Story: The Last Lawn Party

By: Ruth Z. Deming

lawnparty

The Greenbaums lived in a large stone- front ranch house in Weirton, West Virginia. Papa had emigrated from Vienna, well before the worst of the Jewish purges, graduated from medical school at Case Western Reserve across the Ohio border and became a beloved family physician in the riproaring coal mining town of Weirton. Due to a series of strokes, Papa was now confined to a wheel chair – he’d lost his wife Goldie years earlier – but his children treated him like a king and he never felt like a burden.

                Every summer as the foothills cast blue shadows over their town, the Greenbaums threw a party for the miners and their families. But mines cannot last forever, and the famous anthracite veins that Mr. Ernest T. Weir discovered had been scooped dry. Hordes of families left their homesteads.

                Sunday was Papa’s favorite day. He dressed slowly, since the strokes affected his motor coordination, but he was proud he didn’t have to call anyone in the house for help. “Good that you didn’t see what happened to me, Darling,” he would think of his long gone precious Goldie. Every Sunday Papa, really, Dr. Claude F. Greenbaum, would be driven around town by his son, Dr. Eddie.

The physical therapist had shown Papa how to enter the black Buick – side ways – and Eddie strapped him in with a click.

They pulled out the long driveway, Papa’s head nodding at every tree, shrub and flower, many from Goldie’s gardens.

         “These drives are good for my memory,” said Papa, who still kept up his subscriptions to the AMA Journal and New England Journal of Medicine.

Ed cruised down streets of well-kept houses, making a complete stop at the stop signs, never running a red light. His sun visor was down and he flipped down his dad’s visor, as well.

“My whole life, son, is here on these back roads.” He watched out the front window as Eddie spritzed water onto the windshield, clearing away the light green powdery puffs of the glorious spring day.

Papa sat with his skinny white legs ensconced in khaki shorts and never took his eyes off the road.

          “Rita’s house?” asked Eddie.

          Papa laughed. “Of course! You know me so well.”

          Rita had been his nurse. Her two-story brick house, where she’d lived with her husband and four children, had been sold years ago. Red tulips still remembered where to grow and a huge maple threw its shadow across the bay window.
“Wonderful woman, that Rita,” said Papa. “Husband ran around. That’s goyim for you. When she told me she was leaving, I gave her a glowing reference to the Cleveland Clinic.”
“It’s not only goyim,” said Eddie.
“Oh, I know that, son. You should hear all the secrets my patients told me, locked away in this old man’s mind.”
“Right about that, Pa. Doctors act like priests and rabbis. Confessors, pledged to secrecy.”
There was little traffic as they cruised slowly, a light breeze rustling the tender green leaves of spring time, as they entered the small business district.
“The drug store, please?”
“That’s where we’re headed, Pa.”
Gray’s Drug Store had once sold homemade ice cream and sherbet, whole milk with the cream floating on top, and every candy a child would enjoy at the movies – Good and Plenty, Baby Ruth, Switzer’s Licorice – even though they had to cross over to neighboring Steubenville, Ohio, to sit in the velvety chairs and spill buttered popcorn onto the floor.
The drug store, which had also boasted a soda fountain, had been purchased by a big chain.
“Not an ounce of personality,” said Papa, as they drove by the block-long building with huge ads in the windows. “Damn shame.”
Papa, born in 1922, was in fairly good health despite his strokes and a mild heart attack last summer. The eighty-one milligrams of baby aspirin he took each night made his ears sing, but he and his son believed it was well worth it. As they drove past the drug store, a man waved.
Eddie steered toward the curb and the man, in cowboy boots and cowboy hat, walked over to the window.
“Sam!” said Eddie. “Haven’t seen you in a dog’s age!” Turns out Sam had been visiting his daughter and her family all the way in Grenada Hills, California, “where they had the bluest damn swimming pool you ever did see.”
Father and son nodded.
Sam laughed. “Gotta tell you boys, even though there’s an age difference, the two of you look alike.”
“Hear that, Pa?” asked Eddie.
“Two good-looking fellers,” said Papa.
Both sported beards. Eddie’s was salt and pepper, while Papa’s white goatee made him look like Sigmund Freud, a fellow physician, also from Austria, who so impressed him he read the Ernest Jones biography.
Driving toward home, Eddie asked, “Will you be okay, Pop, that this is our last lawn party?”
His father shrugged. “Que sera sera.”
Then, “I’m not long for this world, son.”
“Such talk!” said his son.
“Old man’s intuition.”
The Greenbaums would live in the house until Papa was gone: Doctor Eddie and his wife Bette and their attorney daughter Miriam. Papa didn’t like visiting Goldie at Zion Memorial at the edge of town. Two of their children were also buried there, dead of the same rare blood disease that killed Goldie. One son, Jeremy, became an Orthodox rabbi and moved to Tel Aviv. The family believed that Jeremy, who never married, became a rabbi to curry favor with The Almighty, though the disease usually struck in the spring time of one’s life.
Black-haired Miriam Greenbaum, head of “Weirton Law Practice” was charged with sending out invitations to the lawn party. Her secretary, Barbara, had a special talent for calligraphy, using purple India ink on linen envelopes and the card stock inside. Two hundred locals would receive them. Only a handful were to former miners, as most had left town for greener pastures up north.
Among the guests were small business owners – Miriam had written personal notes on them – from Stiller’s Feed Store, Burdick’s Appliances, Marlowe’s One-Stop Convenience Store, Mather’s Real Estate, Margie Peters, director of the library, and a dear friend of Miriam’s. Also receiving invitations were the owners of five liquor stores and the president and vice president of the Weirton City Bank, where Miriam’s law practice was housed on the fifth floor.
Before the invitations were mailed out, Miriam brought them to Jimmy Parisi’s hotel room. The door was unlocked. He sat fully clothed in bed, head against the pillows, writing notes on a yellow legal pad.
“Just me,” she said and sat down on the side of the bed. From her briefcase, she removed the envelopes and held them up for him to see.
“A real work of art,” he said as he looked at them, spread out like a deck of cards.
“That’s our Barbara, my amanuensis,” laughed Miriam, kissing Jimmy on the cheek. “She went to some famous art school in Philadelphia – Tyler, I think – but was scared she wouldn’t make it as an artist, so she came back home.”
“Why would anybody want to live in Weirton?” asked her lover, a handsome, clean-shaven man with an oval face.
“Oh, c’mon Jimmy. You tell me. You’re the best prosecuting attorney this town has ever had – you’re honest, for one thing – and surely you must enjoy all the perks of our town, first and foremost, this lady sitting on the edge of your bed.”
Miriam often stayed overnight at his residence, The Comfort Inn, where they could hear the rattle of cars and trucks on the street below. A Yale law graduate, he simply couldn’t make up his mind whether to remain in this city of twenty-thousand or leave. But, where would he go?
“I’ll save you a seat at the family table,” said Miriam, as she got out of bed, kissing dark-haired Jimmy on his lips.
“Mmmm,” they both muttered together.
With military precision, the Greenbaums readied themselves for the gala event.
At daybreak on the day before the party, Miriam, dressed in denim overalls and a red bandana, backed out the shiny green John Deere riding mower from the shed. She enjoyed playing farmer, always had, liked keeping her tomboy ways, as she glided across the seven acres, mopping her brow with her white hankie.
Doctor Eddie, putting his patients on hold, drove his pick-up truck to Steubenville, Ohio, watching the Ohio River sway in the sunlight.  At Taylor Rental, he picked up a couple dozen long tables and folding chairs, the kind with soft padded seats, and orange hazard cones to delineate where guests should park. The Taylors would deliver the white party tents later that afternoon.
He handed his American Express Card to the third generation Taylor, whose brow was dripping with sweat.
“Don’t get no more spring here,” said Ralph. “We just jump right into summer.”
“You got that right, Ralph,” said Eddie. “Looks like your flowers are doing right well.”
“We got some fake ones to rent, if you like.”
Eddie laughed, signed the fishtail of a receipt and clanked away in his white Ford pick-up. He’d made a mint when he bought Ford stock and sold it when it peaked. In the old days, he and Bette would help miner families with their bills. It was the right thing to do. The fortunate helping the less fortunate. They also set up college scholarship funds – okay, so they named it after themselves – The Goldie Greenbaum Scholarship Fund – for children who did well at Weir High.
Both Papa and Eddie heard comments about themselves, as did Miriam. They were known as “good Jews,” they didn’t have horns – yes, the miners were so naïve they actually believe it – and that the Greenbaums were just “regular folks.”
The day of the party the sky settled like a huge smile above the Greenbaum’s estate. It was one of those properties where there was more sky than land, like in Montana’s “big sky country.”
Bette Greenbaum, the family matriarch now that Goldie was gone, pushed Papa’s wheelchair across a red swath of carpet to the head table. Her salt and pepper hair swayed as she settled her father-in-law at the head of the table.
“Comfy, Dad?” she asked, kissing him on his cheek above his Freudian beard.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “A little red wine perhaps?”
Bette motioned for one of the waiters to come to the table.
She disappeared into the house as more family members scurried about. Entering the back door of the house, Bette saw her daughter, Miriam.
“Why, darling! You look positively stunning.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m dressed up for you-know-who.”
Miriam wore a purple summer dress, made of silk, which showed her thin waist, and sturdy legs with muscled calves.
Jimmy Parisi wasn’t seen often at the house. Miriam told her mother he’d sit at their head table, and that he liked CC on the Rocks.
“Oh!” said Bette. “Your late brother Lenny loved that drink. A good omen, I’d think.”
“Thing is, Mom. Neither of us are the marrying kind. And I do mean that.”
The unspoken truth was the fear of giving a child the rare blood cancer before they saw the wonders of the world.
An early guest was brought up to the head table. Baby Haley Lynn was nearly five months old and wearing a pink bow in her hair. The smiling little girl was passed around the table. Doctor Eddie, although not a pediatrician, was known as the best doctor in town. He had saved the tiny girl’s life after an infection had altered her breathing and given her spots on her body. Eddie had never seen anything like it, but he told the mother to remain calm, he would find out what was wrong. He called the Center for Disease Control in Bethesda, described the disease, got the diagnosis of a rare but curable disease that occurs around farm animals. The CVS Pharmacy, once Gray’s Drug Store, delivered the healing antibiotic within twenty minutes.
Haley Lynn laughed and clapped and seemed to love all the rumpus flowing across the back yard. The high school band played familiar tunes such as the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and the Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” Even Papa, at the head table, tapped his fingers on the table as the food was served.
Miriam and her mother had made the potato salad themselves. Eddie and a few guests were grilling on one of the barbeques. Waiters would then deliver heaping platters of cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and grilled corn to each table, all lined with tablecloths, blowing softly in the wind. The waiters, men and women alike, disappeared into the white party tent where beverages were stored in coolers overflowing with ice. Guests followed their every move, wanting cold lemonade, beer of all kinds –including the special Steel City Beer – and a variety of mixed drinks such as Bloody Mary’s and three-olive Martinis.
Miriam’s purple dress caused many a murmur of how pretty she was. Walking in her brown sandals, she made the rounds of the tables. “So glad you could make it, Frank,” she said to the head of Burdick’s Feed Store. The white-haired gentleman, who sat with his family, was nearly eighty-five and had the shakes from Parkinson’s. Miriam grasped his hands and kissed him on both his pink cheeks.
“You look just dandy,” she said to ole Frank.
Birds flew overhead under the peerless blue sky.
And then she saw him. She ran over to his table.
“You’ve come!” she said, kissing Jack Staunton, the assistant curator of the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“Of course I came, Miriam. Just because you refused to marry me doesn’t mean I bear you a grudge,” he said, shaking his bald head.
“Dunno how I could’ve refused you, with those blue eyes that seem to know every-thing,” she laughed.
“How’d you like my tater salad? Could you taste the Vlasic pickle relish?” she asked.
“Now that you mention it, I could,” he said.
A hawk flew overhead.
“Stay still,” joked Miriam, “so he won’t eat us.”
“Speaking of birds,” said Jack, watching the hawk soar over the picnic grove, “This reminds me of Goya’s portrait of Don Manuel Osorio de Manrique Zuniga” – he spoke quickly as if singing the words – “and those birds on leash watching the cat saunter by.” He was referring to one of the most beloved of all paintings in the entire world. A little lord in an orange jumpsuit with fine white lace about the neck and waist. He had satiny shoes and seemed oblivious of the little drama playing about his feet.
She laughed, “The Met’s got it. Had it dry-cleaned. I went a few years ago to the show. See ya, darling!” She kissed him on the cheek and moved on. At his same table she’d put bankers since they had the money to appreciate art and culture. Miriam felt her spirits soar as she made her way down the table to the members of The Weirton City Bank, which housed her law practice.
“Y’all look like bankers!” she cooed. “Am I right about this?”
They laughed as they were biting into hot dogs on special Martin’s potato buns.
“And you, sir,” she said to the bank president. “Has anyone ever mentioned you resemble William Powell in the ….”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said laughing. “in The Thin Man movies. Don’t tell me, Miriam, you’re old enough to remember them?”
“Turner Classic Films,” she said. “Did you know Myrna Loy, who plays his wife, was born in Helena, Montana, same as Gary Cooper?”
“You’re smart enough to be a lawyer,” laughed the bank president.
“Oh, a few things stick in this rusty ole head of mine,” she laughed, as she moved along.
Her grandfather wasn’t the only one in a wheelchair. Red carpets had been spread out across the sunny acreage. Lilly Burnley, assistant librarian to Margie Peters, was seated in her wheelchair, maintaining independence as she recovered from her second operation for a brain tumor.
As Miriam walked toward Lilly, she remembered her legal victory over another brain tumor victim. She represented sixty-year-old Irv Adler, now deceased, who claimed that toxic chemicals from the R and H Company in Cleveland caused a series of inoperable tumors in his brain. The jury believed the testimony she presented – R and H had, of course, spent millions defending themselves – but the judge ordered the company to pay Irv’s family ten million dollars.
Such horrors, she thought, as she asked Lilly what books she recommended for summer reading.
“Do you like Stephen King?” asked Lilly, a corpulent woman with a lovely face.
“Indeed I do,” said Miriam.
“Read ‘Finders Keepers,’” said Lilly. “I’m halfway through. “It’s so chilling I forget I’m an incubator for tumors….”
“Oh, hush up, Lilly,” laughed Miriam. “What some people will say for attention.” They both laughed.
When everyone was seated at the head table, Eddie stood up and spoke through a megaphone.
“We’ve got all the raffle tickets in here,” he said in a navy blue Pittsburgh Pirates cap. “Why don’t one of you high school kids from the band come over and pick the winning ticket?”
Brady Marshall ran over in his red jacket. He stuck his hand in a huge transparent fish bowl, swirled around the tickets, and picked one.
Eddie took the ticket from him and read off the number.
Screams erupted from one of the tables near a small grove of white birch trees.
A big bellied man in plaid shorts rose from the table.
“It’s Mailman Ken,” roared the crowd.
The mailman, who limped from a fall he’d taken last winter, came up to the head table.
“Never won a darn thing in my life,” he said, handing Eddie the winning ticket.
No one had any idea what the winner would receive until a shiny copper car, an old Pontiac Firebird, drove slowly across the lawn. Everyone stood up. Laughter, whispers, Oh-my-Gods bellowed across the lawn.
“Kenny,” asked Eddie. “You know what this is?”
Ken was laughing, his hands twirling his white mustache.
“Yeah, sure I do. I’m gonna quit lugging around that heavy mail and become a detective and hang out with sexy broads.”
“Folks,” said Eddie, through the megaphone, “meet the new Jim Rockford of ‘The Rockford Files.’”
Laughter and applause scattered across the lawn.
Jimmy Parisi was wrapping up some work back at The Comfort Inn. As he drove up to the Greenbaum rancher, he heard the revelry in the back yard. A valet in a suit took the keys of his white Porsche and directed Jimmy to the back yard. Where was his girl? Ah, there she was, watching the mailman stand by an orange Pontiac Firebird. When she glanced behind her, she slipped away and ran straight to his arms.
“Women are supposed to be late,” she said, as they hugged.
“Hope I was worth waiting for, Boss,” he said, bending down on one knee.
“You kidding me?” she asked.
“See if it fits,” said Jimmy.
In his pocket he fished out a small ivory-colored box and opened it.
Inside was a ring made of tiny diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
Jimmy slipped it out and put it on her awaiting ring finger.
“If it fits,” said Miriam, “it’s meant to be.”
They both touched the ring. It was neither too tight nor too loose, as if it was made to order.
Walking hand in hand through the black wrought-iron gates, the couple saw Mailman Ken leaning on his new car, while champagne popped at the head table. Papa requested that someone wheel him into the house.
“Must’ve had too much bubbly,” Papa mumbled to no one in particular, his head bowed onto his chest.
Bette patted her lips with a napkin and stood up.
“Here I come, Papa,” she said, but didn’t like the way he looked.
She wheeled him into the dark-paneled den, his favorite room, where the shelves were lined with a lifetime of books.
Bette lifted up his head. Stiff. Lifeless.
“Papa,” she said softly. “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye and tell you how much I love you.”
She went outside and called Eddie inside.
After entering the den he said, “He’s gone, dear.”
They decided to close the door and call the undertaker. Actually, the mortician was seated at one of the tables.
Eddie picked up the megaphone again. “Stay well, friends, drive safely, be good to your neighbors and remember our last lawn party. Watch for photos and videos we’ll post on YouTube.”
The loud notes of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance roared across the lawn, signaling the end of the party.
As the music streamed through the speakers under the waning summer light, an ecstatic Mailman Ken drove slowly around the yard in his copper-colored Firebird waving out the window to one and all.

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2 responses to “Story: The Last Lawn Party

  1. Wonderful short story! Good use of light and motion to enhance narrative. Left me wondering what will Miriam and Jimmy’s life story be?

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