Strangers Page 2

Ginger had inherited her silverblond mane, cerealian eyes, beauty, and ambition from her mother, Anna, a fivefootten Swede.

“You're my golden girl,” Anna said when Ginger graduated from sixth grade at the age of nine, two years ahead of schedule, after being promoted twice in advance of her peers.

Ginger had been the best student in her class and had received a giltedged scroll in honor of her academic excellence. Also, as one of three student performers who had provided entertainment before the graduation ceremony, she had played two pieces on the pianoMozart, followed by a ragtime tuneand had brought the surprised audience to its feet.

“Golden girl,” Anna said, hugging her all the way home in the car.

Jacob drove, blinking back tears of pride. Jacob was an emotional man, easily moved. Somewhat embarrassed by the frequency with which his eyes moistened, he usually tried to conceal the depth of his feelings by blaming his tears or reddened eyes on a neverspecified allergy. "Must be unusual

pollens in the air today," he said twice on the way home from graduation. “Irritating pollens.”

Anna said, "It's all come together in you, bubbeleh. My best features and your father's best, and you're going places, by God, you just wait and see if you aren't. High school, then college, then maybe law school or medical school, anything you want to do. Anything."

The only people who never underestimated Ginger were her parents.

They reached home, turned into the driveway. Jacob stopped short of the garage and said, in surprise, "What are we doing?

Our only child graduates from sixth grade, our child who thinks she can do absolutely anythingwill probably marry the King of Siam and ride a giraffe to the moon, our child wears her first cap and gown and we aren't celebrating? Should we drive into Manhattan, have maybe champagne at the Plaza?

Dinner at the Waldorf? No. Something better. Only the best for our girafferiding astronaut. We'll go to the soda fountain at Walgreen's!"

“Yeah!” Ginger said.

At Walgreen's, they, must have been as odd a family as the soda jerk had ever seen: the Jewish father, not much bigger than a jockey, with a Germanic name but a Sephardic complexion; the Swedish mother, blond and gloriously feminine, five inches taller than her husband; and the child, a wraith, an elf, petite though her mother was not, fair though her father was dark, with a beauty altogether different from her mother'sa more subtle beauty with a fey quality. Even as a child, Ginger knew that strangers, seeing her with her parents, must think she was adopted.

From her father, Ginger had inherited her slight stature, soft voice, intellect, and gentleness.

She loved them both so completely and intensely that, as a child, her vocabulary had been insufficient to convey her feelings. Even as an adult, she could not find the words to express what they had meant to her. They were both gone now, to early graves.

When Anna died in a traffic accident, shortly after Ginger's twelfth birthday, the common wisdom among Jacob's relatives was that both Ginger and her father would be adrift without the Swede, whom the Weiss clan had long ago ceased to regard as an interloping gentile and for whom they had developed both respect and love. Everyone knew how close the three had been, but, more important, everyone knew that Anna had been the engine powering the family's success. It was Anna who had taken the least ambitious of the Weiss brothersJacob the dreamer, Jacob the meek, Jacob with his nose always in a detective novel or a science fiction storyand made something of him. He had been an employee in a jewelry store when she married him, but by the time she died he owned two shops of his own.

After the funeral, the family gathered at Aunt Rachel's big house in Brooklyn Heights. As soon as she could slip away, Ginger sought solace in the dark solitude of the pantry. Sitting on a stool, with the aroma of many spices heavy in the air of that narrow place, praying to God to bring her mother back, she heard Aunt Francine talking to Rachel in the kitchen. Fran was bemoaning the grim future awaiting Jacob and his little girl in a world without Anna:

"He won't be able to keep the business going, you know he won't, not even once the grief has passed and he goes back to work. The poor lufunensch. Anna was his common sense and his motivation and his best adviser, and without her in five years he'll be lost."

They were underestimating Ginger.

To be fair, Ginger was only twelve, and even though she was already in tenth grade, she was still a child in most people's eyes. No one could have foreseen that she would fill Anna's shoes so quickly. She shared her mother's love of cooking, so in the weeks following the funeral she pored through cookbooks, and, with the amazing diligence and perseverance that were her trademarks, she acquired what culinary skills she had not already learned. The first time relatives came for dinner after Anna's death, they exclaimed over the food. Homemade potato rolls and cheese kolacky. Vegetable soup with plump cheese and beef kreplach floating in it. Schrafe fish as an appetizer. Braised veal paprika, tzimmes with prunes and potatoes, creamy macaroni patties fried in hot fat and served in tomato sauce. A choice of baked peach pudding or apple schalet for dessert. Francine and Rachel thought Jacob was hiding a marvelous new housekeeper in the kitchen. They were disbelieving when he pointed to his daughter. Ginger did not think she had done anything remarkable. A cook was needed, so she became a cook.

She had to take care of her father now, and she applied herself to that responsibility with vigor and enthusiasm. She cleaned house swiftly, efficiently, and with a thoroughness that defied her Aunt Francine's sub rosa inspections for dust and grime. Although she was only twelve, she learned to plan a budget, and before she was thirteen she was in charge of all the household accounts.

At fourteen, three years younger than her classmates, Ginger was the valedictorian of her highschool class. When it became known that she had been accepted by several universities but had chosen Barnard, everyone began to wonder whether, at the tender age of fourteen, she had finally taken too big a bite and would choke trying to swallow it.

Barnard was more difficult than high school. She no longer learned faster than the other kids, but she learned as well as the best of them, and her grade average was frequently 4.0, never less than 3.8-and that was the semester in her junior year when Jacob was sick with his first bout of pancreatitis, when she spent every evening at the hospital.

Jacob lived to see her get her first degree, was sallow and weak when she received her medical degree, even hung on tenaciously until she had served six months of her internship. But after three bouts of recurring pancreatitis, he developed pancreatic cancer, and he died before Ginger had finally made up her mind to go for a surgical residency at Boston Memorial instead of pursuing a career in research.

Because she had been given more years with Jacob than she had been given with her mother, her feelings for him were understandably more profound, and the loss of him was even more devastating than the loss of Anna had been. Yet she dealt with that time of trouble as she dealt with every challenge that came her way, and she finished her internship with excellent reports and superb recommendations.

She delayed her residency by going to California, to Stanford for a unique and arduous twoyear program of additional study in cardiovascular pathology. Thereafter, following a onemonth vacation (by far the longest rest she had ever taken), she moved East again, to Boston, acquired a mentor in Dr. George Hannaby (chief of surgery at Memorial and renowned for his pioneering achievements in various cardiovascular surgical procedures), and served the first threequarters of her twoyear residency without a hitch.

Then, on a Tuesday morning in November, she went into Bernstein's Deli to buy a few items, and terrible things began happening. The incident of the black gloves. That was the start of it.

Tuesday was her day off, and unless one of her patients had a lifethreatening crisis, she was neither needed nor expected at the hospital. During her first two months at Memorial, with her usual enthusiasm and tireless drive, she had gone to work on most of her days off, for there was nothing else that she would rather do. But George Hannaby put an end to that habit as soon as he learned of it. George said that the practice of medicine was highpressure work, and that every physician needed time off, even Ginger Weiss.

“If you drive yourself too hard, too fast, too relentlessly,” he said, “it's not only you that suffers, but the patient as well.”

So every Tuesday she slept an extra hour, showered, and had two cups of coffee while she read the morning paper at the kitchen table by the window that looked out on Mount Vernon Street. At ten o'clock she dressed, walked several blocks to Bernstein's on Charles Street, and bought pastrami, corned beef, homemade rolls or sweet pumpernickel, potato salad, blintzes, maybe some lox, maybe some smoked sturgeon, sometimes cottage cheese vareniki to be reheated at home. Then she walked home with her bag of goodies and ate shamelessly all day while she read Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, sometimes a Heinlein. While she had not yet begun to like relaxation half as much as she liked work, she gradually began to enjoy her time off, and Tuesday ceased to be the dreaded day it had been when she first began her reluctant observance of the sixday week.

That bad Tuesday in November started out finecold with a gray winter sky, brisk and invigorating rather than frigidand her routine brought her to Bernstein's (crowded, as usual) at tentwentyone. Ginger drifted from one end of the long counter to the other, peering into cabinets full of baked goods, looking through the cold glass of the refrigerated display cases, choosing from the array of delicacies with gluttonous pleasure. The room was a stewpot of wonderful smells and happy sounds: hot dough, cinnamon; laughter; garlic, cloves; rapid conversations in which the English was spiced with everything from Yiddish to Boston accents to current rockandroll slang; roasted hazelnuts, sauerkraut; pickles, coffee; the clinkclank of silverware. When Ginger had everything she wanted, she paid for it, pulled on her blue knit gloves, and hefted the bag, going past the small tables at which a dozen people were having a late breakfast, then headed for the door.

She held the grocery bag in her left arm, and with her free hand she tried to put her wallet back in the purse that was slung over her right shoulder. She was looking down at the purse as she reached the door, and a man in a gray tweed topcoat and a black Russian hat entered the deli at that moment, his attention as distracted as hers; they collided. As cold air swept in from outside, she stumbled backward a step. He grabbed at her bag of groceries to keep it from falling, then steadied her with one hand on her arm.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was stupid of me.”

“My fault,” she said.

“Daydreaming,” he said.

“I wasn't looking where I was going,” she said.

“You all right?”

“Fine. Really.”

He held the bag of groceries toward her.

She thanked him, took the bagand noticed his black gloves. They were obviously expensive, of highgrade genuine leather, so neatly and tightly stitched that the seams were hardly visible, but there was nothing about those gloves that could explain her instant and powerful reaction to them, nothing unusual, nothing strange, nothing threatening. Yet she did feel threatened. Not by the man. He was ordinary, pale, doughyfaced, with kind eyes behind thick tortoiseshell glasses. Inexplicably, unreasonably, the gloves themselves were what abruptly terrified her. Her breath caught in her throat, and her heart hammered.

The most bizarre thing was the way every object and all the people in the deli began to fade as if they were not real but merely figments of a dream that was dissolving as the dreamer woke. The customers having breakfast at the small tables, the shelves laden with canned and packaged food, the display cases, the wall clock with the Manischewitz logo, the pickle barrel, the tables and chairs all seemed to shimmer

and slip away into a niveous haze, as if a fog was rising from some realm beneath the floor. Only the portentous gloves did not fade, and, in fact, as she stared at them they grew more detailed, strangely more vivid, more real, and increasingly threatening.

“Miss?” the doughyfaced man said, and his voice seemed to come from a great distance, from the far end of a long tunnel.

Although the shapes and colors of the delicatessen bleached toward white on all sides of Ginger, the sounds did not dwindle as well but, instead. , grew louder, louder, until her ears filled with a roar of meaningless jabber and with the jarring clatter of silverware, until the clinking of dishes and the soft chatter of the electronic cash register were thunderous, unbearable.

She could not take her eyes off the gloves.

“Is something wrong?” the man asked, holding up one leatherclad hand, halfreaching toward her in an inquisitive gesture.

Black, tight, shiny . . . with a barely visible grain to the leather, neat little stitches along the fingers . . . taut across the knuckles . . .

Dizzy, disoriented, with a tremendous weight of indefinable fear pressing down on her, she suddenly knew that she must run or die. Run or die. She did not know why. She did not understand the danger. But she knew she must run or perish where she stood.

Her heartbeat, already fast, became frantic. The breath that was snagged in her throat now flew free with a feeble cry, and she lunged forward as if in pursuit of the pathetic sound that had escaped her. Amazed by her response to the gloves but unable to be objective about it, confused by her own behavior even as she acted, clutching the grocery bag to her breast, she shouldered past the man who had collided with her. She was only vaguely aware that she almost knocked him off his feet. She must have wrenched open the door, though she could not remember having done so, and then she was outside, in the crisp November air. The traffic on Charles Streetcar horns, rumbling engines, the hisssighcrunch of tireswas to her right, and the deli windows flashed past on her left as she ran.

Thereafter she was oblivious of everything, for the world around her faded completely away, and she was plunging through a featureless grayness, legs pumping hard, coattails flapping, as if fleeing across an amorphous dreamscape, struck dumb by fear. There must have been many other people on the sidewalk, people whom she dodged or shoved aside, but she was not cognizant of them. She was aware only of the need to escape. She ran deerswift though no one pursued her, with her lips peeled back in a grimace of pure terror though she could not identify the danger from which she fled.

Running. Running like crazy. Temporarily blind, deaf.


Minutes later, when the mists cleared, she found herself on Mount Vernon Street, part of the way up the hill, leaning against a wroughtiron railing beside the front steps of a stately redbrick town house. She was gripping two of the iron balusters, with her hands curled so tightly around them that her knuckles ached, her forehead on the heavy metal balustrade as if she were a melancholy prisoner slumped against the door of her cell. She was sweating and gasping for breath. Her mouth was dry, sour. Her throat burned, and her chest ached. She was bewildered, unable to recall how she had arrived at this place, as if washed onto an alien shore by moontimed tides and waves of amnesia.

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