Among the Survivors: A Novel

Among the Survivors: A Novel

by Ann Z. Leventhal
Among the Survivors: A Novel

Among the Survivors: A Novel

by Ann Z. Leventhal


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Though twenty-one-year-old Karla Most manages to bag Saxton Perry, a virtual prince thirty years her senior, she has no idea how to live happily ever after, with or without him. Karla cannot get past her anger at having been deceived by her single, now-dead mother, Mutti, who—supposedly a “Holocaust victim,” complete with tattooed numbers—was in fact a German Christian who got into the United States by falsifying her background. So what does that make her daughter? Before she can answer that question, Karla must track down the actual story of her own existence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631522369
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ann Z. Leventhal is the author of Life-lines, a novel about a wife who runs away with her husband’s mistress. Her short stories, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared in Vignettes, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Christopher Street, The New York Times Book Review, and Publishers Weekly.

Read an Excerpt

Among the Survivors

A Novel

By Ann Z. Leventhal

She Writes Press

Copyright © 2017 Ann Leventhal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63152-237-6


Since Karla Most has been working as a maid for over five years now, she is not bowled over when she opens the back door of her new client's Manhattan apartment. All her clients live big. And in her off-duty life, she herself is no peon. Thanks to her superrich grandparents, who give her a monthly allowance and used their pull to get her registered at NYU, when she is not working, she audits courses: Art History, Language of Film, Introductory Spanish. In fact, Karla's family thinks attending classes is all she does.

They'd be ripshit if they found out she was moonlighting as a housecleaner. But being a maid reflects Karla's sense of herself as someone who needs to do penance. Even if she cannot name her crime, she has no doubt about the source of her guilt: she let her mother down. And cleaning, scrubbing, vacuuming to suck up her clients' schmutz gives her a reason to exist. Other people count on her.

Besides, Karla enjoys having a secret life; she rebels against meeting anyone's expectations. Not that she exactly decided to become a maid. She fell into it at age sixteen, just after her mother died. Back then, not knowing her father's parents were even alive, Karla believed that, as a person with no birth certificate, no Social Security number, no proof at all of her existence, she had no other choice. And later, when she found her grandparents and could have become a full-time student, she didn't see why she should. Karla likes her life as it is. She likes starring as Cinderella in a fairy tale of her own creation.

So, today, as she checks out her new Park Avenue client's enormous kitchen, instead of asking herself, What am I doing here? she thinks, Who needs a kitchen this humongous? Everyone she knows eats out or orders in. Karla's favorite client uses her oven to store her jewelry. So kitchens, untouched, are usually the cleanest rooms. But this new guy is clearly different. Karla wrinkles her nose, disgusted by the stench of cigarettes and fish. Well, she supposes, that's why he hired me.

Groaning, Karla pulls off the seal coat her grandparents gave her this past January for her twenty-first birthday and drapes it over a chair. Her grandmother thinks that giving her things is important, but Adele's best gifts are her stories about the father who died before Karla was born.

"Every woman Michael ever met adored him," Adele likes to say of her only child, a light going on in her normally mournful face. "I could never account for it. Because, you know, he was a little pudgy, more of a Martin Milner than an Errol Flynn, if you know what I mean ..."

Though she has no idea who either Martin Milner or Errol Flynn is, Karla nods because she does catch her grandmother's drift.

"Michael was never drop dead gorgeous. But oh, how all the gals loved him!" By this time, Adele is beaming.

So natural magnetism is in Karla's DNA. And whenever she leaves one of her sessions with her grandmother, she feels assured, attractive, joyful. No need whatever to be like her mother; Karla can be her dad's kid.

But she accepted the coat only once her grandparents agreed to her terms: any clothes they buy her have to be black.

Right from the beginning, her mother insisted on dressing her in black, even going so far as to dye her diapers. So always Karla has been "the girl in black," and at this point it is easiest just to stay that way. Only she hates it when people ask her why she never wears anything else. It always sounds as if they are accusing her of something, but of what? Is wearing black such a crime? As a child, Karla may have yearned to try every color in the rainbow, but now, in 1979, five years after her mother's death, she wishes people would just stop bugging her about it.

Focusing on the job before her, she recalls that yesterday, her boss said Karla was to scour and mop the kitchen and bathrooms, vacuum, dust, spray and wipe mirrors, polish wood surfaces, make up the bed, and empty wastebaskets. However, she was not to touch any of the artwork. "Is that clear?" demanded Louise, who runs her housekeeping agency with absolute authority.

Karla could never pull off such self-assurance, but she identifies with Louise's wariness. She, too, distrusts, and, recognizing their bond, Karla wishes she and Louise had more than a working relationship. But over the years Louise has made it obvious that there will be no meetings for coffee or glasses of wine, no weekend brunches or dinners, in fact nothing at all, their meetings strictly business. "Is that clear?"

As usual, Louise glared at Karla before handing over the key to this new client's apartment. And Karla played her part, faking submission although, having been raised by a control-freak mother, she harbors in herself a pilot light of defiance that can flare up at any time. "I've got it, I've got it," she reassured Louise, who, paying her cash off the books, deserved at least the pretense of obedience.

Louise said the new client was a guy named Saxton Perry. The minute Karla heard the name, she knew the type: a WASP. And, looking around his kitchen, she figures he probably wouldn't live in a palazzo like this one by himself. He'd have a significant other, probably not a guy, the room insufficiently tarted up; Saxton Perry's woman would wear Armani. Her blond mane artfully gilded and perpetually sleek, this svelte Nordic goddess would of course constantly look impeccable. Karla knows her type, too.

Imagining her, Karla is conscious of her own bushy red hair, her slapdash inadequacy. But at least she is genuine; this guy's babe is probably superficial and snobby. And, with a trophy like that on his arm and his aristocratic bearing, he would advertise his connection both to the Founding Fathers and to some club that wouldn't take Jews as members.

Karla knows all about that sort of thing because, though Mutti may have neglected arithmetic, in addition to teaching Karla about art, music, and literature, she passed on to her daughter a keen appreciation for social gradations. Not that Mutti was in awe of anyone. She might well have deemed the owner of this apartment "worthless," which, in her German accent she pronounced "vertless," so that for years Karla said it that way, too, because in Mutti's world there were two kinds of people: vertless and valuable.

It was as important to know which was which as it was to be one of the valuables who were not necessarily rich, though, Mutti often pointed out, money never hurts. It just shouldn't be too new, too obvious, or take the place of important intangibles like good taste, intelligence, or kindness. Being a nice person beat out being a wealthy one. Mutti liked to quote the Bible, saying it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But whether this new client turns out to be vertless or valuable, right now Karla transfers her own indignation into energy. By God, she will clean him out!

She opens a closet as big as a maid's room and, instead of a bed and a sink, sees the Rolls-Royce of vacuums, along with every other high-end cleaning product in the world. She emerges with a cartful of supplies and quickly locates the source of the fish stink: a garbage pail loaded with cigarette butts and unwashed cans containing scabs of dried cat food.

As she dumps the cans into a trash bag, Karla remembers how her richy-rich, anorexic grandmother cuts paper napkins in half, saying, "Waste not, want not," and, either because she grew up in Nazi Germany or because, having lied to get into the United States, she feared she would be found out and deported, her paranoid mother believed the police were constantly watching them. In any case, Karla suspects this Perry is just one more weirdo, like the misers she reads about in the tabloids who subsist on cat food, because any actual cat around here, as far as Karla can detect, is invisible. Unless it is hiding from her, in which case it will probably turn up when it is good and ready.

Meanwhile, addressing the immediate problem (odor up the giggy), Karla sprinkles baking soda into the garbage pail before she relines it with a fresh bag, then gives it a quick sniff. Acceptable, so no point in scrubbing the pail, for it is one thing to clean and quite another to be like Mutti's cousin Viv and make a fetish out of cleaning. Besides, getting away with a cut corner or two is half the fun of everything Karla does.

Opening the fridge, she decides that no matter how gigantic his pad is, this client cannot, after all, have a live-in other, because only a loner could subsist on four Heinekens, one dried-up lemon, a jar of Dijon mustard, a bottle of ketchup, and a couple of raw eggs. Famished, Karla furiously wipes the empty shelves, bangs the fridge door, jangles the beers. Scared, she pauses. And hears nothing smash, so that's okay.

But what about this great art she's been warned not to touch? She drags the vacuum and the cart through a swinging door into the dining room, where a hidden sound system startles her with jazz, some invisible pianist stroking her spirit along with his piano keys. Is she supposed to be drinking in the music this way? Is Karla allowed to have a good time on the job?

She shivers and looks around. Is anyone other than the phantom cat watching her? Or is that sense of constantly being under scrutiny a holdover from those years of living with her mother?

Nobody's spying on you, kiddo, Karla reminds herself for the zillionth time. You're on your own, so just figure out what's the deal here.

A magnificent still life she recognizes as seventeenth-century Flemish from her History of Art course hangs over a fireplace. Deliberately casual fruits and nuts cascade into the body of a pheasant, an image that screams of abundance; no one who lived in any house where this painting hung on a wall would ever have gone hungry. The fireplace beneath it holds a charred log and ashes.

Since Louise has frequently warned her to be ultracareful with paintings, sculptures, and ornaments, Karla assumed today's client's art would be the usual crap. But it is possible that in this apartment, everything from the working fireplace she cleans out to the genre painting above it could be the real deal.

Mutti would have loved this place. She might even have loved Karla, despite all her deficiencies, for worming her way in here. And this thought gladdens Karla. In any case, what an opportunity! Karla abandons the fireplace to examine huge bronze double doors of the type she has seen only in art books or cathedrals. But instead of featuring saints and angels, these colossal doors portray bas-relief sailboats on curling waves, and in one panel, a kind of mini-capitol building with a smooth golden dome. And she cannot help chortling at this jokey version of the entrance to St. Patrick's.

Then Karla grasps a handle, pulls the weight slowly toward her, freezes. What if the door is one of the art objects she was not supposed to touch? But how else is she supposed to get into the living room? Still worried — what if there are security cameras in this place? — she pushes the vacuum and cleaning cart ahead and returns the massive doors to their exact original position. Then she gets down to work.

But as she moves through, at least one picture per room wows her. What kind of person owns paintings like these? An American Goring? Mutti told about how he looted all the Jewish collections. Who else besides someone like that would have a Rauschenberg and a Balthus in his living room, two Dürer etchings in his den, a secret cache of excellent art collected with no discernible rationale? Even if the guy stole the stuff, based on the fact that she loves every single piece in here (with the exception of the Balthus), Karla might have to revise her original take on this Saxton Perry. Whatever else he may be, he is not your average WASP.

Has everybody else heard of him and his seemingly random collection of unbelievably fabulous works? Is Karla the only person in the world who, until today, had no idea he, Saxton Perry, or it, his trove, even existed?

In particular, the painting in the master bedroom stops her cold. Framed on the wall above the bed's headboard, a peachy-gold woman sits, one naked thigh over the other, displaying a luscious haunch. With a bare arm, she clasps a white cloth, her arm crossing her chest but leaving her tawny nipple exposed. Her head tipped to one side, she has wavy black hair, long Asian eyes, a mysterious smile, her whole pose as sinuous as an S.

Of course Karla recognizes the artist. "Modigliani always painted sad because he was Jewish and knew grief firsthand," her mother used to say, as if she knew from being Jewish herself. What bullshit! Still, in all fairness, Mutti did teach Karla to recognize a Modigliani. And this sure as hell is one right here in the room with her. Who would believe it? And what would Mutti say about it if she were here now? For a minute, Karla almost misses her.

She would certainly like to tell her mother how wrong she was, because the woman in this portrait does not look sorrowful. Ripe, and therefore pluckable, is more like it. Also contagious, as Karla's own body actually absorbs the glow from that painting so that even when she turns away, she senses its warmth on the back of her head. And when she faces the light pouring from it, reflecting the woman's open willingness, Karla remembers how, that time in the van with Vince, when she was sixteen, she, too, felt luminous.

Their encounter occurred when she was working her first job, cleaning a toy store. She hadn't been employed there long when the boss's son, Vince, showed up and invited her to take a drive with him after work. He would, he said, take her to Brooklyn Heights to "watch the submarine races." Having no idea what that meant, Karla sat without moving, once Vince parked his truck, as he leaned over and touched her mouth with his. Without thinking, she opened her lips and Vince slipped his tongue into her mouth. Even though at first his tongue flicked only a bit, when he slid it in and out, it began to go much deeper and her tongue responded, wanting to taste more. How she wanted that melting-all-over feeling to go on and on!

And go on it did. Karla still relives, from time to time, the way Vince's tongue sent thrill after thrill through her. Had her body started emitting light, she would not have been surprised. So she gets why the woman in the painting looks luminous.

That night with Vince, Karla closed her eyes and was surrounded by the sounds of their breathing, hers matching his. And when, a little dizzy, she opened her eyes just to get her bearings, she saw that the windows had steamed over, creating a cozy cocoon within the car. Aroused by the painting, she half expects the windows in this room to be clouded, too. But, though they are clear, Park Avenue is wide; no one without binoculars can see in, and if they care enough to spy ...

No one that night could see when Vince reached inside her coat and pushed her leotard down over her shoulder. When he breathed on her naked breast and licked it, Karla felt as if she would pass out with joy. Then he raised his head and asked, "You on the pill?"

"No," Karla admitted, feeling stupid.

"You got a diaphragm?"

She let out her breath. "It's not like I can exactly leave it at home. That's how I breathe," she said. Remembering this idiotic remark even now, she blushes, just as she did in the van.

"Come on, Karla. Cut the horseshit and just tell me. Do I need to wear a rubber?"

"Why would you?" she asked.

"I'm not exactly ready at this point to have a kid," Vince said, reaching deep into a pocket and shifting around whatever was going on down there.

"I'm pretty sure babies don't happen every time." Entirely self-taught, Karla, alas, skipped reading the birth control part in The Joy of Sex.

How how how could I have been such an idiot? She is to this very day still asking herself.

"Hey, it only takes once. I mean, what've you used in the past?"


"And you never got pregnant?"

"I never went out with a guy," Big Mouth admitted.

"Oh, shit," Vince swore and moved away from her. "Jeez, I had no idea you were a virgin."

"What difference does that make?" Staring at the windshield, where steam drops were sliding down wobbly tracks, Karla was mortified to feel tears running down her cheeks. She rooted around in her pocket and naturally came up with yet another embarrassment: an ancient Kleenex clump she shoved at her nostrils, confirming her status, then and now, as a classic jerk. Not like Modigliani's woman. Anyone can see she is no virgin and has no regrets.


Excerpted from Among the Survivors by Ann Z. Leventhal. Copyright © 2017 Ann Leventhal. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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