Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
By Neta Jackson and Dave Jackson
Copyright © 2015 by Dave Jackson and Neta Jackson
Rebecca wiped applesauce from baby Benjy’s face and tipped her ear in the direction of her four-year-old’s yell from the front porch. Not a hurt cry . . . not danger . . .
“Jacob! Don’t yell!” she yelled back. “If you want to speak to me, come to the kitchen!” Quickly rinsing out the facecloth from the kitchen tap, she tackled Benjy’s face again. Applesauce in his ears, in his hair, on his shirt . . . what a mess! She should’ve spoon-fed him instead of letting him try to feed himself, even if he was almost one.
“Ima!” Four-year-old Jacob appeared at her elbow, dark eyes bright. “Can I play outside with Nathan? He’s in front of his house with the babysitter—you know, the big girl from up the street. They’re playing hopscotch. Nathan yelled at me to come over. Can I go, please?”
“No, no, not now, Jacob. You are all cleaned up for Rosh Hashanah service, and your papa will be home any time now. Another time.” Perhaps. Isaac wasn’t too happy with the children playing with goyim, but Jacob and Ruthie liked the two children across the street, and there weren’t any other Jewish children on their block.
Which was a big problem. Even though they technically lived within the parameters allowed by their synagogue, they had not been able to find a house in the blocks populated by Jewish families just a few streets away and had gotten special permission from the rabbi to purchase this house on the south corner of Beecham Street. “Temporarily,” the rabbi had warned. Isaac agreed. Her husband was quite eager to be enfolded within the Jewish community rather than on its fringe. Which would be nice for the children, Rebecca thought. Sure, they had lots of friends at the Hebrew school and play dates back and forth between other Temple Beth Zion families. But it was times like this—neighborhood kids playing outside, Jacob and Ruthie wanting to join in—that it would be nice for the kids to just pop outside to play. And to be honest, she could use a few minutes of peace and quiet to finish preparing the family meal and get herself ready for service this evening—
“Ima! Please! Just till Abba comes home, okay?”
Rebecca sighed. “All right, just till your papa comes home. And don’t get your clothes dirty!”
Jacob was already thundering down the hall and out the front door.
“Ruthie!” Rebecca slid the high chair tray out a few inches, then plucked Benjy out of the chair and swung him onto her hip. “Ruthie, I need you!”
Her five-year-old daughter appeared in the doorway. “I’m making a card for Dodah Mary. See?” The little girl waved the folded piece of paper she’d been working on.
“I know, sweetie. Your dodah will love it. But I need you to play with Benjy for a few minutes while I finish setting the table. Papa will be home soon, and we need to be all ready to eat so we can walk to service.” And I need to finish getting dressed. She put the baby down on the floor.
“Okay.” Ruthie took Benjy’s hand and pulled him up onto his feet. “Come walk with your sister, Benjy. Can you walk? . . . Ima, look, he’s walking!”
Rebecca smiled at the unsteady efforts of Benjy trying to coordinate his feet while clinging to his big sister. “Just don’t let go of his hand.”
As the little girl coaxed her baby brother into the front room, Rebecca peeked into the dining room and surveyed the table. Plates, candles, silverware—all set. Fluted glass dishes with dates and pomegranates were already on the table. The baked apples sweetened with honey were ready to come out of the oven, and the round Challah loaf could be sliced at the table. But she still had to dish up the black-eyed peas and fritters. All pareve foods tonight—no meat, no dairy. Made it simpler to keep kosher . . .
Rebecca busied herself in the kitchen, serving up the last few dishes for their New Year’s dinner, cleaning up Benjy’s high chair and the floor beneath, wiping down the counters . . . and jumped when she heard the deep masculine voice say, “Shanah Tovah, Rebecca.”
Rebecca turned. Her husband stood in the doorway, still wearing his black hat and black coat, the fringes of his tallit katan showing from beneath the hem. “I didn’t hear you come in! Shanah Tovah, Isaac.” She moved quickly to his side, rose on her tiptoes, and kissed his bearded face.
He kissed her back on the cheek and removed his hat, but a frown creased his forehead. “What is Jacob doing across the street?”
“Oh! Did he see you? He promised to come in right away when you got home. He just went out a few minutes ago to play with the Singer boy. I’ll get him.” Rebecca sidled past her husband in the doorway and hurried to the front door. Sure enough, Jacob was hopping on one foot on the hopscotch diagram drawn in sidewalk chalk in front of the second house from the corner. “Jacob!” she called. “Papa’s home! You need to come now.” She waved at the teenage girl, the Singers’ frequent babysitter from the black family up the street, who was cheering on the little boys. “Thank you, Tabby! But send Jacob over now.”
“I’m coming, Ima! Just let me finish this throw!” As Jacob turned at the top of the hopscotch grid and started back, Rebecca’s eyes strayed to the brick two-flat next door to the Singers, third house from the corner. A large sign was stuck in the ground in front. She squinted . . .
For sale? How long had that been there? Must be new. At least she hadn’t noticed it before. A Latino family lived there, using both floors it seemed. She’d noticed at least five or six adults coming and going, and they all seemed to be related. They mostly spoke Spanish, which she didn’t understand, so she usually just smiled and nodded if they happened to cross paths, which didn’t happen often since they lived on opposite sides of the street. She’d never learned their names—and now they must be moving.
At least it wasn’t the Bentleys, the older African American couple who’d moved into the only other two-flat on this block last spring. Friendly folks. They’d actually come knocking at the door with fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, even though Rebecca had to throw them out because they weren’t kosher. Or the Jaspers, Tabby’s family, at the other end of the block near the dead end. Tabby’s mother, Michelle, was one of the few people she did know on the block, at least a little bit. They’d talked a few times in the grocery store. The woman was pregnant—surprise, surprise, at forty-something. Rebecca smiled to herself. As a trained midwife, she’d guessed right away. Nice neighbors. She’d been tempted to ask Tabby to babysit a few times but was pretty sure Isaac wouldn’t be open to the idea. “Jews take care of our own,” he always said. Still, she was glad the Jaspers weren’t moving.
“Jacob!” she called again. “Come now!” To her relief, Jacob obeyed and ran across the quiet street. “Wash your hands,” she chided as he darted past her into the front room where her husband was playing “horsey” with Benjy on his knees, grinning at the baby’s happy giggles. “Isaac, give me a few minutes to finish getting ready, and then we can eat. The meal is basically ready.”
Rebecca hurried into their bedroom at the back of the one-story bungalow, taking off her apron as she went. Her long-sleeved white blouse and long dark skirt were fine. Sliding her snood off her head, she shook out her thick dark hair until it fell past her shoulders, then grabbed a brush and gave her hair a quick brushing. Now for her tichel, her head wrap. She reached for the long silvery-blue patterned scarf with the silver threads that ran through it . . .
A last look in the mirror. Creamy skin. Brown eyes delicately fringed by dark lashes and brows. A touch of color on her lips and cheeks. Isaac would be pleased. Even though he rarely said so, she knew he liked the way she did her makeup and the pretty way she wrapped her tichel, hiding the thick hair that was for his eyes alone.
A few minutes later the Horowitz family had gathered around their table. Just as she usually did for Shabbat, Rebecca solemnly lit the two tall candles, their glow flickering in the eyes of Ruthie and Jacob as she held her hands over the candles, then drew her hands inward three times in a circular motion. In a singsong voice she began: “Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam . . .”
* * * *
Rebecca stuck another clip onto Jacob’s yarmulke. That should hold it. “Ready.” Isaac locked the door, then helped her bump Benjy’s stroller down the front steps.
“Should’ve asked that foreigner to replace the bushes,” Isaac muttered as they started down their front walk.
“The bushes. Last winter when that Iraqi or Irani or wherever he’s from drove his big pickup down the sidewalk.”
“It was an emergency, Isaac. You know that. The street was blocked and the ambulance couldn’t get through for the old lady up the street.”
“I know, I know,” her husband muttered. “But that big plow of his damaged two of our bushes. See? They never did recover over the summer.”
Rebecca let it drop.
“Will they blow the shofar tonight, Abba?” Jacob’s feet danced with excitement. Dusk was settling and the day’s mild temperature was sinking into the fifties—a perfect early September evening.
“Yah. Or maybe tomorrow morning,” his father said . . . and then he stopped. “What’s that?”
Rebecca followed his eyes across the street to the third building from the corner. The sign in front of the two-flat. “It says For Sale, I think.”
Isaac stared, tugging absently on his beard.
“Abba! Come on!” Ruthie pulled on her father’s coat sleeve. “We’ll miss the blowing of the shofar!”
“Hush, child. One moment.” Isaac turned to Rebecca, his eyes bright behind his studious glasses. “A two-flat for sale. Maybe another Jewish family can buy it—or even two—and we will no longer be alone on this block.” The father suddenly began walking to the corner as Jacob’s and Ruthie’s short legs trotted to keep up. “Quickly, Rebecca. We missed our chance last spring when the goyim bought the other two-flat.” His pace picked up. “We must tell Rabbi Mendel. This will be good news for the New Year!”
Estelle Bentley’s head jerked up. Wha . . . what? She must’ve dozed off. Was someone at the door? Land sakes, what time was it? She glanced at her watch. Three fifteen . . . too early for DaShawn to be home from school. Besides, the boy had his own house key. Who could it be? Maybe the mail carrier. Whoever. Huh. Guess she better go see.
Hefting herself out of the overstuffed chair in the living room, Estelle padded in her house slippers down the stairs of the two-flat she and Harry owned, past their tenant Mattie Krakowski’s door on the right, and pulled open the outside door.
The front stoop was empty.
She peered into the mailbox marked Bentley. Nothing there either.
Hmph. Whoever it was didn’t even give a body time to get to the door.
Annoyed at having to climb the stairs for no good reason, Estelle muttered all the way into the kitchen at the back of their second floor apartment. DaShawn would be home soon anyway, might as well fix him a snack. He’d be wanting something sweet, especially if he smelled the—
Estelle’s eyes flew wide open! Her cake! In the oven! That buzzer hadn’t been the front door. It was the oven timer, set to go off at . . . Oh, good Lord! Don’t let Michelle Jasper’s birthday cake be burned!
Grabbing two potholders, Estelle pulled open the oven door and hauled out the Bundt pan holding the lemon pudding cake she’d put in an hour ago. She eyed it critically. Golden brown on top . . . slightly pulled away from the sides . . . hmm. So far, so good. A few more minutes in the oven hadn’t seemed to hurt it after all.
The round Bundt cake had cooled and was sitting regally in the center of the kitchen table, a lemon-sugar sauce dripping prettily down its sides, when she heard her step-grandson pounding up the front stairs. “Hey, Grams!” Thirteen-year-old DaShawn Bentley came breezing into the kitchen, tossed his backpack into a kitchen chair, and pulled open the refrigerator door. “We got any milk?” The slender black teenager pulled out the plastic jug, got himself a glass from the cupboard, filled it, and chugged down the milk in one long draft. “Ah, that’s good.”
Estelle, meanwhile, stood with one hand on her hip and one hand leaning on the back of a kitchen chair, giving him the eye. “Well, hello to you, too, young man. Where’s my sugar?”
DaShawn grinned as he wiped his milk moustache off with the back of his hand. “Oh, sorry, Grams. I was so thirsty.” He gave his step-grandma an awkward hug and plopped into a kitchen chair—and then spied the cake. “Oh, man. Lemon cake! Can I have a piece?” He reached out a finger as if to take a taste but pulled it back when Estelle slapped his hand.
“You let that cake be, DaShawn Bentley, if you want any food to eat in this house before the sun comes up tomorrow.” Estelle snatched the cake plate off the table and whisked it into a far corner of the kitchen counter. “It’s Sister Michelle’s birthday today—Miz Jasper to you, don’t you forget—an’ I’m takin’ this cake over to help ’em celebrate.”
“Can I come? When you gonna go over? Tavis and Tabby told me it was they mama’s birthday. I know they’d want me to come too.”
Estelle hid a smile. She’d planned for all of them to go across the street to the Jaspers’ with the cake—Harry and DaShawn and herself. Had even told Michelle’s husband she wanted to make a cake since he was working all day out at the airport, and he’d said, “Only if you and Harry and DaShawn come along to help us eat it.”
But all she said now was, “Hmph. We’ll see ’bout that if you eat your supper.”
DaShawn settled for an apple from the fridge, then headed for the back door with his basketball.
“Where you goin’?” Hmm. That boy’s “short Afro” was definitely in need of a trim. Hadn’t they agreed on two inches, no longer?
“Just gonna shoot some hoops. Tavis said he’s comin’ over.”
Estelle frowned. “Wait just a minute. His mama told me the doctor said Tavis isn’t supposed to play sports this fall, and school just started three days ago. Don’t you go helpin’ that child break doctor’s orders. Lord, Lord, that boy’s still not a hundred percent after gettin’ himself shot this summer.”
DaShawn rolled his eyes. “Oh, Grams. Shootin’ some hoops in the alley ain’t gonna hurt Tavis. He’s pretty much healed up. The doc just didn’t want him gettin’ elbowed in the stomach or knocked down—that kinda thing.”
Estelle folded her arms across her ample chest and tapped her foot. “Well . . . you hold off long enough for me to check with his mama. If she says okay, then okay.”
DaShawn rolled his eyes again, but he plopped down in a chair while Estelle used the kitchen phone to call Michelle Jasper’s work number at Bridges Family Services. It was tempting to say, “Happy birthday!” when her neighbor answered, but since the cake was a surprise, she kept her query to whether Tavis was allowed to shoot baskets behind the Bentley garage.
“All right.” Estelle hung up the phone. “His mama says he can play for about twenty minutes. Just shootin’ though. No runnin’ around, you hear me?”
DaShawn grabbed his ball. “Thanks, Grams.” And he was out the back door and down the outside stairs. A few minutes later she could hear the thump thump thump of the ball on the alley pavement and the indistinct voices of the two boys.
“Thank You, Jesus, that boy gonna be okay,” she breathed. It’d been nothing short of heart-stopping when the two Jasper boys—Destin and Tavis—got shot back in July by some gangbangers who mistook them for drug dealers, when all they were doing was trying to make some money selling an energy drink.
Well, Harry and Corky would be home soon. She better get supper on so they could eat right away and have time to skedaddle over to the Jaspers with dessert, ’specially if Harry wanted to take Corky out to do her doggy thing before they went over. Couldn’t blame the dog. Working security at the Amtrak station downtown wasn’t the best place to let a dog specially trained to sniff out drugs do some free sniffing and running around.
Estelle pulled out a frying pan and then eyed her lemon creation on the counter. Might be a good thing to hide that cake from Harry or she’d be slapping his hands too.
* * * *
“You lookin’ mighty fine in that blue caftan, Estelle.” Harry Bentley held his wife’s arm as they stepped off the curb between two parked cars and started across the residential street. “You sure we don’t want to send DaShawn over to this birthday party while you an’ me—”
“Nice try, Harry.” Estelle giggled. They’d been married only four years, but Harry—all six feet of him, shaved head and graying Van Dyke beard to boot—still knew how to sweet-talk her. “DaShawn!” Estelle’s voice rose. “Don’t you go runnin’ ahead now. We’re gonna ring that doorbell together.”
“Anyone else comin’?” Her husband craned his neck, looking up and down the street.
“Don’t think so, but it don’t matter if they do. There’ll be plenty of cake to go around.” She eyed him curiously. “What you lookin’ at?”
Harry pulled his eyes back and assisted her up the opposite curb. “Did you see that For Sale sign across the street in front of the other two-flat?”
Estelle stopped on the sidewalk in front of the Jaspers’ brick bungalow. “What sign?” She peered into the waning dusk.
“There’s a For Sale sign in front of the two-flat next to the Singers’ place. Haven’t seen it before. Know anything about it?”
Estelle shook her head. That’d be the Alvarezes . . . She didn’t really know much about the family who lived there. A Spanish-speaking couple plus some other adults, all seeming to be related. Friendly when she’d stopped by with cinnamon rolls, back when she and Harry moved into the neighborhood several months ago. But they hadn’t actually gotten to know them yet. And now . . . looked like they were moving.
“I’ll stop by this weekend, see what’s up. Hope they’re okay.” She felt badly that she and Harry hadn’t made more of an effort to get to know the Alvarezes. They’d gotten to know several families on the block pretty well—the Jaspers, Grace Meredith, the Singers, the Jalilies. Even the elderly Molanders next door and the “two dads” next to the oversized house at the end of the block. Only so much one could do in a few months with thirteen families on their little dead-end block. But still.
“Saw the Horowitz family, too, when I was comin’ home, all decked out in their . . . you know.” Harry fluttered his fingers down around his waist. “Those fringes he wears. Looked like they were off to the synagogue. Saw several other Jewish families out walking too. But it’s only Thursday.”
“It’s Rosh Hashanah, Harry,” Estelle said patiently as they continued up the Jaspers’ walk. “For two days. The Jewish New Year, you know.” Harry probably didn’t know, but it didn’t hurt to give her clueless husband the benefit of the doubt. Though, Lord knows, they were surrounded by enough observant Jews in this part of Chicago, they ought to learn a little more about them and their religious holidays.
Once on the Jaspers’ front porch, she nodded at their antsy grandson. “You can ring the doorbell now, DaShawn.”
Michelle Jasper answered the door. “Estelle! Harry! What are you—?”
Estelle held up the Bundt cake with its ring of birthday candles. “Happy birthday, Michelle! We brought your birthday cake.”
“Oh, Estelle. You didn’t have to do that.” The attractive forty-something, her smooth caramel complexion glowing in the porch light, seemed flustered. “I hope my husband didn’t ask you to—”
“Girl, are you going to invite us in, or are we going to eat this cake out here on the porch?”
Michelle laughed. “I’m sorry! Come in! Hi, DaShawn. The twins and Destin will be happy to see you.” She led the way through the living room and turned into the dining nook just off the kitchen, which also faced the street. Some of the “Chicago bungalows” on Beecham Street had living rooms and kitchens on opposite sides at the front of the house with bedrooms in the back, like the Jaspers. Others had kitchens at the back.
Estelle leaned in close to Michelle’s ear. “That baby bump lookin’ mighty cute on you, young lady.”
“Uhh. Not so young.” Michelle laughed self-consciously as she took the cake from Estelle. “But I’m four months now. And no ‘maternity smocks’ these days like my mother wore to hide a pregnancy. You wouldn’t believe what the stores have in the maternity section. All stretchy and clingy, designed to show off everything.”
“Don’t I know it. I—”
“Yaay, cake! Let’s cut it!” The two Jasper boys and DaShawn were clamoring to get on with it, but Tabby Jasper glared at them. “Mama’s gotta make a wish an’ blow out candles first, and then we gotta sing.” The girl used a kitchen match to carefully light the candles—more like fourteen than forty, but Estelle figured no way could she fit forty-plus candles on that cake. “C’mon, Daddy, you start.”
Jared Jasper, still in his open-collared dress shirt and slacks from his work day at O’Hare Airport, winked at his daughter from behind his wire rims and started in somewhere between baritone and tenor: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you . . .” Everyone else joined in, mangling where the birthday person’s name should be inserted with everything from “dear Michelle” to “Sweetheart” to “Mo-om” to “Miz Jasper” to “Sister Michelle,” which caused everyone to giggle as Michelle paused to make a wish, and then blew out the candles.
“Bet I know what you wished for,” Tabby grinned, then smirked at her dad, who shook his head secretively. Michelle pretended not to notice.
“Now cut the cake!” Tavis shouted.
“Did you hear the doorbell?” Harry asked. “I think someone’s at the door.”
“I’ll get it!” Tabby darted into the living room.
Michelle handed Estelle a knife and asked her to do the honors. Estelle was serving up slices of lemon cake when Tabby returned. “It’s Miss Grace.”
Grace Meredith, the Jaspers’ next-door neighbor, just-turned-thirty, came in, her pale face flushed and long brunette hair carelessly caught up in a clip at the back of her head. “Oh! There you are, Estelle. I was actually looking for you and Harry, but you didn’t answer your doorbell, so I—” She suddenly noticed the birthday cake. “Oh, dear! I’m interrupting a birthday party. I’m so sorry.”
Michelle gave the younger woman a hug. “No, no, you’re not interrupting. The Bentleys brought over a cake and there’s plenty. Guess my ‘no-fuss birthday’ is turning into a party after all. Stay and have some cake!”
Grace shook her head. “Thanks, but I really can’t stay. My assistant is picking me up fairly early tomorrow morning—we’re driving this time, down to St. Louis. We’ll meet the band there and . . . Anyway, sorry, I’ve got a bit of an urgent problem. Uh, Harry and Estelle, could I talk to you privately for a minute?”
Estelle looked at Harry, who shrugged and followed Grace into the living room. Lord have mercy! She’d completely forgotten that Grace was scheduled for a concert tour this month. Handing the cake knife back to Michelle, she followed her husband and Grace into the next room.
Grace lowered her voice. “Don’t want Michelle’s kids to hear but . . . we saw Max.”
“Max?” Harry was immediately on alert. “What do you mean, ‘we’? Where?”
“Ramona and I. On the ‘L.’”
“Honey, sit down.” Estelle steered the young woman to the Jaspers’ couch. Ramona was Grace’s teenage houseguest—or whatever you call someone you’re hiding for her protection. Hiding from that no-good, smooth-talking Max What’s-his-name who was out on bail until Ramona could testify at his trial on charges of transporting drugs and taking a minor across state lines. “Now, dear, start at the beginning.
* * * *
Snowmageddon—available now. Click HERE to order.
To receive an email announcement whenever a new book by Dave or Neta is released (only three or four times a year—we won't bug you), click HERE to sign up.
© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson