Strange Encounters

By Proxy

by Sheree Shatsky

  Winter 2015 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |


Two gossip mavens stop my mother on Collins Avenue to ask how is it possible that she could have three children, darling you look so young were you a teenage bride? She laughs as she does every time this question is asked of her, which is often. She is wearing tangerine shorts with pink monkeys splashed across the fabric and a cotton sleeveless blouse, her sandals gold against skin tanned over the Florida summer. Her hair is cut in the swinger style, shorter in the back sweeping long to the front, designed to swish and swing with each toss of her head. What the women don’t know is every night before bed, my mother carefully sculpts the look by adhering her brunette bob to the jawline with pink hair tape guaranteed to stay put during the night. Her face puckers against the adhesive and I ask her if it itches. She says sometimes, especially in the morning when the tape is ripped free, but as far as fashion goes, she tells me, often one must endure pain, or at the very least, minimal discomfort. She brushes my bangs to the side and tapes them fast to my forehead. “You’re ten years old, a preteen,” she says. “No time like the present to put a bit more effort into your appearance.” I wriggle in protest against the ensuing flourish of hairspray.

“Yentas,” Anna says, shuffling ahead of the group. She is a shrivel of a person in her 89th year and the reason for our visit, our mission to pull her out of the dregs of the apartment where she spends most of her time, watching the black and white Zenith through glasses that magnify and distort her eyes as big as tennis balls that serve well in her daily hobby of swatting away cockroaches she calls creeping things. My mother throws open the dark depressing curtains, filling the space with turquoise light and flittering dust motes. The roaches scatter in the brilliance and my brothers and I help Anna stamp on those momentarily blinded.

She’s quite the sight, our Anna. It’s ninety degrees and she wears a lime green turtleneck, lime green skirt above the knee with flat white go-go boots coordinated to match her white pleather engineer cap she’s plopped on as an accessory, to pull the ensemble together. If this were not Anna, my mother would point her out as a woman dressing way too young for her age, what could she possibly be thinking? Her miner cut diamond ring dangles from the finger of her left hand, it’s too big and I can see she’s wrapped tape around the back to keep it from slipping off. Her husband has passed long ago, but the ring remains unique and the cut as distinctive as Anna.

She and her mother escaped Poland during the war, but the stories she tells vary with each telling. They were deported, but not before witnessing her father and brother tied to a tree and shot down like dogs by the Nazis (or sometimes the Soviets, sometimes both, depending on the length of the tale and/or how tired Anna might be). She was a young girl of five but never forgot how they looked in death, their bodies bent in half over the rope cinched tight around their waist, their heads in the dirt and the sounds, she mostly remembered the sounds, the gunfire, the wailing of her inconsolable mother, crashing through the woods with Anna in her arms, the laughing soldiers and the whooshing sound of the life she had known stripped away forever. In other versions, her mother was raped while her father and brother watched bound to the tree, beaten bloody where they stood as Anna hid terrified in the woods, a predetermined safe spot her father had constructed to blend with the surroundings in case child-kidnapping gypsies came calling. Sometimes no one was harmed at all, the Soviets (or the Nazis) knocked on the door and instructed the family they had thirty minutes to get their things before hustling them towards their gathered neighbors where all were escorted by foot to a waiting train, their homes left burning behind them. The tale I secretly hoped as the truth cited Anna as the daughter of wealthy parents who had the connections to flee Poland as a family and immigrate to New York prior to the atrocities forced upon their countrymen with little means to escape. The flecks of gray in her mind, shadows of memory flitting in and out, a listener could never be certain of what was real and what was not, what might have been a recreation of the past, some bits and pieces accurate, others swapped by memories shared by contemporaries over long afternoons seated in webbed lawn chairs on the stoop of her Miami Beach tenement where aging Jews bided their waning days bathed in sunlight.

Anna wanders over to an outside display of umbrellas, tucked beneath the blue awning of the five and dime. I hurry after her, looking back at my mother, still engaged in animated conversation, my brothers wrapped around both her legs, begging her to leave. She peruses the umbrellas, the traditional type, long and pointy with impressive handles, some carved, others bound with leather. She looks at me and back at the display. “A well-dressed young lady carries a fine umbrella,” and that being said, pulls a beige parasol with a pink flamingo-head handle from the bin and steps inside to pay.

My eyes take a second to adjust in the dim light of the store. A paddle fan pushes humid air down from the ceiling, wrapping me tight in a moist towel of heat, my clothes sticky, damp and clinging to my skin. It’s June, the a/c is off, likely broken and the mildew hangs wet in the air. I cover my nose with my hand and breathe through the filter of my fingers, fighting back the tickle in my throat, a sure sign of damp rot gnawing away sight unseen at the structure of the building. Rugs line the walls of the store, garish floor rugs I’ve seen sold on the side of the road at busy intersections, samples hung from a rope line or spread out on the shoulder to display tigers and sharks and an occasional Elvis hand-knotted into the weave. I study an aqua and white design sporting the Miami Dolphins logo and find myself tempted to take a peek behind to see how black the wall is with mold but decide instead to touch my nose to the rug in punishment for following Anna into this dank den.

“Two bucks,” the cashier tells Anna. She hands him a dollar bill and begins pushing out a dollar in change with one ancient finger. “Don’t have all day, sister,” he says, but his glib comment confuses her and she starts over, beginning again, counting the change. “Let me,” I say, sliding four quarters towards the cashier and scooping what’s left into Anna’s coin bag. “This is for my young friend,” she says about the umbrella to no one in particular. I guide her toward the door, out of the oppressive heat. The ocean breeze washes over me, drying my sweat, leaving me salty and gritty. Anna opens the umbrella with a soft click and steps in close to shade us both. She smells of Jean Naté.

“You remind me of my mother, something about your eyes,” she says, but I know that’s not possible. Although Anna and I share the same family name, we are not blood-related, either to each other or to our respective family members. My grandfather is not actually Anna’s son, but her husband’s son by his first marriage and I am not my grandfather’s blood granddaughter, but one adopted following my mother’s second marriage to his son, he himself adopted by my grandfather as his own following his marriage to my step-father’s mother, my grandmother with whom I also share no blood. In fact, when I pause long enough to brood the who-begat-who lineage over in my mind, the fact I share half my genetic make-up only with my mother and brothers, causes me to feel like a bystander, a spectator to my family more often than not. I am sometimes introduced as the Gentile grandchild, a girl born in the South who from age three found herself embraced by Eastern European Jews who stroked my blonde hair and planted kisses on my Protestant cheeks with bright red lips, exclaiming to my grandmother, Esther, I just can’t get enough of this darling girl. She is to die for.

“What was she like?” I ask Anna. Her skin is papery thin and she hasn’t broken a sweat, her turtleneck perky as if starched. “Strong, pretty, like you. She saved me after the filthy Nazis shot down my father and my brother.” Anna’s voice is hoarse with age and the dialect from the old country sneaks in as she continues, reshaping the nuances of her English, making me lean in and listen more closely. “Tied them to a tree. Beat them bloody and shot them dead, riddling their bodies with bullets. My mother ran with me through the woods, stumbling, falling, holding me close, but never looking back, leaving everything, all we had, behind. Without her, I would not …be.” She studies me. “You know these stories of our family?” I nod that I do, that I know the stories of our history in common, strung together by a skeleton of random pairings.

My mother waves at us from her throng of admirers and shrugs her shoulders in an I- can’t-help-it sort of way, her cheeks flushed whether from the heat or the flattery, I can’t be sure. My brothers have given up on persuading her to leave and busy themselves with scraping baked blackened gum off the hot concrete with what appears to be our mother’s car keys. “We might as well sit,” I tell Anna, nodding towards the bench where people wait for the bus. Her purse slides off her shoulder and we stop for a moment so she can readjust the strap.

The man came up on us way too fast, the rate of speed giving him away as someone who is up to no good. I see him cross the sidewalk as Anna’s fingers slid from the strap to reaffirm her grasp on the handle of the umbrella. I notice too late that her purse is wide open and the corner of her wallet sticks out just enough. I want to yell for my mother, but the words are stuck in my throat. I look at Anna, her face starred in shadow by the metal ribs of the umbrella and she looks at me. For that moment, I share her story, the story of helplessness, of foreshadowing, of the fear someone you care for is about to be violated. He is almost on us, his outstretched hand reaching, almost touching. I’m sorry, Anna, so sorry, I can’t help you and then, his hand is on me, shoving me out of the way to get to her.

The umbrella snaps closed and Anna swings it down fast and low. The man trips and he falls ugly, face contorted, hands outstretched, but unable to break the momentum. His head slams into the sidewalk and he’s out cold. Anna moves faster than I’ve ever seen and she is once again the young girl who bore witness to the slaughter of her family. Caught in the strength of another time, she swats the unconscious thief over and over with the beige parasol with the pink flamingo-head handle. “Dirty filthy Nazi Soviet vermin!” she yells in her old rough voice, each word punctuated with a swat.

I watch Anna, wanting her to stop, but then again, wanting to help, help her vindicate the family she lost so long ago, the family I find myself a member by proxy. A crowd is gathering and I search for my mother. I see her hesitate and her new women friends wave her off, tell her to go already, they will keep an eye on the boys. She breaks into a run, her hair swishing and swinging, never losing its shape. I pull my fingers through my disheveled bangs before she gets the chance to do so herself, using this opportunity to remind of the importance of putting forth a good appearance, particularly in the worst of times, but for Anna, for our Anna and our strange disjointed family, I rear back and kick the man in the leg with the rubber toe of my fashionable pink sneaker as hard as I can.


end of story

© 2015, Sheree Shatsky Go to top