Julee Newberger


Harold Bloomfeld’s Wives


HAROLD BLOOMFELD WAS eating whitefish salad on a poppy-seed bagel when his late wife, Rhonda, strolled into the kitchen in her purple tracksuit and diamond “Rhonda” pendant, as if she hadn’t been dead for the last two years, six months, and fifteen days.

Quickly, he swallowed the last bite of bagel and hid his meal behind the kitchen table centerpiece, a glass vase that belonged to his new wife, Vivian. Before Rhonda died, the doctor put him on a low-fat diet, and whitefish salad was not allowed. Dead or alive, Rhonda would give him hell for this.

“Well,” she said. “Do I get a ‘welcome back,’ or what?”

He hesitated. What if it was his Maker, disguised as Rhonda, coming to take him to the Afterworld? Or worse, what if his Maker had come to take him to the assisted living facility down the boardwalk? His Uncle Leon, that poor schlimazel, lived there in a frigid bedroom where he wore a powder blue lady’s cardigan every day of the year.

Rhonda took him by the shoulders and pulled him close. The top of her head brushed his chin, just like always. The roots of her dark hair were gray, as if she had missed an appointment at the beauty parlor, but other than that, she was the same—short, a little wide around the middle, and smelling of that lilac perfume that lingered in the apartment for months after she was gone.

It was Rhonda, in the flesh, like before she grew thin and her skin changed color, before her powerful voice diminished to a whisper.

He felt a little lift in his trousers—a minor miracle, these days. Could a man schtup his late wife? Months ago, he’d stashed a bottle of magic oil in the bedside table, but he had no business thinking of Rhonda that way. He was a newlywed, after all.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Could you see me from where you were? Are you back for good?”    

“Careful now,” she said. “You’ll have another angina.”

“You look just the same,” he said, a little teary. Then he noticed her fingernails. Rhonda had always prided herself on well-manicured nails, but now they were thick, sharp, and yellowed, reminding him of the possums that stalked the trashcans behind their house in Bayville.

“This kitchen,” Rhonda said, “does not look the same.”

She turned up her nose and made a show of sniffing for the scent of another woman. Then she glanced at Vivian’s vase on the kitchen table.

“I knew it wouldn’t take you long to land one of the ladies around here,” she said, and peered inside the kitchen cabinet above the stove. “At least she keeps a clean house.”

Casually, Harold placed the container of whitefish salad back in the fridge. With all the excitement of returning from the dead, maybe Rhonda wouldn’t notice.

“Let me guess,” she said. “Is it Maura Wynne or Sally Bergen?” Maura and Sally played Mahjong with Rhonda.

“Those kibbutzers?” he asked. “Not my type.”

“Rae Greenberg?” she asked. “Assuming Mel finally died.”

“Mel Greenberg isn’t dead yet,” he said. “But Max Cohen died two years ago, right afte–” …after you died, he wanted to say, but couldn’t. It was bad enough she was dead. He didn’t want to rub her face in it.

His hands began to tremble—a side effect of one of the meds. It seemed like every organ in his body was making trouble for him lately, and the drugs were just holding his body together like the duct tape he’d used to patch the radiator hose in his old Ford. It worked for a few months, until the car finally kicked the bucket in the Food Lion parking lot. 

“I married Vivian Cohen,” he said gently.

“The one who always copied me?” she asked. “I wore silver mules to bingo, Vivian wore silver mules. I brought a straw tote to the pool, Vivian brought a straw tote to the pool.”

“I’ve never seen any silver mules,” he said. “Whatever they are.”     

“Remember the time when I missed a canasta game because you had a bad tooth?” she asked. “Well, that week, they let Diane Fugelsang play in my spot. So, the following week, Vivian Cohen says they don’t have a place for me anymore. She says Diane Fugelsang took my spot. What kind of person gives away a canasta spot?”

 “I don’t remember anything about it,” he said.

He glanced down at the Oriental rug and realized it wouldn’t be long until Rhonda noticed he and his new wife walked all over it with their shoes on. She was bound to have a conniption.

“So?” she asked with a shrug. “You going to offer me any coffee?”

These days, he only drank decaf, and Vivian preferred tea. While he searched for regular coffee beans, Rhonda peeked inside the refrigerator.

“Soy milk?” she asked, holding up the plastic container. “You’re drinking soy milk?”

“Vivian’s lactose intolerant,” he said. “Besides, it’s very tasty.”

It was a lie – he didn’t care for it, but he was starting to feel the need to defend quiet, petite Vivian, who was no match for zaftig Rhonda. Rhonda could take her, and Rhonda knew it.

“Vivian Cohen,” Rhonda nodded. “Figures she copied me and married my husband, too.”

The grandfather clock in the living room, a gift from Rhonda’s mother, struck one. At any moment, Vivian would return from her Tai Chi class, and Harold would have to explain all this.

Maybe he should call their son, Benjamin. Benjamin knew exactly what to do when Harold had the angina attack three years ago, not to mention when the basement of the Bayville house flooded. Maybe Benjamin would know how to handle his dead mother’s return.

“Don’t even think about bringing our son into this,” Rhonda said, as if she’d overheard his thoughts. “Some things a husband and wife need to work out on their own.”

For the next few minutes, she dug through the cabinets above the stove, finally excavating a pair of colorful mugs she’d bought on the boardwalk fifteen years ago. Harold couldn’t remember the last time he’d used those mugs. Now he drank from Vivian’s china cups. 

Maybe Rhonda would disappear as soon as Vivian walked through the door, or maybe Vivian wouldn’t be able to see Rhonda. Didn’t it usually work that way with ghosts? But something told him that Rhonda would make her presence known.

“So,” he asked politely. “Are you planning to stay for dinner?”

“Why?” she asked. “You got plans?” 

“Vivian and I eat early on Fridays,” he said. “Then we go to services.”

“Services?” she scoffed. “The only services you ever went to when I was alive were funeral services.”

It was true. He had learned to appreciate so many new things with Vivian. They had just taken their first vacation—a Colorado rafting trip. He was terrified as he bounced through the rapids, frigid water spraying into his face. For days afterwards, he had to mix a cocktail of muscle relaxants, but he’d survived. He couldn’t deny the thrill of being with someone new.

He took Rhonda’s hand. Her knuckles were still swollen from arthritis, her skin stained with pale brown spots. He recognized the blue veins, like a map to a familiar place. But the possum-like nails made her hands look like those of a stranger.

“Rhonda,” he asked. “What do we do now?”

“We have to tell Vivian,” she said.

“And then what?” he asked.

“You have to decide,” Rhonda said. “Is it going to be me or her?”

“You know very well that I can’t choose,” he said.

“Forty years of marriage,” Rhonda said. “There’s only one Afterworld, you know. And it’s not big enough for me and Vivian Cohen.”        

With that, Vivian entered the apartment in a black leotard and long floral skirt. Her cheeks were flushed, her silver hair tied back in youthful pigtails.

Before Harold could prepare her, she dropped her oversized bag and paled at the sight of Rhonda.

“You see, Harold?” Rhonda asked. “Your wife carries a straw tote!”

Vivian’s lips parted. Her body stiffened, and she began to sway.

“Vivian,” Harold said. “This is not what it looks like.”

He helped her to the recliner in the living room and opened the window to let in the cool ocean air. 

“I hope you don’t mind that Harold invited me,” Rhonda said to Vivian.

“You invited her?” Vivian asked Harold. “From the dead?”

“How could I have?” he asked.  “It’s not like I knew her phone number. I didn’t have her address up there.”

“You invited me in your thoughts,” Rhonda said to Harold. “You willed me to return.”

It was true that he’d been thinking of Rhonda a lot lately—especially their last summer together. The days were humid, and she could not shake her cough. He drove her up to the Catskills, so she could recuperate in the fresh mountain air. But she only grew sicker.

“You look well, Rhonda,” Vivian said. “For a corpse, that is.”

“I tan better in the afterlife,” Rhonda said. “Up there, you don’t need sunscreen.”

Harold kneeled next to Vivian and stroked her forearm, a gesture that usually calmed her. But today her skin prickled with tension. “Let me fix you some herbal tea,” he said.

“Make it a bourbon,” she said.

“Vivian,” Harold said. “You never drink before cocktail hour.”

“I think cocktail hour just began,” Rhonda said.

“Fine,” he said. “But none for you, Rhonda.” Even sober, she was a handful. And who knew if the dead could hold their liquor?

Rhonda shrugged and surveyed the apartment. “Interesting, what you’ve done with the place,” she said to Vivian. “I wouldn’t have covered up the beautiful rugs with all this clutter, but to each his own.”

Harold went to the kitchen to fix the drinks and get out of the fray. It wasn’t long before Vivian entered, still wearing her leotard and skirt, anxiously twirling her pigtail. She was one of the few ladies in this community who could get away with wearing such a get-up. He liked to tell her she had a nice tuchus for an old broad.

“I’ve heard of this happening before,” she said. “The ladies talk about it at the clubhouse. Usually, the ghost only stays for a cup of coffee.”

“You know Rhonda,” he said. “She’s liable to say she wants to move in with us.” 

“But Harold, there’s not enough room for three people here,” she said. “We’ve made the second bedroom into an exercise studio.”

“How do you know your husband isn’t on his way down?” he said. “Then we’ll both be in a pickle.”

“I don’t think Max will return,” Vivian said. “He’s not the type.”

She was probably right. Max was an oversized guy, and rather lazy. He also had two orthopedic hips. If worse came to worst, Harold could outrun him.

He wrapped his arm around Vivian’s shoulders. She felt so solid. And yet, so did Rhonda.

“You and I are married now,” he reassured Vivian. “We’ll figure this out together.”

*

Back in the living room, Rhonda sifted through a pile of vinyl records and held up a 45. “You kept Bobby Darin!” she exclaimed. She opened up the antique turntable and set it to play. The notes of Beyond the Sea cranked their way out of the old speakers. Harold closed his eyes and let Bobby Darin’s voice transport him to the Catskills, where he and Rhonda had danced to the musical styling of Sal and Irma Bollo, a Sephardic couple who retired in this retirement community. They often reminisced at potluck dinners in the clubhouse.

Rhonda began to dance around the living room, twirling like she had forty years ago. Harold pictured her in the purple gown with the plunging neckline she’d worn on their 10th anniversary. Many men wanted to dance with her, but she belonged to Harold, and he was proud.

Rhonda closed her eyes in rhapsody and danced directly into Vivian’s colorful Tiffany lamp.

Harold lunged and rescued it from crash landing on the floor, only to feel a sharp pain in his neck.

“My lamp!” Vivian cried.

“My neck,” Harold yelled.

“All these tchatchkas—there’s not enough room for dancing in here,” Rhonda complained.

She continued to sway, embracing an invisible partner.

“Remember when we danced all night at Kutscher’s?” she asked. “Join me, Harold.”

“Not now,” he said, and rubbed his sore neck. Rhonda could be so oblivious. He was in pain—and besides, he couldn’t dance with his late wife and leave the living one sitting there like a wallflower.

“See if I care,” Rhonda shrugged. “By the way, I know you’ve been eating whitefish salad.”

“Rhonda,” Vivian said, in the tone of a former school teacher. “You’re a guest in this house now. Please show some decorum.”

Rhonda gazed angrily at Vivian. “Let me ask you something. How much do you really know about Harold? Here’s a fifty dollar question: Do you know who his first love was?”

“That would have to be Myra… I can’t think of her last name,” Vivian said. “The one he took to the prom.”

“Bzzzzt!” Rhonda pounded a fist on the old record player. “Incorrect. It was Becky Simon, his next-door neighbor when he was six. You owe me fifty bucks.”

“Rhonda, you know we’re on a fixed income,” Harold said.

“So she’s right?” Vivian asked.

“I’m afraid so,” he said.

“Then I’d better get a chance to win it back,” Vivian said to Rhonda.

“Tonight at the clubhouse,” Rhonda said. “I figured I’d invite all our friends. We’ll get some nosh.  You don’t mind skipping Friday night services, do you, Vivian?”

Vivian finished her bourbon in one long shot and coughed. A bit of spittle landed on her chin, and she wiped it off with the back of her hand like a cowgirl. “You’re on,” she said, and rose to offer her hand to Rhonda.

Once again, Harold thought of the magic oil in the bedside table. Who would’ve imagined two fine women, fighting over an old guy like him?

 “I don’t shake hands anymore,” Rhonda said sadly. She crossed her arms and clenched her fists, hiding her yellowed fingernails. “I just can’t find a decent manicurist in Heaven. Go figure.”

*

By seven o’clock, fifteen of their friends had gathered at the clubhouse. The Rosens, from the fourth floor poolside, brought stuffed peppers. Sheila Mendoza, who lived in the penthouse, made a brisket. Sally and Jules Greene, who lived down the hall from Harold, brought a bottle of Chianti.

L’chaim,” Jules said and held up his glass. “To life. And to Rhonda’s return.”

Sol and Irma, the musical duo, set up their keyboard and microphone and took to the platform at the front of the room. They opened up with their popular rendition of “California, Here I Come.”

Rhonda, still in her tracksuit and diamond pendant, took to the makeshift dance floor with one man after the next: First, Sid Weigelbaum, then the Lawrence brothers—Arnold and Moishe—each cutting a rug in their polyester pants and white tennis shoes.

The ladies from the club came to Vivian’s side to show their support.

“One day, she’s dead as a doornail,” Sally Bergen whispered. “The next, she’s doing the Cha Cha. Who’d’ve thought?”

“Look at those roots,” Maura Wynne said, pointing toward Rhonda’s graying hair. “She’s let herself go.”

Harold stuck by Vivian, until the band struck up “Blue Velvet,”an old favorite. With his eyes closed, the scent of the mountains returned.

“Now you’ll dance with me, won’t you?” Rhonda asked and coaxed him into the center of the room.

Following Rhonda’s lead, he held her shoulders and stepped in time to the music. Rhonda’s touch made him feel energetic, like a young man once again. His knees loosened and the pain in his neck subsided. To his surprise, he could turn his head all the way to the left and right. First time in years!

He touched a lock of Rhonda’s dark hair. It was stiff with spray and not nearly as soft as Vivian’s. Still, he wondered whether going back to Rhonda wouldn’t be easier. After all, she was already dead. He wouldn’t have to endure the course of her illness again—or the afternoon at Katzen Brothers Cemetery, where cold wind burned his cheeks as he and Benjamin watched Rhonda’s body descend into the ground.

Loving Vivian was a greater risk. As long as she was still living, he had to worry about losing her, too.

Rhonda pulled him close so that he could feel her breath on his ear. It smelled of lox and capers, like in the old days. It took him a minute or two to catch his breath. Rhonda hummed and shimmied. The crowd cheered them on. Who knew that the dead had so much energy?

Sol and Irma changed it up to a foxtrot.

As Harold and Rhonda circled the floor, he looked for Vivian. His eyes passed over Maura and Sally and the other ladies, but Vivian wasn’t there.

He slowed and broke their stride. Rhonda squeezed his shoulders.

“One more dance,” she said.

He struggled to catch his breath.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I have to go find Vivian.”

“You old alta kocker,” she whispered angrily. “Don’t embarrass me in front of our friends!”

“Imagine how you would feel if you were Vivian,” he said.                    

“I can’t, because you’re the lucky ones,” she said. “You get to fall in love again, and I’m the one stuck with these fingernails.”

He felt a gentle tap on the shoulder and turned to find lanky Sid Wiegelbaum, who asked to cut in.

Harold stepped away, and Sid took Rhonda in his arms.

Harold felt dizzy and oddly alone—a flimsy old creature, struggling to keep his balance on this earth. It was just as he’d felt at Southside Hospital on the day he’d lost Rhonda for good.

*

He found Vivian standing on the boardwalk a few hundred feet from Uncle Leon’s assisted living facility. In the dark, the tall brick building with its blue awning looked almost undistinguishable from the active adult community where he and Vivian lived. On a dark night, he could walk right into Leon’s building by mistake, giving up and turning himself in. It was only a matter of time until he wouldn’t be able to care for himself. No more dancing the foxtrot, no more spreading whitefish salad on a bagel. He would be freezing cold all the time like Uncle Leon.

The sight of Vivian drew him back into life. As she stood facing the ocean, the moon glowed bright behind her, and the wind blew her long silver hair this way and that.

“If you need some time with her, I’ll understand,” she said, looking out at the water. “I could go stay with my daughter for a while.”

He couldn’t imagine living in the apartment without Vivian now. How comforting it was to hear her voice in the other room, confiding to her daughter on the phone, or muttering to herself when she’d lost a slipper.

“Nonsense,” he said. “The living should be with the living.”

He wasn’t sure that he meant it, but they sounded like the right words.

“You were thinking that you wanted to keep her,” Vivian said. “I could tell.”

He reached around Vivian’s small shoulders and pulled her to him. Tears streaked her pale cheeks.

“Is it so wrong to love both my wives?” he asked.

He tried to picture the three of them living together. They would need a bigger apartment, but otherwise, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Rhonda and Vivian had different temperaments and different tastes, yet they had both picked Harold as a husband.

“I’ve never fought for a man before,” she said. She and Max had been high school sweethearts, like Harold and Rhonda. “But if I have to, I will.”

“Think of it as share and share alike,” he said, feeling just the slightest lift in his trousers again.

“You think you can handle both of us at once?” she asked. “Harold, you don’t know what you’re in for.”

“We could work out the details,” he said.

A mischievous smile spread across Vivian’s face.

“Let’s go back inside,” she said. “It’s time I won back our fifty bucks.”

*

By the time they returned to the clubhouse, Sally and Jules had called it a night. The Mahjong ladies and a few others, including Sol and Irma, lingered at the buffet table. Sid Wiegelbaum announced it was past his bedtime and planted a sloppy kiss on Rhonda’s cheek.

“Are you ready for Harold Bloomfeld trivia?” Vivian called out.

Rhonda clapped her hands. “I like a woman who’s up for a challenge. Looks like you picked a good one after all, Harold.”

Vivian and Rhonda sat across from one another. Randy Oppenheimer from the third floor, ocean view, offered to play the emcee.

“First question,” Randy said, “What is Harold’s favorite movie?”

Vivian slammed her hand against the table. “Finding Nemo, of course.”

“Wrong-o,” Rhonda said. “Harold’s favorite movie was always the The Guns of Navarone.”

“Until he saw Finding Nemo,” Vivian said.

Randy looked to Harold for clarification.

“They’re both right,” Harold said with a shrug.

Next up was Harold’s favorite food.

“Harold always loved my Prime Rib with horseradish sauce,” Rhonda said.

“Not since the heart condition,” Vivian said. “Now he loves the Tofu Surprise at the Chinese Garden down the boardwalk.”

Actually, Harold only tolerated the Tofu Surprise, but he didn’t want to make Vivian lose a point.

Over the next thirty minutes or so, Harold’s wives named every place he’d lived, from his childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant to his temporary duty in Seoul. Rhonda and Vivian named former girlfriends whom Harold had forgotten. They even remembered the kitten he’d rescued from the gutter when he worked in the garment district.

Bored witless, he was about to nod off in a metal folding chair when Randy decided to liven things up.

“All right folks,” Randy said, “it’s time for a lightning round. For the game, Ladies, what is Harold’s biggest regret?”

“Wait a minute, now,” Harold protested. They were getting too personal in front of the neighbors.

“Selling the house in Bayville,” Rhonda called out. “He regrets giving it up and moving here.”

True, Harold was sad to leave Bayville at first, but now he loved opening the window and listening to the sound of the ocean, and he didn’t miss the leaky roof or the trees that uprooted themselves at the foot of their gravel driveway.

“Harold’s biggest regret has nothing to do with a house,” Vivian said. “He regrets getting married so young.”

Rhonda touched her diamond pendant defensively. “We weren’t kids,” she said. “We were twenty-one!”

“He also regrets not seeing the first signs of the cancer,” Vivian said to Rhonda, her voice softening. “He regrets taking you to the Catskills that year, because he thinks if you stayed here, you may have lived.”

Now it was official. Vivian understood him just as well as Rhonda. Maybe Vivian had even caught sight of him wistfully paging through their old wall calendars, counting the days since Rhonda had passed. There was no hiding anything from either of them.

Rhonda dabbed her eyes with the sleeves of her tracksuit.     

“This has gone too far,” Harold called out.

Randy put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly, calling the game a draw.

Sol and Irma played the first few bars of Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”

Harold recalled the moment before Rhonda returned, when he’d taken the last bite of his poppy-seed bagel. Things had been so much simpler then. Maybe he could will Rhonda to leave as he had willed her to return.

Through tears, Rhonda said, “I know what you’re thinking, Harold. Even if you stop wanting me, I won’t just disappear—poof! It’ll take some time. I might need a place to stay for the night.”

“What? Do the trains to heaven stop at midnight?” he asked. “There’s no car service?”

“She’s your guest,” Vivian reminded him. “We should let her stay. It would be a mitzvah.”

“But where will she sleep?” Harold asked.

“You mean, where will you sleep, don’t you Harold?” Rhonda said, and winked at Vivian. “If we have to share, you have to share. You’re the one who thought you could handle both your wives at once.”

A tingling sensation rose in his chest. What if he took both of them home, and this crazy competition went on all night? What if this mishigas went on for eternity?

With every bit of energy he could muster, Harold went to Rhonda and kneeled before her, like when he’d proposed at Windows on the World overlooking Manhattan. The world had changed so much since then.

“Please understand,” he said. “The living should be with the living. You’d want as much for yourself.”

“Well now I know where dead people stand with you, Harold Bloomfeld,” Rhonda said. She wiped her eyes and stood up proudly. “How about one last dance before the night is through? You’ll give me that, won’t you?”

She smoothed her tracksuit and strutted out to the dance floor.

“Hit it, Sol,” she called.

Harold’s bunions throbbed, his back ached, and his neck was damp with perspiration, but he wanted to prove that this old body could make it through one more dance.

Before he could get on his feet, Rhonda offered her hand to Vivian, who gladly accepted it. “It’s only right that Harold Bloomfeld’s wives have the last dance,” Rhonda said.

Harold noticed she didn’t seem so ashamed of her possum nails anymore.

Sol and Irma played the first few notes of Moon River. Rhonda and Vivian began to waltz. They smiled, their eyes locked.

Then Vivian stopped short. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t.”

Surely, Harold thought, Vivian would invite him onto the dance floor. She wouldn’t abandon him, would she? At least, not so soon?

“The song’s too schmaltzy,” Vivian called to the band. “Please, play something else.”

Sol and Irma did a quick consultation, then Irma belted out a different tune: “Happy days are here again...”

“Now that’s more like it,” Vivian said. She winked at Harold.

Harold’s wives kicked it up to a swing.

“Hey, what about me?” Harold asked. “Can I cut in?”

“Don’t worry, Bubbelah,” Rhonda said, “your turn will come.”

Harold’s wives laughed and kept on dancing.




Julee Newberger received an MFA in creative writing from American University. Her fiction has appeared in literary journals including The Pedestal and Potomac Review and the anthology, Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women(Paycock Press, 2009). A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, she is at work on a novel about a Long Island family.

“One spring morning, I opened the door of my family’s Long Island home to find the front porch covered with cicadas. Buzzing and twitching, they carpeted every inch. I couldn’t make it to the driveway without sacrificing dozens. With every step, they crunched beneath my feet.

Known as Brood X, they were my age at the time: 17. They grew underground and tunneled to the surface en masse. In the trees of my neighborhood, they lay their eggs, then died off in just a few weeks.

At night, I listened carefully to the chorus of buzzing that hushed the sound of passing cars and airplanes. With my eyes closed, I imagined that I lived in some distant, developing nation rather than the suburbs of New York. After I while, I could hear the distinct layers of the cicadas’ song. I meditated to their music, asked them to tell my fortune. Seventeen years form now, where would I be?”

Masthead


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