I looked down at the kitchen table. I stared at my math homework. This was hell. I could do arithmetic in my head, but when it came to algebra or geometry I couldn't get it. I wasn't stupid, but it just didn't make any sense to me.
I looked up at the kitchen clock. It was midnight. I looked out through the window. I had the window open just a crack. It was starting to get too cold in the room. I walked over to turn on the heat. I didn't blame my parents for wanting to spend the weekend in Atlantic City. It was always nice there on the beach, and they loved the ocean air.
I closed the window in the kitchen and turned on the radio. Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians were playing. The radio show came from the Pennsylvania Hotel at midnight every night. Real good music. Dance music. My parents loved this show. They loved to dance. I would bet that they were listening to it on the way home on the car radio.
I looked over at my pack of Twenty Grands. It was almost empty. I took one out of the pack and lit it. I started straightening my math papers to put in the loose-leaf folder when I heard a knock at the back door. Quickly I pinched out the cigarette and threw the butt out the window.
"Who is it?" I called. I knew it wasn't my parents they had their own keys to the door. Maybe it was Kitty, but she hadn't told me she was coming back again. She had been down earlier in the afternoon. I had gotten laid twice before we went out and got Chinese. Besides, she wouldn't be back againshe knew my parents were coming home tonight. I heard a voice come through the door but I couldn't hear who they said. I called out again.
The voice was deeper and hoarse. "It's your Uncle Harry and Aunt Lila."
I walked over to the door to open the lock bolt. My father always insisted that I keep the bolt on the door when I was there by myself.
"Come on in," I said, surprised to see my aunt and uncle. "Mom and Dad aren't back from Atlantic City yet. They should be here pretty soon. They're probably slow because of traffic on the turnpike." I looked at my aunt. She looked like she had been crying. Uncle Harry stood and looked at me. "You want to come in and sit down?" I asked. "They'll probably be here any minute."
Uncle Harry and Aunt Lila came in the door. I closed the door behind them.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?"
The top of my aunt's head barely came up to my chest, but she put her arms around me and pulled me toward her. "My poor tatele." Her tears were wet against my shirt. "My poor tatele, what are we going to do?"
Suddenly, I felt a knot in my stomach. I pulled away from her. I looked over at my Uncle Harry. His face was flushed, but that was normal.
"What's going on?" I asked. I felt like I couldn't catch my breath.
"There was an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. Your mother and father were coming back from Atlantic City," he said.
"Yeah, I know. Were they in an accident?" I asked, trying to figure out what was going on.
Uncle Harry's eyes spoke the answer.
"They're okay," I said, my voice quivering, fighting the truth. "Right?"
"The car went off the road, it was really foggy," he said. "The state troopers pulled the car out of the water, but it was too late."
"The car doors were locked and jammed. They couldn't get out," Aunt Lila said as she reached for me, tears streaming down her cheeks.
My legs were going out from under me. I reached for a chair and sat down heavily. I sat there staring at Aunt Lila. I felt Harry's hand on my shoulder. "I'll get you a schnapps. I know you're not old enough. But I think you need it."
I started to motion where he should go to get it. I think he was the one who needed a schnapps.
"Don't get up, Jerry. I know where your father keeps it in the kitchen closet," Harry said.
He came back with two glasses and the bottle. He sat a glass in front of me. "No thanks, Uncle Harry. You go ahead and have a drink, but I can't handle it right now."
There was silence as Harry poured himself a schnapps.
"What do I do now?" I asked.
"We have a lot to do," Uncle Harry said. "It's already Monday. As soon as your school opens I'll call them and explain that you won't be coming to school for at least a week. Then I'll need to drive you over to Jersey City to the morgue. You're head of the family and you will need to sign some papers. I called Kaplan at the Seventeenth Street Mortuary. He'll send a hearse to the morgue to pick up your parents as soon as the papers are signed."
"Harry?" Aunt Lila tried to get Harry to slow down, but he brushed her aside.
"Kaplan's oldest son will come over here in the morning and pick up the clothes for your parents to be buried in. Rabbi Cohen will do the services. We already have a family plot at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens. We'll start calling all of the relatives right now and we should be able to get everyone here by Tuesday." Uncle Harry had everything planned but it didn't make sense to me.
"Why wait? Why not have the services tomorrow?" I asked.
"But what about the family?" Uncle Harry asked.
"We haven't seen most of the relatives in years. They all think of you and Daddy as nothing more than cheap bookies. To hell with them," I said in disgust.
"Tatele, don't" Aunt Lila started.
"No, Aunt Lila," I stated. "Why should we pay good money to take them all in Cadillacs to the cemetery?"
Aunt Lila began crying again. "It's a shande; they'll think we have no respect."
"Enough," Uncle Harry said in his bosslike attitude. He put his hand up to quiet Lila. "Jerry's right. They don't respect us. To hell with them."
"But, Harry…" Aunt Lila started to protest again. She looked over at Harry and then stopped. She knew his mind was made up.
I looked at my uncle. "What time in the morning do we have to leave?" I asked.
Uncle Harry took out his pocket watch and flipped the top open.
"If we're going to have the funeral tomorrow," he said importantly, "I'll have to pick you up at six-fifteen so we can drive over to Jersey City and back."
"I'll be ready," I said solemnly.
Aunt Lila reached across to touch Harry's arm. "The boy will need to get some clothes together so he can come home with us now. I don't want him to be alone tonight."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Tatele, don't you want to stay with us? You don't want to be alone in this house tonight," she said. "We love you and want you to be with us."
I looked at her. I knew she meant well, but I just had to be alone for a while.
"I'm not a kid," I said. "I'm used to my own bed.
Besides, this is still my home. I want to be here."
Uncle Harry came to the rescue. "Leave him alone. Besides, he has things to do here. He'll pick out his parents' clothes for the service. He has to get his good blue suit out so he has something to wear."
"Uncle Harry, I wore that at my bar mitzvah. The moths have eaten that years ago. I have a brand-new suit that Daddy bought me just a few months ago." Suddenly everything seemed to choke up on me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I didn't want to cry.
I remembered my father had taken me to Joe and Paul's to get a new suit. We had lunch together and then we went and got Mama a present for Mother's Day. I fought back the tears.
"Just one thing," Uncle Harry said. "Your father had a small briefcase that he always carried. By any chance, do you know where he kept the case?"
He was right. My father always had the briefcase at the apartment. It was the betting slips. I had sneaked a look a long time ago. He left it in his closet. "I can get it for you, Uncle Harry." I nodded and went into their bedroom and brought the case out to Harry.
Uncle Harry opened the flap of the case and looked inside. Quickly, he took out a bundle of bills held with a heavy red rubber band. He flipped the bills one by one with his thumb. He then put them back into the case and snapped the flap shut. "Good," he said. "You've saved me a lot of money, Jerry. Once I check the slips I won't have to pay a bunch of phony claims once it gets out that your father has died." He shook my hand. "You're very much like your father, Jerry. You're bright, just like he was." He turned to Aunt Lila and then back to me. "I can stay over with you, if you want."
"I'll manage, Uncle Harry. But thank you, anyway."
Aunt Lila came over and hugged me. She started to cry again. "You're a brave mensch," she said softly.
"Don't cry anymore," I said to her. "I love you both."
Harry grabbed my hand tightly. "You're a good boy." He shook his finger at me. "And just remember, don't smoke," Uncle Harry said in a fatherly way.
"C'mon, Uncle Harry," I said, and wondered if he had smelled the cigarette smoke when he came in.
He turned to Aunt Lila. "Let's get home to bed. We all have a very busy day ahead of us."
Copy right © 1998 by the Estate of Harold Robbins