Authors: Milton Stern
They Played Mah Jongg
AN UNFINISHED SCREENPLAY
FIVE MENOPAUSAL JEWISH WOMEN
ONE STRANGE YEAR
Copyright © 2006 by STARbooks Press
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, situations and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Published in the United States
PO Box 711612
Herndon VA 20171
Printed in the United States
Many thanks to graphic artist John Nail for the cover design. Mr. Nail may be reached at:
First Edition Published in October 2005 by Milton Stern
by Milton Stern
The Girls (1985)
America’s Bachelor President
and the First Lady (2004)
Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady (2005)
For my godmother, Florence “Flossie” Kline (1927-2004), whom I miss very much, and for all the other people in my life — alive or dead — who inspired the characters you are about to meet.
For Sharon Grove Gillespie, my editor and TV trivia buddy, whose red pen and advice bring out the best in me.
My life would not be complete without my sweet, toy parti-poodle, Serena Rose Elizabeth Montgomery, who keeps me company while I write.
On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg
is an adaptation of
, a play I wrote in 1985.
Upon hearing the play’s title, my mother said, “It better not be about my friends and me.”
Everyone and everything in this book is fiction. None of it ever happened … but it could have.
Mah Jongg Tiles
The Mah Jongg tiles on the cover are part of a Bakelite Mah Jongg set that was purchased by my grandmother, Mary Erlach Summers (1903–1985), in the 1930s. The set was passed on to my mother, Harryette Summers Stern (1927–2001), in the 1950s, and she used it for almost 50 years when it was her turn to host her weekly Tuesday night and Thursday afternoon Mah Jongg games. When my mother died on June 2, 2001, it was the only thing of hers that I wanted. To be honest, the rest of her stuff was wicker, Pyrex or just plain drek. Today, this is the Mah Jongg set I use when it is my turn to host our weekly Mah Jongg game, which we have been playing for almost five years — on Wednesdays.
Now that this book is published, I intend to treat myself to a new Mah Jongg set.
They Played Mah Jongg
AN UNFINISHED SCREENPLAY
FIVE MENOPAUSAL JEWISH WOMEN
ONE STRANGE YEAR
Whenever anyone in Michael Bern’s family was buried, it rained. No, it poured. It was late April 2004, but on this day, there were no showers, just 75 degrees and sunny with a light, southerly breeze. Michael leaned on his rental car and scanned the cemetery. He was surprised he was able to find it, since he had not been to Hampton, Virginia, let alone Newport News, or any other part of the Lower Peninsula in almost 20 years.
Rosenberg Cemetery on Kecoughtan Road was a century-old, Jewish burial ground established by Russian immigrants, who pursued the American dream via Hampton Rhodes Harbor in the mid-1800s. Michael could count back at least four generations of Greenberg, Hockberg, and Bern family members buried there. However, the only Stein was buried in the reform section of Peninsula Memorial Park on Route 60, several miles northwest of where Michael was standing.
Michael had arrived directly from the airport and an hour early for the 11:00 am service, with the intention of flying back to California that same day. He had no reason to stay in town, since there was little to do in Hampton or Newport News. He considered driving to Norfolk for a drink at the Oar House or Nutty Buddy’s, and he wondered if The Late Show was still open, but at 41, going to bars was losing its appeal.
Michael walked toward the rows of headstones.
The area near the road was the oldest, with closely placed graves with faded names on small gray markers, some of which had settled into odd angles or were heavily weather damaged. He scanned them, looking for familiar names, and slowly made his way down the small footpaths that separated all the footstones of one row of graves from the headstones of another, careful to step only on the stones that made up the footpath, not wanting to disturb anyone’s eternal rest. He was alone among these once prominent, ordinary, forgettable, disturbed, memorable, boring, exciting, Jewish citizens of two cities that shared a peninsula and were situated just an hour south of Richmond, the Capital of the Confederacy.
In the middle of the cemetery were the more ornate markers, with their multihued granites and marbles. He located the only pink stone in the fourth row from the front of the newer section. “Newer,” he thought. The first person to occupy that section died in 1953. He grabbed some pebbles before making his way toward the large, pink headstone, and once he arrived at the two footstones, which were also pink granite, he placed a pebble for his grandparents on each of them.
While he stood there, he heard tires rolling on gravel and turned to see the hearse from Rosenberg Funeral Home arrive. He watched as the funeral director drove to the back of the cemetery, made a U-turn, and drove back to the front so the rear doors were aligned with a freshly dug grave in the first row of the newer section. A few cars pulled in and followed suit, some parking as the hearse did and some parking where Michael parked, on the opposite side of the main drive where the grass served as a makeshift lot. At some point, Michael thought, that section must have been considered for expansion.
Michael purposely made no notice of the people who were alighting from their cars and focused on locating the final resting places of long lost acquaintances. He walked to the next row and spotted the large, white headstone with three footstones — the mother in the middle with her son and daughter-in-law on either side. He considered it strangely funny that although divorced, they shared a plot, albeit on either side of the husband’s mother. Michael placed a pebble on all three footstones.
He walked to the other side of the gravel driveway where the most recently added section began on the same side as the makeshift grass parking lot in the front of the cemetery. There, he found a large, gray stone with three footstones in front; however, the grave in the middle was empty. Husband number one and husband number two were sharing property, and once she was buried there in the middle, the picture would be complete — strange, but complete.
Michael looked at his watch. It was 10:30 am, and he noticed that the parking lot had filled up while he was walking around the grounds, but he had two more graves to locate. He walked to the seventh row in the newest section and saw the two headstones, one of greenish granite and the other a stark white. On the white stone was the name Shimmer, and on the footstone on the left was etched in block letters “Bart Shimmer 1924–1985.” There was a blank footstone on the other side, but Michael knew it would never be used, and there was a time when he considered selling it.
He looked at the other grave with the greenish granite headstone and “Bern” etched on it. One footstone read “Adam Bern 1929-1962,” and next to it on the right was a blank footstone. Michael was staring at his own grave, for Adam was his father, who died six months before he was born. Michael kneeled down and placed a pebble on his father’s foot marker, and he was careful not to place one on what would be his own.
When he heard footsteps making their way toward him, he stood up and turned around. There they were. The two remaining girls were here to bury a third member of their Mah Jongg group.
They had not seen Michael in almost 20 years, and as they hugged him, they told him how handsome he was and how proud they were of him. Michael smiled along with them, and he noticed how much they had aged. These once energetic, loud, obnoxious, and loyal women were now in their 70s, and neither had changed her hair. Michael also wondered if they still smoked, and his question was answered when the taller of the two lit up a More cigarette.
Since it was Wednesday, Michael asked them if they had played Mah Jongg the night before, but they told him it was difficult to get four hands with everyone dropping like flies lately. Funny, with life expectancy being what it is today, the women in this town barely made it past 74. But, something told Michael these two would outlast everyone. The three of them walked arm in arm toward the rest of the crowd.
The children of the deceased were all in tears and clearly mourning heavily the loss of their mother. Although not one to outwardly display emotion, Michael felt deeply saddened by the unexpected death. The oldest daughter of the deceased, who at 55 looked her years, walked toward Michael. As he watched her approach him, he considered how the children of those attending the funeral were now the same age as the Mah Jongg group was the last time Michael saw them all together. Sally hugged Michael and asked him to be a pallbearer. He eagerly accepted, for if he had not been asked, Michael would have been deeply hurt and insulted.
As the pallbearers took their places at the back of the funeral coach, Michael thought back to another time and how he thought he would never see this place again. With his back to the coach, the funeral director eased the pine casket out and instructed the pallbearers, who were facing each other three on each side, to pass it along palms up on the bottom as there were no handles. Michael, who was farthest from the back of the Cadillac, was cradling her head. Carefully, he and her nephew, who was opposite Michael, led the way down the footpath to the open grave. And, for the first time in 19 years, Michael cried.
Early the next morning, Michael’s plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport. After retrieving his gold metallic, 1965 Corvair 500 from the long-term parking lot, he headed straight to his friend Michelle’s to pick up Aunt Clara, his eight-year-old pug. Aunt Clara always greeted Michael as if she had not seen him in months, which Michael found amusing since he rarely traveled without Aunt Clara, and when he did, he was never away for more than two or three days.
Normally, on a Thursday morning, Michael would have headed over to the studio in Culver City, where he had been a staff writer on
Los Angeles Live
, a comedy and variety show, for 17 years. He often brought Aunt Clara to work with him since she was popular with the writers and most of the staff as well. However, since the beginning of April, they were on summer hiatus, so Michael drove to his house in Santa Monica.
As he turned into the driveway, Aunt Clara became more excited and jumped into Michael’s lap urging him to open the car door. He scooped her up and placed her on the ground as he exited the car, and Aunt Clara sniffed around the front yard before she found the perfect spot to pee. She then ran to the front door, snorting the whole way like a good pug, and looking back at Michael as he approached and opened the door.
He walked straight back to the kitchen, picked up her bowls, washed them thoroughly in the sink, and gave her fresh filtered water and a cup of her favorite dry dog food. Aunt Clara proceeded to gobble down her breakfast, prompting Michael to say, “Aunt Clara, I know Michelle fed you plenty.” His loyal companion looked up at him, wagged her curly tail, and ate the last of the kibble. She drank most of the water, and Michael refreshed her drink while she observed him.