"The Underwear Lady"

Selma Fein made her fortune in underwear, and for a year after I tricked her into changing her will, I waited impatiently for her to die. Dementia had ravaged The Underwear Lady’s mind, and what started off for me as eager anticipation at the thought of inheriting all those millions, turned into full blown, near erection inducing excitement with every name she forgot and every diaper she filled. But getting a demented woman, who thought I was her dead son Shmoolie, to make me her sole heir was a lot easier than getting her to croak.
            “A thousand mothers wouldn’t do what I do for you, Shmoolie,” Aunt Selma told me, as I tucked her into bed, at the end of yet another day during which she refused to stop living.    
            “I know, mommy,” I responded, mimicking as best I could the feeble minded, sickly child, she and her deceased husband Milty brought into this world for only thirteen years.
            It seemed as though she was only holding on so she could, at least in her mind, care for her Shmoolie. The guilt she felt for having a developmentally disabled child with her uncle, a man thirty years her senior, was more powerful than her desire to let go. I thought so many times about telling her that I wasn’t her Shmoolie, that I was Sammy, her forty-year-old nephew, just so she’d die already, but I feared that from underneath the thick haze of senility, the businesswoman in her would rise out of shock and change her will back to its pre-dementia state. And there was no way I was letting all that money go to charity. I’d worked too hard for it.
“No matter what, everyone needs underwear,” she said in her Eastern European accent before she fell asleep, thinking she was giving her son profound advice. It was something I’d heard her say to me almost every payday, while she stuffed her shirt with a wad of neatly folded hundreds. Since high-school, I stocked her shelves with boxers, briefs, and stockings, and dealt with threatening women who demanded refunds after trying to stuff their size E asses into size C pantyhose. I swept her floors, shoveled her sidewalk in blizzards and carried boxes of brassieres and girdles off trucks in the sweltering heat of the Brooklyn summers. I worked my ass off for her, sometimes twelve hours a day, six days a week for a meager salary and the false hope that the business would be mine someday, while Selma’s saggy, liver-spotted tits were taking home ten-grand a week.
I had gotten another threatening call from a collection agency on my way to see her that day, and I decided that if Selma was unable to let go on her own, she needed a helpful nudge. I stood in Selma’s bathroom, while she snored loudly a few feet away, and stared at her dentures soaking in cleaning solution in a glass on the counter. I pulled the bottle of rat poison out of my pocket that I’d impulsively purchased right after I got the call from an angry woman in Iowa, demanding I pay the balance on my Visa card. Two, maybe three drops, and no one would even know I killed the Underwear Lady. The Trinidadian aide the insurance company sent over that month could barely stay awake when she wasn’t on the phone or watching TV, and the paramedics would just assume that Selma’s eighty-seven-year-old body succumbed to old age. But there was too much money at stake to rely on the laziness of a Medicare paid babysitter and the inattentiveness of a couple of overworked EMTs. I wasn’t taking the risk that someone at the morgue would decide to do a toxicology report, and I couldn’t live with the guilt of having poisoned her. She’d have to go naturally for me to inherit the ten-million in stocks and cash along with the three buildings in Brighton Beach, one of which housed the place I spent most of my adult life – Windham’s Undergarments.
When Selma bought Pinchuk’s Hosiery in 1973 with the five-thousand dollars in life insurance money she got after Milty’s passing, her first order of business was to give the store a goyishe name in order to attract more customers – and it worked.
“If you sound too Jewish,” she told me when I first starting working for her, “you’ll scare away the schvartzehs, the Puerto-Ricans and all the other goyim. And their money is as good as anyone’s.”
Selma knew how to compete in the underwear business. If customers claimed they could buy something cheaper at another store, she’d offer small cash discounts and make it up on the sales tax. If they complained about paying tax, she’d gently smile and tell them, “I don’t charge tax, darling. I collect it for the government,” making them feel it was their duty as good citizens to fork over the additional few dollars that would ultimately wind up tucked into her cleavage. Selma knew how to tactfully convince a woman who had been living her life as a size six that she’d not only be more comfortable in a size ten, but that her husband would pay more attention to her if she wore properly fitting panties to bed. She could persuade a man who spent his entire life in tighty-whiteys that he could boost his virility, if he started wearing more expensive boxer shorts. That was the genius of Selma. She increased her bottom line while making people feel good about buying underwear from her. And that’s what kept customers coming all the way back to the Underwear Lady long after they’d moved out of the neighborhood.
If only the Tangs – or as Selma referred to them: “The Chinamen who bought the store” – had a fraction of her business sense, I wouldn’t have to proofread their Chinglish signs offering deals like: “By 2 pair sok get also uther pair free.” But if they knew what they were doing, I’d be out of a job. The Tangs needed me to run their store as much as I needed them to give me a paycheck. After devoting nearly twenty-five years of my life to bras and panties, I was qualified to do little more than determine a woman’s cup size with a quick glance of her chest, and wait for Selma to breathe her last breath. I was a man whose only hope for a future depended on the end of someone else’s present.
I fantasized about the day I could come into work, look Mr. Tang in the eyes and say, “Dead. I quit!” in response to his daily, smug inquiry: “How your auntie doing?” After working for him for five years, I’d finally be able to tell him to open up a cleaners or a Chinese take out because he clearly had no clue how to run an underwear business. I’d tell him I was done working long hours for an ungrateful boss who had no intention of ever giving me a piece of the action. I’d tell him Mrs. Tang gave me a hand job in the stock room when we were taking inventory one night after closing, and that I let her do it because I felt sorry for her for being married to a greedy prick who docked my check fourteen cents because I didn’t make a customer dig through her purse for loose change. I’d, of course, leave out the part about feeling sorry for myself, and not being able to imagine anyone besides a lonely Chinese lady with bad teeth and a Moe Howard haircut wanting to jerk off a forty-year-old underwear store employee.
“How your auntie doing?” Tang asked right on cue when I walked into the store the following morning.
“The same.”
“Oh. Too bad. She get better soon.
“What she has you don’t recover from,” I said.
“No. She very smart lady. She get better.”
I worried for a moment that Tang knew something, that he was tapping into some sort of ancient Chinese wisdom that allowed him to portend the future. But Tang was a man who couldn’t predict that he’d lose customers if he treated them like lepers. What he lacked in business sense, he made up for in rudeness. Even his “Have a nice day”s sounded like “Fuck you”s. If not for me dealing with his customers, he’d be out of business, and if not for him, I’d be out on the street. We were the perfect dysfunctional, codependent couple.
“I hope so,” I told Tang, barely trying to conceal my insincerity.
“Good. Go clean bathroom,” he said, handing me a mop. “Someone make poo on floor.”
After work, I made my nightly visit to Selma’s house on Ocean Parkway, hoping the whole bus ride there, as I’d hoped every night for a year, that there would be an ambulance or a medical examiner’s van parked out front, or whatever it is they use to haul away the bodies of old ladies who rent apartments to their nephews at full market price. When I arrived, I was greeted not by the glorious sight of a body bag on a stretcher, but by Selma’s neighbor, Ida Nussbaum, an eighty-year-old widow who always told me what a “nice boy” I was for coming to see my aunt every day.
“I wish I had half a nephew like you,” she said, poking her head out the window, as I walked up the stairs to Selma’s front door.
If she only knew.
The dozen or so pictures of Shmoolie hanging in Selma’s foyer made it feel more like an entrance to a shrine than a home. I walked passed the photos documenting each year of his life, and from every framed portrait, his eyes followed me with an accusatory stare like he knew exactly what I was up to. I smiled at the Trinidadian aide sitting in the kitchen whose name I never bothered to learn, and asked her how Aunt Selma was doing.
“Today’s my last day wit her,” she said. “I don’t need dis no more. She keep calling me a schvartzeh. I know what dat iz.”
“She’s old. She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” I said, hoping I could convince her to stay so I wouldn’t have to spend the night changing diapers.
“She know what she sayin’. You don’t become like dat from being old. The agency gonna send a new girl,” she said, while stuffing her bag with the uneaten fruit Meals on Wheels had left for Selma.
“She steals from me,” Selma screamed, watching the Trinidadian from the living room. “A gonif!”
“You ain’t got no teeth, lady. How you gonna eat an apple?” the Trinidadian exclaimed. “Good luck to you, mister,” she said to me, as she stormed out, carrying with her a three day supply of produce.
I sat next to Selma on the sofa, and wiped away the saliva that had foamed around her mouth during her tirade against the Trinidadian. Even in her doddering state, nothing made her angrier or more suspicious than the thought of someone stealing from her, which was why I had to give the performance of my life every time we spoke. If she suspected for a second that I wasn’t her Shmoolie, my plan would fail, and I’d be stuck being Mr. Tang’s indentured servant, and receiving self-pity hand-jobs from Mrs. Tang until I was old enough to collect social security. Luckily, Selma’s senility made me appear to be a better actor than Lee Strasberg ever could.
“You ate something?” she asked, touching my face.
“Yeah. I ate at Applebees.”
“Applebaums? What’d you eat from Applebaums? He’s too expensive. I go to Friedman’s.”
“BEES! Not Baums,” I shouted so she could hear.
“This is eating?” she said, waving her hand in frustration. “You’ll get diarrhea.”
Selma was always concerned with the frequency and consistency of Shmoolie’s bowel movements, especially since she wiped his ass for him until the day his diseased heart stopped beating. He was four years older than me, and I can still remember the screams of “Mommy, I’m finished” coming from the bathroom when I’d visit Selma as a kid.  
“You want I should make you something? A piece of chicken maybe? I have some nice fish left over in the fridge,” she said.
“No, no. I’m fine, mommy,” I said, knowing that the Trinidadian had used Selma’s kitchen as her own personal Stop-N-Shop for the few weeks she worked for Selma. The only thing left in her fridge was a container of orange juice that expired around the time her dementia set in, and a pound of the fried chicken skins she loved, which I’d buy for her from the Mexican guy who worked at the kosher place in Boro Park. Selma was convinced that expiration dates were scams perpetrated by Tropicana and the dairy farmers to get people to throw out perfectly good food and buy more. Her motto was: “If it’s in the fridge, it’s fine,” and my hope was that the grease and fat from the chicken skins would kill her, if the dementia and expired orange juice weren’t going to cooperate. The process would take longer, but at least I’d continue being amused by a five-foot tall Chicano saying, “One pound gribanis – figh niyee nigh.”
“You need to eat, so you can be strong when you get up to say your broochis in shul. Have you been studying?” she asked.
Selma knew that her child – a product of an uncle and niece, forced to marry to perpetuate a race after its attempted annihilation by the Nazis – had little chance of living a long and healthy life. But she felt that her Shmoolie’s suffering would be rewarded if he had a Bar-Mitzvah. If she could give god one more card-carrying Jew, one that could stand up in a synagogue and be counted as a man able to worship him in all his glory, then perhaps The Almighty would give her son a few more years of life. Her greatest tragedy was losing Shmoolie a month before he was to show god that he was worthy of being kept alive.
“Yes, I’ve been studying,” I said.
“Let me hear a little.”
“Not now, mommy. I’m not feeling well.”
That was my go to line whenever I didn’t want to do something she asked of me. But using that excuse was not without consequence.
“It’s probably from what you ate. Come let’s go to the toilet before it’s too late,” she said, trying to pull me up.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Come, nu! Before you make in your pants!” she demanded, trying again with her near ninety-year-old osteoporosis ridden body to lift my fat forty-year-old ass off the sofa before I shit myself. There was only one way to end the insanity.
Barchoo et adonai ham’vorach,” I began to chant.
Her blood shot eyes began to tear at the sound of her little boy becoming a man, as she loosened her grip on my arm. With each Hebrew word that came out of my mouth, the crying became more intense.
“Milty,” she screamed looking towards the heavens, “we have a Bar-Mitzvah boy!”
Barchoo et adonai ham’vorach l’olam vaed.”
“So beautiful, Shmoolie.”
Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech haolam…”
 “You know, Shmoolie,” she said, interrupting me, “when I foist started the business, after your father died, I didn’t have much money. I went to the Rabbi what lived around the corner from us to teach you to read a little Hebrew, even just a few words. He told me for a hindred dollar, he’ll teach you. When I told him that the Rabbi across the street said he’ll do it for twenty-five, you know what he said? I’ll never forget. ‘Some Rabbis like to eat chicken. I like to eat steak.’”
She squeezed my cheek, bursting with maternal pride and continued, “That Rabbi should only roll in his grave to hear how beautiful you read the broochis.
This was making her too happy, too proud. What if the unbridled joy she was experiencing shocked her into coherence, and she suddenly realized that there was a middle-aged man sitting in front of her who had the same name and grandfather as her dead son? What if she figured out that the Samuel Fein she thought she was leaving her fortune to wasn’t her Shmoolie, but her conniving prick of a nephew who liked to eat steak instead of chicken?
A framed black and white wedding photo of a twenty-seven-year old Selma and a fifty-seven year-old Milty sat on the coffee table in front of us. I’d seen the photo dozens of times, each time cringing uncomfortably like it was the first time I was seeing their forced, awkward smiles unsuccessfully attempting to mask the truth about their forced, awkward union. But this time Milty was looking directly at me. While Shmoolie’s stare was accusatory, Milty’s was beseeching.
“Please don’t do this to your aunt,” I heard him say. “She’s a sick old lady.”
“Is what I’m doing so bad?” I asked him mentally. “I’m giving her the joy she never had.”
“You’re lying and trying to steal from her,” he replied.
“She stole from me when she sold the business to the Tangs.”
“She never promised you the business. You just assumed she’d give it you.”
“I worked like a dog for her, and for what? For her to give it all away? I’m the closest thing she has to a son since Shmoolie died. I deserved to be treated like one, not like an employee.”
“No one forced you to work for her. You did it because it was easy, mindless work. What you’re doing now is immoral.”
“Don’t talk to me about morality. You fucked your niece and had a retarded kid.”
“Before I married Selma, I had a wife and kids that we’re killed by the Nazis. I did it for the survival of the Jews.”
“Well, I’m doing this for the survival of this Jew.”
“Help me to the bed, tatelleh,” Selma said, interrupting the conversation I was having in my head with her husband. “I have an appointment tomorrow at the beauty parlor foist thing in the morning. You’ll come with me.”
“Okay, mommy,” I said, not having the heart or desire to tell her that the beauty parlor she thought she had an appointment at was now a Walgreens.
“You’ll get a trim from the goil what does mein hair. Then we’ll get you a nice suit for shul.
I thought about taking her up on the suit offer. If she refused to die and leave me her fortune, at least I’d get some nice clothes for my efforts. But the last thing I needed was a senile old woman grabbing at my crotch, asking if there was room in there. I walked Selma to her bedroom and gently helped her into her adjustable bed.
“Underwear, Shmoolie,” she said as she started to doze off almost immediately after her head hit the pillow. “No matter what, everyone needs underwear.”                                                                                 *
The next morning, Tang called me into his office – a tiny fitting room, containing two old milk crates that stored his tax returns and his bank statements, which he’d remove whenever a customer needed to try something on. If he had a meeting with his accountant, insurance agent, or a supplier, Tang would sit on the bank statements and the other guy would sit on his tax returns. Otherwise, the tax returns would act as his desk.
I stuck my head around the pull curtain that was the door to Tang’s office and nervously asked what he wanted. The only other time he ever called me in there was when a six-pack of crew socks went missing. He was seconds away from calling the cops on me before he found the socks mixed in with a box of irregular support hose.
“Come in,” he said. “Sit.”
I walked in, parked my ass on his 1040s, and closed the curtain behind me.
“Business no good,” he started. “Berry bad.”
“’Cause the big chains and the internet ruined this business. People are buying their underwear at Costco now. You shouldn’t be able to buy underwear and hamburger meat in the same store.”
“I close store if I don’t sell. You want buy?”
“Why would I buy this place? How would I buy this place?”
“Maybe your auntie give you money,” he said, hoping I’d agree with him. “This business berry successful once.”
“Once. When Selma ran it.”
“Could be again.”
“No it can’t.”
He agreed with me with a nod, and said, “We close up today so no have to pay rent for new month. I go work with my brother in Chinatown in New Yawk. He have bakery.”
Like Selma, Tang viewed Manhattan, or “New York,” as a scary, far away land inhabited downtown by dirty, pot-smoking hippies, and uptown by people with drivers who chauffeured them to gallery openings and wife-swapping parties. Whenever Selma was invited to a show or a restaurant in Manhattan, she’d reply, “I’m not schlepping all the way to New York,” as if the fifteen minute drive across Ocean Parkway through the Battery tunnel was an intercontinental flight. Now Tang was taking that flight and leaving me alone in Brighton Beach – unemployed and nearly broke. I gathered my belongings, thought about asking Mrs. Tang for a severance jerk, and walked out of Windham’s Undergarments for the last time.
I had enough money in the bank to cover at least one cell phone and one electricity bill. Per Selma’s instructions, the company that managed her buildings was merciless when it came to evicting delinquent tenants, so I wouldn’t have had much time before I was out on the street. If I wanted to eat, I’d have to get to Selma’s Meals on Wheels deliveries before her new aide could. The agency still hadn’t sent the new girl over when I left Selma that morning under the watchful eye of Ida Nussbaum, so I knew I’d have at least one free meal if I got there quickly enough.
“She’s been asking for Shmoolie all morning,” Ida told me when she opened Selma’s front door for me. “I didn’t know what to tell her.”
Before I could answer, Selma walked into the living room in her bathrobe, with her gray hair a mess and her dentures only half in her mouth.
“Shmoolie!” Selma mumbled, excited, sucking in the rest of her fake teeth. “Where were you? I was looking all over for you.”
“This isn’t Shmoolie,” Ida said. “This is your nephew Sam.”
“Who?” Selma asked, confused.
“Thanks for watching her, Ida,” I said. “I’ll take care of her until the new girl comes.”
“It’s a horrible thing when the mind goes,” Ida whispered to me in that tone old Jewish women use when they tell you someone has cancer.
“Yes it is,” I replied.
“This is Sam. Your nephew,” she told Selma, raising her voice.
“My what?” asked Selma.
“NEPHEW. YOUR NEPHEW!” Ida shouted.
“What is she talking, Shmoolie?” Selma turned to me and asked.
“Nothing. It’s not important,” I replied. “Thanks again, Ida. I’m sure you have things to do so…”
“I have to be at the doctor at three to give urine, but I’m free until then.”
“You should go home and drink plenty of fluids. They like it when you fill the cup,” I said.
Dein plimenik!” Ida shouted to Selma in Yiddish, pointing to me. “Sometimes they forget the words from their second language, but they remember their first language better. Happened with my brother-in-law. Couldn’t speak to him in English the last six months of his life. I told her ‘your nephew’, so she’ll remember,” she explained to me.
“With these types of illnesses, it’s better not to confuse them. They get frustrated and angry. Let her think what she wants,” I said, showing Ida the door.
“Uh huh,” Ida said, now almost as puzzled as Selma.
“Did the Meals on Wheels come?” I asked, as Ida stepped out.
“Yeah. It’s in the fridge,” she replied.
“Great. I’ll let you know, if I need your help again. Thanks a lot.”
“Who was that lady?” Selma asked after Ida was gone.
“Ida Nussbaum, your neighbor.”
“She talks too much.”
“I know. She has problems. Don’t listen to anything she says.”
“Who was that lady?”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“I wanted to talk to you, Shmoolie. It’s very important.”
“What’s the matter, mommy?”
“I want you should finally be a man.”
Barchoo et adonai…
“What is that?”
“My Bar-Mitzvah broochis.”
“It’s good you still remember. You can teach them to your kids.”
“Kids? What exactly were you talking about with Ida before I came?”
“Who?”
“Ida Nussbaum, your neighbor.”
“I don’t listen to what she says. I hear she has problems. It’s time you should get married and make for me some grandchildren, Shmoolie.”
“But I was just Bar-Mitzvahed,” I said, hoping the memory would be enough to satisfy her need to see her son achieve manhood. I didn’t have enough money or patience to last until she saw her Shmoolie married with kids.
“Time goes by quickly, I know. Soon I’ll be gone, and I want to know that you have a family what will take care of you.”
“Soon?” I asked, feigning concern and masking my excitement at the prospect that maybe she sensed that the end was finally near.
“You need to find for yourself a nice Jewish goil, and then I’ll know you’ll be taken care of,” she said.
I knew that even if I somehow convinced some Jewish woman to pretend to be my wife that Selma’s demented, time traveling mind would suggest another milestone that her Shmoolie needed to reach before she could finally let go, like curing AIDS or wiping his own ass. This was a battle I was convinced I’d never win. I was already thinking about which of Selma’s two spare bedrooms I’d be moving into after I could no longer pay her the rent on the apartment for which she actually collected a security deposit.
“So is there a special someone you’re seeing maybe?” Selma asked hopefully, as I envisioned myself spending my days sweeping the floors at a McDonalds, and my nights giving Selma sponge baths.
“Sure,” I said, wondering for a moment if this was the perfect opportunity to tell her I was gay before I realized that wouldn’t have been nearly drastic enough to kill her. She might have had a spike in her blood pressure thinking about her Shmoolie and some faigelleh shacking up in Chelsea, holding hands and doing each other’s hair, since that’s all Selma thought gay guys did when they were alone, but being homosexual was too harmless an infraction for a woman who regarded it more as a silly waste of time than something shameful. “They wanna get married, let ‘em get married,” she once opined when she heard that a distant cousin wanted to wed his longtime boyfriend. “What’s the woist two men could do together anyway?”
“So when am I gonna meet her already?” she asked me impatiently.
“Soon.”
“Today?”
“Soon.”
“She can’t come today?”
“She’s busy today.”
“What’s she so busy with?”
“Work.”
“Let her come after work.”
“She works at night too.”
 “What does she do?”
“She’s a lawyer.”
“A lawyer?” she asked, bursting with excitement.
“And a doctor,” I said, figuring she’d forget the conversation within a few minutes anyway.
“A lawyer and a doctor? Where did you meet such a woman?”
“Online.”
“On line where? At Applebaums?”
“Yeah, at Applebaums.”
“She should shop at Friedman’s. He has better prices.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“So when do I meet her?”
“Soon.”
“When is soon?”
I sighed, shaking my head, annoyed by the questioning.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, grabbing my arm. “You don’t feel well? Quick. Come to the toilet.”
“I’m fine.”
“And the parents, what do they do?”
“Father’s in diamonds. The mother does something with insurance.”
“As long as she’s Jewish, Shmoolie,” she said, seeming more coherent than I’d seen her in over a year. “This is the most important thing. Mixing with the goyim is not for us.”
According to Selma, all non-Jews could be placed into at least one of three categories: schvartzehs, Puerto-Ricans, or just plain goyim. A schvartzeh was any non-Jew with dark skin, a Puerto-Rican was one who spoke Spanish, and goyim was a general term meant to describe all gentiles. Schvartzehs and Puerto-Ricans were goyim, but goyim weren’t necessarily schvartzehs or Puerto-Ricans. It was okay to have a schvartzeh repair man fix things around the house, a Puerto-Rican nurse help her to the toilet, and a goyta (female, singular of goyim) cleaning lady cook for her, but having an intimate relationship with one of the “un-chosen” was never even a consideration for Selma. Doing so was tantamount to the annihilation of the Jewish people. After what she’d been through in the camps, and especially after what she’d done by bringing a child into this world who couldn’t live long enough to do his part in the preservation of the Jewish race, Selma needed, even in her confused state, to insure that no further damage to the purity and longevity of her people was done.
“I know, mommy,” I said, leading her back to her bedroom for her afternoon nap, thinking I might just have to smother her in her sleep and take my chances. I wasn’t so sure that prison was a worse place to be than Selma’s home, pretending to be a dead thirteen-year-old, mentally challenged boy who was dating a lawyer/doctor.
“You’ll bring her tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure. Tomorrow.”
“Bring her in the morning. I have to go the beauty parlor in the afternoon. You’ll take me.”
“Whatever you say, mommy,” I said, cringing. I was so sick of the charade. I silently prayed for a solution when the doorbell rang.
“Who’s that?” Selma asked.
“It’s probably the new girl.”
“Your new girlfriend is here?” she said, popping out of bed with the enthusiasm of a twenty-year-old.
“The girl who works for the agency.”
“I thought she was a lawyer.”
“Just stay here. I’ll get the door.”
“Bring her in here. I want to meet her,” Selma shouted from her bedroom just as I opened the front door, revealing a zaftig black woman in her late twenties, wearing a floral patterned smock.
“I’m Laronda. The agency sent me for Salma,” she said in a thick Puerto-Rican from the Bronx accent, while chewing gum, and reading from a piece of paper. My prayers had been answered.
From the moment I saw Laronda’s perfect shade of brown skin, her wide, flat nose pressed against her face, and her chemically straightened hair fighting the artificial force that had stolen it from its natural state of kink, I knew she’d make the perfect murder weapon.
            “Please, come in,” I said to Laronda, as she made her way into the living room, curiously staring at the pictures hanging in the shrine to Shmoolie.
            “That you?” she asked. “You her son?”
            “Kind of.”
            “Watchoo mean ‘kind of’? You either is or ain’t her son.”
            “I’m her nephew, but she treats me like a son.”
            “So you been taking care of her?”
            “Yeah. It hasn’t been easy.”
            “Well, you ain’t gotta worry about that no more. That’s what I’m here for.”
Nu, bring her in,” Selma again shouted.
“In a minute,” I shouted back.
“She need me?” Laronda asked. “I’ll be right there Salma,” she screamed into the bedroom.
“Wait. Let’s get to know each other first.”
“Know each other? This ain’t a date, mister. I’m here to work.”
“If you’re gonna be taking care of my aunt, I’d like to know more about you. Like where are you from?”
“The South Bronx!” she said like she was daring me to speak ill of her borough.
Hablas Espanol?” I asked enthusiastically.
Si. Mi papa es de Puerto-Rico,” she said, answering my question and my dreams.
“What’s your last name?” I asked, hoping it would be something really Puerto-Rican-y like Gonzales or Rodriguez.
“DeJesus. Laronda DeJesus,” she said, impatiently.
I was foaming at the mouth with giddiness, and I started to feel the beginnings of a hard-on. But this wasn’t sexual wood. This was an erection of relief, a stiffy of freedom, a boner of sheer bliss. Not only was she a schvartzeh and an actual Puerto-Rican, “Jesus” was in her name. Jesus, for Christ’s sake! If the thought of Shmoolie marrying this triple-threat goyta didn’t kill Selma, she was never going to die.
“What’s your father’s name?” I asked, thinking that a simple Pedro or Carlos would have sufficed. But this was coming together as if the son of God himself had planned it.
“Jesus,” she said.
“Jesus DeJesus? Seriously!?”
 One Jesus would have been enough to kill Selma, but two Jesuses was a definite sign of divine intervention. My heart pounded with excitement, a smile formed on my face. I felt empowered, like I was about to fulfill my destiny, and finally claim what was rightfully mine. This would be payback not just for the years of unappreciated labor I did for Selma, but for the other family members whom she refused to help during their times of need. I’d share my new found wealth with cousins Phil and Alice from New Jersey who struggled to put their three kids through college, with Uncle Ira in Florida who had to borrow from loan sharks to pay alimony to his two ex-wives, and with my parents who still had to work to pay their bills well into their seventies. Selma was so concerned with the preservation of the Jewish people that she selfishly overlooked the preservation of her own Jewish family. If she’d rather leave her fortune to some charity that planted trees in Israel than to her own relatives, then she deserved to have her money taken from her. And now with the arrival of Laronda DeJesus, daughter of Jesus DeJesus, it was clear that Christ agreed with me.
“Yeah, what’s the big deal? Does your aunt speak Spanish?” Laronda asked.
“She’s probably a bit rusty now, but she used to be fluent.”
“Really? ‘Cause most of the old Jews I worked with only be speaking that Jewish language with all them weird sounds like ‘Li-chay-um’ and ‘Cha-nukah,’ and what not.”
 “Selma’s a direct descendent of the Marranos. In fact, I think it will really help her cognitive functioning if you only speak to her in Spanish. She doesn’t get to speak it with the people she knows.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve dealt with dementia patients before, so I know what to do,” she said, trying to reassure me.
“Shmoolie! Where are you?” Selma shouted.
“I better go check on her,” Laronda said to me. “Ya voy, Salma. Ya voy,” she shouted.
“Wait. Before you go in, there’s something you should know about my aunt,” I said.
“What?”
“She thinks that every woman she sees me with is my wife. It’s no big deal. Just go with it.”
“You’re not gonna try and grab my ass or nuthin’ while we in there, are you?”
“No, of course not. But remember. Spanish and you’re my wife,” I said, barely able to contain my smirk anymore, or my chubby. Thankfully, I was wearing baggy pants.
“Whatevuh,” she said, as she walked by me on her way to Selma’s bedroom.
I was minutes, maybe seconds away from the moment I’d been dreaming of for a year. Each shake of Laronda’s big black, Puerto-Rican ass, as she walked away from me, got me more excited than the last, not because I was attracted to her, but because each waggle of her oversized cheeks was like the forward thrust on a heat seeking missile aimed directly at Selma’s chest. Chance of survival after impact was zero. A massive cardiac episode was guaranteed. I considered calling 911 before Laronda made it into the room just to get a head start on removing Selma’s corpse from the house, but I decided it would be more convincing to play the role of the grieving nephew, while Laronda made the call. I lingered for a bit in the living room, imagining how Selma’s demise would actually play out.
“A…a…a…schvartzeh?!” would be Selma’s last stuttering words, as she gasped for her final breath right before her heart stopped.
“And a Puerto-Rican!” I’d pronounce smugly, just to make sure. There would be no time for Selma to suspect anything and be shocked into coherence.
After my daydream, I walked into her bedroom, and saw Selma lying in bed, lifelessly, with her eyes closed, and a wave of guilt briefly overcame me. The mere sight of her Shmoolie’s schvartzeh, Puerto-Rican sweetheart – not simply a representative of the un-chosen people, but very likely an executive member of the board – must have caused Selma to die instantly. Laronda probably didn’t have to say a word. If this was indeed god’s plan, he didn’t waste any time. I thought at that moment that I was responsible for the death of the woman who had provided me with a livelihood and a home for all of my adult life, a woman who had most likely prevented me from winding up on the streets. A picture on the night stand of a seven-year-old Shmoolie in a sailor suit, staring spastically at the camera began to scold me: “Murderer. You killed mommy.” Then Milty chimed in from a black and white photo hanging on the wall that was taken on a summer day he and Selma spent at Coney Island.
“After all she did for you,” I imagined him saying to me, as he stood in front of The Cyclone. “This is how you repay her?”
The tears of joy I thought I’d have to blink back were momentarily tears of guilt until I remembered the livelihood Selma provided me with didn’t include any type of health coverage, and the home had bad plumbing she was too cheap to fix. She was dead, and I could finally afford to see a doctor about the pain in my lower back, and I’d no longer have to crap at the Starbucks on the corner when my toilet wouldn’t flush. I was finally being rewarded for my years of sacrifice. I was hard again.
“She’s sleeping,” Laronda said, noticing the tear I let trickle down my face, so she wouldn’t suspect anything. “She was out before I came in.”
“Shit!” I said loudly, gritting my teeth in anger. She wasn’t going to sleep through my dream.
“Quiet. You’ll wake her,” Laronda said. “What’s your problem?”
 “I just – I get worried every time I see her eyes closed. The thought of losing her,” I said. “Let’s wake her up. It’s too early for her to be napping anyway.”
“Let her rest,” Laronda said, looking at me suspiciously.
 “Just for a minute. I want her to meet you.” I began to gently push Selma’s shoulder. “Wake up, mommy. There’s someone here that wants to say hello.”
“What’s the mater with you, mister?” Laronda asked as she pulled my arm off Selma.
“You’re her caretaker now. She should meet you.”
Laronda looked me over, and using the street smarts that could only be acquired living in a place like the South Bronx, she knew something was amiss.
“You’re up to something, mister. I don’t know what, but it ain’t good,” she said.
I glanced quickly at Shmoolie’s picture and then at Milty’s. I’d never really noticed their resemblance to each other until the moment I saw their shared look of smug satisfaction with the fact that I might be screwed. I motioned for Laronda to leave the bedroom and go into the living room where we could talk more discreetly.
“I just want what’s best for her,” I said.
“You scheming, mister. I know when someone’s scheming.”
“I think maybe we wanna go a different way as far as Selma’s care is concerned, so thanks for coming by,” I said nudging her towards the door.
“I know it’s about money. It’s always about money – or pussy. So which one is it? You some kinda old lady fucker, mister?”
“Just go, Laronda. I’ll make sure the agency pays you for the day,” I said, defeated.
“What the agency pays me doesn’t come close to what you gonna pay for keeping my mouth shut.”
 “Keep your mouth shut about what?” I asked.
“Listen, mister. You ain’t the first son or nephew, or whatever you are that I’ve seen trying to get a hold of some old person’s money. But you are the first one that’s gonna pay me for it.”
 “Pay you? You can’t prove shit, and you’re not getting shit, so get the fuck outta here before I call the cops,” I said, awkwardly trying my best to sound like someone from her neighborhood.
“Call ‘em. And when they show up, I’ll just show them this,” she said pulling a bottle of rat poison out of the pocket of her smock.
I turned whiter than I felt when I was threatening Laronda.
“Where’d you find that?” I asked, my voice trembling.
“Medicine cabinet. Next to the Polident.”
My plan was to eventually get my money back for the poison I had no intention of using, and now because of a lousy six-ninety-nine, and a ten-dollar an hour Medicare paid babysitter from the Bronx who liked to rummage through strangers’ medicine cabinets, a year of planning, hoping, and praying for a life of financial and emotional freedom was nearly completely wasted. I wished at that moment that Selma had walked out of her bedroom, completely lucid, as if none of this had ever happened. I’d get nothing, but at least Laronda would be forced to hustle some other schmuck who was trying to steal his aunt’s fortune. I stared at Laronda for what seemed like minutes, speechless.
“That her husband? He was a lot older than her. Probably where she got the money that you’re trying to get your hands on,” she said, noticing the wedding photo of Selma and Milty on the coffee table, as she plunked her huge, blackmailing ass onto the sofa.
For the first time, Milty and Selma couldn’t have looked happier standing next to each other on their wedding day. Together they mocked me, their awkward smiles now grins of pure delight.
 “How much do you want?” I asked, barely able to contain my disdain for Laronda, or myself for getting into this situation. Between the poison I’d stupidly bought with my credit card, and the fraud I’d committed getting Selma to change her will, it was just safer to negotiate with Laronda.
“Half,” she said smugly, as she pulled a few chocolate covered raisins out of the candy dish that sat next to the wedding photo of Selma and Milty. The candies were almost as old as the picture, and I prayed Laronda would choke on or be sickened by the old, dusty Raisinets that had been touched by hundreds of dirty hands throughout the years.
“You want some fried chicken skins to go with that?” I asked.
“Fried food is bad for my ulcer.”
“And extortion is bad for mine. Half is a bit much, don’t you think?”
“It’s a perfectly fair amount to pay your wife.”
“We’re not really married, remember?”
“We will be. You see, we’re gonna do this legal. I need to make sure I gets mine.”
“Gets mine!?” I said, no longer having to pretend I was from the hood. I felt as pissed off and oppressed as anyone from the wrong side of town. “I worked for shit pay for twenty-five years for that old lady. Days, nights, weekends, shoveling through seventeen inches of snow, so the store could be open in the middle of a blizzard, while she was off sunbathing in Miami Beach. She may have been the brains of the operation, but I was the blood and guts. And you think you’re gonna come in here, and after ten minutes take half of what’s mine. She owes me!”
“I got two nieces at home I need to feed. Their mother’s on crack, and their fathers are nowhere to be found. Someone owes me too.”
“That someone isn’t me.”
 “We all got our stories, mister. And we all gotta do what we gotta do to survive just like your aunt did when she married that old guy. That’s the way the world works. People use people to survive.”
As unprepared as I was for such karmic retribution, I couldn’t argue with Laronda’s theory on human preservation. Evidence of its truth surrounded me. Selma and Milty used each other to keep the Jewish faith alive, Selma used the memory of her Shmoolie to keep herself alive, Laronda’s sister used her to care for her children, and now both Laronda and I were using each other. She was using me to get to Selma’s money, and I now had no choice but to use her to assuage my guilt. If I was only to inherit half of Selma’s fortune, I was only half as culpable in the looting of her estate. There was more than enough money to go around, so I chose to view Laronda’s extortion as a gift from the same deity who answered my prayers and delivered her to Selma’s front door.
Laronda Tanisha Gonzalita DeJesus and I were married at the Bronx Supreme Court Building two days later. A day before the wedding, after we signed a pre-nuptial agreement, stipulating that our assets would be split fifty-fifty in the event of divorce, we moved in together. I needed a place stay since I was no longer able to pay my rent, and Laronda wanted to make sure I didn’t disappear with her share. The fact that we were husband and wife had little to do with our cohabitation. We both figured our new living arrangement would only be temporary, so we made the best of it.
                                               
*
Eight months after Laronda and I vowed in front of an employee of the City Clerk’s Office to love, honor and obey one another, Selma still hadn’t woken up from her “nap.” Laronda and I visited her in the hospital everyday for the first three months, hoping Selma would awaken from her coma, so I could introduce Laronda as her daughter in law. Not only was Laronda unoffended by how I planned to use her to kill Selma, she felt it was her duty to help rid the world of such a racist, and more importantly, to help rid the racist of such a fortune. But the daily trek from the South Bronx to Maimonedes Hospital in Brooklyn became too much for Laronda to bear once the morning sickness and mood swings started to rear their ugly heads. I knew while I was spreading her brown, cellulite ridden, pimpled Boricua buttocks apart and mounting her from behind that it was a bad idea to have unprotected sex with a woman who still called me mister after we were married, but we both let the alcohol and the thrill of a big payday cloud our judgment. Our union was only consummated that one time, two weeks after we said “I do,” but because of Laronda’s objection to abortion on the grounds that “Jesus is against killing babies” (I was really staring to hate that guy), I was about a month away from having another mouth to feed. Laronda’s geriatric babysitting job and her government assistance covered our rent and the food for the two of us and her nieces, but the job Tang’s brother gave me delivering bread in Chinatown wasn’t going to pay for the bigger apartment, formula and diapers we would need once the baby came.
            I continued to visit Selma in the hospital everyday, partly to play the role of the worried nephew for the hospital staff, but mostly to escape Laronda’s hormonal temper tantrums and fits of frustrated rage over the fact that Selma refused to wake up or die. Laronda blamed me for her pregnancy and for the extra hundred pounds she was carrying as a result, and I just hated her for ever showing up at Selma’s front door. I wished I could go back to pretending to be a retarded Bar-Mitzvah boy instead of playing the part of a man married to an angry, manipulative woman with ass acne who was relying on me to be her savior. Our living arrangement had become too much for both of us to tolerate, and I was spending more nights sleeping on a folding chair in Selma’s hospital room than I was at home with the pregnant wife I never wanted and the unborn baby who was making its mother’s already giant ass grow bigger with every second of gestation.
            Night after night I’d fall asleep to the beeping of Selma’s heart monitor, its steady, chirping beat lulling me into an uncomfortable slumber. I had almost completely resigned myself to the fact that Selma was never going to die, that machines would keep her body alive forever, and that I was doomed to spend the rest of my days living unhappily ever after in the South Bronx when one night after work, I ran into Ida in the hospital lobby. She was the only other visitor Selma ever had.
            “She woke up,” Ida exclaimed.
            “She did? When? I need to go see her,” I said.
            “It was just for a little while. She’s unconscious again. She asked for you.”
            “What’d she say?”
            “She said, ‘Sammy. Orange juice.’”
            “Sammy? She called me Sammy, not Shmoolie?” I asked confused, worried.
            “Yeah, Sammy.”
            “What does orange juice mean?”
            “I’m just telling you what she said,” Ida replied. “This is what happens with comas. They can wake up anytime, say something that makes no sense, and then go right back to sleep. Happened to my brother in-law. Not the one with the dementia, the one with the kidney failure. Who knows? Maybe she just wanted a drink.”
            “What else did she say?”
            “That’s it. Then she was out again. But listen, you shouldn’t get your hopes up,” she said, putting her hand on mine. “She’s an old woman.”
            I quickly went up to Selma’s room where she remained comatose, just as I’d left her that morning. The attending nurse confirmed that Selma was conscious for a few seconds, but she didn’t hear what Selma told Ida. I moved as close to Selma’s left ear as I could, sidestepping the cords from all the equipment in my path, hoping she’d wake up for at least one more second and answer my question: “What does orange juice mean?” Selma hadn’t called me Sammy in too long for “orange juice” to simply be the incoherent rambling of a thirsty old woman who briefly popped out of a coma. I asked the same question at least a dozen times before I was convinced she couldn’t hear me.
I walked out into the chilly fall night to ponder what she meant, and more importantly, why she was calling me Sammy again. Had the coma cured her dementia? Would she wake up again and know everything I did? I didn’t know if I was better off with her in or out of consciousness. I found Ida in her car, desperately trying to pull out of a parking space that had her wedged between a Lexus and a Hyundai with more than fifteen feet of space in front and in back of her. I guided her out of the spot and she gave me a ride back to Selma’s house. During the half-hour ride that would’ve taken ten minutes if someone who could see over the steering wheel was driving, I mentally swept the house for any evidence that could be used against me if Selma awakened coherent and accused me of foul play. I hadn’t been to the house since Selma was wheeled out of the front door unconscious eight months earlier, and I found it eerie how, besides for a thick layer of dust that gathered atop the kitchen counters and the plastic sofa covers, nothing had changed. It was as if the house hopefully awaited her return, maintaining everything exactly the way she left it; the impression of her head in her pillow, her dentures in a cup on the bathroom counter, her slippers on the side of the bed, and in the fridge, a container of fried chicken skins sitting next to what Selma wanted me to find: the carton of orange juice that had now been expired for almost two years.
I pulled the orange juice out, and without time to wonder what I might find inside, I ripped the container open. It was empty except for a damp, hardened, slightly orange juice stained letter with Selma’s shaky handwriting on it, addressed to me. It read:

Dear Sammy,
I’m writing to you a letter because the doctor told me this business with me forgetting things is only gonna get woise. He said I should get mein affairs in order and start writing things down before I can’t remember nothing. So before I forget to tell you, I wanted you to know that I sold the store to the Chinamen for your own good. I wanted for you to make your own way in the world, not to rely only on me for everything. The job of a mother is to teach her children to be responsible for themselves. I could never do this for mein Shmoolie, but for you I could. What I made, I made from nothing – a family, a business, a life. This is the only way to make anything, Sammy, and this is what you need to learn. I don’t want you should be mad at me, but you should know now before it’s too late that I gave everything I have to charity. Henda Farber’s son-in-law, the lawyer, already took care of it. The money, the real estate, everything was given away. I have only left what I need to live. Even the house isn’t mine anymore, but they’ll let me stay here until I’m gone. So please, Sammy, understand that I did this because I love you, and go and make for yourself something.
Love,
Selma
P.S. I hope you get this letter soon because lately I can’t remember where I put things.

As I stared at the paper in a daze, the letters appeared to realign themselves, forming in seventy-two point, emboldened type across the width of the page, the words, “YOU’RE FUCKED.” I was suddenly moved by Selma’s affection for me, and a tear dropped from my eye, smudging the ink that formed “FUCKED.” I spent all those years resenting Selma for not rewarding me like a son, instead of being grateful that she loved me like one. Selma and Milty looked at me with pity in their eyes when I walked passed the newlyweds into the entranceway. As I stepped out of the house onto the porch, from his shrine, a twelve-year-old Shmoolie, riding an electric horse chained to the front of a pizza store, flashed me a cocky, contented grin. I stood on what was once Selma’s property, looked up at the starry Brooklyn sky, and asked the heavens what the hell I was going to do now. I could have sworn I heard Shmoolie laugh and say, “Underwear, Sammy. No matter what, everyone needs underwear.”