Among Angelic Orders
Among Angelic Orders
“Angels, (they say) are often unable to tell
whether they move among living or dead.”
Rilke, the first Duino Elegy
There is a dark red night that follows the death of someone whose hands and voice we loved before our eyes could see a face. When both Molly’s grandmother and grandfather died last year, that red night spread itself across her life, and she tried each night, in dreaming, to bring them back.
Mornings, Molly sat at her kitchen table after Walter left for work and the children went to school. She remembered the mornings at her grandmother’s kitchen table, and she felt her grandmother’s presence so strong inside her that Molly wasn’t sure who she was anymore.
Molly visited her great-aunt Sophie every Thursday now. She took up her grandmother’s habit of the weekly visit to her only remaining sister, the baby of the family. On her last visit, the very day before Sophie died, Molly noticed, as she emerged from the subway, how much the neighborhood had changed since her childhood in the late 1940s. Now there were bodegas and carnicerias where there used to be stores like Mr. Shulman’s Strictly Glatt Kosher Butcher Shop, and the Valley Bakery, where Molly used to think the numbers tattooed on the ladies’ arms corresponded to the numbers on the ticket stubs you took to wait your turn.
On the outer door of her aunt’s building, a sign warned “This Lobby Patrolled By The Tenant’s Association,” and Molly pictured the patrolling tenants, tiny Jewish and Hispanic women in their eighties. Aunt Sophie still had friends in the building, but what really locked her into this place was memory, almost everything she had ever loved and hated. Molly thought with sadness and pity of her aunt’s lonely apartment, which for so many years, offered Sophie not one moment’s privacy.
She pressed the buzzer that still bore her Uncle’s name and heard Sophie’s unmistakable voice, like Gravel Gertie locked in mortal combat with Tugboat Annie.
“Molly?” she gargled. “All right. Come up, doll.”
The buzzer sounded and Molly pushed the door open into the cool, dark, art-deco lobby. She blinked and shuffled until her eyes adjusted. It was like coming in late to the movies. Then Molly turned left at the enormous blue-tinted Hollywood mirror and walked straight until she reached the elevator.
Molly lived in this building until she was eight and had always used the stairs because the elevator was built over an underground stream that wreaked havoc with its electrical connections. You could make several trips to the roof and down to the basement before the elevator stopped at the fourth floor.
Molly heard Aunt Sophie’s phlegmy laugh echoing down the shaft as she rose from the first floor to the second, third and fourth. Molly thought her aunt would be alone this morning. It was too early for visiting neighbors. Who else was in there with her, at 9:30 in the morning?
Aunt Sophie pulled the elevator door open.
“Molly!” she hollered. “Just like a little doll. You lost some weight.”
Sophie was dressed sporty. Navy slacks, navy sweater, navy suede loafers, navy scarf. Today even her eyebrows, plucked out in the late 1920s, were navy.
As a child Molly could look at photographs and tell if someone in the photo had died since it was taken, or if their death was imminent. She was famous for it in the family, until she learned to keep things to herself. Molly saw those people bathed in white, as though they were being bleached or were fading from the picture. This was how Sophie appeared to her now.
From the foyer Molly could see into the living room, where Sophie and Uncle Dave slept on a Castro Convertible for twenty-five years, so their son could have the bedroom. As usual, sofa pillows were plumped, patterns vacuumed on the carpet, Nestle’s miniatures and mixed nuts sat in little dishes on every flat surface.
But when she turned toward the kitchen to have a quiet breakfast with her aunt, Molly saw other figures at the table, and they struck joy and terror in her heart. Her beloved grandmother and all her aunts, Sophie’s older sisters, those lively goddesses, all dead now for five years or more, were ensconced around the plastic-covered table, drinking coffee. Here were the usual gas stove, the icebox, the tiny window overlooking the courtyard, the round fluorescent lamp above the table. But the room was bathed in a strong white glow which seemed to have no source.
Molly’s grandmother sat, still erect and handsome in her nineties, with matching gold earrings and bracelets, a twisted rope of gold around her neck; Aunt Emma, her upswept hair still dark and held by tortoise shell combs, reading glasses on a chain around her neck; Aunt Celia in her wheelchair, grinning foolishly; Aunt Goldie, the family story-teller, red-haired and vivacious, and Aunt Gussie, dry and brittle, her few hairs permed and pinkish blond, but chic in black wool crepe.
Molly thought, what kind of world is this that the dead and the living can be at the same party? How can the dead sisters be here with me and Sophie?
She knew, of course, they were not among the living. Molly had gone to every funeral.
“Come back, come back!” she had wanted to yell. But she knew for most of them it was long past time to go.
Aunt Goldie pulled a chair out next to her and patted it.
“Nu, Molly, you’re surprised to see us?”
Molly sat down and watched the rise and fall of Goldie’s chest. “Moll,” Goldie said, “we were talking about Celia’s Marshall, when he chartered a plane for us to go to Israel for his Robert’s bar mitzvah. Do you remember?”
Marshall was Molly’s rich cousin. He had married a millionaire’s daughter and lived in Switzerland for the summer and Israel for the winter. Aunt Goldie had died of a heart attack in 1975 in Florence, Italy while on a Supersaver Tour of Famous Romantic Places. But now she was sitting next to Molly in a stylish green wool sheath and coral earrings, her red hair cropped short. No huffing and puffing. No angina. She seemed in perfect health.
Aunt Emma passed the coffee cake. “Molly was married to the doctor then,” she said. “Is that why you didn’t come, Molly? Or were you just scared of flying, like Sophie?”
Molly looked over at her to see if she wanted an answer, but Sophie had already taken the bait.
“I never flew in a plane my whole life,” Sophie said. “I was going to start for that pisher Marshall? Never mind he’s a millionaire. Excuse me, Celia.”
She checked to see if her sister had taken offense, but Celia was still chortling to herself and grinning. Sophie got up from the table and took a bottle of seltzer out of her tiny Fridgidaire. She spritzed some into a yahrzeit glass, probably the same glass that once held a candle on the death anniversary of one of these sisters who now sat at her table, eating her superlative chopped liver.
“Anyhow,” Gussie said to Sophie, “it’s better you didn’t come. We were scared out of our wits. You would’ve had a heart attack up there.”
Sophie had a heart attack that year anyway, Molly thought, but nobody pointed it out.
Emma passed rye bread down the table. “Molly,” she said, “so why did you divorce the doctor?”
“Miss High-and-Mighty,” Gussie muttered. “A doctor wasn’t good enough for her.”
Goldie leaned over. “Ignore her, Molly,” she whispered. “She’s jealous her Paula never got married and you did it twice.”
“Maybe,” said Molly’s grandmother, “they didn’t get along. Maybe he wasn’t such a nice person. They weren’t compatible.”
“So who was compatible?” Gussie snorted. “Who got along? Maybe we fought like cats and dogs, but we all stayed married. And we were perfectly happy. We didn’t change husbands all the time like you change your underpants.” She brushed crumbs off the chest of her black dress.
Five years ago Gussie broke her hip, went to the hospital, fell out of the bed while putting on her makeup and had an embolism. But now, Molly observed, she seemed to be sitting in perfect comfort, and she had retained her girlish figure. The wool crepe really looked good on her.
“So nu, tocca?” Emma said. “What about the new husband, the musician, is he any better?” She put her reading glasses on from the chain around her neck. Emma was the family scholar. She had translated all of Macbeth into Yiddish.
“He’s not such a new husband anymore,” said Molly. “It’s been five years since you all passed away.”
“Passed ON,” Emma corrected. “We didn’t go away.”
Molly said, “We’re doing O.K., but he’s not a musician anymore. He’s in law school.”
“A lawyer, yet,” Gussie said. She dug her elbow into Emma and Molly could see the elbow pass through her great-aunt’s body. “What does she have that my Paula doesn’t?”
“Gussie, stop comparing already,” Sophie said. “Goldie was telling a story.”
Goldie took a sip of her coffee. “Where was I? Yes—on the plane to Israel.” She took a deep breath. “Then, two hours after we took off, when we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Gussie’s granddaughter Ruthie looks out the window and starts shrieking.”
“‘Ma’,” she screams at Camille. ‘Ma, the wing’s on fire!’” Goldie said, “The pilot got onto the loudspeaker. Nobody breathed. You wouldn’t believe such quiet from this family.”
“‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the pilot said, ‘we lost an engine. We’re going back to New York.’”
Gussie put a cigarette into its holder.
She said, “I told the stewardess, ‘Break out the goddamn liquor. We might as well go down drunk.’ By the time we landed in New York, we were so shikker nobody cared if we were up or down.”
“We cared, Gussie,” Emma said. “We just couldn’t tell the difference.”
Molly saw her grandmother breaking little bits of coffee cake and arranging them on her plate. Molly knew she was nervous, remembering this plane flight on which half of her family could have died. Usually she would be reaching out for Molly’s hand, smoothing Molly’s rough knuckles with her soft palm. But no one was touching her today.
Maybe this was the custom among the dead, Molly thought. If so, she wasn’t sure being dead was such a picnic. Molly liked touching, hugging, kissing. On the other hand, these people, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, for whom she was so pathetically in mourning, they did not miss each other. They were in good company.
Molly felt something terrifying in this group. They were slightly transparent, but they were solid of spirit and no longer fragile with age. Nobody hurt, fidgeted, sweated, was incontinent. Molly felt vaporous and unconnected. She was inconsequential next to them.
“They gave us such a nice room, when we landed back in New York,” Molly’s grandmother said, “like for a meeting, but all full of folding beds and a big pot of coffee with crackers and cheese.”
“Yeah. Very nice, Fanny,” Aunt Gussie said. “One bathroom for thirty people.”
“Remember, Fanny, what you said to me on the telephone?” Sophie asked her. “You called me from the motel. ‘Hello, Sophie,’ you said. ‘We’re on the ground!’”
“‘So soon you got to Israel?’ I said.’”
“‘Well,’ you said, ‘we’re not in Israel exactly.’”
Sophie and I shuddered, thinking of the engine on fire. But the dead aunts laughed recklessly, their white glow deepening. Their real deaths behind them, this almost-death had become a joke.
Celia was choking on her coffee cake, but nobody pounded her back as they used to. She just kept laughing and choking, spitting pieces of walnut onto her lap.
“Then what?” asked Molly.
“Then,” Goldie said, “somebody called up Marshall in Israel and he managed to charter us another plane, El Al this time, and we took off again at four a.m.”
“Yah,” Celia croaked, her mouth still full. “My Marshall knows everybody, all the big shots. Two planes he finagled, not just one, and all the way from Israel.”
“Right,” said Gussie, “and one of the planes didn’t catch fire. Nice odds, Celia.”
Molly’s grandmother changed the subject.
“How are the children, Molly? They are in good health? They do well in school?”
Molly rolled her eyes.
“Ben’s asthma is better, but school is a sore point.” She took a gulp of seltzer.
Goldie said, “But they’re both such bright boys. They could read and do arithmetic before they even went to kindergarten.”
“I know,” Molly said. “They figured it out from baseball cards. They’re fine on their own. They just can’t learn anything at school. I hate sending them every morning. Nobody loves them there.”
She paused, taking some farmer’s cheese on her plate.
“I’ve thought of keeping Sammy home. He spends more time in the principal’s office than in class.”
“What does he do, they should take him out of class?” asked Emma. She peered at Molly through her reading glasses.
“He taps pencils,” said Molly, “asks too many questions, asks the wrong questions. He wants to go to the bathroom when they think he shouldn’t. They want to kick him out of the fifth grade and put him in a special class with other kids they think are trouble.”
“My Gerald was the same, Steven’s youngest,” said Sophie. “All the time with the questions. And look, now they took him at Brown’s University.”
“You know,” Molly’s grandmother said, “I kept your father home from school eight years. Until high school. He was smarter than all the others, so he learned at home from books I got him.”
“Really?” said Molly. “Eight years?”
“Sure,” said Sophie. “He was a genius. We used to ask him all sorts of complicated arithmetic problems when he was a little kid in a stroller. He had a lisp, you know. You could go ‘Willie, what’s four times nine and twenty-three plus four divided by nine?’ and he would say ‘Theven’ right off the bat, before you could figure it out yourself.”
“Hmm,” said Molly. “I’ve been wanting to quit my job and stay home with Sammy.”
“You have a job?” asked Emma.
“Just part-time. With Walter in law school and only working half-time.”
“What about graduate school?” said Goldie. She took out a pack of Kents and offered one to Molly.
“I went,” Molly said and declined the cigarette, “but it was too much with the kids, and Walter in school. I’ll finish later.”
Molly’s grandmother shook her head sorrowfully. “Yes,” she said. “You get what you get in life, and you make of it the best you can. Tell us, your health is all right? No more of those headaches?”
Molly hesitated. “I’m all right. I miss you, though. I really do. Who can I call up in the morning?”
The aunts smiled at each other and nodded. They liked being remembered. Only Molly’s grandmother seemed truly distressed. She slumped in her chair, arms folded in front of her, anguish her only departure from perfect posture.
“So, nu,” said Goldie. “You want to hear the rest of this story or don’t you?”
“Certainly,” the sisters said. “Of course.” They had always preferred comedy to drama.
“At three o’clock in the morning,” said Goldie, “they wake us up and load us onto a bus. A plane is waiting for us at LaGuardia. Camille won’t get on. She can’t get it out of her head how her kid saw the wing on fire, so Harold gives her a shove.
“‘We’re going,’ he says. ‘It couldn’t happen twice in the same night.’”
“‘It could happen,’ Camille says. ‘And I’m not going.’”
“‘Camille,’ he says, ‘you’re getting your ass on that plane or we’re getting a divorce. I’m not throwing away a free trip to Israel.’”
“That Harold was always cheap,” said Gussie. “Pass the chopped liver down this way, Sophie.”
“Be quiet, let her finish,” Emma said.
Goldie gestured thanks to Emma and continued. “When we got to the airport they told us we had to get onto another bus, a shuttle they called it. The plane is all the way out in a field, God knows where, and they can’t bring it up to the gate. So we all pile into the shuttle bus, and we’re sitting there very quiet, driving out to the runway in the pitch black night, and my brilliant sister Celia starts kvelling. She’s so pleased with her Marshall negotiating for a plane all the way from Israel, she pipes up, ‘Goldie, it’s a smooth ride so far, nu, Goldie? My Marshall got us good plane this time. Hah?’”
The sisters were laughing now, even Molly’s grandmother who didn’t like to make fun.
Celia was laughing also, spittle running down her chin.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “What was so funny?”
“Celia,” Sophie said, “you weren’t on the plane yet. It was only the bus to the plane. You were still on the ground.”
Molly wanted to laugh with them, glow white, become transparent. She felt as though wings were flapping around her and she was caught in mid-flight. Molly remembered putting out her hand with a roll in it to a flock of pigeons in front of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital on 168th Street when she was three years old. She hoped a pigeon would alight on her fingers and take her offering. But suddenly all the pigeons flew up and started pecking at the roll, from the air, from her hand, her arm, her shoulders. It was overwhelming. The pigeons were stronger than she was. It took her breath away.
Molly reached out to grab her grandmother, as she had done when she was a child.
“Let me stay with you!” she said, “like Aunt Sophie. I don’t want to lose you again.”
Her fingers touched the air. Molly’s grandmother didn’t move, but Molly couldn’t reach her. She seemed very far away. The others looked on, undisturbed.
Sophie took Molly’s hand in hers.
“Come with me,” she said, and escorted her to the foyer.
“Molly,” she said. “They don’t care anymore. Together, alone, dead, alive, dreaming, awake, chopped liver, no chopped liver. It doesn’t matter to them. They don’t feel anything. They take what they can get.”
“Why do they come to you and not to me?” Molly asked.
“You didn’t come here today?” Sophie said. “Who invited you? You think it’s an accident? No. You knew to be here just like I do.”
Sophie put her hand on Molly’s cheek. “You’re a young girl, Molly. You’ll go now. Before you can’t.”
But Molly didn’t want to. There was no one like these women anymore. When Sophie died, their kind would be gone from the earth forever.
“Molly,” Sophie hollered. “Listen to me!”
From the other room, Aunt Goldie called, “What’s going on out there? Sophie, you’re spoiling the party. Come back in here. I remembered the story about Jack’s brother.”
Jack’s brother? Molly was dying to hear that story. Goldie had never told it before, on account of loyalty, but if she was telling it now, nothing could keep Molly away from that kitchen.
“Molly,” Sophie whispered. “Molly stop! You have children! You have a husband!”
Always the same issue. At her grandmother’s grave, Molly’s cousin Sylvia admonished her, “Stop crying, you have a family!”
“Leave the child alone,” Molly’s grandmother called from the kitchen. “You’re annoying her, Sophie. You make such distinctions.”
“Why,” Molly asked Sophie, “is it all right for you to do this and not me?”
“Because,” she said, thumping her chest and wheezing. “Because,” she said, “I gave up already.”
Now Molly was looking past Sophie at her credenza in the foyer, crammed with fifty year’s accumulation of clothing, gifts, dishes, magazines, matchbooks, and perfume samples.
Sophie took a Lucky Strike from a silver cup next to the matchbooks. “Most of the people I love are gone,” she said. “All I have is what they left. For you it’s different. Don’t you want to get inscribed in the Book of Life?”
“Maybe not,” Molly said. “I’m getting tired of all these good-byes.”
“So stay a little longer,” called Aunt Emma.
“You see how it is with them,” Aunt Sophie said, “even their hearing improves.”
“It couldn’t hurt, another drop of coffee,” Molly’s grandmother said.
Molly turned to go back to the kitchen, but Sophie grabbed her arm. “No,” she whispered. “Don’t go back there. Be a good girl. You haven’t lived enough. You have to bring something to death when you get there.”
Aunt Sophie put her arms around Molly and held her too tight, Molly could smell her Lucky Strikes and the chopped liver on her breath.
The other aunts were moving through the foyer now. She saw them, even more transparent in the big mirror than in person. They were hovering around Sophie and Molly. The dead aunts reached out to her and Molly heard their long finger nails clicking on the credenza, the lamp base, the mirror.
Sophie turned the three locks on the door and pushed Molly into the hall. She could still hear her grandmother’s voice.
“Sophie, darling,” she said, “you remembered the chicken for her to take home?”
Molly wanted to look back once more, to see them just one more time, but the door slammed and Sophie’s eye appeared at the peephole.
“Go,” she gargled.
Molly went down the stairs and each floor smelled familiar to her, like years of her childhood, her adolescence and the birth of her children. In the lobby she was startled to see herself a shadow in the blue Hollywood mirror.
And then she was in the courtyard. There was the sunlight, the empty air. Here was the sidewalk—concrete and distinct, with its cracks and imperfections.
Molly was seized by a ravenous hunger. She wanted to go home and wolf down an entire meal—vegetables, salad, big pieces of fruit. She didn’t want to nibble on coffee cake and chopped liver which, curiously, had remained plentiful on her aunt’s table. She wanted to hug her children hard, grab Walter, kiss him full on the mouth. In the bodegas, the bananas were bunched in the window and the red lights of the cuchifritos counter drew her across Broadway. Molly entered the place in a stupor.
The bodega’s air was fetid and tropical. It slapped at her with mofungo and coconut incense. There were candles of various saints, to burn on their name days. Molly bought an orange candle of a saint who looked like her Aunt Goldie, its lips parted in a knowing smile.
On the subway Molly checked her bag. The candle was there, and the chicken too, inside a Tupperware. Big, flat strangers crowded the train. Their press and weight was comforting to Molly, as she swayed in the moving car, jouncing against their solid bodies.