By Jim Zinaman
The crunch of little white stones beneath his tires ceased as Jimmy braked to a stop in a Ford Escort rental. A long and winding driveway through a stand of pines off Clearbrook Road in Hot Springs had brought him to a broad one-story red-brick house trimmed in gleaming honey-colored wood.
2552 Clearbrook. Freedman. The only Freedman he found in an online directory for Hot Springs. Plenty of Friedmans, but no other Freedmans. Online research had revealed that the descendants of the tribes of Israel had grown fruitful and multiplied as well in this oasis of famed mineral waters.
Heart-shaped slabs of slate served as stepping stones on the path of little white stones to a varnished oak front door. Jimmy pushed an oak door buzzer, which, instead of buzzing, issued four resonant tones peaking higher, the final one finding rest in a lower lingering note. The tones brought to mind something he had heard when he was very little, but he could not recall the circumstance. He could recall being with Great-Grandpa Gold somewhere in Manhattan, some place like one of those old movie theaters with a ceiling that seemed as tall as the sky, a sky dark with paintings of figures he could not make out, figures that flowed over the walls as well, framed in trim of ornately carved bright gold wood. He liked his great-grandpa: a gruff, no-bullshit, well-muscled and still athletic old-timer who denounced Westchester as being barren as Sinai. And he would never forget when Great-Grandpa Gold took him one blazing hot summer afternoon to Delancey Street to buy a lemon ice from a Slavic street vendor. At that street corner had stood what had been the first tenement house that provided shelter from the rain and the cold for an immigrant farmer and his family, who in America had taken on a new name of Gold, the one written on their papers by the officer at Ellis Island who had no clue how to spell the Russian name they uttered.
A portly woman with short brown hair answered the door. She reminded Jimmy of his favorite television cartoon when he was a little kid, of the woodchuck heroine opening the door to her burrow bungalow.
“May I help you??” she said.
“Sorry to bother you. But I wonder if I might say hello to Amy.”
“Amy? I don’t know any Amy.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said. “Sorry to disturb you.” He glanced at the name in black letters upon silver foil adhesive rectangles pasted on the mailbox affixed to a siding shingle by the door. “I thought I’d find Amy Freedman here.”
“And she spells ‘Freedman’ without an ‘i?’”
“Yeah. I’ll show you.” He pulled an ipad up out of his shoulder bag and opened it, its screen bright with the image of the last Facebook page he had accessed. They gazed at a color photo taken at some distance of a young woman. Beside it in bold font were the words, “Amy Freedman.” She stood on a sunny fire escape of a cast iron building with floor-to-ceiling windows, watering tomato plants laden with their red-orange fruits. The tomatoes matched the color of the woman’s hair; their green foliage, the color of her jeans. By the angle the shot appeared to have been taken from the rooftop of a building across the street.
“Reminds me of Beth,” Ruth said. She squinted. “I can’t tell, though. I don’t believe she ever lived in a place like that.”
“She ever been to New York?”
“New York City? Sure. Lived there over seven years. Came back this year and now’s staying with her sister in Fayetteville for a while.”
“Maybe she changed her name to Amy for a while.”
Ruth’s brow furrowed like that of a child who had encountered something so new, it was beyond her comprehension. “Why on God’s earth would she do that?”
Jimmy smiled, not so much amused as taken by her genuine, honest self-expression. “Why not?” he remarked.
Ruth reflected on his comment. “Well, I don’t know,” she acknowledged. “Why not indeed. I mean, I changed my last name when I got married.” She looked at Jimmy. “All right, let’s say it is my Beth. You and she are Facebook friends?”
Jimmy nodded, waiting for an outcropping of information on which he might hook his supposed friendship with a young woman who apparently was the daughter of the woman he now faced and thereby secure his story for being here.
Ruth said, “Did she tell you she teaches a photo workshop occasionally at the arts center in town? People love her stuff. You want to see?”
“Sure,” Jimmy said.
The woman beckoned him to follow as she headed back through a small foyer to a circular livingroom with floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors leading to a mahogany deck and a panoramic view of the pine woods spreading down the valley below them.
On one pine-paneled wall hung a set of framed black-and-white photographs, like a collection of family portraits. Yet strange. Photos as if from another era with young men and women sporting fedoras belted overcoats in some urban neighborhood, the brownstones and shaded tree-lined streets reminding Jimmy of Brooklyn. Semitic faces with long, knobby noses, wavy or curly dark hair, and intense, brooding gazes at an alien world they were destined to defy or conquer. Pictures of actual ancestors or just extended family that Beth imagined for herself?
“I didn’t properly introduce myself,” the woman said. “I’m Ruth Lecoeur Freedman.” She extended her hand.
Jimmy shook it. “Jimmy León,” he replied.
“Jimmy,” she said, as if tasting the word, savoring the possible meanings of it. “Always liked that name. Reminds me of boys in summer wearing tee shirts with horizontal stripes, before they become men who put on business attire and only think about doing what they have to do.”
“What do you mean?”
She blinked suddenly, as if awakened from a moment’s reverie, her hazel eyes now as alert as when she first greeted him. “Never mind me,” she said. “So you and Beth planned to meet here?”
Something in those hazel eyes stopped him before he began spinning a tale, one of those stories he somehow always came up with to charm his way into learning new things or getting into new places. Maybe his stories could work with young women already attracted to him, but not here with this person. Maybe it was because Ruth’s eyes reminded him of Grandma Rachel’s eyes, the tender way she would look at him when he would trudge into the León Garage office some afternoons after another shitty day in Dunce High—his assessment of Donne High. Amidst the tones of Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez weaving a web of music that suffused the room, she would ask, “How’s it going?”
“Beth and I never really connected,” Jimmy said. “I just saw her picture online.” And before Ruth could begin to consider him as being some kind of long-distance cyber-stalker, he quickly explained his goal of finding his father and how his father had left him the number of a friend of this ”Amy” Freedman, who had directed his father to find her here.
“Your father doesn’t have a cell phone?” Ruth asked.
“He does and he doesn’t,” Jimmy replied. “Kind of a love-hate thing. He used one all the time when he would travel for work, but I can’t remember him ever calling my mother or me on it. And now that he’s…retired, I guess you could call it, he never uses it. For all I know he might have thrown it away. Weird, right?”
“I’ve heard weirder,” Ruth said. Suddenly she smiled. “So you like my Beth’s picture.”
“Have to say I do.”
“Well, I imagine I would have turned a few heads outside of Hot Springs if Facebook was around when I was her age.”
Jimmy observed how the lightness of Ruth’s brown hair and the welcoming radiance of her presence suggested everything that had attracted him to the electronic image of the young strawberry-blond Beth Freedman. Except that Ruth had put on weight in the way many women do in middle age, especially when they are dissatisfied with the men they have settled for.
“I can see where she gets her looks,” Jimmy said.
“Why thank you, Jimmy. Flattery indeed has its place. But honesty makes more of an impression.” She gestured toward the kitchen on the far side of a honey-colored marble counter fronted by tall oak stools. “Anything I could get you to eat or drink?”
Having ridden on the Trailways bus all night to get here, so excited finally to arrive in Hot Springs and drive away in the Ford rental to meet Amy-now-Beth, Jimmy had forgotten to stop for breakfast.
“Well,” he said, “can’t say I’m not hungry.”
“Then have a seat,” she replied. “You like cornbread?”
“Never tasted it.”
“Lord,” Ruth began, casting her eyes heavenward, “may ye spare this child from further deprivation.” She gazed at Jimmy. “Just so happens I made some early this morning. I’ll heat it up. Can I assume you know the taste of fried chicken?”
“Of course,” Jimmy said, gladly taking a seat upon a stool.
“But not the taste of good old Southern fried chicken. And fried okra golden tasty in a salt-and-peppered batter. And freshly picked corn and pecan pie baked with pecans from trees down the road.”
“Thank you, but the cornbread sounds just fine. I wouldn’t want you to go to the trouble of cooking chicken.”
“It’s no trouble, Mr. Jimmy. I love doing it. It’s not often I have company out here, especially unexpected and charming company. Beth and Zelda only come back on occasion, the occasion being when they want a break from having to haul their own laundry and spend what little money they have at a laundromat. Or when they’re tired of having to be young adults and they just want to sleep late one weekend and have their mama make them breakfast.”
“Your husband passed away?”
“No, he’s very much alive, Jimmy. But he’s been dead to me a long time.”
Jimmy’s brow furrowed.
She said, “Bernie and I divorced over ten years ago.”
Jimmy said, “Sorry to hear it.”
“Well, thank you. But it was for the best.”
“That’s what my mother and my grandparents always say.”
Ruth looked at him.
“My parents are divorced, too,” Jimmy said.
“Now I’m the one who’s sorry to hear it. I hope it wasn’t long ago. It’s so hard on young children.”
“Just last year.”
“Still must be hard.”
“That’s what my girls say to me, too. But I don’t believe it,” Ruth said.
“It really has been easy for me to accept. My parents are totally different kind of people. Can’t figure out how they ever hooked up.”
Ruth smiled. “Someday you’ll meet someone, and you’ll see. So,” she then said as he pulled a folded white apron out of a drawer and tied it around the waist of her brown plaid slacks, “time for me to make you a big—-what time is it?” She glanced at the clock affixed to the wall above the sink. “Time for your big ‘brunch,’ as Bernie’s people from New York would call it.”
“Thanks again, but the cornbread will be just fine—assuming it wasn’t cooked with peanut oil.”
“Peanut oil. You think this is an Asian restaurant?”
“I have a severe peanut allergy, and I have to watch it.”
“Oh,” Ruth said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
“It’s cool. You didn’t know.”
“And that’s why you don’t want fried stuff. I assure you there’s no peanut oil.”
“But do you use Crisco? My Grandpa Paul told me stories of traveling through Alabama.”
Ruth laughed. “Well, I can’t speak for the Deep South, but up here in the Ozarks we’ve evolved a bit.” She held up an aerosol can from the counter by the stovetop. “Olive oil. From Italy.”
“I appreciate it, but I try not to eat heavy.”
“You sound like Beth. Blessed with my face, cursed with my figure.” She glanced down Jimmy’s body. “You don’t look like you have to watch your weight.”
“I don’t. It’s just that when I eat heavy in the middle of the day, especially in this heat, I get too sleepy.”
Ruth nodded. “So just the cornbread.”
“You have any salsa?”
“Now you sound like both my girls. Is everyone in this country turning Hispanic?” She opened a cabinet door above the counter. “Mild or spicy?”
“I like it hot.”
“Again like my Beth,” she said, pulling down a small bottle and shutting the cabinet door. Then slowly she turned to Jimmy. “So who are you really down here to see?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on. ‘Your father,’” she said. “You’re here to see my Beth.”
Jimmy grinned. “There’s this Crosby, Stills, and Nash tune my Grandma Rachel always sings.”
“Which one? My parents hated hippie music. Which of course meant I loved it.”
“If you can’t be,” Jimmy began the chorus, “with the one you love, honey—“
“Love the one you’re with,” Ruth joined in.
They sang, ”Love the one you’re with!”
Ruth nodded with satisfaction. “Beth just might enjoy meeting you,” she said. “And I’d enjoy helping make that happen—if you earn my blessing.”
“Yes. Come with me to services tonight.”
“Friday night services at a synagogue.”
“Why—can’t believe there are Jews out in the country?”
“No,” he said. “It’s just—I don’t know. You don’t look it.”
“I converted,” she said. “I loved the people I met and their love for learning.”
“Ah,” he replied. “That explains the attendance at synagogue.”
“Jews don’t go to services up where you’re from?”
“Not the kids I know. Except with their parents maybe on those holidays in September.”
“Rosh Hashanah,” she said. “Tonight is the first night.”
“Whatever,” he said.
“Have you ever been to services?” she asked.
“Once in the City with my Great-Grandpa Gold when I was really little.”
“Yeah. My mother always referred to him that way—at least to me. Great-Grandpa Gold, Great-Grandma Gold. Like they didn’t have first names or like they weren’t people I could get to know. They both died, shortly after that visit to the temple, I think.”
“That they died? I mean, they were really old.”
“No. That you couldn’t get to know them.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Whoever gets to know their great-grandparents? I don’t know any kid one who’s ever been with relatives that old.”
Ruth nodded. “I never was. You were lucky. Blessed.”
“I guess. Can’t say I remember much about them.”
“Someday you may. And if you do, you’ll be that much richer for it.” She paused. “They were your mother’s grandparents?”
“So you’re Jewish.”
“So the Rotkins always told me until they gave up thinking I cared what they had to say.”
“Who are the Rotkins?”
“My mother’s parents.” Jimmy looked at her. “Not my kind of people.”
“So I’m hearing. Demanding? Think they know it all?”
“And then some.”
“I know the kind. Had more than a taste of it with Bernie. He never went to services.” She looked at Jimmy. “But you’ll go with me?”
He returned her gaze. “Sure,” he said. “You’re cool.”
Ruth laughed. “Cool is not something I’m used to a young person calling me.”
“Well, you are. When you ask for something, you make it feel like something I’d want to check out, not something I have to do. Like you’re someone I could hang out with.”
“Well I’d enjoy it if you would.” She extended an arm crooked at the elbow for him to link his arm. He did so.
“We’re off to see the Wizard,” she sang as she began to skip forward, pulling his arm for him to join her. He stood in place, looking at her as if she were from another planet.
“You’ve never seen the Wizard of Oz,” she said.
He withdrew his arm for hers and shook his head.
“Now you’re wondering if I’m getting just a little too kooky for you.”
Jimmy smiled. “Nagh, you’re just the right amount of weird.”
* * *
Ruth’s pickup truck bumped over the dirt road through the woods, the dust spun up by the tires veiling the thick walls of leafy trees on both sides. The fresh smell of these woodlands was strangely stronger than what Jimmy recalled from the oaks and maples bordering the marshland field behind his house in childhood. Stranger still was that he was traveling through the woods to a synagogue, a place he had only known in his life to be either a building in Manhattan or part of that community center in Donne where families in suits and ties and lipstick and high-heels unloaded from Mercedes and BMW’s. Those Jews would sit indoors for hours on days marked by the kind of sweetly golden Indian summer weather that was an outdoor answer to one’s prayers.
At the synagogue two middle-aged men in plaid shirts, sports jackets, and black skull caps flanked the front doors. They gave Ruth warm hugs and welcomed Jimmy to the community. They provided programs and quietly urged them to find seats quickly since the service was about to begin. Ruth and Jimmy settled in two places in the middle of the last pew. She handed him a prayer book from the back slot of the pew ahead of them. Opening it from the right side rather than the left, she indicated where he could follow the service on the left page containing the English translation of the prayers which would be sung or chanted in Hebrew from the corresponding right page. The Gothic white letters on the forest green cover of the program read ROSH HASHANAH – OZARK BETH-EL.
When Jimmy asked Ruth what “Rosh Hashanah” meant, she whispered that it was the Jewish New Year just before the organ music began. Certainly not a happy new year, Jimmy thought, as the music sounded quite mournful, especially when upon the dais a woman garbed in a black robe and cantor’s hat approached the lectern and began to sing in tones that were sadder than sad. He found the tones captivating, though, painful in a way that he could not turn away from. Resonating with a part of him deeper than he had ever wanted to acknowledge, than maybe he had ever understood. It reminded him of how sad he had felt too often as a child. It captured, he knew from what he once heard on a television documentary about Jewish history, the spirit of a people who had survived centuries. A history of surviving state-planned slaughter or common prejudice or just the never-ending sense of not knowing where one could call home.
The sober, aching tones prevailed in the synagogue with wave upon wave, here in song, there in prayer. The troughs between the peaks were the hushed instructions from the rabbi as to which page in the prayer books everyone should turn and as to an interpretation of the day’s Biblical passage which might shed light on what everyone was feeling as they listened to his words. Jimmy did not listen to the words, for the words “God” and “Jewish people” and “covenant” were merely that: words. He tuned into an ark of presence in which everyone there seemed to riding these waves of song and prayer. His fellow passengers had seemed so alien when he arrived here this evening, including his hostess, Ruth, with her all-American looks, her small ski-slope nose and big round blue eyes, amidst this throng of dark- and wavy-haired people with their sharp or pensive brown eyes and downwardly pointed or hooked noses. To Jimmy the noses accentuated the expression of those intent on focusing on their trade or business, the eyes communicating either a defiant pride, a retreat from the bestial outside world, or an immersion in the exalted inner realm of philosophy and art and fantasy. With these people now, however, he felt sheltered, if only for these few hours together, from the storm of what he had most often known to be the disquieting experience of being alive: the difficulty breathing as an asthmatic child, the peanut allergy with the ever-lurking danger of consuming an inadequately labeled item of food and the consequent anaphylactic shock, the preoccupation with death awaiting him at every table or gathering place where friends and family broke bread together.
Suddenly a man in a white skull cap rose from the first pew, ascended the stairs of the dais to stand beside the rabbi at his lectern, and held up a ram’s horn for the congregation to behold. The calling of the shofar, he heard Ruth whisper to herself. Then upon the resounding chant of a Hebrew word by the rabbi, the man lowered the horn to his lips and blew a trumpet-like burst of notes like nothing Jimmy had ever heard. The rabbi chanted another Hebrew word, and the man blew this strange, strange horn again. Again and again they called forth these earthly and seemingly unearthly notes until there arose a final multi-worded chant immediately followed by all that the man could summon through the instrument in a blaring weirdest of weirdest lingering last breath.
Murmuring flooded through the congregation in reaction to what they had just heard. And in the whispering and laughter over how funny a sound came through that animal appendage and about how it wasn’t long now until the service would be finally over—in the preoccupation with an event that had passed and the anticipation of being released soon, the spell was broken for Jimmy. The ark of shared presence had beached and split open, spilling its inhabitants back down into the shallows of their little individual lives.
The rabbi intoned a final prayer, bade everyone a safe and happy holiday, and the congregation rose and began separating in a rising din of chatter as rows of people filed toward the exit doors.
As they left the sanctuary and entered the foyer, Ruth turned to Jimmy. “Did you like it?” she asked, the bright, perpetual goodwill in her expression making it clear the answer she wanted to hear.
“It was something else,” Jimmy said.
“A good something else?”
Jimmy nodded slowly, “good” being another word whose meaning he was unsure of relative to what he had just experienced, but being as good as any other word to capture it.
“You seem moved,” she said.
He said, “Just feeling kind of strange. Not sure what I feel at the moment.”
“I can understand,” she said. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with an old woman, Jimmy.”
“It’s not that. And you’re not old.”
“You’re kind. But I am old, compared to you at least. Old enough to know you should be with someone your own age.”
“I don’t want you to feel that I feel out of place being with you. It’s just that the service made me feel…I don’t know what.”
Ruth smiled. “The best ones do,” she said. “And they lead you to go out in the world and be with people who make everything clear. Go up to Fayetteville. Maybe your father’s there with Beth.”
“I’d like to hang here for a few days to see if my father shows up,” Jimmy said. “If you don’t mind. I know it must sound weird, but it feels like the best thing to do for now.”
“Not that weird, really. Maybe it’s what God intended. I mean, my people thought I was out of my mind when among all the wonderful boys aching to marry me, I chose this strange man named Bernie Freedman.”
Jimmy did not know what to think of why he was here at this moment. He chose not to try to figure it out right now as they stepped out the front doorway into the warm embrace of the night thick with cricket-chirp.
About the Author
Jim Zinaman is a recruiter for finance, accounting, and IT professionals. Previously he was a non-profit development director after twenty years at Goldman Sachs as a hedge fund relationship manager, securities lending trader, and computer programmer. After graduating Yale, he hitchhiked around the United States, working as a carpenter and a restaurant cook and waiter, and joined and later helped deprogram members from a cult. Jim is married with three grown children and lives north of New York City. He has published four short stories to date.