Mrs. Bertha Hoppelman was built low to the ground and lately had gotten lower. In the past year and a half, two vertebrae had collapsed, and though she'd braved the world at a full five feet for the better part of her life, she now faced it at a diminutive 4'10". Though low enough, she'd started to fall. Down she'd go, usually on her knees or flat out on the floor, a sidewalk, or the street—anyplace, anytime. Her physician, Dr. Soleway, sent her to a neurologist; an ear, nose, and throat guy; and an ophthalmologist. Nothing. He ordered a bone scan and blood tests. Normal. He sent her to an optometrist who adjusted her prescription and gave her new glasses. And still she fell. Her husband Myron thought it a bid for attention, and though she knew that was not the reason, she had no idea what was. She took to wearing kneepads—the elastic kind that slid on easily and had foam on the front to disperse the shocks—and though they provided some protection, they did not stop her "downward mobility," as Myron called her falling. What he did not realize, however, was that his wife was determined not to fall.
At 2:05 p.m. on a Tuesday in early April, Bertha was clutching the handrail of the M5 bus that sped from Riverside Drive to Columbus Circle. The wet streets did not cause the bus to skid; in fact, nothing impeded its run, but still she worried she'd be late, because she had over seven blocks to walk from the stop and had to go slowly. She was on her way to the Ethical Culture Center to hear a lecture entitled "Wisdom of the Dalai Lama: The True Hero Is One Who Conquers His Own Anger and Hatred." Bertha was much interested to hear how one accomplished that sleight of hand.
She left late because she'd made Mr. Hoppelman his midday meal—like she did every Tuesday and Thursday since his retirement last June—and he wanted the full schmear: burekas (stuffed cabbage) or chicken paprika, potatoes, a vegetable, a cucumber salad, and a dessert. Sometimes, at his request, she would make cheese strudel with rugelach dough, and he would say he was "in heaven."
Bertha kept telling him to forget the dessert, though her best friend, Sylvie, who spent Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays with Myron at the 92nd Street YMHA—doing Zumba, swimming, and other "crazy stuff"—said he needed more food now that he was so active. But her husband was growing portly, so much so that his friends teased him, calling him "Mr. Hoppel Poppel"—as if he'd turned into the so-named fatty dish of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and salami. Fred, Sylvie's husband and Myron's best friend, had called him plain "Mr. Salami." Wink-wink. But if he used that portion of his anatomy, Bertha had no knowledge of it, for it surely wasn't with her.
She now stood on the upper step of the exit area, leaned over to pull the cord, and the pneumatic door opened with a wheezy protest. She looked out and saw the cars swirling round the roundabout, speeding onto Broadway. What's the hurry?
About to step down the first of the two remaining steps, Mrs. Hoppelman's attention was drawn by a young man in a thick black coat and ghost-white sneakers about to step off the curb and dodge traffic. These young people. No fear of anything. For a second she thought she saw another, dressed exactly like him, already in the thick of it, and wondered if her new glasses were causing her to see double. The one on the curb—such a beauty, with his smooth black hair and wave on the forehead you could float on, like in Miami with Myron, Sylvie, and Freddie. What a card, that Sylvie. Diving below the surface, pinching Myron on his tuches. And now Freddie gone in November from thrombosis. Thrumdedum. Just like that.
Mrs. Hoppelman finally wrested her gaze from the beautiful young man and onto the sidewalk, and in her haste to let those behind her off, she slipped on the middle step, skidded on the bottom one, and tumbled onto the pavement on all fours. Oy! Gotenu! No fooling. She thought she would have to write the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that very day to tell them to put the steps much closer to the pavement: Did they think she was a bungee jumper?
Lying on the sidewalk, breathing heavily, she could hear people around her remarking on her spill, and see different-colored boots gathering around. One lady, dark fuzzy hair peeping out from her cap, with a wide red mouth and a kindly concerned expression, knelt down. "Are you okay?"
"Very okay, miss. Don't worry. Just taking a second to re…re…reboot. Isn't that what they say?"
"Can I help you stand?"
"No. No need. I'm fine."
Mrs. Hoppelman took a moment to assess the damage, wiggling her right ankle and toes. All okay. She moved her right hand, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder, as they'd seemed to absorb the stress of the fall. In working order. It wasn't as bad as spills go, she thought, though her cheek smarted, and she knew she'd scraped it badly. And then thought, Where is my Myron? If he vas here, it wouldn't have happened! And where is he? "Wandering around"—that's what he says. "I'm wandering around." Even last Sunday when their daughter, Stella, asked them to be with the kids, he'd said, "You're busy, my daughter. I don't want to interfere." Stella had said, "So what are you going to do instead, Pops?" He'd answered, "You know me—I wander around."
Later she'd asked her daughter, "Where exactly is 'around'?"
Though her eyeglasses, bound by their beaded eyeglass holder, remained firmly in place underneath her woolen, loden toque, she felt the right-temple piece of the frame indent her skin above her ear and knew she must get up. But she didn't. She thought, No communication between my brain and my sweet legs, and became aware of remarks like, "I saw her go down hard. New York City is tough for an old lady…"
Old lady? Not so old. Older than Sylvie, to be sure, but only by five years.
Suddenly she realized the thin nylon strap of her handbag was all but garroting her neck, as her bag had swung far over on its own journey, finding anchor on her right buttocks, and she knew she had to get up. Now!
After a fall, it was Bertha's habit to rise onto all fours, rock back on her haunches and, in a jackknife position—like a baboon in heat, her bottom pointing skyward—slowly walk her hands up her body until she stood erect. She would say to herself: Like an ape into a human. Yah.
She slowly began to pull herself into the jackknife position. But before she was able to stabilize herself on all fours, she felt a hand gripping her upper arm, lifting her to her feet. Her purse swung back to its place on her left hip, and she found herself looking directly into the face of that wavy-haired beauty, the one-who-was-about-to-dodge-traffic. As he held her firmly, the other New Yorkers all seemed to recede into the background, rushing off. Like Myron, always going somewhere fast.
Though embarrassed by her ochre teeth and a left incisor chipped from a recent fall, Mrs. Hoppelman thought, So what's the big deal? I'm a femmy fataly? And she gave the beautiful gentleman her toothiest of grins.
"Thanks be to you, young man. Thanks be to you very much." And still he held on to her, as if helping her steady herself. While he did so, she could not help noticing that his wool coat looked as fine as the richest of cashmeres. An Armani or Ralph Lauren, for sure. The ritzy-ditzy kind that only the ultra ultra wear. Yah. And his skin? Smooth like a woman's. Gorgeous. And pupils in his eyes like the blackstrap molasses that Sylvie puts into her "sloppy joe" recipe Myron loves. So terrible. With smushed beans—tempeh, she calls them. Oy! Terrible. "They're slimming," she says, as if she knows.
Myron would say, "Sylvie knows. She went to a diet doctor!"
"Oh, Myron," she'd answer. "Sylvie has been a plumpy her whole life, and she knows how to help? It's the retirement. That's your problem. When you worked, you only took one sandwich, one piece of fruit, and you were done. Now you're never done."
"Pshttt," he would reply. "Learn from Sylvie!"
The bus driver closed the pneumatic door, and she thought, Has he been waiting for me to get up? She would have to mention that in her letter too: "Though the steps are very far apart, the MTA still has a very caring and excellent driver on the Riverside line."
While the young man seemed to be looking intently over his shoulder at something, Mrs. Hoppelman studied his extraordinary beauty. She noticed a plethora of gold earrings rimming his left ear (but not his right), and wondered if that was some new fashion and if she should try a few extra in her left ear. Would Myron notice? She also realized the gentleman had not relaxed his grip and his fingers were digging into her skin. If they left a mark, she thought, she'd measure it. "You know what they say about finger length, don't you?" she'd later giggle with Sylvie, who loved low jokes.
"I know you must be busy, mister," she said. "I really appreciate your helping me, even though I wasn't hurt because I buy everything with a heavy lining…coat, slacks…everything. I even have the drapes lined in my apartment. That was a joke. So you can go if you want…nothing hurts."
"It's alright. Just waitin' to see you're okay."
Mrs. Hoppelman now felt her right arm squeezed in as tight a vise as the left and looked to see the second man holding her was the very one she'd believed to have been an illusion. He was all but a twin of the first beauty, wearing a similar black cashmere coat, similar ghost-white sneakers, and sporting a plethora of earrings rimming his left ear, but not his right. What was this? A kind of membership? Like bow ties from Harvard? What did she know? A secretary her whole life and married to Mr. Hoppelman—a schmatte guy. Not that they didn't do well. The schmatte business was very good to them. Mr. Hoppelman, a smart Hungarian who hid in the forest during the war, eating mushrooms, bark, maybe a potato or two. That man knew to survive. Yah. And dangling between the two men who held her firmly in their grasp, Bertha thought, But for what did you survive, my Myron? Or for who? There were so many rumors.
When Sylvie and Bertha would get on the phone at four every afternoon in their separate apartments on different streets and have a drink, two, perhaps more—"a little slivovitz"—invariably during their conversation, Bertha would ask—"Who is it?" And Sylvie would answer, "Stop your worrying! No one!" And they'd go back to reviewing the events of their day. Lovely events since she retired ten years ago at fifty-five. Such a life she couldn't have imagined as a little girl in communist Budapest. Museums, lectures, luncheon with friends, bridge, yoga. But never with Sylvie, who was always too busy with children, grandchildren, one thing or another. Even after Fred and Sylvie moved to the same apartment building on Riverside Drive, only a few floors below, the two women wouldn't meet, only talk on the phone while drinking their slivovitz—much to the amusement of their two husbands.
"Thanks be to you also, young man," she said to the newcomer, who, though also attractive, had altogether blunter, more sensual features than the aquiline ones of his companion, and a long, faint scar slashing his cheekbone. Did he fall too? Oy, what a pair. American beauties.
"It's alright, lady; you okay now?"
"Perfectly fine, gents," she said, though mightily jiggled as the two, all at once, pulled away from her, as if their quick physical parting was an exorcism, a weird withdrawal from her soul.
Suddenly Mrs. Hoppelman was aware that the skin on her face pained, her ankle hurt—although not so much she couldn't stand on it—and her elbow and shoulder were acutely sore.
She stood quietly as the cars whizzed by and the two men flew like grackles with brilliant iridescent feathers and entered traffic, flapping their arms back and forth at oncoming cars, seemingly unhindered by any vehicle in their path. She watched as they raced through Columbus Circle, crossed the next road, heedless of danger, then scurried onto 59th and Central Park West disappearing into the park.
Everything going for them. Yah. Choate or Dalton or some other fancy school, then Harvard or Princeton. Parents with old money. Just dropped from trees, the money, instead of leaves. Brahmin boys, those two. Yah. Blue-blooded.
The light changed. Bertha followed their path, slowly crossing the road, going into Columbus Circle, where the fountains arced water in a circular pattern designed to highlight the statue of the great man himself. Probably wasn't an easy crossing for him either, sailing in the big seas in his little boat, eating farkakta moldy food he had to eat no matter it probably tasted like tempeh. Terrible! We went in a big ship, in 1959, though we still had high waves—thirty feet, maybe, but my parents made it a sport. So brave, they were. At the height of the waves, they would brace themselves and shout Zayt Gezunt! ("Cheers!") or Hot a guten Tog! ("Have a good day!") and laugh. Yah. And they never fell. No matter their feet ruined by frostbite.
Bertha realized she would now have to rush to register in time for the lecture. Though Central Park West had large puddles from last night's rain, where the sidewalk dipped and occasionally cracked, Bertha's boots had rounded toes and high-quality thick soles, and she negotiated her way without a hitch. Finally she walked up the steps and through the open door of the familiar red brick building and congratulated herself, breathing a sigh of relief.
A woman she'd never seen before, in her forties, with penciled-in auburn eyebrows, dyed carrot-color hair, and a tie-dyed orangey-pink wrap dress manned the large wooden desk. Like Sylvie. Wears what she wants. Feathers and bows. Myron said, even at work she was a flamingo.
Bertha flicked the clasp of her bag open with a simple twist of her fingers and searched for her wallet. As it was a few minutes after 2:30, the lady told Mrs. Hoppelman to please hurry. Though her hand roamed expertly, trolling the bottom of her bag with precision, she still couldn't find her wallet, which had $65 in it, perhaps 100. Myron had always liked her to carry extra, in case something happened when he wasn't there.
Okay, something happened, big shot. I have no money and you're out "wandering"!
The carrot-topped lady stared at Bertha's face, noticing the right side where it was scraped, and said that Bertha could pay later. The program was starting soon, and she should just send in the money. She probably forgot her wallet at home, the lady assumed.
But Bertha knew she had not forgotten. She'd seen her wallet when she retrieved the exact change for the bus earlier.
The new assistant scooted up the steps to the auditorium and quickly returned with the perennially sweating director, who wore a shiny, worsted black suit, coupled with a black and yellow striped tie—a combination that made him seem like nothing so much as an overworked bee. He buzzed in, clearly summoned by the assistant to take care of her.
"The speaker is about to begin," he announced and fast plastered a smile on his face, telling Bertha that of course he recognized her: she was a regular. He then offered her a $20 bill, suggesting she take a cab right home after the event—she could pay him back—while the cashier thrust a wet paper towel into Bertha's other hand, indicating her scraped cheek.
"I know I had my wallet," she defended herself. "I'm certain I did. I would never have left my apartment without it. My husband always checks with me. He's very good about it."
"Well, don't worry yourself about it at all," the director said, clapping his hands impatiently. "No harm done. But we must hurry, because the lecture is about to begin and we need to get to our seats."
"Of course. Of course. Chop-chop!" she said, thanking them profusely as they bustled up the steps and soon disappeared. Bertha followed them, but as she approached the stairwell, she was distracted by a poster of the Dalai Lama on the nearby wall. His Holiness wore large eyeglasses, with a metal rim, through which he seemed to be looking directly at you. She thought he was not the type to think he saw double. She marveled at the fact that his red tennis shoes matched his red and yellow monk's robe, and wondered if they were made "special," and thought she could use "special" she fell so much. And then wondered at his smile. It was such a simple smile of humor and remarkable joy. But as she walked back and forth in front of the painting, the smile seemed to follow her, as if the Dalai Lama knew something—about her?
Perhaps he fell sometimes—and then? Did he laugh?
Mrs. Hoppelman heard clapping coming from the auditorium. She took one last lingering look at the Dalai Lama's picture, wondering if the colors of his robe were dyes from Tibet and if it was hard to get them in Dharamsala, India, where he lived. And if it was as hard for him to leave Tibet as it was for her and her family to leave Hungary. And if the Dalai Lama, starting all over again, had to work ten-, twelve-hour days, as Myron and she did, but certainly not those beautiful young men who wore cashmere coats from grass-fed or tempeh-fed sheep or something like that—yah!—who had it all, those beautiful young men, who picked her up as if she were a rag doll and lifted her like…like—God's grace. Where did that come from?
Bertha walked back toward the stairwell. She stepped up the first step and grabbed the handrail, but because of the moist paper towel nestled in her palm, her hand slipped, and for a second time that day, she was down.
No. Never twice. NO!
A large bump began to form on her forehead where her hairline began. She'd hit her head on the very top of the steep steps that led up to the hall. A real good k'nuck. Oyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy!
Crumpled on the staircase, the moist paper towel dropping from her hand as if of its own accord, her head throbbed, pain emanating from the spot where the lip of the step pressed into her skin. She tilted her head back and found herself staring at the fringe of a Persian carpet blanketing the landing. She saw another fringe beside it, the two seeming to undulate slowly as if in tandem. Belly-dancing carpets? Was she seeing double, like at the bus stop? But at the bus stop, there really were two men.
In her muzzy state, Mrs. Hoppelman now heard the speaker begin. His voice seemed to boom from the microphone in stentorian tones, reverberating throughout the auditorium.
Why is he talking so loud? Does he think if he talks like a guru, he'll be one?
The speaker said: "The Dalai Lama's wisdom is that he knows. War, poverty, hunger, disease, death. He knows."
Does he know about Myron?
He continued: "He knows that evil exists, but that it must not live within you. It might be heard and felt and touched and tasted—but the anger? It must be let go. The Dalai Lama knows how to embrace life with compassion, love, and laughter."
In a woozy, concussed state, her head pounding from the swelling in her forehead, Bertha thought that if the Dalai Lama knew about her day, he would laugh: She'd intended not to fall, but fell twice; she'd wanted to hear the lecture about conquering anger, but was consumed with anger about almost missing the lecture; and she'd been grateful when the two gentlemen hoisted her between them like a puppet, though she knew very well she'd looked a perfect fool. But, then, was she a fool? A real fool?
Suddenly Bertha knew, without a doubt, that those two "gentlemen" were not silver-spoon-in-their-mouth babies from some Ivy League school. No. They were common trickster types, pickpockets who'd stolen her wallet. That was it! Why hadn't she seen it when it happened and scream as if her life depended on it? Because she'd been alone? And where was her beautiful husband, Myron? On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, doing Zumba, swimming, and other "crazy stuff" at the Y with Sylvie. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Where was he? Suddenly Bertha knew, without a doubt, that Myron was "wandering around" doing different "crazy stuff" with Sylvie. That was it. The two were just like those pickpockets—grackles—swooping down on her and picking her clean. And hadn't they been doing so for years and years and years?
Myron and Sylvie. Myron and Sylvie. An old story she hadn't wanted to know, but now knew as true, as true, as true.
Would the Dalai Lama laugh? Her parents laughed at the terrible waves and, though unstable from frostbite, they never fell.
She would get different shoes. Maybe red sneakers. And she would not fall.