For more than six months, the Fines had existed almost entirely on a diet of creamy potato soup. Mother had made a deal with Aberstein’s, the grocery on 8th Street, to buy a fifteen-pound sack for one dollar every week, though sometimes the bill was added to the family’s tab. This arrangement provided the family with several culinary options—potato salad with onions and vinegar, potato casserole with noodles, mashed potatoes with lemons, baked potato wedges with garlic and chopped onion stems and butter. Even a lightly salted baked potato went down well, and the family enjoyed these options for several weeks. But when mother figured she could create the greatest abundance of food for the lowest cost via the endless production of creamy potato soup, all other possibilities disappeared. Mother boiled chicken bones to create her stock and thickened the substance with flour, chopped eggs, and sour cream. Then, of course, came the potatoes, cut into thick chunks and dropped in a large kettle that simmered under a slow fire. On occasion, Mother spiked the mix with a single chopped carrot or a few discolored stalks of celery. Once Harry pointed out that Aberstein’s was having a sale on all kinds of produce, not just potatoes. Mother had been unmoved. “You want more vegetables in your soup? Tell your father to work more hours boxing candy bars.”
Mother’s viscous brew was almost gelatinous, not quite solid, yet at the same time hardly liquid. Harry couldn’t understand why mother just didn’t add more water, the cheapest ingredient of all, though he didn’t dare raise the issue. Once he’d tried adding some to his own bowl, only to be hounded. Cornered in the kitchen, mother had slapped his cheek so hard he’d nearly dropped the bowl on the kitchen tile, a catastrophe that would have resulted in a phenomenal beating.
And so the blandest of meals became the family’s staple for at least five nights a week, and sometimes more. Soupless nights could be even worse: a hunk of leathery beef, or rank-smelling fish, or a solitary hard-boiled egg. Father never voiced complaint, regardless of what was served, but he invariably grimaced after his first taste. Six o’clock, dinner time, became the hour of dread.
As the soup-filled months wore on, Harry noticed he was losing weight. His father grew skinnier, too. With Milt and the girls it was hard to tell, they were already so thin. His mother looked the same as ever, tough and wiry yet still able to catch the eye of the man on the street. The bulk of her physicality was in her legs, strong and shapely. Hers were legs of power and authority. “I married your mother because of her legs,” father had once confided after a few glasses of wine. “And they’ve been kicking at me ever since.”
On the evening David vanished and Milt returned to the fold, the sounds of soup-devouring were interrupted by an unusually loud coughing spurt. It sounded like a death rattle, emanating from the upstairs bedroom and echoing down the stairwell. Without warning, mother launched out of her chair. Her knees banged against the table’s splintery underside, sending her bowl of half-eaten soup hurtling towards the floor. The bowl shattered, splashing its thick mixture of chicken stock and soft potatoes across the carpet. Mother was halfway up the stairs before the rest of the family could process the chaos. Only father was determined to remain nonplussed, his face fixed upon his dinner.
“Never mind your mother. She’s nervous. Everything will be fine with Milt,” he said, swallowing as he spoke.
Harry wanted to correct him, to remind his father that they had changed Milt’s name to David, on account of the demon. He wondered if his father’s blunder had damned them all. Harry looked up at the ceiling again but couldn’t see the demon’s arms outstretched, ready to throttle the family as soon as Tante gave the order.
Seized with panic, Harry found himself involuntarily running towards the stairs. The coughing, the broken bowl, the demon—it was all too much.
David was bent over the side of the mattress, vomiting into a pail. Mother beat his back with ferocity, attacking him as if she were forcing a possessing spirit to similarly expel itself. “Can you breathe?” she asked between assaults. “David, can you breathe?” His response was another wave of vomit, most of it missing the pail this time and splashing on the floor and mother’s shoes. Harry saw the same chunks of potatoes that were scattered downstairs among the shards of mother’s broken soup bowl, the same potatoes they ate almost every day, their fear of mother greater than the fear of starvation. Harry wondered if a demon could live inside of a potato. His mother’s howl interrupted the thought.
“He’s choking to death! Tell your father to call the Russian!”
Harry wanted to do as he was told but couldn’t move. David’s eyes bulged and he clutched his throat. His sunken shoulders heaved in frantic rhythm, and his eyes spoke a desperate plea. Harry thought it looked like the end, not just for David but for all of them. He knew his mother would curse them all, herself included, the moment she lost the only child she loved.
Ignoring the command to assist in the summoning of the Russian doctor, Harry leapt onto the bed behind Milt, not David but Milt, and pushed his mother’s hands out of the way. He pulled his brother off the bed and grabbed him by the ankles. Raising the boy upside down, Harry shook the retching body, once, then again, and then he lost count. Each shake was more violent than the last.
“You’re killing him!” Mother screeched. “Put him down! Give him back to me!” That was precisely what Harry intended to do, give David back, though not in the fashion his mother requested. He’d seen one of his schoolteachers shake a child like this to dislodge a wad of taffy from a classmate’s throat. Harry was sure he could do the same, and he wouldn’t be swayed until the thing was done. He’d tell his mother to go to hell before he’d stop, if it came to that. Despite mother’s violent tendencies, Harry was sure he could overpower her. He had seen Tante’s demon before, but he did not see it scaling the wall, nor did he hear it giggling with manic anticipation.
“I’m not killing him. You’re killing him with potato soup!” He kept shaking Milt’s convulsing body as he continued his tirade. “Potato soup, potato soup, day in, day out, you’re killing us all with potato soup! The demon’s in the soup! I’m getting him out and don’t try to stop me!”
Mother backed up against the wall, eyes wide, staring at her two sons as though they were devils. Her attention turned back to Milt when she heard a new kind of cough, heartier and followed by the sound of sobbing. A large chunk of potato flew out of Milt’s mouth, and the boy gasped as he cried uncontrollably. Harry realized he was crying too, and he felt dizzy. He lacked the strength to put Milt down gently; he simply let go of the boy’s ankles and let him drop head first. The blood was returning to Milt’s face as quickly as it drained from mother’s. She scooped up the child and pressed him to her chest, bouncing and soothing him as if he were a newborn babe. “It’s alright,” she cooed. “You’re safe now. I’ve got you. It’s over.”
By the time Dr. Rejicikzy appeared on the scene, Milt’s fever had broken. The boy had traded the shivers for a profuse bout of sweating, and he was able to sit up and take small amounts of nourishment. Mother withheld potato soup from the menu, and she made no mention of Tante or her silent daughters. Harry didn’t see Tante’s demon cowering in the corner of the dining room, shrieking with rage at the loss of its prize. Sarah and Ethel seemed relieved, not just because there was no more talk of curses but because their younger brother would live.
Milt remained in quarantine for two more days, though mother allowed the family to speak his true name. She baked a kugel in celebration of his recovery, a rare delight, full of raisins and almonds. Even Sarah admitted it was delicious. Milt shouted his thanks for the treat from the bedroom, which made everyone smile in spite of themselves. Dr. Rejicikzy continued to check on Milt twice a day, never failing to leer at Sarah. Mother seemed not to notice the doctor’s distasteful predilections. Instead, she busied herself obsessing over Sarah’s latest beau, a bookish college boy with whom her daughter was sneaking off most nights, after the family went to sleep. “You’ll end up pregnant in a back alley, is that what you want?” Mother ranted as she whipped a bowl of eggs into submission. “My daughter the whore, isn’t that lovely. You have your father’s blood in you, and his mother was the same. About that I can do nothing,” she said, shooting a look at father, who stayed silent. He rustled the pages of his newspaper with vicious enthusiasm, knowing the sound drove his wife insane. Harry was relieved life at home was returning to normal.
Harry had always hated the room he shared with Sarah, Ethel, and Milt. Hated it, of course, until they changed Milt’s name and gave David the room entirely to himself. He missed it then. There was some bitter grumbling, particularly from Sarah, but in the end David was given his solitude while the other children spread sheets across the kitchen’s yellowing linoleum tiles and the den’s threadbare carpet. Not only did David now have his own room, he also had all the pillows, so the children tightly bundled their casual clothes and tied them with twine, making relatively soft bundles of fabric. It would be better than laying their heads on the hard floor, they reasoned. And while that was true, it was not much better, as everyone except Sarah would spend the next several weeks waking up with severe neck and upper back pain. No one could figure out why Sarah was spared this discomfort, not until Harry caught his sister gently lifting his head one morning, replacing the makeshift pillow she’d stolen in the middle of the night.
David had been quarantined after catching scarlet fever, just two days after turning seven. He’d been ill for over a week, and only mother and Dr. Rejicikzy were allowed to visit the room. The doctor was Russian, like father, both of their families trading shtetl life in Smolensk for membership in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Federation of the Workers Party, all of which meant that father liked the doctor and mother didn’t. Sarah hated the doctor for more legitimate reasons, as Rejicikzy once groped her in the hallway. The doctor’s hand darted from her thigh, just as Mother walked in with the groceries.
“All you think of is sex,” she told Sarah at dinner that evening. “It’s not other people’s fault if they can read your mind.”
And so the doctor checked on David each morning, and mother brought meals three times a day. Every time she collected the dishes, Harry noticed the food mostly went untouched. The meals consisted primarily of mother’s potato soup, but Harry noticed mother serving a few delicacies that rarely made their way into the home: lox with onions, plates of fresh strawberries, and even a chocolate bar, presumably smuggled out of the Clark factory where father worked. The candy returned only lightly nibbled; mother had cut off the bitten edge of the bar and left it out in the kitchen. She planned to serve it again with another meal, and Harry had been sorely tempted to steal the bar for himself. But after staring at the candy for a time, he walked away without it. As much as he resented David for his luxurious accommodations, Harry couldn’t bring himself to steal from a child who would probably die within the week.
It was mother who demanded the name change. “We must confuse the Angel of Death,” she’d said. “Milty must have another name so that the Angel won’t claim him. When the spirit comes, he’ll believe he’s come to the wrong house.”
Harry wasn’t sure mother’s deception could succeed, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. He suggested a series of goyish names, most of them names of English knights he’d read about it in father’s books. Harry had not bothered to learn how to read until turning eight, but he’d made up for lost time in the past two years. “How about Guinevere?” he suggested after his mother had already rejected Merlin, Perceval, and Lancelot. Harry thought his final choice was particularly clever. “If we’re going to change his name, why not make him a girl as well? That might allow for double the confusion.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said mother, not even pausing as she loaded Milt’s plate with steak and a side of broccoli, all of which would go unconsumed. “If you give him a name like that, he’ll stick out like a sore thumb. The Angel will know we’re cheating him. Take a moment to think, Harold!” She looked as though she might slap the side of his head for emphasis, but she resigned herself to a theatrical sigh and returned to the dinner preparations.
Father had successfully chosen the name. “We’ll call him David. Perhaps the Angel will be afraid to snatch the namesake of a king.” Mother had frowned at first, but later conceded it was a workable choice.
“Alright, Samuel, we’ll have it your way,” she said, waving her arms as if she were doing her husband some great favor. She turned her attention to the children, all of whom were dining on potato soup minus the extras being carted to the bedroom. “From now on, we call my son David. This is the name you use in the house and out on the street with your friends. It is his only name. David Fine. Do you understand?” Everyone nodded their assent as they slurped, father included.
But mother wasn’t finished. “If he dies, I’ll know one of you used the other name, the wrong name. And then I will have Tante curse you.” She slowly moved her pointed finger around the table, jabbing at each victim as if she held a knife. “I’ll pray for the Angel to take you all, I swear it.”
“Now, Ida, that’s really not necessary, not necessary at all, you’re scaring the children.” Father shot a worried look at Ethel. The toddler looked as if she might wail on the spot.
“I hope I’m scaring you as well, because I trust you less than your disobedient children.” According to mother, Milt was her son. The rest belonged to father. “My son will not die in that room upstairs. If he does, I’ll go see Tante without a second thought. Why shouldn’t I? If David dies, I have no reason to live. So why should the rest of you? Answer me that!”
Harry wasn’t clear what power might exist in his mother’s prayers, but she’d gone so far as to invoke Tante. That was not a thing done lightly, and even Samuel blanched at his wife’s unexpected vow. Tante was the children’s great-aunt on their mother’s side, a woman of ninety who’d been bed-ridden for nearly ten years. She lived with her four unmarried daughters in the Hill District, a clan of old women the neighborhood had come to call “the silent sisters.” The sisters cared for their mother in shifts, feeding her, bathing her, reading to her several hours a day, and washing her soiled clothes and bed sheets.
Mother sometimes told the children bedtime stories about Tante, always finding a way to stress the old woman’s hatred of children. On the night of the threatened curse, David was isolated in the bedroom and Sarah had stepped out, leaving mother an audience of two. She seized the opportunity to retell an infamous chapter in Tante’s saga.
“She gave her daughters’ souls to a demon,” mother said while tucking in Ethel, “and the demon turned Tante’s daughters into dybbuks who must serve their mother forever.”
Harry pulled a blanket over his head, his face pressed into his tied bundle of clothes. It wasn’t just the story that bothered him. Mother was wearing her horn-rimmed glasses, a rare concession to fashion, and Harry disliked the way she looked in them. The thick lenses cast a darkness over her eyes, distorting her face, changing her into someone he didn’t know.
“But the demon also made the silent sisters barren,” mother said, despite Harry’s disappearance under the blanket, “and now there is no sound Tante hates more than the sound of laughing little girls.”
Ethel started to whimper. Harry was tempted to lower the blanket, to hold Ethel’s hand, but he knew the story wasn’t over. “The demon lives in Tante’s wine cabinet and carries out her curses in exchange for more souls. He has only one eye, but he can fly and Tante uses his eye to spy on everyone in town.”
Wrapped inside his cocoon, Harry brought his knees up to his chest. He thought about the last time he’d been to Tante’s house and how he’d been afraid to peer into the wine cabinet for too long. The family had only been to Tante’s house on four occasions, once every two or three years; Harry dreaded the eventual fifth visit and hoped the old woman would die before it was time to see her again.
Mother reached for Harry’s blanket and ripped it away, exposing the boy’s narrow chest. “The demon is always thirsty, just as Tante is always spiteful,” said mother, growing louder, her rough hands clutching the blanket’s folds. “So do not drink the glass for Elijah if we should visit for Seder, alright?” She let the blanket fall, and Harry gathered it over his head a second time.
When Ethel burst into tears, father rushed into the room and comforted her in his typically strained style, patting his daughter’s head as if she were a dog. “It’s only a ghost tale, my shaina maidel,” he’d said with a painfully forced smile, and Ethel’s tears had only increased.
But mother was not the only one who enjoyed telling morbid stories. Neighbors attributed a number of unexplained deaths to Tante. If an infant died in its bed, it was because Tante had cursed the parents for making a show of their happiness. Tante could hear every voice and read every mind in Squirrel Hill, Oakland, and beyond, maybe even as far as Hazelwood. If you cursed Tante or her children, she’d know of it, and the repercussions would be severe.
Tante was the only woman in the world Harry feared more than mother. He made himself forget her, though in moments such as this, the images of Tante’s dark house, her virtually mute daughters, and the demon in the wine cabinet all returned in a dizzying rush.
The potato soup strike had been unplanned. On the night of Milt’s return from exile, the family gathered at the dinner table, slightly chattier than usual, and father promised he’d take the boys to Forbes Field to watch the Pirates sock it to the Cubs. Ethel asked if she could go too, but father assured her she’d be bored. Sarah was disinterested as always, until mother returned from the kitchen with dinner bowls in hand. When she put down the first bowls of potato soup in front of father and Milt, all conversation ceased. Harry stared at his serving in disbelief. How could she do this to them, after all they’d endured? Harry searched the room for Tante’s demon but, as usual, saw nothing.
Mother bent her head to eat and gave a look of surprise when no one did likewise. “Eat before it gets cold,” she said, her usual refrain, but the spoons remained untouched. Even Milt sat still, resisting his tendency to obey mother’s commands without hesitation; he could only stare at the bowl with terror.
Father looked at mother plaintively, almost pleadingly. “I think we’d all enjoy some latkes, Ida. Don’t you think that would be tasty? .” He smiled tentatively, awaiting the maelstrom bound to follow.
“Latkes? You would waste this good food? What shall I do with it then, pour it down the gutter? Is my cooking no longer good enough for this family?”
Sarah was the first to make it plain. “We’re not eating potato soup again. Not ever.” She looked around the table, awaiting the possibility of a dissenting voice. When none was heard, she went on. “You’ve made this meal almost every day for the past year, maybe longer. I can taste it in the back of my throat even when we’re not eating. And the soup almost killed Milt.” She looked at father, encouraging him to hang on, to not reach for his spoon.
In silence, father folded his hands. “Perhaps the girl has a point, Ida. Why should we eat something that might be dangerous?”
“That’s ridiculous,” mother snorted and waved a dismissive free hand as her other hand scooped up a large spoonful. The family watched her breathlessly. Harry thought the first bite might kill her instantly. He waited for the world to end, his fists clenched, his knuckles bloodless. Mother pondered the jiggling mass on the end of her spoon, sniffing it deeply and shaking the utensil slightly. “This smells like shit,” she said to herself, and then louder. “This smells like shit! What’s wrong with this batch?”
There was nothing wrong with this batch that wasn’t wrong with yesterday’s batch or last week’s batch or the hundred batches that came before, but father offered the illusion of agreement. “The eggs are off, maybe? That’s probably all. Tell the grocer next week. He should give you new eggs for free.”
Mother weighed this response, hefting her spoon a few times before dropping it back into her bowl with a resounding clank. “I certainly will.” She bent down and sniffed deeply, then reeled back in mock horror. She placed her index finger down her throat and faked a gagging sound which made Milt laugh.
Sarah leaned forward and whispered to Harry, “She’s beaten and she knows it. I never thought I’d see the day.” Ethel overheard from across the table and nodded, while father made a shushing gesture, placing his hand below mother’s eyeline.
If mother noticed any of this, she pretended otherwise. But Sarah was right. This was a coup, and the revolutionaries were victorious. For the first time in his life, Harry watched his mother admit defeat. He knew there would be no potato soup tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, or quite possibly ever again. He suppressed any consideration of a new and possibly more horrific dietary regimen, instead relishing in the glory of the conquering heroes. Even father had shown courage in this fight. There would be repercussions, that was a certainty, but tonight mother had lost. Or, at least, it seemed so at the time.
Father continued to wield unusually sharp diplomatic skills and changed the subject. “So, my Milty, you must do something to celebrate your good health.” He produced a nickel from the pocket of his shabby coat and turned it over, scrutinizing it as if the coin might be a counterfeit jewel. “You should take yourself to the movies. The candymen say there is a good feature at the Imperial.” The ‘candymen’ were father’s co-workers at the Clark factory, though father never identified himself as a candyman. “I can’t remember the name of the picture, though…”
“Lights of New York, return engagement.” Sarah answered in a monotone that almost concealed her love of Pittsburgh’s nightlife. “It’s an all-talkie. Everybody knows that. I saw it last week.”
Mother saw her opportunity. “And with what money did you see a movie?”
“Ronald took me. It wasn’t bad.” Sarah stood up to dump her soup bowl.
“What wasn’t bad?” Mother was far from done. “And who is Ronald?”
“Just a boy,” Sarah called back from the kitchen. “Shelly Mayer’s older cousin. He’s a bit of a goof.” Sarah’s last words unintentionally lifted her voice above the realm of the deadpan.
Settling into his newfound role as a peacemaker, father again changed the topic. “They talk during the whole movie? Well, this sounds wonderful. Milt, you simply must go tonight. And take Ethel, too. You know how much she loves the pictures.” The child squealed with joy, only to have joy extinguished as soon as it found expression.
“Ethel doesn’t need to go, she didn’t almost die,” said mother. “Besides, Milt’s not well enough yet.” This was true. The boy was on the mend but he still looked frail, his eyes sunken and marked with dark circles. “Give him a few days’ rest, first. And I want to know the story of this movie. It might not be suitable for a sensitive child.” No one mentioned the possibility of Harry accompanying his brother on this celebratory adventure.
Mother turned towards the kitchen, raising her voice. “Sarah, what’s this talkie about? Tell us the story.”
“Oh, this and that,” Sarah called back. “I don’t really remember it all.”
She’ll end up with a knitting needle yet,” mother said to herself, not bothering to lower her voice. The need for vengeance had come quickly.
Sarah stormed out of the kitchen. “What did you say?”
“You heard what I said, why pretend you didn’t? Bring me a glass of water while you’re up.”
Sarah grabbed her crumpled coat from the loveseat. “Get your own water, mother. I’m off to kiss Ronald. Maybe I’ll even do more than that.”
And that’s when Tante’s demon won. Mother leapt out of her chair with supernatural speed. Harry expected Sarah to get slapped, but this was the night Harry learned his mother wasn’t just a slapper. Instead, mother punched her eldest daughter in the gut, hard as she could. Sarah’s hands were useless, caught halfway inside the sleeves of the heavy coat. She doubled over, clutching her stomach, the tears welling.
“Sarah!” Ethel screamed and ran to her side. Sarah only waved her away, kneeling for what seemed like forever, gasping for breath. Her usual composure was a thing of memory. Offering to raise Sarah to her feet, mother held out a hand. It was not accepted.
Harry rose and extended his arm in an unintended mimicry of his mother. Sarah clasped her brother’s hand and rose, her gaze fixed upon him.
Mother was in her own mind, her own place. “If you’re pregnant, I just did you a favor. You want a mouth to feed the rest of your life? It’s your blood, the women in this family have always been whores and–”
She got no farther, stopped by Sarah’s right fist crunching against her jaw. Mother reeled, grabbing at her face instead of trying to steady herself, and fell backwards on the floor. Sarah stood over her, fist clenched, the other hand holding her stomach.
Mother moaned something unintelligible, tried standing, and fell back down. Blood seeped from her mouth, staining the dining room floor.
“What have you done?” Father asked his oldest daughter. Ethel ran to mother, hugging her, crying, pleading with her to stand. Milt ran upstairs and slammed the door.
Trembling, Sarah adjusted her coat. “I’m going to get my shoes,” she mumbled to no one in particular. “And I’m never coming home.”
Harry watched Sarah bend slightly and kiss Ethel on the forehead, careful not to make contact with mother, who showed no signs of rising. Harry looked at his father, his eyes pleading for help that would not come.