My Mother’s Bookie

by Irving A. Greenfield

She was close to ninety, give or take the proverbial year or two, and she lived in a senior citizen home on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. I went there every Saturday afternoon and took my mother to lunch at her favorite diner where she’d always order the same thing: a fried fish sandwich and french fries. When she’d finish eating and before she had her coffee and apple pie, her eye brows would twitch and she would say, “Not as good as the fish and chips I used to have.”

      That was the cue to begin one of the many rituals we practiced. I never asked if she remembered having the same conversation the week before. The cue was there, and I provided the next line. “Where did you have fish and chips, mom?”

Again her brows would twitch, and she’d say, “A lot you know about fish and chips.”

      I wouldn’t answer.

      “For a shilling I’d get a newspaper cone full of fish and chips just down the street from the Mission School,” she’d say in a put on English an accent. As if the memory had suddenly become reality again, she’d smack her lips. She was born in east-central London and could still use her English or Cockney accent, depending on what she thought the situation called for.

      Each of those Saturday visits became more of an ordeal. She was often cranky and sometimes maudlin about the prospect of dying. But unless I was ill, I went.

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      On a Saturday in February, after a moderate snow the night before, I found her sitting on the bed in her room, instead of the chair she usually occupied in the large room where all the residents sat. She wasn’t dressed to go out. She wore a faded blue house dress and an old white sweater that was beginning to unravel at the ends of its sleeves.

      “I can’t go,” she said, as soon as she recognized me. Though she was totally blind, she had a keen sense of hearing and probably identified me from the sound of my footfalls.

      “Why?” I asked. I didn’t want to be cooped up with her in a small room or be outside, in the larger room, where we’d be the focus of attention.

      “I’m not going,” she said in Yiddish, a language she used for special occasions.

      “All right, you don’t go, and I won’t come next week,” I told her.

      Her eyebrows twitched. “If it’s so much damn trouble for you to come to see your mother, then don’t bother.”

      I knew, if I stayed, we’d wind up arguing. “Suit yourself,” I told her and started out of the room.

      “Where are you going?” she asked.

      “Home.”

      I took several steps beyond the open door when she called to me. I went back into the room.

      “All right, I’ll go,” she said. “But first I have to tell Viola something; then, I’ll dress.”

      My mother got off the bed and asked me for her cane. When she had it firmly in her hand, she sailed out of the room without the slightest bit of hesitation.

      I went out of the room and sat in the chair she usually occupied. She went straight to where Viola sat. She was my mother’s “friend.” But because of her slow wit and lopsided religiosity, Viola was more like my mother’s “slave.”

      The two of them spoke and went back to the room together.

      “I’ll be ready in a few minutes,” my mother called, closing the door after her.

      It took the better part of a half hour before the door opened, and my mother emerged from the room ready to go. Throughout all that time I could hear my mother complaining about the clothes Viola chose for her.

      “I’m ready,” she announced, as though she’d been waiting for me.

      Soon, she was seated alongside of me in the car. We were on our way to the Four Corners Diner, where all of the waitresses knew her eccentricities and were kind to her.

      She was unusually quiet, and I took a long glance at her. The beauty that I only knew from old photographs had metamorphosed into an old hag, with a large calciferous growth on her forehead, a long pointy nose and a face ravaged by wrinkles. Only her long gray hair piled high on her head in a braided bun was still beautiful.

      Suddenly, she said, “You’re too quiet . . . Tell me what’s wrong.”

      “Nothing is wrong,” I said, smiling. But she couldn’t see the smile. A detached retina resulted in the loss of her right eye in 1950 while I was in the army. Some twenty years later, the same condition in the left eye left her sightless. Blind, she was still, as the expression goes, “a piece of work.” A month before, she was almost the victim of a mugger. She beat him off with her cane. A few hours later the police were able to “make” him because of the black and blue welts on his face.

      “I want to go back,” my mother blurted out.

      I gritted my teeth . . . So, it was going to be that kind of day!

      “I am not hungry,” she said.

      “I am.”

      “You are what?”

      “A hungry pingel,” I answered, doing what I always did when she became contrary. “And a hungry pingel is a dangerous dingel. But a pingel whose a dingel might be a wingel--”

      “Stop it,” she yelled. “I don’t want to hear about your pingels, dingels, and wingels. I wanna go home.”

      There were only two ways to deal with her when she became difficult. The first, cajoling, hadn’t worked. The second was more drastic, and it meant negating our relationship.

      I checked the rear view mirror. There weren’t any vehicles behind us. I eased over to the right curb and slammed on the brake. The sudden stop jounced her.

      “What are you doing?” she cried

      “I’m not going to listen to your bullshit,” I told her.

      “You’re crazy!” she yelled.

      “Maybe . . . Maybe, I’m crazy to come to see you at all.”

      “You’re not doing me any favor,” she said. “I told you I didn’t want to go.”

      Angry I shouted, “What the hell is so goddamn important back there?”

      She didn’t answer.

      My mother was a devious woman. She enjoyed scheming and putting her schemes into action. When she was younger, they ranged from selling spaghetti and sauce from a pushcart on Belmont Avenue to buying counterfeit twenty dollar bills for ten dollars and selling them for fifteen.

      “All right, I’ll go to the bloody diner,” she said, suddenly changing her stance.

      Without a word, I began to drive again. By the time we arrived at the diner, we were chatting amiably about my two sons. I pulled into the parking lot and immediately found a space. After I helped my mother out of the car and she took hold of my arm, we walked slowly toward the diner.

      The sun was out and, despite the snow on the ground, the afternoon was pleasantly warm. The parking lot was almost full. I hoped we would not have to wait for a table. Even if she were in a good humor, she would make a fuss about having to wait. In her current frame of mind, I hadn’t any doubt that her reaction would be even worse.

      We didn’t have to wait. The hostess, a dark-haired, exotic looking young woman, greeted us with a smile and led the way to a booth. She placed two very large, red, plastic-covered menus on the table. With a professional smile, she said, “Enjoy yourselves.”

      I thanked her and helped my mother remove her coat before sitting on one of the benches. My mother sat on the other. She placed her cane against the table, away from the aisle.

      The interior of the diner was neo-Greek Mafia . . . Lots of mirrors and marbleized Formica.

      I picked up the menu. By any standard it was formidable looking inside and outside. I was just about to open it and begin the ritual of ordering, by asking my mother what she wanted for lunch, when she said, “I don’t like it here. It’s too dark.”

      Because I knew she lived in a dark world, I asked, “How dark is ‘too dark?’”

      Her brows twitched. “It’s too dark,” she stubbornly repeated. “I want a booth in the front, near a window.”

      My blood pressure must have jumped twenty points. I could feel the heat in my cheeks.

      “You always pick the wrong place to sit,” she complained. “Du bist ein nod,” she added in Yiddish. Compounding the insult, she translated it for me. “You’re a fool.”

      I clamped my jaws together so tightly that an electric-quick slash of pain forced me to relax them.

      “I didn’t want to sit here,” my mother said loud enough to make the people at a nearby table look in our direction.

      “Ma, all the other tables are taken,” I said, keeping my voice under control.

      She made a face. “I don’t want to come here anymore if I have to sit in a dark booth.”

      I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “Next time we’ll go somewhere else. But since we are here, why don’t we order?”

“I don’t want anything,” she pouted, her brows twitching.

      That did it! I dropped the menu on the table. “You’re worse than any damn kid,” I growled. “But I’m going to have something to eat, and you can just sit there and watch me.”

      She didn’t answer.

      I caught the waitress’s eye. When she came to the table, I said, “I’ll have a chicken salad on a bed of lettuce and coffee.”

      “And what would you like?” the waitress asked, looking at my mother.

      “She’s not hungry,” I said.

      “I didn’t say I wasn’t hungry,” my mother chirped up. “I’ll have a fried fish sandwich with french fries and coffee . . . You, tell the chef if make the fish very crispy.” Then, she gave me one of her I dare you to say something looks.

      The waitress glanced at me.

      I nodded and said, “Give her a couple of sour pickles. She likes sour pickles; they match her disposition.”

      “Don’t be so damn smart,” my mother responded.” The waitress doesn’t know you the way I do.”

      The waitress, who had served us many times before, winked at me, and left us to ourselves.

      My mother was quiet, always a bad sign. Because she was a schemer, it was impossible to even try to guess what she might be hatching.

      I began to drift off into a sea of thoughts, alighting on one then another, as if I were leaping from wave crest to wave crest. Catching me in mid-flight, my mother said, “I saw pictures on my pillow last night.

      I didn’t say anything. She often saw pictures on her pillow. I was never sure whether she was dreaming or hallucinating. The latter would not have been unusual for someone her age.

      She began to sniffle. “I saw your father last night. He was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear him. He comes every night now,” she said, weeping quietly.

      I reached across the table and took hold of her gnarled hands. “It’s okay, mom . . . It was just a bad dream. Pop wouldn’t hurt you.”

      She bobbed her head, and whimpered, “I’m afraid . . . I’m afraid of dying.”

      I pressed her hands. “Everyone is, ma.”

      Her brows twitched. “I never thought I’d be afraid,” she wept.

      I gave her my handkerchief.

      She blew her nose and wiped her eyes. “Maybe it will happen when I’m asleep.” she said.

      “Maybe,” I answered. I hoped it would happen that way.

      She handed the handkerchief back to me and said, “That waitress is very slow . . . I remembered her voice. She was slow the last time she waited on us.”

      I smiled. For now, her fear was gone. “Today, I’ll skip the dessert,” she said. “I want to go straight back to the place.”

      “If that’s what you want to do, we’ll do it,” I told her. Usually, after lunch, I’d drive around for a while before taking her back.

      The waitress delivered our orders, and my mother ate her sandwich and fries with gusto.

I have no idea what prompted me to look toward the entrance, but I did. At the same moment, my mother exclaimed, “He’s here! . . . He’s here! I know the smell of his cigar.” And she yelled,       “Here I am, Tony . . . I’m over here in a booth.”

      A short, rotund man in a pin stripe suite, with a dark gray overcoat across his shoulders, Hollywood style, and a very large cigar in his mouth, looked in our direction. “Anna . . . Anna . . . There you are!” He shouted swooping down on us, making himself and us the center of everyone’s attention.

      “Who the hell is he?” I asked, before he reached the table.

      “Tony,” my mother answered.

      There wasn’t time for me to ask anything else because Tony was already standing over me with his hand outstretched.

      “Tony Numbers,” he said, introducing himself and pumping my hand. “So your Anna’s son, Sonny . . . The apple of her eye.”

      With his free hand, he took the cigar out of his mouth, laughed, and popped the cigar back between his lips.

      “Sit, Tony,” my mother ordered.

      “Sure . . . Sure . . . Viola told me where you were,” he said, sitting next to my mother. “You, finish your sandwich, Anna, then we’ll talk business.” He put his arm around her and winked at me. “This one is an original. God made her, then He broke the mold.”

      “Go on!” my mother exclaimed, nudging him with her elbow.

      “Your mother told me you were a war hero,” Tony said.

      I felt the color rising in my cheeks. We never spoke about the time I spent Korea. I didn’t think she remembered I had been there.

      “Yeah, I even know you write books, he boasted. Then, he laughed. “It’s a lousy job, but somebody’s got to do it, right?”

      “Right,” I finally got myself sufficiently together to answer.

      My mother and Tony were friends, that much was obvious, and it was also obvious, by now, that he was the reason why my mother did not want to go with me. She wanted to wait for him.

      “This little lady hit the big one,” Tony said, puffing on his cigar.

      “How big, Tony?” my mother questioned excitedly.

      “You finished eating?” he asked solicitously.

      “I finished . . . I finished!” my mother answered.

      “When I’m done counting, Anna, you tell me how big . . . Hold out your hand.”

      There I was watching my mother’s bookie pay off. I wasn’t sure I believed it was happening.

      “All the bills are C notes, Anna,” he said and began counting.

      My mother counted with him. As the hundred dollar bills grew into a pile, the expression on my mother’s face was pure joy.

      “And twenty‑seven,” Tony said and placed the last hundred‑dollar bill on top of the others my mother held in her right hand.

      “Twenty seven‑hundred dollars!” my mother exclaimed. Suddenly, her expression became serious, almost threatening. “You’re not holding out on me, Tony? . . . Because if you are, I’ll put a curse on you and yours--”

      He put his arm around her again. “This is some woman, some mother . . . I love her . . . I really love her.”

      “You know the curse of an old blind woman is a terrible thing,” my mother continued.

      “Anna, I’m not holding out on you,” Tony said.

      “Swear on your mother’s head,” my mother demanded.

      Tony raised his right hand. “I swear on my mother’s head that I gave you everything that is yours.”

      Satisfied, my mother nodded.

      “Now that you have all that money what are you going to do with it?” Tony asked.

      She laughed and pointed to me. “I bet you didn’t know your mother had a bookie, did you?”

      Before I could answer, she said, “Here, take it . . . It’s yours.” She put the money down in front of me. “I’d give five years of my life to see the look on your face . . . Tony, you, tell me how he looks?”

      Tony laughed.

      “Well, tell me,” my mother insisted.

      With unsuspected wisdom and in a gentle voice, Tony said, “He’s still your child, Anna.”

      “Good,” my mother said. “Very good! That’s the way it should be.”

Copyright © 2005 by Irving A. Greenfield

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Irving A. Greenfield, a combat veteran of the Korean War, is a Research Fellow at Wagner College, where he taught English Literature and other Humanities courses. He has been writing for most of his seventy-six years, and has published many novels, plays and stories. His new play Banned in Bisbee will appear off Broadway soon.

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