Alexis pressed the button on the steering wheel that answered the car’s integrated hands-free cell phone. She snapped off the radio, switched lanes, and from the corner of her eye processed the sign for her exit. The skirt from Bloomingdale’s rustled; her matching blazer flapped in the wind from the open sunroof.
“Monty, I’m running late, I’ve got to swing out on the expressway to pick up my cousin…yes, yes, I’ll make it, I’ll make it.”
A yellow corvette flashed by, cutting her off, and she cursed like a bosun’s mate.
“Christ, yes, I know it’s important. It won’t be a problem. God, the traffic out here is ridiculous…what? I have to go pick up my cousin…I don’t know, she wants him to intern with the firm, I guess, but I can tell you it’s not going to work…well, for one thing, he looks like a refugee from a schtetl…that’s my guess…no, he’s definitely not firing on all thrusters. Right, I’ll see you at Pokorny’s.”
She punched off the phone, yanked the BMW across two lanes and smashed another selector, yanking the car around the lanes like a fighter pilot in a dogfight. A song from her iPod pounded through the car’s sound system. She swirled her finger around the rotary selector to change the playlist. She glanced at her face in the rearview mirror: makeup still intact, eyebrows clean, highlighted, brown eyes deep and clear, mouth okay. Good. Nothing too provocative; professional is as professional does. She brushed back a swirl of black hair.
Alexis pulled into the driveway of her Aunt’s home, a small white clapboard affair that Alexis could have purchased with a month’s salary. A rusty Volvo sat in the driveway. She honked. There was no movement, no doors opened. The house stood there, conveying an impression of stolid, seedy dissipation, as if the dust from a thousand schtetls had settled into every grain, every pore, and slowed life to a crawl.
She snapped off her seat belt, tossed it over her shoulder, popped the door, and pushed out of the car. No one was waiting outside the house; no, that would have been too much to ask. Her heels punched into the asphalt driveway like nails. She had a tight schedule. Why were these people always so…so drifting, so not locked on?
The front screen door opened as she mounted the bottom step.
“Alexis, sweetie, nice to see you! Come in, come in, sit down, have some coffee. Look, there’s some—”
“I’m sorry, Sue, but I’ve got to get back to the city. It’s kind of important. Is…is Jacob ready?” The name, once out of her mouth and hanging there between the two women, had a sound reminiscent of something foreign, something faintly Middle Eastern, something patriarchal—another distant, unpleasant, impolitic word—and it floated there in the stifling air of the dingy foyer like some tasteless, gaudy, old-world chandelier.
“Oh…oh, well, yes, let me get him.” The Aunt blinked, slightly befuddled, and retreated back down what appeared to be the only hallway in the house. Alexis’ nose wrinkled reflexively as she crossed the threshold.
“Jacob! Jacob! Alexis is here…come on, son, time to go to work.”
His voice was incredibly deep. Her six-inch heels vibrated as he spoke. His shoulders stooped. He was carrying a black book. With a shock of distaste, she realized it was something…something biblical. She could not believe what she was seeing; there were tzitzit poking out from under his black thigh-length coat. He was wearing a tallit underneath his white shirt.
“Is there a fiddler on the roof?” she wondered aloud. The Aunt fluttered a hand with innocent confusion. Alexis could not imagine how the firm would handle this. She began to be very uncomfortable.
“Jacob, this isn’t temple we’re going to…you know this, right?”
“Yeah, sure, Cousin, I know this.” He was smiling at her…down at her, actually. He had to stoop down, he was so tall. He was larger than he’d looked in the hallway.
“Oh, this is who he is, Alexis…since he was thirteen, actually. We haven’t been able to get him to join the real world, though believe me, we tried.” Her hands flew up, wiggling. “Did we have a time trying…let me tell you…but such a stubborn ox! You should have such stamina! They would make you President next week!” The little white-haired lady slapped the massive young man across the hip—this was at the level of her shoulder. She was talking now a little more loudly, and slower, to Jacob, as one would speak to a particularly recalcitrant cow.
“You don’t be any trouble, you hear? Alexis is doing us all a favor, taking you up to the city. This is a good deed she’s doing. So you behave, and don’t cause trouble.”
“Okay, Momma.” Steinbeck should be here, she groaned to herself. She was taking Lenny, straight from Of Mice and Men, into the most prestigious restaurant in New York. They would eat him alive and her name would be mud. She wouldn’t be able to get a table at Burger King for the rest of her life.
The Aunt, smarter than she looked, read her mind.
“Now, Alexis, don’t you worry, everything will be fine. The Uncle knows people who know people, they’ll make it fine, you’ll see. The Uncle talked with that good Jewish man, a…a…what was his name, Jacob?”
“Seligman, Momma.” Alexis’ heels vibrated again, and she steadied herself.
“Oh, right, Mr. Seligman. Alexis, your Uncle did this Seligman person a favor in the war. The war ends, what, sixty-some years ago, and does this man forget? Of course he doesn’t forget. This man Seligman says it’s fine to let Jacob come see what being a lawyer would be like, to make law, maybe make some things better in this country.”
Her urban female soul recoiled as she stood there in the stultifying closeness of the little suburban ranchette, assaulted and vaguely offended by the doilies over the couch, the gauche furniture, the little plastic menorah on the side table—all the typical signs of New York Jewish kitsch. She listened with growing amazement to the Aunt unveil the fact that her Uncle had done some kind of favor for the President and Senior Partner of the most prestigious law firm in New York (her law firm, coincidentally) and began to hope that maybe her name wouldn’t be mud.
Alexis looked at her watch to make sure the Aunt wouldn’t open her mouth again to perhaps explain the origins of the universe. She gave a little start; it was later than she thought.
“Christ, Jacob, let’s pack it. We’ve got a meeting in the city in an hour and the traffic is murder.” She spun on her heels and made for the door.
Jacob looked at Alexis like a dumb calf and kissed his mother, who patted his shoulder (as high as she could reach) and by some form of legerdemain Jacob squeezed his massive frame into the passenger seat of the BMW. Alexis backed out of the driveway, shoved the accelerator to the floor, and the car rocketed out of suburbia like a bat out of Sheol. In the car, the tzitzit was gathered in Jacob’s hands; he appeared to be nodding, mouthing something to himself, his lips moving. Alexis popped ear buds out of their receptacle, punched on the iPod again, and disappeared into her world, merging with the traffic back into the city. She’d never met her cousin; she didn’t know him from Adam’s off ox, but they were late, and what kind of conversation could she have with a semi-Hasidic moron dressed like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille picture?