"Zev fucked everybody," Ellen says. Our parents are dead, and my sister is the keeper of the family lore, the more outlandish the better. We like being Jews who lack propriety. Who are inobservant of boundaries. The kind of Jews you'd want to ban from your society. You want a Jew to back away from? We'll be your Jews. So when Ellen evokes Zev's exploits, including the havoc he wreaked, we feel a sense of family pride.
Uncle Zev had a gleaming smile and wavy black hair, and when I was a little girl, a little temptress, he said, "You will drive boys wild." He was the Bill Clinton of furriers, an equal opportunity womanizer.
"Zev fucked Bell," Ellen says. Aunt Bell was our mother's younger sister. She was tan and wiry, thinner than Toby. In the Long Beach years, Toby packed on a little padding, but never Bell. She was a stringy, tendony thing you'd have to pull out of your teeth if you ate her. Her mouth must have watered when Zev flashed one of his Clark Gable smiles.
Zev was married to Kate, a stunning red head in the style of Rita Hayworth with skin as soft as a moth's wing. Her people were civilized, and maybe by marrying her Zev was trying to mute his howl like Jack Kennedy wedding Jackie Bouvier.
According to Ellen, Murray's brother meets Toby's sister at a wedding both families attend. You can imagine what happens next. They arrange a meeting in a hotel. Zev is rich, wears handmade suits and lives in a twelve-room apartment on Park Avenue. His wife works at the fur showroom, but he tells her he is going to see a buyer for lunch. Bell drives to the hotel from Westchester and sits on Zev's lap as he eases the knots in her tight little muscles. He makes things better and worse for her because Bell wants more than the hour he can steal for their rendezvous. Still, she treasures the feeling of being used up in these afternoons, a woman with a secret life, a woman on the verge of a having no life at all. She has a husband, Eli, who doesn't speak. No one remembers a word out of his mouth. She has a daughter, Brenda, who skulks around with angry circles under her eyes, in mourning for her future. And the image of her boy, Sam, disappears like invisible ink when he leaves a room. He takes after his father, while the girl, like Bell, is a fire with nothing to burn. Bell and Zev do not know why they are unhappy. Are they unhappy or just alive? Zev says goodbye to Bell while she is showering, tells her to spend as much time as she likes in the room. People pay so many dollars for his furs he could live forever on the profits. Except he's a gambler and he dies young of a heart attack.
"What heart attack?" my father says. "It was a mob hit made to look like his heart stopped. They have drugs. He owed money." My father's lips are trembling at the loss of his dashing brother. My father, the middle son of five, who is looking to catch what falls.
On a visit to Long Beach, Zev strides along the boardwalk like a movie star in his thousand dollar camel's hair coat. Irving, another brother in the clan, has settled here as well as my grandfather, who lives in a beach front hotel with his third wife, Elsie. My grandfather sits on a chair facing the pounding surf, wearing the still, satisfied expression of a chimp with a cigar. My father and Zev foot the bills for their tata, the former pants presser, a kind of specialized work, my father has explained. When Zev is around, we bounce along behind him like revelers in a Fellini parade, and the air smells like the Mediterranean.
In my sister's memory of our uncle, she is nineteen and recuperating from an abortion at Zev and Kate's apartment. My parents don't know anything. While Ellen is sleeping, she feels a body moving beside her in the bed. Zev has slid under the covers and is pushing his cock against her behind. She's bloody and tired, but she tells him to leave her alone. He does. He drags himself out and slinks away. When Ellen tells the story of Zev, she is laughing. She is sixty-six with diamonds, and our uncle has been wearing cement galoshes for thirty years.