Sadie Finkel caressed the roughhewn top of the weather-worn granite marker, avoiding the accumulation of pebbles that documented her decades of graveside visits. The neighboring stones were cracked with age, many unreadable after a half-century of Montreal’s harsh winters and blistering summers.
Not Ruth Finkel’s. Sadie’s mother’s stone had aged well, something that Ruth herself had never been given a chance to do, something that Ruth’s oldest daughter was not managing at all this August morning. Perspiration greased her boyishly short white hair, glued her teal polyester top to her back and soaked her underarms. Her cream slacks clung to the backs of her thighs. Her forehead glistened and she could taste the salt of sweat on her upper lip.
It would have been a good day for shorts and a sleeveless pullover, but the little vanity Sadie still possessed refused to parade her scrawny arms and legs in public. Better to suffer in the heat than look like a comicstrip stick figure, especially to her mother.
The forecast had called for another day of viscously oppressive midsummer humidity, and Sadie had done her best to avoid the worst of it by getting an early start on her regular crosstown pilgrimage to the cemetery. But life betrayed her, again. First, a savage overnight thunderstorm ripped through the city, cutting power to Sadie’s Côte Saint-Luc neighborhood and disabling both her clock radio’s alarm and the noisy air conditioner that almost made her one-room basement apartment bearable. When she finally woke up two hours later than planned, she was such a clammy mess that she didn’t dare face the world without a shower. From there, she missed each of the two buses and Metro trains it took to get her first to the florist’s, then to the cemetery. Well, she didn’t exactly miss the second bus. The driver had pulled away from the bus stop and was waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Sadie stepped off the sidewalk and pounded on the door. The driver ignored her.
“Mamzer,” she muttered into the empty cemetery, recalling the indifferent glance the young driver had directed toward her before pulling away. “Sorry, Mama,” she whispered to the stone, “for my bad language.”
“I’m lucky, Mama,” she said. “I know I am. To be alive, of course, though I wonder why I am. You’re gone. Papa’s gone. At my age, that’s normal, I know. But Esther, too. And Nate and Manny. They’re all gone. Just me, like some sort of Methuselah, going on and on and on…for no reason that I can see.
“Strong as an ox, the doctor says. The new one. The young one. Not ‘young’ Dr. Callendar. He’s dead, too. It’s his son, the new Dr. Callendar. Another Dr. Callendar. It’s like the family business, all these Dr. Callendars. They also go on and on. At least they have a reason.
“Anyhow, this Dr. Callendar says I’m so healthy I’ll outlive him, and he can’t be more than forty.”
Sadie laid her bouquet of white carnations at the foot of the stone. She liked to think that white carnations had been Ruth’s favorite. But it was all so long ago. She couldn’t be sure that the one time Papa brought flowers home, they were carnations. For sure they were white, and they couldn’t have been expensive, like carnations weren’t expensive. Were there carnations at Ruth’s funeral, too? There wasn’t a lot of money in those days, even for a funeral, so maybe. You couldn’t spend much less for flowers than on carnations. Daisies, possibly, but those weren’t daisies. Neither time. Daisies she would have remembered. It must have been an extra-special occasion when Max brought the carnations because it never happened again, and cut flowers were a luxury back then. They were still, for her, but Ruth deserved this little extravagance. Not every visit. Once every couple of visits.
Sadie straightened up, ever grateful for her continued flexibility. Apart from a touch of arthritis in her hands, her joints were remarkably responsive for her age. Dr. Callendar’s words. But it was true. Gladys Herzberg was already using a walker, and she was only a year older than Sadie. At seventy-one, Myron Katz could scarcely bend over, which didn’t stop him from trying to shtup every widow at the seniors’ center, the alte kacker.
Only the good die young, her mother used to say. “Is that why I’m still alive, Mama?” She wasn’t sure she wanted an answer.
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