On Mamma’s fortieth birthday, Hannah heard her stepfather say, “A woman over forty is good for nothing.”
Mamma gasped. A second later, she shot back, “Neither are men over fifty.” Murray was fifty-two.
Within the week, Mamma bought two folding beds, gave the Salvation Army the double bed she and Murray had used, and exiled her husband to the living room. From then on, Mamma shared the bedroom with Hannah and reduced contact with Murray to a minimum.
His routine made that easy. He rose at six and made his morning oatmeal before taking the hour-long trip to Yonkers, where he sold hardware from eight to six. He didn’t come home until seven on the three nights each week when Mamma fixed his dinner and even later when he ate out.
Long before he walked through the door, Mamma snatched their thick, soft, red-striped towels from the bathroom for fear Murray would touch them. She left his thin, scratchy blue-striped towel behind.
Mamma and Hannah had early dinners, usually shrimp, steak, chicken or chops, crowned by one of the knockout whipped cream cakes Mamma adored. After Hannah’s mother hid what was left of the cake so Murray couldn’t find it, the two of them retired to the bedroom.
Meanwhile Murray sat alone on the living room sofa, hunched over a Post or a PM filched from a trashcan. He was exhausted after all day on his feet. An hour later, Hannah could hear him opening his cot, followed soon afterward by deep snores.
The whole arrangement worked smoothly until Hannah turned fifteen and started seeing boys. Murray’s presence kept the living room off-limits to her dates at the end of an evening, forcing them either to roost on the radiator in the building’s lobby or neck standing up in the hallway outside the apartment. On rare occasions, Hannah invited a boy into the unheated kitchen.
She was ashamed of her stepfather and never dreamed of introducing him to any of her friends, least of all the boys. For one thing, Murray sometimes let three weeks go by between baths so he smelled rank. On Sundays when he lingered on his cot, Mamma would point to the black specks clustered around his ankles and between his toes and yell, “Why don’t you take a bath, you filthy slob?”
Besides, Murray held a dumb job as a clerk in his cousin’s hardware store, and he told dumb jokes, too. One of his favorites was “The birthday cake was heavy, but the candles made it light.” On his one day off, he never thought of anything brighter to do than visit his passel of relatives in Brooklyn. He always went alone; Mamma and Murray’s family shared a mutual antagonism.
The situation with Murray rankled Hannah, and she often railed at Mamma. “Why do you keep him around?”
Mamma would put down her latest murder mystery and purse her lips. “How many times do I have to explain this to you? He forks over twenty-four bucks a week, and all I have to give him is three dinners, just a little soup meat added to a can of vegetable soup. As long as I put half a loaf of rye bread on the table, he’s satisfied.”
Hannah hooted. “But you never spend any time together. It’s not a real marriage, it’s just a business deal. You always tell me to tell the truth and shame the devil, but you’re living a lie.”
“Look, Hannah, I set him up in business twice with the two thousand bucks from Papa’s life insurance, and that stupid schlemiel lost every penny. I want my money back.”
“That’s past history.”
Mamma’s eyes blazed. “Not to me, it isn’t.”
“You have a part-time job now. If you worked full time, your salary would cover all our expenses. You don’t need his money.”
Mamma cocked her head. “You’re a kid. What do you know?” She picked up her murder mystery and smiled. “If you can’t actually kill someone, this is almost as good.”
It wasn’t a love match from the beginning. Hannah remembered Mamma taking her aside before the wedding, holding out her right hand and saying, “This is my heart. Half belongs to you.” She flipped her hand over. “The rest will always belong to your father.”
Now Mamma and Murray could always manage to argue about something. Tonight it was
Thanksgiving dinner. Mamma proposed buying a capon and stuffing it with chestnut dressing.
Hannah knew her mother would buy a large roasting chicken and tell Murray it was the far more expensive bird.
“That sounds delicious,” Murray said.
“But you’ll have to peel the chestnuts.” Hannah knew this was a nasty chore.
Murray dismissed the threat with a shrug. “So?”
Mamma went on. “I figure five dollars should cover the capon, the chestnuts, and one of Horn and Hardart’s pumpkin pies.”
“Sure,” he said.
“I mean five dollars extra. Over and above the measly twenty-four you hand me each week.”
Murray shook his head. “I can’t believe anybody could be such a tightwad.”
Mamma’s eyes blazed. “And I can’t believe you make so little money.”
Insults flew back and forth like a ping pong ball.
Then, suddenly, Murray raised his hand to strike Mamma.
Hannah remembered the day eight years ago when she woke to see clotted blood on
Mamma’s upper lip. “You have blood on your face!” she yelled.
Mamma explained. “Murray hit me.”
She paused to let the news sink in. “Last night, just like every Thursday, I went to the Audubon with Mrs. Daly and her son, Paul. The theater offered quite a deal—just a quarter for double feature, stage show, newsreel, and cartoon. They even threw in a bingo game—with prizes yet. I won a glass platter. A sickly green, but it didn’t cost me anything. The three of us were singing a song from the stage show as we crossed the little
park near the theater.
“That’s when Murray jumped out of the bushes and struck me. He thought I had something going on with Paul. The idea! That boy’s just sixteen.”
Later that day, Mamma yelled at Murray “Get the hell out of this house.” He cried and asked to stay, but Mamma was not to be moved. She extended her arm and pointed to the door.
For weeks Murray kept on begging to return. “He isn’t longing for me,” Mamma said. “He’s ashamed that a second marriage isn’t working out. What will his family think about a second divorce?”
At the same time, the money Mamma inherited from Grandpa was running low. She
talked the situation over with her brother. Uncle Neal proposed having Murray sign a legal paper giving up his right of inheritance.
Neal’s idea sounded good to Mamma. “I have to look out for you, Hannah. Besides, Nana and Grandpa are dead. I need to have somebody.” She paused. “If Murray ever dares lay a finger on me again, Uncle Neal will pound him to a pulp. Neal’s going with me to the lawyer, too. Murray grabbed the money Papa left, but he’s not going to touch a dime of Grandpa’s.”
Eight years had passed, and now here was Murray, smiling broadly and ready to strike Mamma again. Hannah had always felt sorry for him before and hated the way Mamma treated him. He seemed to mean well—when she was a little girl he had taken her out roller skating and on long walks, but right now she boiled with outrage. Without thinking, she formed her right hand into a fist, and using all her might, delivered a punch to Murray’s jaw. His teeth sank into his lower lip and drew blood.. He looked surprised, but said nothing.
Murray never tried to hit Mamma again.