Excerpt

The Comedown

Rebekah Frumkin

April 16, 2018 
The following is from Rebekah Frumkin's debut novel, The Comedown. When Leland Bloom-Mittwoch ends his life by jumping from the roof of a Florida hotel, he leaves behind the mystery of a drug deal gone wrong. Deidre, his much younger second wife, becomes entangled with the rest of the family in search of a suitcase that may or may not contain a quarter of a million dollars. Rebekah Frumkin's writing has appeared in Granta, McSweeney's, and elsewhere.

Diedre Bloom-Mittwoch,
née Mifkin
(1962–)

Orlando

What had been happening in Diedre’s life prior to the summer of 1985, the month of July, when he drove up to the Shell where she worked in his 1976 green Ford Pinto, dressed in resort-owner pants and a guayabera, pupils massive behind a pair of expensive-looking Ray-Bans? She had been living with her girlfriend Trish in an efficiency above Sol’s Delicatessen in Orlando. Trish who worked at the same Shell as Diedre but who earned more money because she also waitressed three days a week. Trish who played drums in a hardcore band called Damocles Anthem that was moderately famous in the Orlando underground scene, playing places like Club Space Fish and D.I.Y. Records. Trish who confirmed the stereotypes about girl drummers dining at the Y: all of them had something to do with rhythm and persistence, and Trish had both.

When she met Trish, Diedre had been eighteen, the frizzy-headed child of southern Jews with an Irish obsession so strong they’d decided to name their only child after a mythological Celtic queen known for her misery. Diedre found the name embarrassing, especially since they couldn’t even be bothered to spell it right: in all the books it was “Deirdre,” and all her schoolteachers automatically wrote it that way, apologizing when she corrected them.

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Her mother was a stenographer, the tight-lipped, brittle-boned daughter of a Jacksonville cantor, a woman who’d grown up wearing wigs and swimming in mikvehs and thinking she was inferior to men until she disobeyed the cantor by attending the ice cream social where she met Diedre’s father. Her father was a bow-legged, thick-chested frummie-turned-semiapostate who could maybe be seen as handsome in the same way the movie gangster Jimmy Cagney could be seen as handsome if he also drove a produce truck. They lived in a one-and-a-half-story ranch in a row of identical one-and-a-half-story ranches, the three of them bonded by their unusual last name and their weekly trek to Congregation Ohev Shalom and divided by nearly everything else.

Diedre’s mother had decided to spend the Reform second half of her life working furiously to make up for what she’d missed in the Orthodox first. She bought herself two nice dresses, one twill and the other houndstooth. Every Thursday after work, she changed into the twill and drove back out to the Denmark Café, where she hobnobbed with a gaggle of wealthy goy housewives who’d been there since noon, drinking coffee with nonfat milk and sharing a single scone among the four of them. Diedre’s mother had been given Semitic blood but non-Semitic features: an ovoid, olive-complected face with heavy lashes and a small nose, a Mediterranean beauty that Aryans didn’t seem disturbed by. Although she rarely understood what they were talking about, she was always polite, laughing at the appropriate times and learning to correctly use their expressions: “weekday window-washer” and “all the bread, none of the butter.” As a consequence, she became a member of two or three “prominent” book clubs and a sewing club. When the clubs hosted their socials, she wore the houndstooth and a necklace of Bakelite pearls.

Diedre’s father, disinvited from all club socials after making what he thought was a joke among friends about one goy’s curtains maybe not matching her drapes, had decided to spend the second half of his life retreating inward. He was a small, hairy man who perspired through his shirt at the underarms and nipples and had a gap between his front teeth that Diedre had inherited. He was lovable, and his lovability was in large part due to his smiling unawareness of his own self: his odd-smelling produce truck, his hairline receding in the shape of a bird in flight, his arcane jokes that came poorly translated from their original Russian. Whereas Diedre’s mother proved a social asset at school, Diedre’s father was her Achilles’ heel. This was difficult for Diedre, because she had known from an early age that she was one of those girls who would always worship her father, who would look for a boyfriend with his same self-assured brawn, his same sense of humor.

*

After school Diedre was typically shut in her room, forcing herself to at least stare at her homework before she swept it off her desk and set to work cutting up and resewing her jeans, tearing pictures out of magazines, and listening to the Buzzcocks. It was while spinning “I Don’t Mind” that she pierced her ears with a sewing needle and a rubber eraser. Pete Shelley’s voice brought her back to earth; he of all people wouldn’t care if her piercings weren’t perfectly symmetrical. At school she wasn’t a person but a deadly combination of traits—a freak who was also stupid, averaging Cs and Ds in most classes except English, which was a C-plus. She was saved from complete ostracization only by her mother’s prominence. She had no friends, just people who acted friendly toward her: a tight-knit pack of burnouts, a few proto-goths, the occasional skinny lone wolf who entered her orbit for a few weeks only to drift away after she acknowledged him. She wasn’t beautiful: her hair grew in crimped and uneven patches of frizz, there was the gap between her teeth, her feet were splayed, her chest flat. In a restaurant on her sixteenth birthday, a waiter had called her “sir.” In those years, she was painfully aware she had no obvious talent, no way to legitimize her existence. She bought pain pills and weed off the burnouts. She smoked the weed at night and ate the pain pills in the morning so at school she always had the distant, heavy-headed feeling that her eyes were tunneling into her skull.

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By her senior year, it was clear to everyone in the Mifkin household that Diedre would not be the first among them to go to college. Her mother was disappointed and her father was pleasantly indifferent. She got an after-school job at a diner called Mayman’s with the understanding that she’d work there until she could afford secretarial school. She was a “pre-server,” cleaning tables, mopping the floor, and hastily delivering customers their plastic tumblers of water before the real waitress (it was usually Shirley or Dayna during Diedre’s shift, both chain-smokers, both happily married) came over and sweetly inquired after people’s orders. Pre-serving, with its dirty mop water, its crumbs in the cracked linoleum, its hair balls and shit stains in the bathroom, was good enough for her. The few times she needed to fill in for a missing server, she found herself gagging at the smell of the twice-baked, Crisco-thick food; she hated acting polite to kids who spat their straw wrappers at her; she hated the way people began eating the minute she set their plates on the table, the way they couldn’t afford anything more than a grunt when she came by five minutes later to ask if everything had been lard-slathered to their satisfaction. She got reedier in those early months working at the diner, subsisting mostly on Popsicles and stalks of celery, declining her father’s creamy blintzes in favor of sticks of chewing gum. Soon her clothes hung from her body and she felt as though she’d finally accomplished something.

One day she returned from her ten-minute break having burned a fifteen-minute jay, her eyes star-clouded, and saw a pale brown girl with premature crow’s-feet, tight black ringlets, and tiny teeth sitting at the counter and drinking a cup of coffee. She smiled out from under her frummie-looking fedora, making obvious the chip in her right front tooth. “Can I get some service?” she asked.

Diedre nodded and tied her apron around her waist. She took out her notepad. She noticed the girl didn’t have a menu, so she got her one. The girl smiled, showing her unnatural teeth. She took the menu, opened it, skimmed it, and closed it. She looked at Diedre.

“I’m Trish,” she said.

Diedre nodded and began to write that down, then stopped. Trish laughed.

“Do you like it here?”

Diedre hesitated before answering. “They work us hard.”

Trish glanced at the menu, then back at Diedre.

“But we all need to eat,” Diedre said. “We all need to put food on the table.”

Trish laughed again.

“What kind of food can I put on your table?” Diedre said, trying to say it like a joke.

“What kind of food can you put on my table?” Trish asked, and Diedre nodded briskly, trying not to laugh because the way she’d said it, it sounded like it could’ve meant something else. She was like her father trying to make conversation with a pretty woman. Would you like your Korall melted? Your roll buttered? Trish bit her lower lip.

 

Trish had been kicked out of her Catholic parents’ house for what she called ‘being a trashdyke,’ so she lived with four other kids in a trailer down a swampy road at the edge of town.”

 

At the end of Diedre’s shift, they were kissing in the stockroom. Trish’s plump lips and tiny teeth made hard little pills of Diedre’s nipples. She stuck her head under Diedre’s shirt. Diedre made gasping noises without meaning to. She had only been kissed once before, by a lone wolf named Benny Hopgood in a science classroom after the final bell had rung. The kiss—chaste, brief, lips on lips—was nothing compared to what Trish was doing. If Trish noticed that Diedre couldn’t exactly follow along, she never let on.

After that they saw each other all the time. Trish had been kicked out of her Catholic parents’ house for what she called “being a trashdyke,” so she lived with four other kids in a trailer down a swampy road at the edge of town. Two were the Doherty brothers, speed-metal freaks from the Everglades who were missing teeth from a combo of drugs and semi-pro boxing. Another was a girl named Sophie Lin who sat on a bean bag behind a massive curtain of hair and smoked purplish kush from a hookah whenever she wasn’t working at Hollywood Video Rental. And the fourth was a guy who said his first name was Raymond and claimed to have no last name. Raymond’s uncle was in the Hells Angels, which meant the trailer got an infusion of tina every couple of months.

Trish’s bed was a cot in a room she shared with the Dohertys. When they were gone—and they almost always were—Trish and Diedre snorted tina and fooled around, doing things Diedre had previously read about in magazines but now understood perfectly under the ecstatic influence, every part of her body magnetized to Trish’s touch, her crotch slobbering the minute the tina unfurled its glittery petals in her brain. Trish had blindfolds, eighteen-inch toys, boundless energy, no past. All she revealed about her parents was their religion and their willingness to kick a sixteen-year-old kid out of their house. Diedre didn’t even know if Trish was from Florida or not, if she had siblings, if she’d graduated high school. In the glorious early days of their relationship, none of it mattered. Not in the smoke-dense world they inhabited together, where Sophie was always asking them to guess the title of the song she was humming (it was usually unguessable) and all six of them piled onto the couch to watch Dallas after heating their respective frozen dinners in the Dohertys’ sauce-spattered microwave. Diedre could see herself spending the rest of her life with Trish, which was pleasantly shocking considering she’d always imagined herself eventually settling into a version of her parents’ tired routine with some hairy-backed guy from their congregation. That was the beauty of Trish: she was completely left field. If Diedre’s mother even met Trish, which Diedre hoped she never would, she wouldn’t even think, I bet this lesbian’s sleeping with my daughter. Diedre’s father might pull Diedre closer to him if they saw Trish on the street, urging Diedre to stay employed so she wouldn’t have to resort to “turning tricks like that one.” (Anyone poorer-looking than him was a “that one.”) It wasn’t so much her parents’ hypothetical disapproval she was getting off on—it was their very real dumbness.

Diedre moved out of her childhood bedroom and into the trailer, sleeping splayed across Trish on the cot. Eventually Diedre’s mother started agitating for a visit, so Diedre and Trish hatched a plan to find some real estate of their own—the Dohertys’ boxing practices and Raymond’s one-man jam sessions were proving to be too much, anyway. They moved into an apartment above a delicatessen, a dusty efficiency owned by a one-eyed landlord who claimed to have acquired his condition in Vietnam. When Diedre’s mother finally made good on her threat to visit, they hid all of Trish’s toiletries in the cabinet under the sink, praying Diedre’s mother wouldn’t start rummaging around. Bewilderingly, she seemed pleased with what she saw.

“Well, it’s cozy,” she said, pulling a checkered dress of Trish’s out of the closet. She swatted dust from it, frowning. “You’ve got some interesting new clothes.”

“And all this without a college degree,” Diedre said, which her mother ignored, floating across the room to inspect the curtains.

After two years with Trish, Diedre finally got beautiful. She kept on trying to starve herself but her body revolted, sending her to the fridge in the middle of the night after a Popsicle-only day, insisting she gorge on cheese and peanut butter and chocolate. Her breasts filled and so did her hips. At first she was embarrassed about it, cinching her jeans in hopes that making an equilateral triangle of her butt would prevent anyone from noticing. But Trish noticed—for a while, it was all she talked about. “Something to hold on to!” she said, grabbing a cheek in relief. “I loved you then as much as I do now, but it was harder to show it.” Soon Diedre understood what she meant. Even on tina Trish had been delicate, using only the tip of her tongue, holding Diedre at the hips as though she were teaching her to float on her back in the shallow end of a pool. Now she pulled and squeezed every item of skin that wasn’t flush with Diedre’s bones. They were louder and wetter and finished quicker. Diedre realized her tooth gap was sexy instead of embarrassing. She grew her hair out long, bathed it in tea tree oil, and knotted the silky strands in a bun at the top of her head. She abandoned the triangle and wore tight leggings and tank tops that showed everything. She switched from black lipstick to mauve, and she pierced the cartilage of her right ear from the point nearest her head to her earlobe. She began to get stares from men, all types of them: college football players, office workers, panhandlers, grocers. Trish put her hand around Diedre’s waist as they walked down the street. Sometimes Trish cleaned up, too, zipped herself into a strapless cocktail dress and sprayed her hair and wore a black plastic choker. Then all the creeps on the street would start cheering for the two of them to kiss. And instead of flipping them off, they did. They kissed in front of the creeps, on the bus, in the stockroom at the diner. When Dayna caught them in the back hallway, Diedre was fired and they both got jobs at the Shell. Trish had said they’d have to work double shifts if they wanted to save up for their wedding. It was hard to tell if she was joking.

A few months later, Trish made another announcement: they were giving up tina because they needed to “get serious about life.” Diedre had no idea why this was happening, and spent days exhausted by her own cravings. Noodle-kneed, she asked Trish what the fuck she meant by getting serious about life. Trish—who didn’t seem to miss tina—responded patiently that they weren’t kids anymore, they’d barely used that much anyway, they needed to schedule their time on earth better. Diedre couldn’t take it; she never got it out of her system completely. She woke up and went to sleep with splitting headaches, grinding her teeth, sick to her stomach. Trish started going back to the trailer to fool around on Raymond’s drum set, Sophie on bass, Raymond on guitar, one of the Dohertys singing vocals. At first they just played Black Flag covers, but then she started to write songs. Most of them were about what it felt like to be on drugs. A few of them were about a “lizard-eyed girl” Diedre assumed was her. She watched Orlando’s weirdos crawl out of their basements to headbang to Trish’s songs. She was always stoned in the front row, trying to make eye contact with her girlfriend to confirm whether a particular song was about her, getting jostled by the sweaty, muscled moshing behind her. The shows got more frequent. Trish wound through the crowd in search of talent scouts or small-time record producers, shaking hands. They’d wind up at the Florida Hospital cafeteria afterward, gorging themselves on veggie burgers (Trish no longer believed in eating meat), making conversation with all the pale-faced straightedge kids about whether Morrissey and Johnny Marr were fucking.

Diedre began to spend more time home alone. She thought maybe she was being punished for getting hot. She was getting hetero attention—the kind of attention they’d both vowed to disavow. Maybe it was because Trish didn’t like being in competition with a bunch of muscular assholes who probably wanted to drive her girlfriend around in their beaten-up cars and take her to shitty concerts. When they went out to eat after work, Trish began to do things like peel bills from the roll in her pocket, insisting that Diedre didn’t have enough. When Diedre complained about the blender being fritzy, the broom’s bristles being frayed, the radio’s antenna being bent, Trish replaced them all, happy to play the part of breadwinner. She left Diedre gifts on the kitchen table: a gram of weed, a turquoise necklace, a shubunkin goldfish. Diedre named the goldfish Patti and watched her swim around in her glass bowl, her belly scraping the rainbowed pebble stuff at the bottom. Two weeks later, Patti sprouted knobby growths on her forehead and her swimming became confused, one fin paddling frantically while the other remained flush with her side.

“There’s no such thing as a fish doctor,” Trish said, stooping to see through the murk in Patti’s bowl. “Maybe there’s some food we can give her to get it to go away.”

“Vets look at fish.”

“Vets don’t.”

Diedre pulled the tendrils curling at her hairline, a habit she thought she’d kicked in high school. “How do you know?”

Trish smirkingly kissed the top of her head. Patti swam into the side of her bowl and bounced backward like a piece of flotsam, blinking slowly.

“I think she’s going blind,” Diedre said. “I’m gonna change the water.”

“You think fish years go faster than human years?” Trish asked. “How fast do you think a fish year goes?”

“I don’t know.”

Diedre changed the water, plucking gnarled Patti from her habitat and letting her flop and gasp for a few seconds in the sink. Two days later, Patti was floating on her side at the top of the bowl. Diedre poked her and watched her fins twitch, her nut-sized brain sending the remainder of its electricity through her dying body.

She stepped back. Tears were gumming up her mascara. What was she, five years old? Would she hold a funeral in the toilet bowl, ask Trish if there was a fishy heaven? Sirens mewled in the street, sending an unwelcome burst of noise through the apartment’s single window, reminding Diedre that she was—she always was—completely alone. Back in the day she would’ve occupied this time with tina or coke or Trish’s body. Trish could be out there fucking someone else right now, a groupie from a concert. She had plenty of groupies, guys and girls, but the girls were more attractive: tan, toned, multiple piercings, straying from their boring, ponytailed boyfriends to thrash their heads in the front row. But maybe Trish was trying to really mess with her, which meant she’d probably be fucking one of her rangy, tattooed guy groupies. Maybe she’d fuck him and come back smelling like Coors and his hand-rolled cigarettes. Maybe she’d come back with gonorrhea or HIV. Or worst of all: maybe she’d come back with a record deal.

Diedre turned on the TV—60 Minutes—and maneuvered to sit on their bed, her eyes never leaving the screen. Her father would say she was letting the situation get the “bladder” of her and that she needed to relax, take deep breaths, “let it all out.” Downstairs, someone was arguing with someone else over an unpaid bill; she turned up the volume on Mike Wallace, who was talking about a nationwide increase in child kidnappings. There was nothing satisfying to listen to, but she was too tired to get up and spin an LP. Once upon a time, Trish would’ve done that for her. Now she was spending her time on earth better.

Diedre picked at a patch of scaling skin on her shoulder. She cupped her left boob, then her right. She looked over at Patti, kneaded her shoulders in embarrassment, looked away. She could just as easily go out and fuck someone, too.

The door clicked open and in walked Trish, eyes distant, jeans rolled up at her ankles in a way that made her look like an alt-farmer. She set down her drumsticks, took off her coat, lit a cigarette, took an initial puff, looked over at Diedre, took a second puff.

“Hi, babe,” she intoned around the cigarette. Diedre hugged her knees. “What did you do today?”

“I had today off.”

Trish ignored the answer, pulling pieces of paper from her backpack, arranging them on the kitchen table and shuffling them around as though she were within inches of breaking some Soviet code.

“What’s that?” Diedre asked.

“Hm?”

“What’s the papers?”

Trish made what sounded like a noise of acknowledgment, but sleepier.

“What’s the papers?” Diedre asked again.

“Something for the band.”

“What for the band?”

“We’re going on tour.”

“Where?”

She shrugged. “Just Florida.”

“Like where in Florida?”

Silence, paper shuffling, tar-thickened air. “Daytona Beach.”

“Patti died today.”

Trish looked up. “How?”

“I feel pretty bad about it.”

“How?”

Diedre hadn’t anticipated needing to provide a backstory. She stood, got the bowl from the dresser, and brought it to Trish, who looked into it and then back up at Diedre.

“The water’s clean,” Trish said.

“I mean, yeah.”

“It was dirty like the day before yesterday.”

“Yeah, but I changed it.”

“Maybe you changed it too late.”

“You think that’s why it happened?”

Trish shrugged, poked at Patti, then took the bowl from Diedre and set it down on the kitchen table. She stank of the Dohertys’ hand-rolled cigarettes and her own unwashed smell, a mustardy, rubbery perfume that clouded at the nape of her neck and under her arms. She cupped Diedre’s chin in her hand and pulled her in for a kiss, landing on her lips in a way that bruised, and then shook Diedre’s head no, no, no.

“You don’t want to be kissed?” she asked.

Diedre pried herself from Trish and stumbled away, rubbing her cheeks.

“That’s maybe the one thing that could make you cuter,” Trish said. “If you didn’t want to be kissed all the time.”

Diedre slept poorly that night, her limbs freezing, her head hot, folding herself into a fetal ball to accommodate Trish’s snoring and sprawling. She rose at dawn and watched the sun creep upward, stretching by pressing her hands into the tense small of her back. She was almost four years deep into a life with a woman who her mother (now attending Christmas luncheons and fantasizing about a rhinoplasty, according to her father’s latest update) and her father (still driving the produce truck, still making his fatty blintzes in a time and place where people would kill to be thin) thought was her roommate. She imagined waking up four years from now—she’d be twenty-seven!—and listening to Trish’s throaty snores, smelling the mustard under her arms, heating up frozen dinners, and wondering where in this great state of Florida Damocles Anthem would play next, but mostly thinking about how expensive the vodka would be at the after-party.

 

He’d turned Diedre on to the idea that her life could be an arc instead of a series of jagged happenings. With Leland she could grow up to be someone who actually impacted other people instead of being impacted by them.”

 

It was June or July and she was sweating in her Shell jumpsuit, her sleeves rolled up, her hair a bandannaed mess of knots and flyaways, her cheeks a livid red from overwork. It was a Sunday, she knew that much, because Trish wasn’t there: Sundays Trish worked at Denny’s until four o’clock. Sundays Diedre could unzip her jumpsuit and roll it down, drink a glass of water from the cooler outside the convenience store like this without Trish constantly reminding her to zip up.

She was doing exactly that when the Ford Pinto pulled up, her supervisor barking at her to get on that pump because she was pretty and he looked like a good tipper. She chugged the last of her water, pulled down her sunglasses, and made her way to him, the sleeves of her jumpsuit flopping at her sides. The driver of the Pinto watched her approach, the familiar widening of the grin and arching of the neck. She could see behind his sunglasses a pair of thick-lidded eyes. They darted vertically (the length of her body), then horizontally (between her and the convenience store). He looked at her over his frames and she saw immediately that he was a little old. Not the frightening, elderly kind—the interesting, adult kind.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She pulled the nozzle from the pump, tightened the main valve, and unscrewed the cap on his gas tank. “Diedre.”

“Pretty name,” he said. “You certainly took your sweet time saying it.”

Annoyed, she kept working in silence. Then she remembered the tip. “It’s an Irish name,” she said. “I don’t know why my parents chose it.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Mifkin.”

“So you’re a Jewess?” He hissed the last syllable.

“Russian, yeah.”

She could feel him watching her work. As his tank filled, she made her own assessment of his body: average height, hair graying and receding, the skin behind his unbuttoned collar rooster-colored, his forearms pale.

“You’re a northerner,” she said.

“On the money.”

“What’s your last name?”

“I have two,” he said. “Bloom-Mittwoch. My mother was too much of a fighter to give hers up.”

She nodded.

“Mittwoch means ‘Wednesday’ in German,” he offered.

“Oh,” she said. “I took Spanish in high school, but I can’t really speak it.”

He sniffed and rubbed his nose, and it occurred to her that maybe he partook. He looked both rangy enough to know where drugs were and rich enough to be able to afford them. She hadn’t been properly high in months.

“My girlfriend’s gone for the weekend,” she said.

This had the effect she’d intended: he took off his sunglasses and looked her up and down again. “You’ve got girlfriend trouble?”

“Yes.”

“Can I ask what’s wrong?”

The pin on the nozzle clicked. She took it out and screwed the cap back on his gas tank. “I dunno,” she said, unaware that her life’s course was about to change again. “I guess I’m just not in love with her anymore.”

*

May 16, 1999

The day of Leland’s funeral was brutally humid, which she didn’t know if he would have liked or not. He was the type to be totally indifferent to the weather: he could’ve smiled through a hurricane and broken china on a sunny day. Maybe that had been part of what was “wrong” with him, what the doctors and Rabbi Kamzin had recently been warning her about, but she hadn’t seen it that way. He’d been reacting reasonably to an unreasonable world, was how she saw it. Her father used to say the same thing about her way back when she had refused for three weeks straight to go to school. So Leland wasn’t bothered by the goddamn weather. One less thing to worry about, in her opinion.

Kamzin had already called the house twice that morning. She had ignored both calls. She didn’t want to wake up into her widowed reality again. Lee was sleeping at the other edge of the king bed she’d once shared with his father, snoring softly after a fitful night. She’d rolled across the sheets—stained by now with her food, the ash from the many squares she’d smoked, her spilled beers—to comfort him, to whisper in his ear that he always had her, and that she planned to stay around for a very, very long time. She couldn’t remember what she’d been doing when Leland jumped. Probably she’d just been getting home from the bank, unlocking the screen door and walking in on Lee sitting cross-legged in front of his cartoons, surrounded as he usually was by empty cans of orange Fanta. That was wrong, though, because they were saying he’d jumped early in the morning. She’d been asleep, or going to sleep. She’d probably been buzzed, but not as buzzed as he’d been. She laughed, and Lee shifted in his sleep. At least he’d gone out high.

She had been in love with him, or maybe she’d been in respect with him. They had a mutually respectful arrangement: he’d been through what he’d been through, she’d been through what she’d been through, their pasts didn’t count and their future seemed manageable, if not bright. They’d gotten married impulsively, after a night together in his Orlando hotel room with two bottles of grain liquor and a bag of cocaine. He gave and gave instead of giving and withholding as Trish had; she’d missed being high so much that when she was finally high again she felt like she was soaring. He seemed bent upon satisfying her cravings, delivering to her whatever it was she wanted. They’d talked about everything, every moment of their lives prior to that night in the hotel room—she’d told him about losing her virginity, trying to get high from an empty whipped cream can, an evening during her freshman year of high school when out of boredom she stuck sewing needles into each of the fingers on her left hand. She’d told him about Trish locking herself in the bathroom, about how her parents didn’t know she’d been a lesbian. He told her about his ex-wife, Melinda, who’d insisted he was a lunatic, and his son, a boy he’d named after himself who didn’t take after him at all, and their sad little apartment in Cleveland, a city he called the Mistake by the Lake. He told her that he’d been raised a Jew and had neglected Judaism to his extreme disadvantage. She said she felt the same—she didn’t know if she really did, but she knew she’d been wrong the whole time to pretend she was meant for anything else—and after they got their photo taken at the Elegant Enchantment Wedding Chapel she vowed never to do anything churchy ever again.

They went to Kamzin’s congregation every Saturday after that, this incredibly frummie place called Chaim Sheltok where she had to sit with the other women behind a cheesecloth and where she would often stare up at the flaking picture of Jerusalem on the domed ceiling. She could see the outline of Leland’s head a few benches in front of her, could see him bow forward in prayer, adjusting his kippah and tallit. As a little girl she’d been disciplined at Ohev Shalom for trying to wear one of the kippahs she’d taken from the wicker basket at the front. Trish would’ve thought something like that was funny and stupid. But when she told Leland he got a tight-lipped look on his face and said, “Well, it’s Halakha.” Trish was pure anarchy, but looking back at it now, she saw that Leland had been anarchy with a Jew’s sense of purpose.

He’d turned Diedre on to the idea that her life could be an arc instead of a series of jagged happenings. With Leland she could grow up to be someone who actually impacted other people instead of being impacted by them. Before she’d been a gap-toothed kid who shrank at the sight of authority and relied on the louder, powerful, more impressive people to make decisions for her. Now she was the loud, powerful, more impressive person. She’d gotten married, gotten a job as a bank teller, bought a bungalow with her husband in a swampy town twenty miles outside Orlando called Heimsheim, gotten (sort of) clean, gotten pregnant. Sure, she drank a little bit, smoked a little bit, did a bump or two on special occasions, but Lee came out fine, came out kicking actually, proof she was capable of producing life. She knew this was the family Leland had always wanted, a good Jewish family full of love and tenderness and mutual support. And he’d found a matriarch in Diedre, a Sarah to his wandering Abraham. If she thought about it, she felt flattered that he’d traveled so long and far in search of her. When he first held Lee, Leland said, “Now here’s my son.” The family in Cleveland had been a dry run, preparation for his real family. Now Lee was the gap-toothed kid too skinny to defend himself and Diedre was alone in the world with him.

She smoked a cigarette, then rolled and smoked a blunt, watched her exhalations break apart as they reached the ceiling fan. The phone rang, and Lee turned onto his back and mewled. She thought how funny it would be to call Trish and tell her everything that had happened. If she had Trish’s number still, which she didn’t. Last she’d seen of her was a lengthy profile in an issue of Maximumrocknroll, which Diedre got delivered to the house. It was Trish, Sophie Lin, and two guys Trish had used to replace Raymond and the Dohertys, all arranged so Trish was standing with her legs apart and smirking, holding her drumsticks in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the rest of them behind her. She looked bonier than Diedre remembered her, her clavicles sticking out and the muscles in her neck stringy. The headline was: “Damocles Anthem Is Changing How We Think About Hardcore.” Diedre couldn’t read the whole article—not because she was jealous, which she knew for sure she wasn’t—but she did get to the part where Trish was described as “a woman drummer-vocalist whose Mexican background hasn’t gone unnoticed in the white-as-milk hardcore scene.” They’d signed a record deal, had a debut album called Baby Bottle or Baby’s Bottle, Diedre hadn’t read very closely—she had to cancel her subscription after that. But that’d been almost five years ago. She was sure Trish was famous, but not like Rage Against the Machine famous, not even Botch famous. She was in that sweet spot where all the money was on its way but had not yet arrived, where talking to Diedre would still be reasonable. They used to prank call bars asking for someone named Tits Lavender, a joke they loved so much they’d sometimes answer the phone with “Tits Lavender speaking, may I ask who’s calling?” She imagined calling Trish wherever she lived now—New York, probably—and asking for Tits Lavender. Maybe she’d get an agent or a producer or a lover on the other end, someone who’d pull away from the receiver and go, “This girl’s asking for a Tits Lavender?” If they knew Trish, they’d know better than to hang up right away. It was funny, Diedre thought, how two very similar people could start out in the same shitty place and one could end up so much better than the other. Trish had at least tried to make sense of the world, make the things she’d done in it meaningful. Diedre just hated the world, and that motherfucker hated her right back.

Now Lee was awake, which seemed to be frightening for him. He was looking up at her smoke trails, blinking tears out of his long-lashed eyes. She was at least 50 percent sure he’d turn out to be gay, just from the soft way he walked, the pitch of his voice, the pair of blue satin shorts he always insisted on wearing in the summer. And now here he was lying on his back crying as she imagined he would someday in the bed of a boyfriend, or possibly a girlfriend before realizing he wanted boyfriends, crying quietly as he remembered this very moment on the morning of his father’s funeral when his shitty mother was too stoned to comfort him.

“Baby,” she said, pulling him toward her. He stayed a lump. “Baby, how are you?”

He sniffed and shook his head.

“Oh, me too, baby. I feel the same way.” She hugged him and he stayed inert.

“How come nobody tried to stop him?”

They were making horrible eye contact now in the morning half-dark. The phone rang again, which made him jump.

“Ignore that,” she said. “I’ll call him back when we get up.”

“I bet a lot of people had the chance to stop him,” he said.

Did he mean Diedre? There was the fight they’d had the night before he left, when she said he’d have to quit the “medicine” because it was making him paranoid. He’d been bingeing that week, hadn’t been to work in days, and she figured it was another one of those if-you-don’t-come-in-today-don’t-bother-coming-in-tomorrow situations. Whenever he got like this she just hid his shit or did it all herself, tried to get him to spend a day or two getting clean. She’d never seen anyone consume yayo with the enthusiasm he did. Not even the Dohertys and Raymond had devoured enough crank to match Leland’s appetite. He breathed it, would bathe in it if he could. It was a lot, even for her. When she hid it, he’d storm into their room raging, then sobbing, then begging. It didn’t matter, though: he always knew where to get more. She hid it the day before he left and when the fight and his paranoia had escalated, she remembered thinking that all of her friends had known when to stop partying. She’d told him that and had stormed out of the room, put Lee to bed, and gone to bed herself. Those had been the last words she said to him.

 

She closed her eyes, dizzy from a cocktail of loneliness and guilt and self-pity, and when she opened them again she saw Caleb glaring at her over her husband’s coffin.”

 

“It’s hard to know when someone is suffering like that, what they need,” she said, hearing in her own voice how much she was bullshitting. “Daddy was suffering so much, and not even you or I knew how bad it was.”

Lee made fists and pressed them into his eyes. “I did!” he wailed.

Eventually she got up to take Kamzin’s call, which was about the logistics of the shiva and what should be said in the eulogy. No one would see the corpse because of the way he’d died—his horrible new form had been revealed to Diedre alone on a steel gurney at a morgue in Tampa. Aside from the kaddish they weren’t going to have much of a Jewish burial, because the corpse had to be transported (outrageously expensive) and then prepared for burial (also outrageously expensive; she didn’t know whether it was a part of grief to wish he could’ve at least died closer and less gruesomely), and then she had to pay for the funeral and for Kamzin to put together a eulogy. What was he going to say? Leland had hardly been a pillar of his community. The best he could do was manage to be hated and loved at the same time.

*

The nicest dress she owned was part pleather, so she had to wear the second-nicest, black suede she’d inherited from her mother. Lee had a suit, thankfully—Leland had purchased one for him for shul, arguing that he’d be able to wear it on his bar mitzvah, as if he wouldn’t grow at least five inches in the next four years. Then again Lee seemed to be the kind of kid who’d stay small his entire life, so there may have been some logic to Leland’s strategy. They combed their hair together in the mirror, Lee’s lips tight.

“How’re you feeling, baby?” she asked.

“I’m not feeling any type of way,” he said, his voice tired as Kamzin’s. “I just wanna get this over with.”

The synagogue was empty when they got there, Kamzin busy in his office. Diedre noticed the chipped paint on the domed ceiling, the droopy-faced angels rushing to the feet of the guy who’d built the synagogue; she couldn’t remember his name but he always looked so young in the painting. Then she looked twice: had the painting always been of him? She could be remembering it wrong, of course, but hadn’t it been of Jerusalem when they first started coming to services? Kamzin emerged from his back office in his comically tall kippah, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with what looked like a cloth napkin.

“I thought we’d have to throw together a service for you, too,” he said to Diedre. “The way you didn’t pick up your phone this morning.” He adjusted his tie, his cuff links, caught sight of Lee’s pale-with-grief face. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

People began to trickle in: Leland’s boss, a few of her friends from the bank, a woman whose son was friends with Lee at school, some older members of the congregation. One man told Diedre that Leland’s singing had been beautiful, and she didn’t bother reminding him that Leland never sang. Just before the service was about to start, a young man wandered into the chapel and started talking to Lee, who was greeting mourners at the front door. Diedre had never seen the man before in her life: he was tall, maybe ten years younger than she was, black, well dressed, squatting in front of Lee like a grade school teacher on a field trip, listening patiently while Lee explained something, then looking when he pointed back at her. She waved, and he made his way toward her.

“Diedre, Lee’s mom?” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Caleb Marshall. From Cleveland.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

His brows knit, unknit. Diedre was waiting. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said. “Did he not tell you about me?”

She searched her memory for stories of Cleveland. All she could think of was the nasty ex-wife, the disobedient son. “I’m sorry, I don’t think so.”

This appeared to be very disturbing to Caleb Marshall, who sighed and threaded his fingers together. “Okay then,” he said. “He, well, he paid for my college and law school. I’m very grateful to him.”

Diedre tried to suppress a laugh but couldn’t. “I’m sorry, is this a joke?”

“This absolutely isn’t a joke.” The small crew of mourners were beginning to look at them—his voice had changed—but Diedre didn’t care. “He paid me back in money he owed my father. He wanted to make up his family’s debt to ours.” He paused, raised his eyebrows. “Your family’s debt to ours.”

“My husband used to carry those cheap plastic wallets,” Diedre said. “At any given time he had less than a dollar in each of them.”

The young man looked angry. “I don’t see how that has anything to do with . . .”

Kamzin appeared in the main chamber, waving his hands like the building had caught fire, saying something about how they had to get things going before it got any hotter.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know about the debt,” Diedre said. “You’re welcome, of course, but it sounds like we knew two different men.” She left Caleb standing in the lobby and went to grab Lee’s hand.

The burial plot was smaller than she’d remembered it being. Maybe it was the shabby gaggle of mourners, the way Kamzin cleared what sounded like a fist-sized piece of phlegm from his throat before reading scripture Diedre didn’t recognize, but the whole affair felt pathetic. She remembered how the two of them used to watch Lee play in the sprinkler from the porch, Leland shirtless and drinking a tallboy while she wore the Pixies T-shirt she’d bought for him and smoked a blunt, her legs crossed over his, math rock blasting through the windows of the house. She remembered how he’d turned around during services to blow kisses at her behind the cheesecloth, how thrilled she was that they got away with being Jews by day and rock stars by night, how not a single member of that congregation suspected she went home and practiced air guitar on her bed and snorted yayo and made fun of Dateline with her husband, a man for whom she suspected she’d always had a place in her heart but hadn’t realized it until the day at the Shell when he was right in front of her. Now the memories came faster: Leland in a pair of workman’s gloves digging the palmetto bugs out of the gutter, Leland shaving Lee’s hair into a Mohawk and telling other congregants that Lee had done it himself, Leland wading into the swamp behind their house to wrestle the alligator Lee claimed he’d seen in there. She closed her eyes, dizzy from a cocktail of loneliness and guilt and self-pity, and when she opened them again she saw Caleb glaring at her over her husband’s coffin. He’d been joined by a tallish white man and his supermodel-looking wife. Diedre didn’t know these people. It wasn’t supposed to be an open funeral for the entertainment of anybody who just happened to be walking by. Her son was trembling at her hip, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. The supermodel was looking everywhere but at Diedre, and the man, her man—Diedre saw that he had the same high forehead as her late husband, the same thick eyebrows. A little “oh God” escaped her mouth, and Kamzin stumbled in his speech, went on.

She’d known practically as soon as she could think that she had been destined for a strange life, but she’d had no idea she’d been destined for the humiliations she felt later that day before her husband’s shiva began. How was she, a greasy-faced Florida teenager, supposed to know that at some point in the future her husband’s son from a previous marriage would come to her husband’s funeral and demand that he be able to “see” the house before the shiva started? All those nights spent waiting home alone for Trish to get back from her shows, those afternoons spent massaging her swollen ankles while pregnant with Lee, those mornings spent counting old men’s sleeves of change in her bank teller’s uniform—how could she have known that this would happen to her? Furthermore, how could she have known what to say? The son was stronger-looking than Leland had been, taller, clearly richer. His wife had gone back to the hotel while he followed Diedre home in his rental car. She agreed to it because he wore an expensive suit and threatened to sue her if she didn’t comply. What was she supposed to do? The minute he arrived, he spun around the room, his eyes bright with anger.

“He lied to you!” he yelled, sweating in his suit. “None of this belongs to you. My attorney has proof.”

“Who’s your attorney?” Diedre asked. It was all she could do to fight back.

But he didn’t answer, just rummaged. He took nothing that Diedre had purchased with her own money, nothing that belonged to Lee—just the odds and ends that Leland had arrived with from his previous marriage: a locked-up yellow suitcase she’d never asked him about, a few paintings from the wall, a wooden box of jewelry he claimed belonged to his mother, a box of old deeds that belonged to her as well. He told Diedre he’d already claimed possession of the car. Now that the old man was dead, he said, all these things would be restored to their rightful owner.

“Take what you need and do it fast,” she told him. “You’re traumatizing my son.”

Lee was sitting on the couch, pretending to watch TV, but he was really watching Leland Jr. wander self-righteously around the bungalow. This would surely be a moment he’d be stuck reliving, Diedre couldn’t help but think, one of the thoughts he’d have at her own funeral: My mother didn’t even give two shits about the lunatic who stole stuff from our house on the day of my dad’s funeral. After Leland Jr. had gone, she held her hand out to Lee but he ignored it. She asked him to come into the kitchen with her and eat potato chips, but he shook his head. She begged him to just help her cover the mirrors, but he said he was “busy.” She gave up. She had her limit, and she’d reached it.

She went into her bedroom and closed the door. Soon guests would be arriving with potato salad and candied carrots. She’d have to act natural, like nothing had happened. Lee would be catatonic on the sofa, bingeing on cartoons. She figured she had about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to get a little stoned and change out of her dress, which was tight in the chest, and into “mourning clothes.” She packed a bowl and closed the blinds. On the shelf above her bed she kept all the cassettes she’d bought but had yet to listen to. Among them was Baby Bottle, the title designed to look like it had been spelled out in spilled milk. She put it in her Walkman, put on her headphones, and skipped through the tracks until she got to one whose bridge she partially recognized: “getting looked up and down / by the lizard-eyed girl.” She lay on her singed bedspread, crossed her ankles, and listened to Trish sing about her.

__________________________________

From The Comedown. Used with permission ofHenry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2018 by Rebekah Frumkin.




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