The Victor

by Ruth Z Deming

They're all dead now, every single one of them. I was a self-conscious teenager, who rolled her hair in pink curlers every night. And what gorgeous hair I had back then, not thin and spindly and white as it is today. Dad asked if we wanted to visit our cousin Donny Garber at Case Western University in Cleveland.

"Yes!" I called from my upstairs bedroom, where I lay on my white bedspread, reading a library book from the Bertram Woods Library. The library is still there. My sister Donna came into my room. She had bouncy brown hair from the rollers she put in her hair every night.

"It would probably be boring," she said.

"Why don't you come? We could have a doozy," I suggested.

"Nah, I'll get together with my friends," she said.

Why did Donna have so many friends and I had only one or two? We're both still alive now. One of her friends died on a roof top while she was getting a sun tan. Cause of death: a heroin overdose.

Mom always stayed home. Her mother, Gramma Lily, lived with us, and insisted that my mother keep a clean house. Mom had special knee pads - like hockey players wear - to scrub the kitchen floor. We did have a maid - Gloria - who I was insatiably curious about. A Black woman. I wondered how Black people lived. I knew they were poor, but didn't know why.

Mom made sure we had plenty to eat before we left. Our usual Sunday fare: succulent lamb chops, mashed potatoes, which, for some reason, made me drowsy, La Sueur Peas, from a can, and brownies, for dessert.

I yawned.

We Greenwolds always had brand-new cars. I'm guessing we had our pink Mercury station wagon. It was huge when all the seats were put down. I got to sit up front since Mom wasn't there. Immediately, Dad lit a cigarette. His smoking career began at age eight, and ended at 42, when on Yom Kippur, he quit. Cold turkey.

Surreptitiously, I cranked open my window a tiny crack.

Oh, he died anyway of lung cancer which metastasized to his brain. Fifty-nine.

A skyscraper growing in his brain.

Case Western Reserve was half an hour away. Throughout the drive, I'd cough into a piece of tattered Kleenex. Second-hand smoke. Since I ain't dead yet, I dunno if I'll die from cancer or not. Many other candidates vie for the job.

The scenery was fascinating. We drove through the impoverished parts of Cleveland. A funeral parlor "Kirk and Nice" - Black men congregating on street corners, some in undershirts, others in their church finery - Church's Fried Chicken - boarded-up gas stations - Kentucky Fried Chicken with the Colonel smiling broadly, seemingly innocent of the unhealthy diets that would kill Black people - huge billboards - one mentioned a dentist you could pay on the installment plan - another mentioned "The Settlement Music School," where we'd hold our piano recitals.

My final piece was the Allegro of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata.

Clutching my Kleenex, I coughed again. Dad couldn't hear me above the radio. The program was a pretense. The narrator, with a smooth voice like Earl Nightingale's, pretended we were at a ball room.

"Coming out onto the dance floor now," the voice said, "is none other than Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire." He paused for effect. What he didn't say was that Fred Astaire was half-Jewish, but his mother converted to Roman Catholicism. Another Gustav Mahler, who became a devout Christian.

Dad never lost a moment in praising the Jews. George Jessel; Ernie Kovacs; Maury Salzman, a Cleveland philanthropist; Hank "Hammerin' Hank" Greenberg, a Cleveland Indians outfielder.

The GPS - Global Positioning System - was not in wide use in the 'sixties, but Dad seemed to know how to get everywhere.

And there he was: Donny Garber - Donald Israel Garber, PhD - standing outside his school, bald head glimmering in the light.

Dad grabbed his movie camera and panned slowly. Every one in the family was used to Dad and his movie camera. "Pain in the neck," I thought.

I didn't learn to curse until I got to Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.

Donny led the way to his work station. I stared at the man, since I, well, lusted after him. His smarts, for sure, but there was something else. A hidden knowledge he seemed to possess, as if he knew me and what I was all about. Even if I didn't have any idea.

Revolving wheels - like on a tape recorder - are what I remember. Those and sneak peaks at Donny, who still lived at home. His mother, Evelyn, was imbued with a sparkling personality. Their home was a showcase of antiques. Not my taste.

Evelyn Garber, Donny's mom, was banished from Sterling Lindner Davis, Halle's and Higbee's department stores. Everything she bought, she returned. Obsessions. Good to have if you're a scientist.

Finally, "Don-Coo" as his mother called him, took a bride.

Liz. Short for Elizabeth.

Everyone in the family waited for them to procreate.

It never happened.

Was there still hope for me?

Late in life, Donny developed leukemia. He rallied. But then failed. And died. Do we know when we are dying?

My mother, in her nineties, was devastated. Dad, remember, had died of cancer at 59.

Liz is still alive.

She hasn't a clue who she is.

She is living with relatives in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Alzheimer's is the deadbeat victor.

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