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Authors: Rona Jaffe

Family Secrets

BOOK: Family Secrets
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Family Secrets

A Novel

Rona Jaffe

FOR THE PEOPLE I LOVE

Prologue

An hour after you leave New York City everything is green; even though you are still on the highway you know you are in a different place. You know the air is clearer because you can see the sky and it is blue. If you turn off the highway on to Hill Avenue you will see on one side of you, where the zoning is more relaxed, rows of fifty-thousand-dollar houses, looking all alike because they
are
alike, built by the same builder; only the outside trim of each is different. The grass is new and the trees are small. Nobody bothers with a garden. The houses are all new, on the grounds of what was once a great estate, a common sight here.

On the other side of Hill Avenue, where the zoning is still strict, there are public buildings with more land around them, a grade school, a church, a seminary, and some little farms that sell produce all summer to the local people. In the old days, if you were looking for the turnoff to Tetley Road you would almost always miss it, hidden as it was behind trees and walls. But now it is clearly marked by a brand-new cement parking lot servicing the church. For years the land lay bare and brown, once the property of The Crazy Russian, dead now for twenty years, who sold first the trees for lumber, then the turf, and finally the topsoil, leaving the rocky barren land, the desecration a local joke, until his heirs finally got rid of it. It was perfect for a parking lot.

Tetley Road is just a mile and a half long and is known to the local people as The Valley because it is a valley, swooping down below arches of tall ancient trees, cool in summer, fragrant with grass and leaves and wild flowers. In the 1940s, during the war, it was known as The Polish Corridor, because even though the town itself was restricted, Jews had bought land in The Valley. The Crazy Russian had done it—stripped the topsoil and sold to Jews. The Valley holds the fog like a teacup. It is misty in the mornings, and in the late afternoons when the sun goes down the fog begins to rise until at night only the people who have lived there all their lives can find their way home. The fog comes from the rivers and ponds and lakes of this vicinity; it is what makes everything so green.

Almost half of The Valley belongs to one deserted estate: Windflower. There is the sign, “Windflower—Service,” and then much later, “Windflower,” although you can see no house, only a road that seems to stretch for miles. On either side of the main entrance are stone walls, then there are the acres of grass surrounded by the electrified barbed wire that could stun a large animal and kill a small one. There is the field where the third Mrs. Saffron used to land her private plane. The grass is high now in the outer field, studded with the tiny white flowers that gave the estate its name. “No Trespassing” signs are tacked up on the large trees near the entrance, but no one pays much attention to them any more. Most people think the place is a public park. The families who live in the new houses along Hill Avenue come to picnic here sometimes, or to ride their sleds down the hills in winter. The pond is fine for ice skating on cold winter days, and in summer the little boys come to fish in the lake and to dare each other to walk across the slippery stones on top of the waterfall.

The houses are empty here, except for the one where the caretaker lives, and they have been empty for so long that the local people just ignore them, as if they were another useless convenience like the pool house by the empty swimming pool or the ivy-choked pavilion by the lake. The tennis court has no net and no tapes, but sometimes there are little paw prints in the en-tout-cas, what is left of it. Small animals live here freely now, skunks and woodchucks and rabbits and raccoons. Nobody ever kills them except occasionally a car on the road in the fog. Once there were timid deer that came to drink from the edge of the lake at dawn, but they are long gone, and so are the horses that ran and played in the lower field. The stables across the road are still there, that boarded the neighborhood horses, but now there is only one horse in the corral, wearing a muzzle and fixing you with a mean eye. The horses from the riding academy on Green Street still cut across the bridle path that runs along the edge of the woods in Windflower. The bridle path came with the estate, and the Saffrons left it open as a gesture of good will, although no one ever knew it belonged to anybody because the estate was so large.

The Saffrons were rich, so rich that they seemed almost not to exist: rich and aloof and strange. Hardly anyone ever came into the estate, but when they did they either stayed forever or went away and never came back. There were no casual relationships in that family. They did not know how, they did not dare.

PART I

Adam’s Dream

ONE

In March of 1902 the rains never seemed to stop; there were floods all over the eastern part of the United States, and the part of Brooklyn the immigrants called Mudville was a sea of mud. The fixers, the peddlers, the people who worked out of doors, were driven inside, not only to keep from being drenched to the skin but because there was no business outside. Only a fool or a starving man would stand in such a rain. The coffee houses were full. Not only the men who sat there all day talking their business deals were there, but also those for whom the coffee house was ordinarily only an after-work luxury. It was better than the crowded rooms in which they lived, filled with the shouts and gabble of women and children and the smells of cooking and bodies and poverty and everyday life.

Adam Saffron had been sitting in the coffee house for nearly two weeks now. He was a fixer: a mender of chairs mostly, although his fingers were blessed and he could fix almost anything you gave him to repair, quickly and neatly. It was not his wish to be a chair mender, and certainly not his life’s ambition, but it was the first job he had fallen into when he stepped off the boat, and it fed him and his wife, Polly, and the baby, Leah Vania, who was almost two and walked and talked already. He was twenty-four years old, he could speak English, and he had a small apartment with an indoor toilet for himself and his family. But he was not meant to remain a fixer for the rest of his life and he knew it, and so he sat in the coffee house and listened to the men who made business. These men bought and sold land without even setting foot on it. They knew where each lot was and what could be built on it, and so they bought and sold and never got their hands dirty. That was a job for an intelligent man, a clever man. It seemed to Adam, as he sat there nursing his cup of tea, that the only thing a man needed to do such business was a persuasive tongue and money. But if a man had no money, as he had none, then an intelligent man needed a persuasive tongue and a stupid partner who had money but no charm, no brains, and no gift of talk—in other words a man who needed someone to make deals for him with his money. Adam had considered several such possibilities, but the best one seemed to be Yussel, a big loksch who wanted to be liked and always made stupid deals that lost money. If anyone was to buy a piece of land that was impossible to sell, it was Yussel, and that was a feat, for they were buying everything, buying in the morning and selling that night. A man could make three hundred dollars in a single day.

Adam bit into the piece of sugar and holding it in his teeth sipped the tea through it, as he had done as a boy in Russia and would probably always do, although the Americans preferred to stir the sugar into the tea. That was what a rich man would do, not afraid to waste sugar; an American, who did not have to spend his life scheming of ways to make every little good thing last longer. There was Yussel in the corner with friends, his broad flat face beaming, slurping his tea from the saucer like a cat. A Hungarian, a peasant, but rich in this rich land, and so he could do as he pleased. There were those who drank their tea from a glass, and those who drank from a cup, and those who slurped from saucers, and there were those who drank coffee, and each showed his national origins and his wish to assimilate or to remain apart by this simple, natural act. Adam knew that what he saw everyone else also saw, and so he had begun to drink his tea from a cup instead of a glass, thus remaining somewhere in the middle, a man who could adjust but a man no one would really know.

He kept his eyes on Yussel, knowing that after a while the other men would drift away to join other groups, and then he could make his move. Yussel already liked him; Yussel liked everybody. And Adam had been listening to and learning the business talk around him until he knew exactly how to buy and sell a piece of land. But he had done one thing more, because he was new at this and had much to learn—he had left the coffee house every evening before supper and walked through Mudville, getting drenched and dirty and cold but hardly feeling it, walking and looking and imagining what could be done with such a place. It was a dreadful-looking place, even uglier in the rain. But a clever man could build cheap houses there, rent them to immigrants who would live anywhere as long as the rooms were big enough to house their large families and there was an indoor toilet. The houses could be ugly, they could be built all in a row and attached, which would be much cheaper than building separate buildings, and the immigrants would rent there because the apartments would be clean and new and the idea of being close to their own landsmen made them feel safe. These businessmen in the coffee house were clever, but they lacked imagination. To them Mudville was not real; it was a piece of paper, a handful of money, a deal, an abstract. But Adam saw it teeming with life, with sidewalks, with children running along those sidewalks and horse-drawn carts filled with produce being hawked along those streets. He saw the immigrant women coming out of their row houses, drying their reddened hands on their aprons and haggling with the peddlers for their family’s dinner. He could hear them shrieking at their children to come in because dinner was ready, and he could see the immigrant husbands coming home from the factories, tired, sweaty, looking forward to a bath in their own kitchens.

This was his vision, but he would tell nobody, not because they would laugh at him but because it was none of their business. He would do it, step by step, and then when it was done they would wonder why they had not thought of it themselves. When he came home every night, soaked and muddy, Polly was upset because she thought he had been out trying to find chairs to mend, and she worried for his health. She filled the bathtub with hot water for him and dried and pressed his suit, cleaning it as best she could. She sighed over his ruined shoes, stuffing them with old newspapers as they dried to keep them from warping out of shape, cleaning and polishing them when they were dry, shaking her head sadly over her good man and watching him go out into the day to ruin his shoes all over again and not come back with a penny.

“Must you go out today?” she would ask softly. “We have enough saved to last until the rain stops. There’s enough to eat, Adam. Stay. You’ll be sick.”

He would silence her with a look and pick up the baby, squeezing it hard in a hug until it screamed. Then the baby would wave at him from the doorway, one fat hand in her mother’s thin one, the other waving at him. “Papa, Papa, Papa,” the little voice would pipe, and Polly would smile.

It was Polly who had been taken sick, not he, and now she had been in bed for a week, burning with fever and coughing. It was the influenza. Everyone had it; it spread from house to house in the rain and the damp. She was a good woman, intelligent, tall but not strong, and she was his first cousin. His family often married cousins; they met each other at family occasions, were attracted, fell in love. If you married a cousin you knew the family, you were not likely to end up with bad blood. It was safer than marrying a stranger. Her family had come to America about the same time as his, and because he had known them back in the old country it was natural to become close with them here in the new one. Polly was as talented with her hands as he was with his. She sewed and embroidered ladies’ clothes at home, and so helped him make a living. She always wore clothes she had made, and they were a living advertisement in the neighborhood when they went for a walk. Now that she was sick in bed it was lucky they had the family; there was always a cousin or an aunt in the apartment, tending to Polly, feeding and dressing the baby. He never had to worry about them, and that was good, for a man’s work was in the world and he should not have to spend his time worrying about what was going on in his home. If he could make his first business with Yussel today he would have something good to tell Polly at last, and although perhaps she might not understand it, it would make her happy because she would know it was good. If he had some money in his pocket he would bring the doctor. Even though the cousins and the old aunts had all their home remedies from the old country, this was the new country, and maybe the doctor knew something they didn’t know.

He saw the men who had been sitting with Yussel say their goodbyes, and Adam stood slowly and walked over to Yussel’s table. “So nu, Yussel? Vas machst du? May I sit a minute?”

BOOK: Family Secrets
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