A killing knish
It was 11:30 am: lunchtime at the Benomi Menorah Retirement Home. I squirmed in my red plush-upholstered chair and pretended to be somewhere else. This was so embarrassing! Pearl Green, the 82 year old drama queen who sat at my table in the elegant dining room, had worked up a full head of steam and was lambasting the long-suffering maitre d, Maurice. “This chicken is inedible!” she intoned, waving away invisible crumbs from her expensive beige linen trouser suit with her napkin. “Take it away and bring me…let’s see. I’ll have the brisket and knishes instead. I hope they’re better than this garbage.”
“For heaven’s sakes, Pearl, keep your voice down,” I whispered to her. But it was hopeless trying to stop her. Pearl was enjoying herself. She now turned her attention to me, as if instructing a lesser being. “You can’t let the staff get away with this kind of thing, Sophie,” she said distastefully. “You have to keep them in line. We’re paying enough here for proper service.”
Stone-faced, Maurice removed Pearl’s plate. She’d actually eaten half the so-called inedible chicken. I winked at him, hoping he’d catch my meaning – “She’s nuts. What can you do?” – and not take offense: He winked back. He knew.
As Maurice strode to the kitchen bearing the discarded plate of chicken, the place buzzed with shocked delight. There was nothing the other 196 residents of the Menorah Retirement Residence loved better than a scene, and here was Pearl throwing a tantrum… again. This would give the mah jongg ladies something to talk about at today’s game. Pearl, who was forever reminding one and all that she came from the better part of town and had not one, but two granddaughters married to Jewish doctors, was a constant and dependable source of wicked gossip.
Sometimes I thought that if I had to listen to Pearl kvetching about the food, or any of the other myriad things she found to whine about, one more time, I would toss a pickle at her. But changing tables was considered a social no-no. Pearl was the burden I had to bear for moving into the Menorah Retirement Home, where I spent meal times putting up with her and my other table mates – Bernice Baumgarten, who had trouble remembering where she was half the time, and Riva Kaplan, a dignified, grey-haired woman with a slight European accent who didn’t seem to want to be friends with anyone at all.
Right now though, Bernice seemed relatively on the ball. “Why were you so rude, Pearl?” Turning to me, she whispered hesitantly, “Pearl was rude, wasn’t she, Sophie?”
“Yes, she was,” I agreed. Bernice needed confirmation about just about everything. Satisfied, Bernice adjusted her plus size yoga pants and smiled vacantly.
Pearl sniffed, but didn’t bother to reply. She had no time for poor, addled Bernice and generally ignored her. She inspected her long, manicured nails, paying particular attention to the huge diamond ring her husband, a furniture manufacturer, had provided.
Maurice appeared with a fresh plate which he deposited in front of her.
“Here you are, Mrs Green,” he said. “Brisket and knishes.”
“That looks good! I’ll have some too, Maurice, please,” said Bernice, batting her eyelashes girlishly at him, as she did at every opportunity. In fact, I’d noticed that when she’d gone to the rest room a few minutes ago, she’d taken a detour via the kitchen, no doubt in hopes of flirting with him.
Bernice was, of course, in love with Maurice. So were half the women in the room. Most of the rest mooned over Sam Levin, the only widower in the place who could still drive at night and had a full head of black hair. Personally, I found Sam a bit too full of himself, and Maurice, I knew, had a boyfriend back in Des Moines. But who was I to deny anyone the thrilling joys of unrequited love? (And if truth be told, even I had my secret dreams.) There was little enough excitement around here, unless you counted Pearl’s tantrums and the occasional whine of ambulance sirens.
The truth was, none of us really could complain. The Menorah Retirement Residence was the best in the city and the staff members, in true Florida style were generally gracious and helpful. The suites were roomy, there was a pool and gym, an internet facility and nursing staff on call around the clock. (Although why they want to keep us alive longer is beyond me. The faster we go, the faster management can sell another suite.)
The flies in the ointment were, well, us.
When people live in close proximity, whether in a college dorm or an apartment house, they will almost certainly get on one another’s nerves. And here, they really, really did.
You’d think that by their eighth decade, people would have learned to behave like adults. Uh, uh. Living at the Menorah, the premier retirement home in San Benomi, Florida was like being in seventh grade all over again, only with cataracts and a walker. Cliques and in-groups abounded – not to mention gossips, such as Molly Levine, who spent most of her time in a strategically placed armchair in the lobby, inspecting the comings and goings. There were the popular girls, the mean girls (the two categories often overlapping), the socialites, the bridge fiends – and also, I had to admit, a lot of perfectly nice people. The luckiest were those who boasted a husband still alive, preferably with all his marbles. There weren’t too many of those.
The next best was being an eligible widower. Those were even scarcer.