Chapter 1

Tzipora Finkel Bryer wiped her eyes. She was feeling weepy again. She put down the paper and slumped in the cane- backed chair in her bedroom, where she spent much of her time these days. Around her were the shades of silk her decorator had chosen—melon, lemon, and robin’s egg blue—but tonight the pastels did not calm her; she felt particularly restless and nervous. She leaned her hands on the French provincial desk, usually reserved for paying bills, and looked at the brown spots on her wrinkled hands. They were indeed the hands of an old woman, and she knew it, though the engagement ring and wedding band her now-dead husband had given her fifty-five years before still sparkled on her finger.

Tzippy groaned and hit herself in the chest. She was suffering heartburn from the noodle kugel and herring with cream sauce. Earlier, she and Angie—her live-in maid of thirty-eight years, who did all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry—had eaten the rich fare Selma’s daughter had served after the funeral, then driven home to her seaside apartment in Bal Harbour. Angie was already in bed. The only food that agreed with Tzippy these days was hot water and saltines. She coughed and spat incessantly, wadding up her soiled tissues and throwing them into a basket by her crumpled bed. She half wondered if she would even wake up the next morning.

She sighed and tried reading the paper again, her red half- glasses still perched on the bridge of her fine aquiline nose, but all she could think about was her dear friend Selma Grossman, her cherry wood casket being lowered into the rectangular grave. She shook her head, trying to dispel the image. Too many of her friends were dying. How long did she have?

Just twelve days earlier, Tzippy and her beau of three years, Stan, had celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Fontainebleau Hotel’s Y2K party, and the world hadn’t ended. The year 2000 had started right on schedule; only Selma had died.

As a youngster, Tzippy had rarely thought about death. Once, a friend’s father had fallen off his bike and died of a heart attack while riding in the park with his son. The incident had shocked Tzippy, had caused her little heart to flutter with disbe- lief. But mostly, she’d been safe from thoughts of her life ending. Of course, as a child she couldn’t wait to be in the front of the line, waving her hand, beseeching the teacher to choose her. Her heart had brimmed with expectation. Now she prayed she wouldn’t die on the toilet seat like Elvis Presley.

Poor Selma had died in her sleep. Half the synagogue had turned out for the funeral. Everyone had loved Selma, with her hearty laugh and generous spirit. For ten years, ever since her husband, Milt, had died, she had paid for the entire spread on Yom Kippur when the congregation broke its fast.

Tzippy had not been so extravagant with her money since Benny had passed—or at least she hadn’t spent it frivolously on others. Tzippy didn’t want to end up like Esther Berger, her old friend from West Belchertown, who had to live with her daugh- ter, a girl with limited parenting and domestic skills and a cheap husband. No, Tzippy did not want to be at anyone’s mercy.

There had been a good turnout for Selma at Mount Abrams Jewish Cemetery. Three of Selma’s piano students had attended, young children looking scared and sad, standing off to the side, each holding the hand of a grown-up, probably one of their par- ents. Selma had taught them how to play and told them, “You need to bring music into the world.” Tzippy shook her head in amazement, thinking about how her friend, eighty-five-year-old Selma, had given piano lessons right up to the end. She had to admit this giving spirit made her uncomfortable.

Rachel Levin had been there with her Hispanic driver. Since she’d had a stroke, she hadn’t been able to get around alone. “I can’t even put on my own pantyhose,” she lamented. But she looked good, despite her troubles. Dr. Nathan and his new wife had also attended. He was a podiatrist, which had been his father’s occupation. He came from Brooklyn, had gone to Brook- lyn College on the GI Bill, and had a brother in the diamond business. The new wife was pretty and twenty years younger, which annoyed Tzippy. She resented men’s having the advan- tage, trading their wives in like old cars. Still, she had managed to have her own way when she’d wanted it. She smiled, remem- bering Claude, her young lover. She liked being a rebel, still did.

Loyal, loving Stan had stood by her side at the gravesite and rubbed her arm when she wept as the rabbi finished his eulogy, extolling Selma’s virtues and laying her to rest. Stan and Selma, they were the good ones. Tzippy’s favorite sisters, Sophia and Julia, were buried at the cemetery, along with their husbands. Ben’s golfing and gin rummy buddies, Milt Lieberman and Jerry Katz, were also interred there. It was like a small reunion park.

Now, she tried to think of cheerier things. She leafed through the January 2000 Vogue and admired the skinny models with their arched eyebrows and flawless complexions. There had been a time when she looked that attractive. Hadn’t she caught her husband by wearing that wonderful French green chapeau with the sequined heart? Yes, she had been a looker.

Unable to concentrate, she put her magazine down on top of her unpaid bills and checkbook. Perhaps she’d feel better if she lay down. She turned up the air conditioner and looked out the window to the east, where the vast ocean crashed and rolled, making her feel small and insignificant. She admired the cher- ub-bedecked porcelain lamps with ivory shades on each of her night tables. Such pretty lighting, she mused. That decorator Arietta Flock sure had known her business.

She decided to undress and get into bed. With her pink night jacket covering her shoulders, the lamp still on, and her red half- glasses on her nose, she picked up the remote. She checked the TV for an old movie, maybe Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman— Tzippy appreciated a sexy man. She still had a good eye, even half-blind. But there was nothing.

In the morning, she would take a bath and then go to her appointment with Maria, her hairdresser. She needed to have her hair combed for the day and also to discuss a new style for her birthday party. Maybe she’d invest in another hairpiece to cover the bald spot on the back of her head—something fuller and with more blond highlights. On a pad, she wrote down the few errands she had to run. She had to go to Saks for the final fitting on her suit; she still didn’t want to spend the money on the matching aubergine heels. Eggplant! Prada shoes were too damn expensive.

Just as she was calculating the cost of the entire birthday outfit, the phone rang. It was Shari, Tzippy’s youngest and most challenging child, calling from Massachusetts.

“Mom, how are you? Did I call too late?” she said.

“Oh, sweetheart, it’s good to hear your voice. No, I just got into bed to rest. It’s been a tough day.”

“What happened?”

“I went to Selma’s funeral—Selma Grossman, you remember her—and it depressed me so. I can’t stand all these people dying. I’ll be next.”

“Quit being morbid, will you?”

“Selma was a good woman. Her piano students were there. You should have heard what the rabbi said. What a mensch, he said. Everyone was crying. I wonder what they’ll say when I die.”

 “They’ll say you were a character, Mom. One of a kind. They’ll say you drove me crazy but I loved you anyhow.”

“Did I drive you crazy?”

“You know you did. I nearly starved myself to death because of you.”

 

​​​​Tzippy The Thief

A First Novel By Patricia Striar Rohner

Publication: She Writes Press, October 2016