Ilus­tra­tion, cropped, by Lau­ra Junger

Gram, some guy’s here.”

Frances put down her corned beef sand­wich. Russ­ian dress­ing dripped down her chin.

You got some schmutz there.” Josie hand­ed her grand­moth­er a nap­kin from the stack on her desk. Frances had got­ten them mono­grammed when she first start­ed in the busi­ness: FPA for Frances Perl­man Abra­ham. In red let­ters. The shade matched the Revlon lip­stick on the ends of her cig­a­rettes. The suit she wore on her first trip to New York City to buy mer­chan­dise for the store. And her rage when her ex-hus­band start­ed dat­ing a Hun­gar­i­an knock­out and invit­ed their old friends—her friends — over for bridge and cock­tails to wit­ness the bliss of his new life. What did Ira know from cock­tails, anyway?

What guy? Tell who­ev­er it is I’m busy.”

Josie blew a bub­ble the size of her head and popped it with her index fin­ger. Some­times, Frances won­dered why she’d hired her youngest grand­daugh­ter. She loved Josie, of course, maybe even more than the oth­er grand­kids, but late­ly, the girl seemed lost. Last week, she’d shown up late on Sat­ur­day — Frances’s busiest day of the week — wear­ing sun­glass­es and smelling like she’d bathed in booze. Frances had sent her straight home and told her not to come back until she’d show­ered and put on a fresh blouse. Imag­ine what the cus­tomers would think. She could see the head­line in The Detroit Jew­ish News: Frances Abra­ham Employs Drunk Teen.”

Yeah, I told him. He won’t leave. He says he knows you. Sol Gold­man. Or Gold­farb, maybe?” Josie shrugged. Some­thing Jew‑y.”

Frances stood in the door­way of her office,” which was real­ly a win­dow­less stor­age room at the back of the store. Her small, square desk, just big enough for her ash­tray and fax machine, faced the wall clos­est to the show­room. The rest of the space wasn’t much to look at: box­es of invi­ta­tions and sta­tionery piled up to the ceil­ing. Flu­o­res­cent lights flick­er­ing over­head. Smoke from her cig­a­rettes lin­ger­ing in the air. Some cus­tomers com­ment­ed about the smoke, but this was her store, wasn’t it? Her cas­tle, her rules. There he was: pick­ing through the birth­day cards she’d neat­ly arranged in wood­en hold­ers along the perime­ter wall. And putting them back in the wrong spot, of course. He moved from the birth­day sec­tion to the dis­play table at the cen­ter of the room. Hold­ing up a ster­ling sil­ver pic­ture frame, he squint­ed at the price tag.

Sol Gold­stein. Frances had known Sol and his wife, Nadine, for years, back to their Cen­tral High School days. Lat­er on, they had raised their chil­dren in the same neigh­bor­hood in North­west Detroit, where all the Jew­ish fam­i­lies lived at the time. Where there were always kids chas­ing each oth­er in the streets and it didn’t mat­ter which house they ran into. All the par­ents knew each oth­er and, at least in her more hal­cy­on mem­o­ries, they were most like­ly play­ing a game of rum­my or mahjong on the front porch.

The Gold­steins used to come over every so often for bridge. Nadine was a love­ly woman, but a lousy play­er, and Frances played to win.

Do you always have to go for the jugu­lar? Ira had said. I’m sur­prised they come back here when you make Nadine feel so stupid.

I don’t make her feel any­thing. She is stu­pid when it comes to the game. Why should I dumb down my play­ing just because she doesn’t know Stay­man from a Jaco­by transfer?

It’s just a game, Fran. You take all the fun out of it.

She knew that what he meant was: You take the fun out of every­thing. It would be hard to point to one moment, one fight, that had bro­ken them in two. The crack between them had widened over time, because of lit­tle things and big ones, until, even when they were togeth­er in the same room, they each felt alone.

Nadine was one of the only peo­ple to call and ask how she was after the divorce. Frances had admit­ted how lone­ly it was to eat in front of the TV with only her box set of Her­cule Poirot videos to keep her com­pa­ny. So Nadine had sug­gest­ed that they meet for din­ner. For the first six years of Fran’s sin­gle life, they’d go out now and then, when­ev­er Sol went away on a busi­ness trip. But then, she’d died. Just like that, in her sleep.

Hard to believe it was now 1992. Near­ly a decade had passed since she and Ira had called it quits, eight years since she’d opened the store, and four since they’d shov­eled all that dirt onto Nadine’s cas­ket. Fran had bare­ly spo­ken to Sol since the funer­al. They always exchanged a quick hel­lo in the temple’s atri­um on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kip­pur, the only occa­sions she went to ser­vices. But with­out Nadine and Ira, both more gre­gar­i­ous than their spous­es, there wasn’t much hold­ing the friend­ship togeth­er. See­ing him in her store now, she felt a twinge of regret that she had nev­er checked in on him, the way Nadine had with her.

She walked toward him.

Fran, you don’t know how hap­py I am to see you.” He took off his Tigers cap. They were both near­ing sev­en­ty, but Sol had looked like somebody’s zayde for as long as she could remem­ber. He’d gone bald ear­ly, when they were still in their twen­ties, and the hat had become his sig­na­ture look. Beneath the bill was the promi­nent port-wine stain on his fore­head, which remind­ed her of Gorbachev’s. Sol had nev­er been hand­some, espe­cial­ly com­pared to Ira, but he had some­thing else — a way of mak­ing a per­son feel that they mattered.

Me too, Sol. How’s the family?”

Everyone’s good, kena­ho­ra pu pu pu. I have six grand­chil­dren now, would you believe it? And my lit­tle Anna — well, she’s not so lit­tle any­more — she final­ly met some­one. That’s why I came in.” He looked down at his shoes, pulled a hand­ker­chief from his pock­et. When our old­er kids got mar­ried, Nadine picked out the invitations.”

Say no more, Sol. I’m sure we can find some­thing beau­ti­ful for the occasion.”

You always had such great taste. Nadine used to say, I wish I could make our house look like Fran’s.’” 

The house on Out­er Dri­ve was exquis­ite. Before she mar­ried Ira, she had dreamed of being a fash­ion illus­tra­tor. At eigh­teen, she’d even tak­en class­es at Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty down­town. The pro­fes­sor brought in mod­els wear­ing the lat­est styles from Hudson’s. Frances would sketch them with a pen­cil, then bring them to life with water­col­or. The instruc­tor said she was a nat­ur­al. She should get out of Detroit and go study at Pratt in New York. She imag­ined liv­ing in a tiny apart­ment with a big oak desk for her paper and paints. Gal­li­vant­i­ng around the city with oth­er artists and cre­ative types.

But who had the mon­ey for all that? Her father had been a book­keep­er at the Bank of Michi­gan when the stock mar­ket crashed. From the time she was sev­en years old, there were nights she went to bed hun­gry, nights she read by can­dle­light because her par­ents couldn’t pay the elec­tric bill. She knew the class­es at Wayne were an extrav­a­gance. And besides, nice Jew­ish girls didn’t go off to New York alone, not when they could mar­ry a boy like Ira. He picked her up from the uni­ver­si­ty every Thurs­day and took her for an ice cream cone. See­ing him there, lean­ing against his pick­up, wait­ing for her—it made her feel a sense of safe­ty she had nev­er known in her life. How could she give that up?

The house on Out­er Dri­ve became her can­vas. She’d start­ed smok­ing dur­ing the ren­o­va­tion and nev­er quit. What fun she’d had putting her touch on each room once Ira made a name for him­self in the bar­rel busi­ness and they final­ly had mon­ey to spare. Years lat­er, she’d been ready to give up her mar­riage, but the house was anoth­er story.

Nadine was too kind,” she told Sol now.

Some­times, I won­der if that’s what killed her,” Sol said. She kept telling me she wasn’t feel­ing right, but I couldn’t get her to slow down. All her cook­ing for the girls and their kids, run­ning over to their hous­es every oth­er minute — car­ing for every­one but herself.”

Nadine had been the sort of woman who baked fresh chal­lah and made an end­less sup­ply of kre­plach and mat­zoh ball soup. Frances wasn’t that kind of bubbe. She worked on Shab­bos and could bare­ly make gefilte fish from a jar. She offered her fam­i­ly a dif­fer­ent form of sus­te­nance, her own irrev­er­ent wis­dom. Just last week, she’d told Josie to take up smok­ing because it looked bet­ter than bit­ing her nails. The girl laughed so hard, she for­got about the lat­est boy who’d stomped on her heart.

Still, when Fran’s time came, no one, sure­ly not her fam­i­ly, would say she was too good for this world. She put her hand on Sol’s arm and escort­ed him to the long table at the back. Sit down, Sol. I have a few ideas.”

There was no one else in the store, so she waved Josie over and told her to bring in the sam­ples from the most upscale imprint she car­ried. Ele­gant, yet under­stat­ed. Josie lugged two huge bound books from the office and dropped them onto the Formi­ca surface.

I’m tak­ing my break,” she said. With­out wait­ing for a response, she took that damned CD play­er from the shelf under­neath the reg­is­ter, plugged in her head­phones, and blocked out the world.

Some­times, Josie showed real inter­est, sit­ting next to Frances when she went through the books and even mak­ing sug­ges­tions. Gram, what about this one for the Kep­pler bar mitz­vah? They want some­thing modern.”

But late­ly, she seemed dis­tant, dis­tract­ed. Frances was used to deal­ing with the fick­le­ness of a teenage girl’s moods. She’d suf­fered through rais­ing two of them — Josie’s moth­er and aunt — with far less grace than Nadine Goldstein.

Sol must have read some­thing on Frances’s face. Let her be,” he said.

Frances usu­al­ly bris­tled when peo­ple told her how to behave, but com­ing from Sol, it seemed like a ges­ture of com­pas­sion. And so she opened the book and began her spiel: the var­i­ous options for style, col­or, paper, and cal­lig­ra­phy. Sol lis­tened and nod­ded, grad­u­al­ly nar­row­ing down his selections.

This is ter­rif­ic, Fran. I wouldn’t have known the first thing about all this.”

Why don’t you bring Anna in next week and see what she thinks?”

I’d love to. It’s just — ” He closed the book, placed his hands on the cov­er. I can’t afford any­thing fan­cy. You know I sold the busi­ness last year? I didn’t get as much for it as I’d hoped. And Anna’s fiancé doesn’t come from mon­ey, so I’m pay­ing for every­thing.”

Don’t wor­ry about that, Sol. I want to get you these invi­ta­tions at cost.”

But that means you wouldn’t make a dime! Oh, I can’t let you do that, Fran.”

Sure, you can. You’re an old friend.” She tapped him gen­tly on the shoul­der and he flinched, as though he’d for­got­ten the feel­ing of anoth­er person’s touch. Well, I’m old. That’s for sure.”

She laughed. They both did.

Would you like to have din­ner with me sometime?”

I’d like that very much, Sol.”

How bout tonight? I mean, carpe diem and all that, right?”

Oh.” What was this, din­ner with a friend or some­thing more? Nev­er could she have imag­ined going on a date with Nadine Goldstein’s hus­band. But what the hell? The woman had been sprout­ing weeds at Clover Lawn going on four years now.

She smoothed the ends of her leop­ard-print scarf. Tonight sounds fine. I’d invite you to the Club, but you know, Ira kept our membership.”

Ira now main­ly used the mem­ber­ship to show­case his arm­piece, who was a dead ringer — at least in Frances’s mind — for Zsa Zsa Gabor. Three years into the rela­tion­ship, Frances still want­ed to vom­it every time she thought of Ira watch­ing the Hun­gar­i­an take a putt in her lit­tle white skirt, or their hands entwined beneath linen nap­kins in the din­ing room. All the who’s who” of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty belonged to the Club, but she could no longer afford the dues on her own.

I nev­er liked that place any­way,” Sol said, sug­gest­ing instead the Greek din­er less than a five-minute dri­ve from her con­do. She ate there at least three nights a week, par­tial­ly because she hat­ed to cook, par­tial­ly because the wait­ress­es didn’t make a fuss when she sent back her plate, and par­tial­ly because she was tired of star­ing at Poirot’s twirled mustache.

Per­fect. 8:00?”

His eyes widened. I’m usu­al­ly in bed by then.”

Of course, he was a fan of the ear­ly-bird spe­cial, like most peo­ple their age. Frances had always felt most awake at night. Some­times, she drove over to Wal­greens at 10:30 and browsed the mag­a­zine racks. Some­times, she got so engrossed in an Agatha Christie that she stayed up until 3:00 in the morn­ing. Josie used to call around mid­night and Frances would let the girl prat­tle on about the boys who didn’t know she was alive, her prob­lems with her moth­er. But in recent months, the calls had stopped. Frances dread­ed the nights of end­less silence.

7:30’s my final offer, Sol,” she said. 

Done. See you there.”

He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. What you might call a peck,” reserved for the reb­bet­zin or an elder­ly aunt from the Old Coun­try who didn’t bathe often enough. She couldn’t tell if he was out of prac­tice or if this was his way of let­ting her know they were just hav­ing din­ner, noth­ing more. In any case, she decid­ed it wouldn’t hurt to tidy up. 


Frances went home after work and put on a lime-green cardi­gan she’d pur­chased at Saks Fifth Avenue dur­ing her last trip to New York. She combed her hair, try­ing not to dwell on how thin it had become, and traced her lips with Revlon. She was going for a cer­tain look: put-togeth­er but not too put-togeth­er.

He was wait­ing in a booth when she got to the din­er. Meri­beth, the cheer­ful wait­ress who put up with a lot of Fran’s non­sense, dashed over.

Hi, dear. The usual?”

It annoyed Fran to be addressed as dear,” as though she were a lit­tle old bid­dy who need­ed to be sweet-talked like a child.

It annoyed Fran to be addressed as dear,” as though she were a lit­tle old bid­dy who need­ed to be sweet-talked like a child.

Yes, but don’t for­get to put the gravy on the side. And make sure my mush­room bar­ley soup is hot this time. Noth­ing worse than luke­warm soup.”

You got it.” Meri­beth smiled sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly at Sol. If Ira had been here, he would have smiled back, a ges­ture of apol­o­gy that drove Frances mad. What was the prob­lem with lik­ing things a cer­tain way? 

I’ll have the same,” Sol said. And I agree about the soup. Noth­ing worse.”

The con­ver­sa­tion was easy. Meri­beth brought over a plate of pita parm, a sta­ple of the place. They both crunched on the cheesy bread.

Sol brushed crumbs off his shirt. You’ve done such mar­velous things with the store. Nadine used to say how much she admired you. Start­ing over, like you did.”

Frances told him how she’d sat on a therapist’s vel­vet set­tee nine years ear­li­er. It was soon after the divorce and she thought she was los­ing it. The days that had once been filled with cook­ing and clean­ing and car­ing for Ira and the girls were emp­ty. The min­utes and hours ticked away. Time stretched into noth­ing­ness. It wasn’t Ira she missed, but the rhythm of being mar­ried. She wasn’t sure she could sur­vive this new, shape­less existence.

The shrink, who insist­ed on being called Nan­cy” instead of Doc­tor,” had short gray hair, pink lip­stick per­pet­u­al­ly smeared across her front teeth, and an odd col­lec­tion of rain sticks. She ran a group called Tran­si­tions” at the tem­ple on Tues­day nights. Am I crazy, Nan­cy? Frances had asked.

She said I need­ed to do some­thing,” she told Sol now.

Frances had known it was too late to go back to her fash­ion illus­tra­tions. Hell, depart­ment stores didn’t even hire illus­tra­tors any­more. And these days, they pre­ferred four­teen-year-old mod­els who looked like they hadn’t eat­en in weeks. The way the clothes hung on them, their bones pok­ing out — she couldn’t under­stand how that made some­one want to buy. The mod­els she had paint­ed weren’t exact­ly zaftig, but they had fig­ures. And they were beau­ti­ful. Real women.

Even though she was no longer suit­ed for that world, she still had her artis­tic flare. The idea of open­ing a store had come to her dur­ing a solo trip to Palm Beach. Nan­cy had sent her to a spa to chill out,” a con­cept that Frances, a daugh­ter of the Depres­sion, thought friv­o­lous and self-indul­gent. But it was on that trip that she wan­dered into a lit­tle sta­tionery and invi­ta­tion store. She stood brows­ing the shelves, pick­ing up the occa­sion­al birth­day or anniver­sary card and exam­in­ing its design. Behind the counter, a woman who looked to be about her age tend­ed to cus­tomers com­ing in and out. Some told her about par­ties they were plan­ning. They asked what she thought about this or that. The woman swanned around the com­pact space, point­ing out dif­fer­ent merchandise. 

Her cus­tomers’ eyes fol­lowed her, and Frances’s did, too, as though the woman were a mag­net draw­ing them in. She wore styl­ish glass­es with lit­tle rhine­stones in the cor­ners and a sim­ple black dress that made her look more New York than Palm Beach. Can I help you? she final­ly asked. I’m Dot­tie.

Yes, Frances thought. Maybe you can.

Before she could think bet­ter of it, she had asked Dot­tie if she could be her appren­tice. She’d rent an apart­ment in Flori­da for the win­ter, work in the shop and learn the business.

All those years, Ira han­dled our finances. I couldn’t even get my own cred­it card till I was forty-eight,” she told Sol. I didn’t know the first thing about run­ning a store.”

And look at you now.” Sol beamed.

Frances was a lit­tle embar­rassed by the praise. She had been talk­ing too much and she need­ed a break. She set her lighter on the table.

You’ll have to excuse me, Sol. It’s a dirty habit. I promised my daugh­ters I’ll quit when I turn a hundred.”

It doesn’t both­er me. I’ll be right here.” He tapped the edge of the table twice. Right. Here.


Sol called her at the store the next day. I’m not one to play games,” he said, so I’ll come right out and say it: that was the best night I’ve had in years.” 

Frances cra­dled the cord­less phone between her cheek and shoul­der as she rang up a box of thank-you notes for Alma, who man­aged Blum’s Drugs next door. Debra Kranzen was wait­ing for her at the long table, eager to see sam­ples of her son’s bar mitz­vah invi­ta­tion. Frances was busy and couldn’t quite match Sol’s enthu­si­asm, but it had been a nice night. She told him so.

Let’s do it again next week?” he asked. Same time, same place?”

And so it became a new part of her rou­tine. Some­thing in between her nights at the bridge club and her evenings spent at home, mas­sag­ing her sore feet. Three Tues­days in a row, they met at the din­er. They rem­i­nisced about Cen­tral High School, caught up on which of their friends had rent­ed con­dos in Boca or Naples for the win­ter, laughed about their adult chil­dren who were now deal­ing with teenagers of their own. Pay­back,” Sol said. He wasn’t much of a read­er, but he lis­tened intent­ly when Fran talked about the Churchill biog­ra­phy she’d checked out from the library. And she enjoyed see­ing him come alive — his voice ris­ing, arms pump­ing in the air — when he recapped the lat­est Tigers game, nev­er los­ing faith in the team no mat­ter how bad­ly they lost.

She wasn’t sure they were an item, but they were some­thing. She thought about this when she took her smoke break dur­ing their fourth din­ner togeth­er. As she puffed away on the side­walk bor­der­ing the park­ing lot, she decid­ed they didn’t need to define it. It was a bright spot in her week, what­ev­er it was.

When she returned, he got up from the table, walked to the front, and helped her take off her wool coat. He draped it over a plas­tic hang­er swing­ing from the rack by the reg­is­ter. As they sat back down at their booth, Meri­beth came over to col­lect their emp­ty plates. 

Ready for your cof­fee? We have that apple pie you like, too.”

Frances yearned for her caf­feine fix, but Sol reached across the table and grabbed her wrist. He looked up at the wait­ress. Give us a few min­utes,” he said.

He held her hand in his. Fran, there’s some­thing I want­ed to talk to you about. Maybe we could go back to your place so we could have some privacy?”

She drew her hand away and con­sid­ered this. Sol Gold­stein, smooth oper­a­tor. Who would have thought? But then, maybe he just want­ed her advice on Anna’s wed­ding with­out half the Jews of Metro Detroit lis­ten­ing in. Or maybe he was hav­ing some prob­lem with his finances or health, and need­ed an old friend to lean on. She could do that, if not for him, then for Nadine.

Sure, Sol. Let’s get the check.”

I’ve got it. Let’s just go.” He began to fid­get. Before she could open her purse, he pulled two twen­ties from his wal­let, stuck them under the nap­kin hold­er, and stood over her, breath­ing heav­i­ly, as if his life depend­ed on their exit­ing the din­er at that moment.


Sol fol­lowed her back to her con­do in his Buick. Inside, she flipped the light switch and led him into her liv­ing room. He eyed the pic­ture frames on the book­shelves of her girls and their fam­i­lies. I remem­ber Max­ine and Sharon when they were in dia­pers,” he said. Time march­es on, doesn’t it?”

That’s the only guar­an­tee in life. Want some coffee?”

I don’t drink cof­fee so late, but some tea would be nice, if you’ve got herbal?”

She padded into the kitchen and put a ket­tle on the stove. He made him­self com­fort­able on the couch, draw­ing her woolen blan­ket over his legs. She sat down at the oth­er end, toss­ing a throw pil­low onto the chair.

If I’d known you were com­ing, I would’ve picked up some bab­ka or something.”

I don’t need any spe­cial treat­ment. I just like your com­pa­ny. You’re intel­li­gent and dynam­ic and so damn funny.”

She felt her cheeks grow­ing warm. She was sur­prised at the feeling.

You know, Fran.” He inched clos­er to her end of the couch. I real­ly hate being alone. Don’t you?”

Some­times, yes. But I’ve got­ten used to it.” Even with the store, her bridge club, and the hand­ful of friends she still spoke to, the silences could be bru­tal. The long evenings inside her own head. If some­thing were to hap­pen — if, God for­bid, she met the same fate as Nadine Gold­stein — how long would it be before some­one dis­cov­ered her corpse?

You shouldn’t have to get used to it.” He reached again for her wrist. I think the two of us could make a nice arrangement.”

She stared at him, confused.

I mean, the two of us … mak­ing a shid­duch. For ourselves.”

He took her left hand and held up her ring fin­ger. After forty years with Ira, it still felt strange, that naked fin­ger. Some­times, she could almost feel the edges of the Ass­ch­er-cut dia­mond he’d giv­en her on their twen­ty-fifth wed­ding anniver­sary, like a phan­tom limb. She had pre­tend­ed to be hap­py with the gift, but in real­i­ty, the orig­i­nal ring, pur­chased when they were young and broke, had meant more than the fan­cy replace­ment. They couldn’t get enough of each oth­er then, and it had sym­bol­ized the bright, sparkling future that lay ahead of them.

She was too weary to start down that path, with all of its emp­ty promis­es, a sec­ond time. And with Sol? Sol Gold­stein? She had nev­er thought of him that way, and even after four dates,” she still didn’t. And yet, she’d felt some­thing, hadn’t she? Just moments before, when he paid her a com­pli­ment, a cur­rent had charged through her — as if her nerves were wak­ing up from a long slumber.

She laughed ner­vous­ly. You’re kid­ding, right?” 

He peered into her eyes, search­ing, she would lat­er imag­ine, for some trace of human­i­ty. His voice grew soft­er. Why would I joke about some­thing like this?”

Sol, I like you. I respect you,” she said. I don’t love you.”

Oh, please.” Sol’s arms shot up in the air. This has noth­ing to do with love. It’s about hav­ing some­one to wake up with in the morn­ing. Some­one to care for you as you get older.”

She tried anoth­er tack. The truth is, I was nev­er good at mar­riage. I think I’m too dif­fi­cult to live with some­one else.”

Come on, Fran, you were with Ira for forty years!”

What I mean is, I’m impa­tient. I can’t talk to any­one before I’ve had at least three cups of cof­fee. I think most peo­ple are bastards — ”

You don’t scare me, Fran. We can learn to love each oth­er.” He reached over, squeezed her thigh, winked. If you’ll show me where the bed­room is, we could start tonight.”

Frances rose, startled.

Sol, I’m sor­ry, but I just can’t.”

He stood and put his face close to hers. He still had a bit of feta and pars­ley in his teeth. You know what you are, Frances Abra­ham? A vir­gin grandmother!”

She chuck­led. Did he real­ly think she was some nun? A Jew­ish nun, at that. It wasn’t that she hadn’t let a man touch her since Ira. She had. The first was a set­up, some­body from the temple’s broth­er-in-law. Or was it a cousin-in-law? He was hand­some enough. She decid­ed the moment she saw him wait­ing for her at the restau­rant bar that she

would invite him home. She want­ed to get it over with. She had nev­er been with any­one besides Ira, and she didn’t even know if she was any good at it. She was sur­prised when it was all over, and the man looked at her incred­u­lous­ly, sweat lin­ing his upper lip. My God, Fran,” he said. Pass me one of those cigarettes.”

There had been a hand­ful of oth­ers since then, but none had meant any­thing. It was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cept: You could make love with­out being in love. Still, she wasn’t real­ly cut out for it, the inti­ma­cy that wasn’t inti­mate. And it felt wrong, false, to invite Sol into her bed, know­ing she couldn’t pre­tend. Not with the ghost of Nadine Gold­stein hov­er­ing above like Fru­ma Sarah.

Sol looked like a wound­ed ani­mal hang­ing its head. She pat­ted him on the knee. The tea ket­tle hissed.

I should get home,” he said.

Come on, Sol, don’t be like this.” Now, she was the one coax­ing. They’d had a nice time. And they could have more evenings like this: din­ner, maybe a movie after­ward, talk­ing about old times. Why ruin it?

It’s okay, but we aren’t get­ting any younger.” He glanced at his watch. Nadine had the inside engraved, Time march­es on, but I’m still crazy for you.

I want you to be hap­py,” was all Frances could think to say. I’m just not the one.”

He put on his coat with­out a word as she opened the front door. The air was crisp. It was an autumn night that would have been per­fect for two old friends to curl up on the couch, warm­ing them­selves with a blan­ket and a mug of tea and good conversation.

As he head­ed down the front steps, she called after him, See you next week?”

He touched the brim of his Tigers cap and looked away. Good­bye, Fran.”


Sol reap­peared in her store four months lat­er. It was Decem­ber, close to the hol­i­days. He removed his cap and shook off the snow. He looked health­i­er some­how. His cheeks were fuller and his skin near­ly glowed. There was a bounce in his step, a flick­er of youth.

Ilus­tra­tion by Lau­ra Junger

Hap­py Hanukkah, Fran,” he said.

Sol, good to see you.” She came out from behind the reg­is­ter. Josie was work­ing that day, but Frances had let her go in the back office to study for her math final.

You, too.” He leaned against the counter, scanned her eyes before speak­ing. I’m sor­ry I nev­er came back here about Anna’s invi­ta­tions. I guess I was … embar­rassed. Nadine would have told me how child­ish I was. I even drove past the store once. I just couldn’t bring myself to come in.”

Frances fig­ured he’d gone to one of her com­peti­tors for his daughter’s wed­ding. The thought had made her seethe. Now, she could almost feel sor­ry for him.

That’s alright, Sol. We’ve known each oth­er almost our entire lives. Like I said, I only want the best for you.”

I know — and you were right about every­thing. I’m doing much bet­ter now. That’s what I came here to tell you.”

Fran sensed a tight­en­ing in her chest. She hoped he wouldn’t bring up the mar­riage busi­ness again. But then, part of her felt some­thing else. Maybe she had been too hasty about brush­ing him off. She missed their din­ners togeth­er. Would it be so bad to wake up next to him in the morn­ing, to tell him which of her high-main­te­nance cus­tomers had giv­en her an ulcer at the end of a dif­fi­cult day?

He whis­pered into her ear, as though he were let­ting her in on a secret. I just want­ed you to hear it from me before you see us in the Engage­ments sec­tion of The Jew­ish News next week.”

Frances dropped the pen in her hand, forced a smile. You found some­one. I’m so glad.”

It’s only been three months, but Veronika’s a real doll. We actu­al­ly met at this thing Ira and Ele­na threw at the Club.”

Veroni­ka. Prob­a­bly anoth­er fuck­ing Hun­gar­i­an! Maybe she was a looka­like friend of Elena’s. Maybe there was an army of them: thou­sands of Zsa Zsa robots who swooped in and took every eli­gi­ble man over fifty off the market.

Frances bent to pick up the pen, clear­ing her throat. I’m thrilled for you, Sol. I real­ly am.”

A look of relief crossed his face. Oh, Fran, you don’t know how much that means. I’ll admit, I was a lit­tle ner­vous about com­ing here today.”

He had offered her the job first and she had turned it down. So, why did she feel some­thing sour ris­ing up from her stomach?

Don’t be sil­ly! Lis­ten, let’s find the two of you some gor­geous invi­ta­tions. I — I can get them for you at cost like I said I’d do for Anna.”

He waved his hands in front of his face. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

Please, Sol, it’s no bother.”

Not after, well, you know …”

I insist.” She clutched the pen to her ribs. I wouldn’t have it any oth­er way.”

Sol sighed deeply. You’re some­thing else, Frances Abra­ham! Okay. Of course, Veroni­ka knows all about your store. She’ll be over the moon.”

Good.” She grabbed her legal pad and flipped through the pages. Why don’t we look through some books and then nar­row it down, like we did before?”

The room was start­ing to spin. She gripped the counter.

Gram?” Josie stood in the door­way of the office.

Would you excuse me a minute, Sol?” She pulled out a chair for him at the table, then fol­lowed her grand­daugh­ter into the back room.

Josie closed her pre­cal­cu­lus text­book with a dra­mat­ic flick of the wrist. I’m done study­ing this bor­ing shit,” she said. I can help now.”

No, it’s alright,” Frances said. I’ve got this one.” She got down on her knees, search­ing through a stack of sam­ple books on the floor. For a moment, she imag­ined her­self the bride. What if she’d said yes? She would choose the finest paper, the most ele­gant script. But then she thought of com­ing down the aisle in a white dress, the fab­ric itch­ing, her Hadas­sah arms jig­gling. The whole thing seemed ridicu­lous — to put on a show as though they were kids. You don’t get do-overs in life.

There was a ring­ing in her ears. She lay down on the floor and stared up at the ceiling.

Josie stood over her. Are you sick, Gram?”

Just a lit­tle dizzy is all. I didn’t eat breakfast.”

Josie knelt down, helped her to her feet. Have my bagel.” She point­ed to the desk. I’ll take care of that guy.”

Josie took the bound books and Frances didn’t stop her. She sat down at her desk, unwrapped the sesame bagel from the wax paper, took a bite, then anoth­er. Cream cheese fell onto her lap, but she didn’t care.

My grand­moth­er had to take a call,” she heard Josie tell him. But I’m hap­py to show you what we have.”

Frances kept qui­et, let her­self be cared for. She lit a cig­a­rette and took her time with it.

She’d had a lit­tle bell installed above the front door. When she heard it chime, she knew Sol was gone. Josie came back, a grin spread over her face. Frances was always telling the girl not to slouch, and now she stood tall, as though she had final­ly grown into herself.

He real­ly liked what I showed him. He said I’ve got great taste, like my grandma.”

Frances tried to get up from her chair. She was proud, real­ly proud, yet she also felt weight­ed to the seat. You’re a nat­ur­al, Jose­leh,” she said weakly.

Josie put her hand on Frances’s shoul­der. How bad­ly she need­ed to be touched right then. Thing was, Sol was right. She did hate being alone. Some­times, in front of the mir­ror, she’d catch her­self brush­ing her palms over her bare arms — feel­ing Ira’s strong hands, their heat. Look at us, he used to tell her. She heard it from prac­ti­cal­ly every­one: How could you let a man like Ira get away? And now it would be: How could you refuse a men­sch like Sol? And at your age? How many chances have you got left?

Her life had been one mis­step after anoth­er, from the time her art pro­fes­sor had offered to help her get a schol­ar­ship to Pratt — and she’d told him, the words rolling eas­i­ly off her tongue, Don’t both­er.

Did you get your heart bro­ken, Gram?” Josie asked.

Frances balled up the wax paper and tossed it in the trash bin.

I’m too old for that.” It was too late for her to reverse course, but maybe she could help her grand­daugh­ter avoid the same mis­takes. At last, she found the strength to stand. Let me show you something.”

Against the back wall, there was a card­board box. She’d kept it sealed for years, but now she took a box­cut­ter and sliced through the pack­ing tape. Then she peered inside, relieved to find the con­tents intact. Her illus­tra­tions had last­ed, a time cap­sule of a life she’d nev­er had. She stared at her draw­ing of a woman wear­ing a green tweed coat with a thick fur col­lar. She remem­bered the mod­el, the way she’d stroked the soft mink around her neck. Frances took anoth­er from the pile. This one wore a long silk evening gown, a white-gloved arm propped on her hip. She hand­ed Josie the illustration.

Is that … you?”

Frances laughed. Are you kid­ding me? We could bare­ly afford milk and but­ter, let alone a dress like that.” She point­ed to her sig­na­ture: Frances Perl­man, 1940.

Josie stared at the draw­ing. This is real­ly good, Gram. So, you were, like, an artist?” 

I want­ed to be. A long time ago, when I wasn’t much old­er than you.”

What hap­pened?”

It was an inno­cent ques­tion from a girl who had nev­er known what it was to be hun­gry, so hun­gry that the empti­ness with­in her was not just a pit but a chasm. Frances had been first in her class, but as far as her par­ents were con­cerned, con­tin­u­ing her edu­ca­tion was a waste of mon­ey they didn’t have. And why did she need more school­ing? All roads led to the same des­ti­na­tion anyway.

Life,” she said.

She put the illus­tra­tion back in the box. At some point, she had thought of fram­ing a few and hang­ing them around the store. But each time she went through the stack, all she could see were flaws: a woman’s eyes too big for her face, an errant paint smudge in the back­ground, her ren­der­ings of the fab­ric look­ing flat and stiff. She was only a begin­ner, after all, when she took the class at Wayne. She had promise, but no train­ing. In any case, she decid­ed she didn’t want a dai­ly reminder of who she could have been. She’d shoved the box under­neath some paper sam­ples and botched orders.

What had made her dig them up now? She was fool­ish to think Josie could under­stand the impor­tance of some mediocre drawings.

What I’m try­ing to tell you is — ” She want­ed to grab Josie by the shoul­ders and warn her. The dan­gers of mar­ry­ing too young, of putting your dreams in a box. Years ago, Frances had asked her daugh­ter why she and her girl­friends were march­ing around with signs all over the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan cam­pus. Because we don’t want to end up like you, Sharon had said. Frances didn’t under­stand it at the time, why her life was so unap­peal­ing. She’d raised two humans, hadn’t she? She’d made and kept a home.

Then, all of a sud­den, she was six­ty and sin­gle. The very thing she had feared when she decid­ed she would rather give up Pratt than bear the ache of lone­ly nights. She hadn’t known her­self well enough. Her soli­tude was bash­ert, she now real­ized — whether she had got­ten on that train to New York or not. Always get on the train, was what she want­ed Josie to know. 

She faced her grand­daugh­ter. Josie tow­ered over her in her plat­form boots. My art teacher, he believed in me. When some­one sees some­thing in you, promise me you’ll listen?”

Yeah, sure, Gram.”

Frances thought that was the end of it. As usu­al, her words had gone in one ear, out the oth­er. But then Josie leaned against the wall, sur­veyed the room. She fold­ed her arms across her chest, and Frances saw a glimpse of the woman she would be.

I think that teacher, if he could see you now, he’d be proud.”

Frances glanced around. At the bound books and box­es. The fax machine on her desk. The mono­grammed notepad with her mile­long list of to-dos. She felt a soft­en­ing, an affec­tion so deep, she could hard­ly con­tain it.

Here she was, in her red blaz­er, in her own damn store.

Maybe this was bash­ert, too.

The bell chimed again. Frances took out her com­pact and reap­plied her Revlon. She stared at her­self before putting the mir­ror away. For a moment, the room stopped sway­ing and the floor felt firm beneath her.

Her grand­daugh­ter was ahead of her, rush­ing out to greet the next customer.

Kate Schmi­er was born and raised in Metro Detroit and lives in New York, where she is work­ing on a novel.