat a nice, fresh salad.
Elaine, a lovely woman from our Historical Association, or, as we jokingly called it, the Hysterical Association, mentioned “Peter and his daughter.”
“Elaine,” I said from my wheelchair cart. “What on Earth are you talking about? You know my son has no children. How could he?”
We retired to the coffee shop, where we sat across from one another. I sipped on a hazelnut decaf, while she had some sort of fragrant mint tea I could smell across the table.
“Freda,” she said. “I thought you knew.”
Certain she had made a mistake, I asked her to explain herself. And she did. Everyone knew about it, everyone except, you guessed it, Freda Schneerman.
That little girl at Westbury Manor, the one who fed us those delicious Christmas cookies, was apparently a child conceived years ago by my Peter.
The child, Annamarie, half-Jewish, the scion of a mentally ill man, was now in the third grade at Round Meadow Elementary School.
Third grade. Eight years old.
That son of mine is so strange. I will never understand him.
But one thing is for sure. Little Annamarie, whom I imagine is as blond as an angel and smart as her daddy’s side of the family, will soon add another member to her family.
And she will be called Bubby. Bubby Schneerman. And she and I will take our places high up on the front porch–not for long stretches of time, mind you–but just long enough so I can point out our little kingdom. And teach her “Bubby” is Yiddish for grandmother. My prayers have been answered. I can die knowing I’ve left a descendent to carry on the precious gifts of our bloodline.
#Fiction #RuthZDeming #TheHouseOnLincolnAvenue #ShortStory
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