Seconds after my mother died, she began work in heaven on a little play titled "Naked in Bed with Eleanor Roosevelt." Or so the medium sketched. I only met with her because a childhood friend, who had eyes the color of pickle relish and on occasion called me Flinch, gave me a gift certificate good for three visits to a psychic. Our first Magic-8-Ball chat found her smooth, resourceful, so adept at improvisation, she could’ve been a veteran of Second City or SNL.
"You’re here to communicate with Deborah," began Miss Marintha. "I can tell you that she’s peaceful, even flourishes."
I coughed, "Flourishes?" She then launched the Eleanor rigmarole that drove me out of her storefront parlor. Through the window, I glanced back at her hoping a second look would clarify the lunacy. Instead, I saw an older man lift and carry her to a rear curtain. One arm beneath her shoulder blades, another under the crooks of her knees, he cradled her, inviting gravity’s press against her unsupported center—a kind force that accentuated the curve of her ass. The man twirled as he pushed through the drape, so that a pair of red culottes slung over gnarly veins was the last I saw of Miss Marintha that day.
I sped home. Distracted by thought, I sailed through a four-way stop and almost smacked a Saab. Came within inches of bleeding in the lap of a stranger. Once inside I squashed my impulse to trawl the web for Eleanor. Better: I downed Lunesta with a swig of scotch and proofed a syllabus to quicken the drowse. Dreams twittered and an old adage teased, politics makes strange bedfellows. I murmured something about understanding the so-called title. But writing a play? Wings under halo?
The next day Vaughn’s certificate pissed me off to no end. Normal people who read an obit donate to charity or send flowers or fruit; Vaughn created a game. But as awful as the first visit had been, I knew I’d go back to the cane table and chairs surrounded by dollar-store frames that hugged moons, stars, unicorns, and Sistine Chapel figures—sibyls, prophets, nude athletes plus two frames with identical reproductions of a woman breastfeeding her child.
After class I circled the South Street block on which my shaman in red jerked people round. In the afternoon rush cars bounced a tortured conga, rhythm set by brake lights. The line I joined a dozen times let me watch the action inside. A young woman and Miss Marintha sat rigid and compelled like spoons in steaming tea awaiting fingers to appear, grasp them, stir. Seeing another client settled me some. The idea that I was her only customer, gifted or not, had troubled me. On my last pass, both women were gone. I flipped my cell, called the parlor, requested an appointment at the voice-mail prompt, all with a sense of post-coital satisfaction appropriate to every South Street dance.
Come morning I entered as the old man pushed through the curtain and delivered the culottes to her chair.
"You left quickly the other day, Mr. Seldorn," she smiled, "I thought you had run off forever." Her eyes were younger than the rest of her face, darts of displaced child, precocious, looking down a well, peeps on high beam scanning waters for my beginnings. Slicked back, her dark hair fell to her waist, which added to the illusion of youth. She had to be in her forties. "So how can I help?"
"You can start by dropping the writing in the clouds routine."
"Done. What would you like instead?"
"Look, I’m only here because of a friend."
"I thought you came to learn about Deborah." She sucked in her cheeks, probably to emphasize her one-upmanship, certainly to slay me with high cheekbones. "Vaughn just set things in motion."
"Motion denotes progress. Not the creation of a floating loon tapping a keyboard."
"But everyone up there loves Deborah’s work. Up there you can’t go wrong." All this with a straight face.
"Once more: she’s not up in the sky. Sorry, not a believer. And Roosevelt, that title, c’mon, it’s twisted."
Marintha opened her palm and flashed a gold charm engraved friend.
I reached for the thing. "Where’d you get this?"
She drew back her hand and held it under the table. "Vaughn. Who else?"
"Bastard said he wanted something of hers."
"It’ll be yours again, relax." She jammed half a laugh into her promise. "Andrew," with her free hand she touched my forearm, "may I call you Andrew?"
A hard-on pressed into my pocket; I wanted blood back in my brain. "You dress—but don’t talk—like a Gypsy."
"Afrrrraid you’re a little off. Pop and I are Yugoslavian, on the cusp of exotic at best. At least that’s Pop’s story. And he sticks to it well." Her voice cartwheeled in the gravel between Eartha Kitt and Suzanne Pleshette. "Don’t bother your thoughts with wars and boundaries. Everything’s fluid. I was two when we emigrated. Pop had me tutored in English until I was sixteen and my language skills perfect. A regular xenophobe’s nightmare. Gypsy?" She smiled with Coney Island lips, all roller coaster climbs and falls.
To hide my admiration for her smarts, I folded my arms—then realized I looked like a schoolboy—sharp elbows held high—and unfolded. "Deborah was like a second mother to Vaughn. So he’s always said. When I was sorting through her things, he saw that. Wanted it. Stole it when I wasn’t looking. Maniac." I bit my bottom lip as I added fucker under my breath. "He shouldn’t have given, shouldn’t’ve let you touch it."
Before I folded again, Miss Marintha took my hand in hers and returned her other hand to the tabletop. She squeezed the gold. "Deborah was a complicated woman."
"Squeezing tells you that? Let’s forget the drama."
She scrunched her chin but relaxed it instantly. "Okay, Andrew. Let’s try simple skits. You, six years old, skinny as the row house you lived in. Terribly impressionable. Sneaking down steps with your pal to watch productions."
"My, my, you’re good." I pulled my hand away.
"Stepping down. Holding the banister. Lots of laughter in the basement. There’s a linoleum floor. A bar. The smell of sweaty bodies and alcohol: it scared you."
"All stuff my pal told you."
Marintha put down the charm. "It’s New Year’s Eve! With the Harowicks, Farkases, Browns, Ladimarts."
Although I knew Vaughn supplied the names, I looked to the side as if those mentioned had gathered to greet me. Instead, I greeted myself in a mirror. Fifty-seven, salt-and-pepper hair, a bit slouched in Marintha’s presence; I straightened.
"Your mother wrote skits for neighbors to perform at her yearly parties. The climax always was the entrance of Baby New Year in a diaper. Father Time was there, holding a cardboard sickle and wearing cotton balls on his chin. Scripts varied," she giggled, "yet typically turned into Punch and Judy shows. But in 1958 the group sideswiped Deborah. Started her skit but switched to another. Their surprise play mocked her because they’d uncovered an obsession. She had written to Mrs. Roosevelt months before and had gotten a personalized reply. Deborah chattered endlessly about it, nothing specific, only that she’d received a letter."
"She was proud of that letter." Proud was more lump in my throat than word, a tiny hunchback.
"Into the skit came a neighbor in drag. A big guy dressed as Eleanor. He sucked a pair of wax buckteeth and wore a hat, raked, mannish, pinned to a wavy wig. Under drooping breasts hung a sign that read ‘Eleanor Babe.’ Someone grabbed the 45 and blared Harry Belafonte’s ‘Cocoanut Woman.’ Down the babe stripped," here Marintha added deliciously, "stripped to freshly cracked milk. And as the whistling gang counted down midnight, voilà—in diaper—Baby New Year."
I admired the re-creation obviously authored by Vaughn. Every December 31st he’d slept over our house. Loyal actors and willing to help clean up, his folks usually left around 4:00 a.m., too late to keep a babysitter. Vaughn’s stay was a given. Forbidden to watch parties, we played upstairs with my chemistry set and Robby the Robot. Eventually, we tuned-in Roland on "Shock Theater" and just once sneaked down to see the goings-on. Spied. Skedaddled. "You did your homework. Informer, whatever, forgiven," I lied. But the details made everyone live again, and I was hungry for Unruh Street, hungry for Mom’s once–a–year social effort. Even hungry for her Dead-Sea-Scroll distance, a coolness she seemed to reserve for me.
"Do you know that Deborah read Trollope?"
"Anthony Trollope? My Deborah?" I laughed at the idea, though George Eliot would’ve been a scream.
Marintha’s father, a few hairs standing on end like quills or beheaded stop signs, parted the curtain and tapped his watch. Marintha pushed the charm to my side of the table and as she was carried off, silently formed the word call.
I pocketed the charm, rose, and noticed a wood sculpture in the corner. It was an inverted pietà, a horror. Jesus, lips peeled back as if he were an astronaut in G-force training, held a lifeless Madonna. I moved closer.
Pop appeared and blocked me. "Bye-bye," he said.
I tore from the wood, pushed out the door, nearly toppled a family of crucible faces, clients whose torsos twisted this way, that, Gumbys startled by glass in swing. As I watched through the window, Pop removed the pietà. He returned and placed on a stool a portrait of a little girl. I jaywalked across South and turned to see Miss Marintha’s entrance in Pop’s arms, and the Gumby family, though now seated, bow.
"The third visit is often the charm," she winked, "and I hope you won’t run at the mention that we left off with Trollope"—Marintha’s opening gambit next morning.
"We left off with my laughter." My hand trembled, and I saw her glance at my fingers. "Caffeine and the cool of Starbucks and Saxbys." She didn’t buy my improv.
"Deborah read Trollope before she married. She was taken with the prime minister’s wife who spoke her mind and befriended many."
"Yeah, I know his novels, maybe too well. Never assign ’em."
"It’s interesting. You seem to doubt Deborah ever cracked a book, yet you—"
"Adjunct professor. Ain’t much."
"But," she pushed, "you’ve written a few things."
"Unveil your crystal and Google away."
Miss Marintha cleared her throat. "Deborah, being Deborah, was chilly regarding most of your work. But admired and was quietly pleased with one piece."
"With that you score a genuine boogey-boogey." I glanced off and spotted a new freak show in the corner. An unfired clay figure of a woman, draped head to toe, only her face and one arm visible. I pointed with my chin, "What’s that?"
"A tiny model of a statue Eleanor loved. She meditated in its shadow for years. ‘Grief’ is what she called it."
"A bit slapdash. I mean, look at it. Sorry."
"Pop had no time. The image came to me yesterday. I can’t claim a great coup: Eleanor’s devotion to the object is part of public record. I just thought it’d help. And yes, the Christ holding Mary is his."
"His pietà," I almost spit, "wasn’t done overnight."
"Or recently. You don’t think much of his talent."
I hated what I sounded like but pressed on. "He’s a prop master."
Her spine straightened. "He was a glassblower in Yugoslavia."
"And you want to see me—what—react to this crap? See me sniffle?"
"Why, Andrew," she gloated, sardonic, rich, "I can gyp a geyser out of anybody."
"We’ll debate that till ‘Grief’ does the Can-Can." This woman was buckling the knees in my brain. "So with clients, how should I put this, you try anything."
"It’s a business, yes."
"Mostly. Absolutely!" She put her hand to the side of her mouth and with fingers that formed a kind of popsicle-stick fan blocked any view Pop might have of the whisper, "I’m almost always full of shit." Hand down. "Unless," she squinted at me, eyelids in tickle, "I’m sure."
"Faking aside, exactly what do you do?"
"I wrap gifts at Bloomingdale’s and attach bows," she tied an air ribbon and flicked it. "Whatever curlicues customers ask for."
"Then let’s top this little box with a squiggly R."
She nodded, "Okay. Deborah bared her soul in her first letter."
"Touched Eleanor. Truly touched her."
"How many letters were there?"
"In my vision the number blurred, and their words combined."
"They had nothing in common. Mom wrote a fan letter. Got back a standard whatever."
Marintha shook her head. "Deborah knew her mail was just a curiosity to your father and you. She counted on that plus your dad’s assumption it was a form letter. She flashed it at you folded to show only the printed name up top, signature below. Then locked it away, and being human, told neighbors a few too many times about her prize. They thought her an autograph seeker, which actually helped her in the long run. If people perceived things as they did, privacy was assured. Rounds of letters never entered anyone’s mind."
I heard a little thud and out the corner of my eye saw the arm had just fallen off the figure. "Looks like ‘Grief’ is a one-armed bandit."
"You’re cold. Hypercritical."
I felt like a shit in swirl. "Like mother like son."
"Eleanor, too, was cool to her children and had a horrible childhood herself."
"You know, they cut out Freud’s jaw to shut him up about kids."
"Don’t cheapen what we’re doing."
"Cheap?" I threw my arms up, slashed the air, fingers, Punch and Judy. "I’m talking to a friggin’ fortune teller!"
And there was Pop. "I kick him out?"
Marintha picked at a fingernail. "Escort him."
I already was at the door when Pop caught up and pushed it open.
When I was halfway out, Miss Marintha called after me: "There were six or eight letters from Eleanor sewn into the dress Deborah was buried in."
Pop slammed and locked the door. In a rage I swung round, banged on the window, watched them talk a second. Pop unlocked the door but didn’t open it. He returned to the curtain, his millipede eyebrows ready to leap and wrestle me to the ground. Careful to stay by the door, I reentered.
Marintha studied me. "Go, Pop. Relax in back. I’ll handle him now."
Pop retreated, but not before he glared at me and arched his top lip.
"Glad you came back," said Miss Marintha. Her hand brushed the top of my chair.
"You’re mentally ill. You, Vaughn, your father. He is your father?"
"And sticks to it well." She flipped back some hair. "Since you and Vaughn were teens, there’s been nothing between you. He’s just had a thing about your mom."
"Then let the motherlover sit here."
She rolled her eyes. "Any mental illness—perhaps what I do is illness—would be mine."
"Sewn into her dress! I’d know."
"Did you dress her?"
"Of course not."
"Did you choose the dress?"
"Her choice was written out. And the dress set aside in a labeled garment bag. If she had letters from Roosevelt all over her body, wouldn’t the mortician have found them?"
"Letters pinned to clothing are common. Deborah just went further and sewed them into the lining. As she worked she wore the same thimble that fascinated you when you were five."
"You say you saw this."
She slid her head forward. "Clear as cotton balls."
"They had nothing in common."
"Try anguish over failing their children." The veins in Marintha’s forehead bulged in need of an additional head for blood to flow. "Both women needed profound friendships. To express whatever they could. Eleanor wrote back because there was a lack of guile, almost shocking, in your mom’s letters. Deborah wrote about your father’s other women. Eleanor never discussed her husband, but touched on many things. They wrote about the addictions that plagued their fathers’ lives. Your family whispered about your grandfather, but newspapers shouted every Roosevelt secret. The homeliness jokes both women endured were another theme. In appearance they weren’t Marilyn or Jackie O. It seemed there was nothing in the world more pressing than for everyone to remind them, remind. And their love of writing playlets, oh, they shared that in spades. Eleanor was even bound, gagged, and carried off by a pirate in a campy eight-millimeter adventure. There are published stills that anyone can see."
I massaged my temples. "A million women probably matched Mom’s profile, could’ve written letters."
"But," said Miss Marintha, "only Deborah would’ve written that since childhood she thought the satin in caskets was disturbing. Just the sight of it, debilitating."
"How’d you know that?"
"How did you know that? Vaughn?"
"—was Eleanor’s similar terror. Again, documented." Miss Marintha screwed her eyes into mine. "Eleanor begged her physician, the man she loved most in those years, to check repeatedly at the end for signs of life before her body was removed. Her words were similar to these: ‘You must be certain that I’m gone and give it time, David. Examine my body and examine it again. I know you’ll honor my wishes.’ Stop thinking I’m not real. Let this sink in."
"I thought the satin was a secret she shared just with me. One friggin’ secret. In a letter of introduction?"
"Possibly eight. Remember?"
"And all but one," I think I pulled at my hair, "undocumented."
Her face pushed up into the understanding look friends use to greet mourners at a funeral. "I only wish I could help you with that."
My chest heated up. I felt pressure, everything out of control.
"Chest’s gone crazy. Oh, man, awww shit. Awww."
"It’s a panic attack—breathe with me." She called, "Pop? Take a deep breath in. Count to seven as you inhale."
"Shit, oh shit."
Pop came and pushed her chair against mine. She rubbed my chest with one hand and touched my cheek with the other. "Now exhale slowly. Count to twelve."
"What if it’s not a panic attack? It’s moving into my jaw."
I asked how often she did this.
"God damn it."
"Breathe with me." She pinched my cheek gently.
"It won’t go away. I’m going to die here. Fuck. I am. I’m going to die in this fucking chair."
"Will you shut up and breathe."
"Son of a bitch." After five or six minutes, the burn and pressure broke. As it eased, I realized my eyes were wet and I felt betrayed: humiliated by my chest. Pop brought me cold water, moved his daughter’s chair back, and slipped behind the curtain. I turned to take a look at myself in the mirror. Spotted Pop behind us peeking out. I sipped the water and took another breath. "Okay. So. So, what happens now? Is this where I’m supposed to thank you?"
"Typical Andrew," she lilted, "undoing any chance of something cordial, while courting it at the same time. Has anyone ever called you Andy?"
"Couple cousins, friends. Ex-wife."
"Andy . . ."
I enjoyed her license and nearly cracked a smile.
"I’ve one more thing to tell you. It won’t hurt. Are you sure you’re all right, Andy?"
I nodded as though she’d placed a brick on my head.
She cupped my chin. "After Eleanor’s death Mom made secret trips to New York. She took the train at 30th Street and walked from Penn Station to Eleanor’s house on East 74th. Before the image matured, I saw refugees, dark and light women together, balancing everything they owned on their heads. Regardless. Deborah used to stand across the street from the brownstone and stare at it for hours. She found a calm she’d never known."
A calm not mine. I was uncomfortable with the idea of Mother looking for sanctuary ninety miles away, alone, defenseless. A woman in need of a woman who was gone.
"You seem to be doing well, Andy. You trust me now?" She released my chin.
"Some, a little, a little; a little, yes."
"Then you’ll know how to finish this. Now kiss my hand, it’ll bring good luck. Yes, it will. Kiss." She kept her eyes on her hand after I pressed my lips to it.
Insane with skin I said, "Vaughn knew everything."
Eyes dead on her hand and far from flinch, "Goodbye Andy."
I denied the name and corrected: "Adjunct."
Caught in an updraft, a sheet of paper swirled in the wind, meandered like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I stood across from the brownstone and watched the sheet sail. I thought: All right, Deborah. I found your true grave. You bled in the lap of an unlikely stranger, and the stranger bled back—corresponded. I’m happy for you. You snagged a woman, what you needed all along. I remember that when I was a child I opened a door and saw your breasts. The brown circles around your nipples were huge and puzzling to me, areolas big as traffic signals. Not red or green, but muddy indifference. Proceed as you please. I couldn’t imagine where you kept your heart, other than behind the rings. Gargantuan brown circles that kept me out. I never saw you naked again.
I gave the charm to a homeless Robby Robot outside the station. Then caught the train back and wrote my first letter to Miss Marintha. Thoughts of her and a loneliness that savaged my stomach demanded I report. That I apologize for my rude behavior and language. That I wanted to see her, would pay any price; knew her worth was far above rubies. I stuffed the letter into my pocket. Stuffed another.
In my mind, precarious as a passenger’s clutch in a bathroom on wheels, Marintha’s nipples lived in my mouth.
Please, I wrote, laid thanks at her sandals, painted her toenails culotte color, begged her to take Deborah’s bracelets, rings, Corolla. Did she know she got me excited once, and I didn’t mean the chest pain. I recognized Pop’s talent and asked for "Grief’s" arm. Told her about an ad for glassblowing in the Bowery. Would she and Pop join me there, be my guests?
The next day I mailed eleven letters, last one written 6:20 a.m. I pictured Miss Marintha surrendering to them and slipping them into her costume—forever clinging to prizes invisibly attached, moons, sibyls, breastfeedings looking on.
Barry Dinerman’s plays have been produced regionally and Off-Off Broadway by A Contemporary Theater, The Quaigh, GPC, and other companies. Two of his plays were short-listed for production at American Conservatory Theater. He was awarded The Edward Albee Foundation Fellowship to help support his projects. His work is housed in the Performing-Arts collection of The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center and further archived in Village Playwrights. He is the author of "The Kiss Me Stone."