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The Last Supper


Harry Buschman

 Mr. Krunz looked down at the leg of lamb and slowly, almost lovingly, ran his carving knife over the sharpening stone - first on one side, then the other. He detached the shin bone delicately, and without lifting his head, raised his eyes to Mrs. Epstein and thought to himself, so when did the Epstein's hit it so big. "Last week already she was in here for calf's liver, and the week before that a goose. Something fell from the sky, maybe."

"Mrs. Epstein, you would like for me to tie your leg up for roasting?"

"Yes, maybe tie. I'm cooking for twelve, Mr. Krunz." Edna Epstein said this proudly, with a little aloofness thrown in. She knew Mr. Krunz hardly ever sold a whole leg of lamb.

"A big do, Mrs. Epstein -- Solly's been accepted for City College maybe?"

With her eyes fixed on the ceiling, she said airily, "No, nothing like that."

"Bella's engaged maybe?"

"We should live so long, Mr. Krunz."

"Your husband. He sold the business?"

"A little party, that's all. Can't it be a little party without such a third degree, Mr. Krunz?"

Mr. Krunz the butcher grew red in the face with frustration. He had not been a butcher for twenty five years without knowing his customers insides and outsides. "When they change their meat, there is a reason." When they're on the skids it's beef for stew, with the Epstein's it's a leg of lamb already.

"Well, whatever Mrs. Epstein -- you have a lovely leg here, eat it with good digestion. Your guests will thank you." He wrapped the leg and weighed it. ... $37.50, Mrs. Epstein.

He glanced at her quickly to see if she would flinch, or even turn white as some of his customers did. But no! Edna smiled and handed him a $50 bill. So let him guess, she thought.

Mr. Krunz watched her leave and walk to a waiting taxi outside. "Who takes a taxi to the butcher?!" He shook his head in defeat. He sat down again behind the counter, made himself a glass of tea and tried to interest himself in the Jewish Daily. He turned to the news from the West Bank, but even that could not entirely distract him. What in the world had happened to the Epstein's?

Edna sat in the back of the cab cradling the lamb in her lap. It was only three blocks to Epstein's apartment but the leg weighed 16 pounds and she was wearing her new shoes, a little narrow for a foot that had borne her weight for 55 years. Well, no she thought, that wasn't the real reason. The real reason was the money was gone now and she wanted to enjoy the last penny of it. $2700 after taxes - pretty small potatoes for the lucky four lottery. Jake argued with her, "Put it away for the children," he said. "For a rainy day."

"It's not enough to put away. $2700 won't pay for a rainy day."

"So every little bit."

"Jake. Listen to me and then think." Edna sat him down at the kitchen table and sat down across from him. "2700 dollars won't send Solly to Princeton. It won't bring a rich man for Bella. After you she takes with the fat legs, and a rich man is looking for special. You listening, Jake?"

"I'm hearing."

"Solly will go to City College. He'll learn business. Maybe for once in the family we will have somebody who knows how to run a business. You listening, Jake?"

"You can't learn to run a business. You gotta have a business."

It went on and on and Mrs. Epstein won in the end. How could Jake argue? He was in dry goods more than twenty years and no further ahead than he was when he started. He was 57 years old and he looked seventy. He was good for a sentence or two of argument but he soon wilted under Edna's relentless logic.

The taxi pulled up to the front stoop of the four story apartment. It was identical to eight other apartments on the block, and unless you knew your number, there was no way of telling which was yours.

The driver pulled the flag down. "Dollar thirty, lady." Edna, knowing how much it was going to be long before they got there, already had two dollars in her hand. The tip was excessive, but it was the last day of her lottery splurge. "Can y'make it in with that package, ma'am?" The question was all he offered. He made no attempt to get out and help her.

"Make it shmake it," she answered.

She tightened the grip on her precious leg of lamb and climbed the five steps to the lobby door. She looked back briefly to see the taxi driver putting the two dollars in his wallet. Edna thought of asking him if he needed any help, instead she shouldered her way through the door and started up the stairs to the fourth floor. "So, you got children," she said to herself. "Solly! Bella!!" She leaned over the banister and looked up. "Solly! Do you hear me?" Solly's head appeared over the banister of the fourth floor, and so did the head of Mrs. Gionfrido on the third.

"Come down here already, Solly. Help your mother ... hello Mrs. Gionfrido, how is your husband."

"He was trying to sleep, Mrs. Epstein."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Gionfrido. I have a load, my Solly has younger legs."

"You could have ringed on the bell."

Mrs. Gionfrido closed her door as Solly passed her on his way down to help his mother. "Here, Solly, take ... my feet are killing me." Solly led the way and they made their slow way to their apartment on the fourth floor. Solly was playing a record on his new phonograph and the music was deafening. Bella was pounding on her new typewriter. Mrs. Epstein turned the volume down and collapsed on her new sofa. "You go away an hour or two, and look what happens. So much noise two people can make. No wonder Mrs. Gionfrido is upset." She turned her eyes on Bella.

"How many words now, Bella?"

"Thirty a minute mama."

"When you're done with the high school you should do ninety, no?"

"If I improve a little each day, mama."

"Improve, improve. Otherwise you'll be a mama like me." Mrs. Epstein sat back in her new sofa and slowly, deliberately kicked off her shoes one by one. The shoes, the sofa, the typewriter. Solly's new radio, and Jake's new suit. The money hadn't changed their lives, it would take a lot more than money to do that. She let her eyes close to slits and looked carefully at her children -- as though they were someone else's children. They would not go very far she thought. Farther, maybe, than she and Jake did, but not so far that a pish-posh education at Yale or Harvard would make a difference in Solly. To be a success in business is not altogether such a bad thing, she thought. And Bella -- to work in an office and find herself a good man, one who would look beyond her fat legs and see the promise in her -- that is not altogether such a bad thing also. Maybe their children will go to Yale -- it is wiser, she thought, to cross the river by using the bridge.

The pounding music and the nervous, erratic clicking of the typewriter were lulling her to sleep. There were things to do. A quick supper tonight and a lot of people over tomorrow -- she straightened up and struggled to her feet.

"Bella, put the cover on. I need you." She turned to Solly. "Enough already with the rock and roll -- you can chop cabbage."

"Can I wait 'til it's over, Ma?"

"It's never over. Come, I've only got 24 hours to cook." Mrs. Epstein picked up her shoes and frowned at them, then she walked into the bedroom in her stocking feet where she pulled her old woolen slippers out of the closet. Holes were cut in the sides of them to give her corns breathing room.

The cook-in was on. She was well into the pies when Jake came home and wandered into the kitchen. He was told to sit in the bedroom because the dining room table was being set for tomorrow afternoon. "Can I get a glass tea?" he asked timidly. He was handed a scalding teapot and a glass and told to get lost. He found a small place on Edna's dressing table in the bedroom and sat there with his knees tight together. "I hesitate to ask what's new." he called plaintively into the kitchen.

"She's on a roll, Pop - don't talk to her." Solly advised. She was, of course, on a roll, a makeshift leftover supper was quickly disposed of and Edna's work went on long into the night. Even Jake was asleep when he felt a sagging of the springs in the bed next to him. In the darkened room he recognized the familiar round form of Edna pulling the covers up to her chin.

"So, what time is it?" he asked.

"Don't ask."

Jake rolled over and looked at the illuminated alarm clock. "It's almost morning already, Edna. So why is it so important?"

"It's the last supper, Jake. The last of the $2700 -- not a lot of money, just enough to bring the family together again. My sister with her family from Bensonhurst, your brother from Philadelphia, Hersh and his lady friend. The whole mishpoche. We will probably ever see them again."

"Sleep tight, Edna. Sleep late. I'll bring you a breakfast."

"You're a good man, Jake."

©Harry Buschman 2004

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