AMBASSADOR OF FORBIDDEN THINGS
by Sara Lippmann
The mikveh murder was another thing we did not understand. We didn’t even know if it was a murder – it could have been a drowning, an accident, an ill-timed aneurysm, an averse reaction to a freak eel bite – all we knew was a religious woman, one of those turbaned, dark-skirted ladies from the next town over had died in the lake, our lake, while performing her monthly ritual bath.
Issue #111 soundtrack: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings "Elizabeth"
We knew this because Pete Topper came at us like he was being hunted, or chased. His brother Marc had found the body. Marc ran the Bait & Tackle down the road. Hours before the cops came, before they cordoned off our pristine swimming area in official yellow tape, shutting down any last hope for summer fun, Pete tore through the brush and slalom of white birch and down the hill – his face flushed, his teeth lunging for California, mud splatter on his knees. At 11, he was a wild, gangly thing. We were sprawled out on the floating dock as always. Occasionally, I’d read a book. Amy had zero interests. She was 17 to my 15 so 95% of the time I followed her, loading up a bag each morning with lemons, spray bottle, a six-pack of diet soda and pretzels: salted, extra dark. If we had batteries, we’d lug a cassette player, a handful of tapes. We wore towels like tube dresses down to the lake, the effect more Tampax than Grecian.
Amy swatted the air. Pete was blocking her sun and panting.
“His breath stinks,” she said, and flipped over, as if he weren’t standing right there. Amy had been in a mood all summer. This with our first vacation with Diane, our father’s new wife – the first time back at the lake in three years, the one place our mother had loved – and no one felt like being nice. Instead of talking we tanned. Amy’s skin deepened to a rich caramel whereas I burned, not that it deterred me; rather, we relished the char, waiting for it to bubble and flake in a thin white crust around the blistery edges. “Peel me,” I’d say, and Amy would twist up my hair in a clip and link behind me like a chain. This was the extent of my sister’s affection: stripping the skin on my back in flat, dead sheets.
When Amy heard Marc’s name, she shot up. Marc Topper was an ambassador of all forbidden things. Either 23 or 32, he had strong arms and angry brows and high, sharp bones, shit kickers, and cut-up dungarees. If he ever made eye contact he looked like he might strangle you or devour you whole, just like in the movies. The only glint of a smile from Amy I’d seen all month was when our father found the tangled poles in the shed and proposed trout fishing. Diane stayed home with her saltines. The smell, she said, the sway of the current, but we did not understand. Our mother would have been the first out the door. While our dad readied the dock, Amy and I went over to the Bait & Tackle for live bait. The shop was damp and ill lit and reeked of fish guts but Amy plopped her tin can on the counter, bit her bottom lip so it puffed more than usual and told Marc Topper, “Fill me up.”
Now, to Pete, she said, “No fucking way.”
“Waaaaay,” Pete said, satisfied.
I told him to slow down, back up, start over, but he was sweating, dirt streaking his freckles, he couldn’t get the words out fast enough. A naked woman. Face down. Hair splayed. Pale as the underside of a smallmouth bass. Her body hadn’t been in the water for too long, maybe overnight. There were no identifying markers. No cuts, birthmarks. No signs of rot or foul play. Unadorned as the day she was born. He said it all with a shiver, his eyes alive with the story.
“Where is he?” Amy hooked the straps of her bikini top.
Pete said Marc probably was where he always was: in the garage or at the shop or down at the station, how the heck did he know. He stuck out his chin.
“I’m not my brother’s keeper.”
Amy opened her mouth but caught herself and reeled back into her pout. So I left it, too. I didn’t ask what Marc was doing in the lake or at what time he found her. Marc was an angler. When he wasn’t fishing, he pulled live bait, night crawlers and minnows, from the muck to hock at the shack. Day, night. That’s what he did, what his own father had done, what Pete likely would do. It was their family business.
A pair of geese skidded across the lake in a ripple of less-than signs. The wind broke through our flesh. It was almost September.
But the ritual aspect, that made no sense. How did they know? I’d never even heard the word mikveh. Who the hell goes out in a lake, naked, alone, in the name of God?
Pete shrugged. He was just repeating what Marc had said, assumed we’d know all about it being as she was our people. But Amy and I were Jewish in the manner of patent leather pumps and pleated fall skirts once a new year. That was it for belonging. We hadn’t any exposure to faith. With our mother gone, there was little to believe in beyond our own self-pity. The truth was, we still saw our mom a few times a year. She didn’t give us up as much as she did the bullshit of laundry and regular roast night, trading the strip mall for wheat germ and yoga in her adobe home filled with aroused body parts she’d carved with her own hand. She was the sculpture artist-in-residence at some institute in Santa Fe. Mental institute, Dad said because it was still hard to believe anyone could pass on what he had to offer. That May, he married Diane. She padded around the house in aerobics tights and braided headbands and had no problem with his shirts and socks. She hired someone else to do it. Soon, she’d hire a nanny.
“Let’s ask Lech,” I said. Ira Lechbaum was our neighbor slash landlord slash godfather. Technically, he owned our house, he owned a gazillion acres all around Scout Lake, but we’d been renting from him for so long, cluttering the place up with our albums and board games we’d just as well laid claim to it. That summer he’d lent it to our dad for free, not that we knew it. Lech lived in a shitty bungalow he’d had hauled by flatbed from Max Mendel’s Mountain Village before it shut down, planted his dinky Catskills memento deep in the woods about ten minutes from us. It smelled like boiled cabbage, was maybe 500 square feet. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been there.
Amy did not argue. She threw on a Pink Floyd T-shirt she’d hacked at the neck. It slid off her brown shoulders. Pete Topper bumbled behind us.
Lech was on his porch.
“My, if it isn’t the Wiener girls.” He rose from his Adirondack chair in a flannel and khakis, the versatile survivalist kind you can unzip and turn into shorts or a rope, blow up into a flotation device, but everything was twisted, stuck to him, wet. Beside him, the switch and slow whine of Neil Young on the player – there is a town on North Ontario – the abrupt scratch of a needle signaling an end. Lech sucked his teeth as if all this time he’d been waiting.
“To what do I owe the honor?” His voice carried the coarse lilt of an uncle we’d all forgotten. Over six feet, squat thumbs and hairy knuckles, Lech possessed a beastly quality – both lovable and imposing. I simultaneously felt sad for him and feared him and somehow wanted to protect him, from what or whom I had no clue. Then Lech saw Pete.
“What’s with the toothpick?” He waved him off. “Dream on, Slim. These princesses are out of your league.”
The word “princess” made me cringe almost as much as our last name, whose cruelty persisted regardless of the pronunciation. Amy vowed she would change it when she turned 18. She had a new one picked out, already, without any irony: Gold. Her monogram would be AGE, which she planned to tattoo on her hipbone – if only to aggravate our father. Pete reddened and retreated, but Amy yanked him and dug her nails into him. In awkward sync they climbed the stairs of Lech’s cabin, a poorly hammered patchwork of lumberyard scraps.
“What can I do you for? Pilot light out again?”
He struck a match and blew. There was a staged aspect to him, although Lech meant well. His parents had also come from an unspeakable place, so he and my father shared a silent history even before they’d met in swim class at City College where, like so many, they’d first learned to float. After graduation, Lech made the big time. He bought and sold the schlocky company his father worked for to some middle-of-the-road sportswear designer, similar to but not Tommy Hilfiger. While our father flopped around, Lech relocated his folks to Florida, married a beauty queen, enrolled a couple of kids in private school, and then precipitously pissed it all away without more explanation than he had but one life, one lousy shot to squeeze meaning from this cold world which led him out of Manhattan and up to Sullivan County where he’d been living like a hermit for I don’t know how many years.
He hadn’t always been a loner. There was the time we all camped under the stars, my mother’s laughter, the smooth gray edges of skipping stones, but few others. His children were ten years older, an eon when you’re young. We’d stopped asking about them. Before she left, our mother would feed Lech, carry over pots or have him up for soup and beans and homemade bread. Those days were over. Dad said he no longer understood him.
Like everyone else, he was a stranger to Diane.
To us, Lech was as inextricable from the landscape as the lake and dock. We never gave a thought to what he did all day. But the guy knew from Jews. Whenever Dad was unsure, shoes or stocking feet, boxes or straight-backed chairs, floral arrangements or stones, if we could postpone Grandma Pearl’s shiva until after his precious vacation, he consulted Lech. The man was a Yeshiva Yoda.
“I wasn’t expecting company,” he said, dusting his thighs in a funny bow. The bunk sank to one side like 1959. He disappeared through the screen. We chipped at the railing’s green paint, exposing pulpy gray wood. He brought out a funky brew in mason jars, a sleeve of cookies. Kombucha, he called it, like a magic word. We did not eat or drink.
Asked about the mikveh, Lech made a sour face. He tightened his ponytail. He studied the three of us for a few minutes without speaking. He stroked his beard, grown not for fashion but from disregard. If he was basking in it, his eyes trailing shamelessly over Amy’s body, that was OK. She loved attention. I doubted he had many visitors. How lonely he must have been. Even if this was the path he’d chosen, it’s impossible to know from the start of things how anything will pan out.
“Why the sudden interest in tradition?”
“No interest.” Amy held his gaze.
He slurped his glass and told us about niddah. A wretched practice, he said, swallowing, to treat women like lepers, to banish them from the bedroom, when in reality they were God’s gift. The mikveh, he said, was an attempt to make things right again for the gentler sex, to redeem a wife’s purity after a spell of impurity.
“The gentler sex?”
“Like baptism,” he went on, ignoring Amy. “Dunk after bleeding. After the plunge she’s deemed clean. Ready to engage in – ” He paused, searching the threaded clouds. A hawk soared overhead. Lech sucked his teeth. “Marital play.”
“How am I funny?”
“You’re not.” Amy nudged Pete’s arm. Pete stumbled forward and told Lech the rest.
“Jesus Christ.” Lech’s expression changed. Color drained from his lips, which moved like worms, barely audible. Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet. He rocked on his feet in prayer, clutched his chest as if it’d been punctured, as if he was trying to hold himself together at the site of injury. And yet, Lech said. How very strange. Curious. Downright peculiar – albeit not forbidden – for a woman like that to use a lake and not the designated bathhouses of her community, some of which could be quite spiffy, like a spa. Any flowing body of water is acceptable, he said. In theory. Lech paced the porch. He scratched his nose. So what. So maybe the mikveh was out of order. But there were bodies of water throughout Sullivan County. Why leave the shtetl? He spun a finger. What was wrong with her lake? It didn’t add up. What kind of woman would have schlepped all the way out here?
“And another thing,” Lech said, “If I’m not mistaken. A woman needs someone to watch over her during the immersion, to make sure the ritual is kosher.”
The bottom line - she should not have been alone.
Days later, her name was released in the paper. Chani Roth – it meant nothing to us. We were packing up. Even though the lake had been dredged and reopened you couldn’t pay us to go back in. The weather had turned. Inside the house there were horseflies everywhere, black and slow as licorice beans. Dad and Diane were fighting. Amy and I sat on the couch. We stared at Chani’s face in newsprint. We’d never seen her, and even if we had driven past her at the Glatt Mart in Monroe, or along Route 17 on a Saturday afternoon, where throngs of bearded, hatted families gave us the evil eye as we offended their Sabbath strolls down the middle of the street, it would not have registered. Her head covering snapped to her skull like a shell, it was difficult to imagine what she might have looked like under other circumstances. In a different world. Her features seemed delicate and untouched, her eyes raised slightly as if in question. The image was grainy. She was the mother of four girls, the obituary reported. She was not yet 30.
Before we left, we stopped by the Bait & Tackle. It was raining and raw, the kind of cold that felt worse than it was. I wasn’t dressed for it. Amy’s sweatshirt drowned out her shorts, making her look naked underneath. We stood on an orange stack of milk crates and spied through the back window. Locals loitered with coffee cups, suspenders and waders. Marc Topper parceled out bait. Through the dusty pane we watched him count his lures and feathers and arrange them in little boxes, his eyes, large and stormy, silent as always. The radio was playing Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? Maybe he was stoned. That summer heroin had arrived in the county, and the paper was all over the story. Maybe he was just bored. Who could blame him? I was antsy. I wanted to go in or go for good. I tapped Amy on the shoulder but she wouldn’t budge. She was practically weeping. She could cry like that – from anything. From nothing. “Last chance,” I said. I kicked the base. Amy lost her balance. She whipped around to slug me but there was skinny Pete crouched innocently over a puddle of baby frogs. Could we believe it? He said. He opened his fist. Only last week the suckers had tails.
Sara Lippmann's debut collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist's fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her stories have appeared in Carve, Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland, Fiction Southeast and elsewhere. For more, visit saralippmann.com.
Judith Linhares’s paintings have been the subject of 40 one-person exhibitions. Marcia Tuckers’s inclusion of her paintings in the Landmark Bad Painting and Venice Biennale encouraged this fourth-generation Californian to ride the New Figuration wave to New York City. She has received three National Endowment Awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Polllock-Krasner, Anonymous Was A Woman, and a Joan Mitchell award. She also was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For more, visit judithlinhares.com.
Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings is a band built around Davis' love of traditional American music, the collective eclectic backgrounds of band members Sam Petitti (guitar), Dag Markhus (drums), and Dan Stein (bass). Based in New York City, Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings released their first full length album I Wasn't Planning On the End in September 2015 on Lindisfarne Records. For more, please visit them on Bandcamp, Facebook, Soundcloud.