Spring 2018, Volume 24

Fiction by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Face à la Façade

The night was clear, the heavens dusted with stars.  Stardust, yes.  There were no couples out taking a stroll.  It was too late for that.  What time was it?  Nearly 1:00 AM.  Way past her bedtime.  But Marguerite Van Nuys couldn’t fall sleep.  So here she was walking the streets at a time of the morning when no lady would be out and about, accompanied or not.  Am I still a lady, Marguerite wondered.

Sleep hadn’t been coming easily to Marguerite of late.  She tossed and turned in bed at night, seemingly just out of sleep’s reach.  She considered asking her doctor for something to help with her condition but decided against it.  She would take what was coming to her.  My penance to bear, she thought.

Of course, a lot had changed for Marguerite in recent months.  A lot … and yet really just two events.  She vacated her family home and moved into an apartment in a nearby neighborhood.  It was a one-bedroom apartment, and although it was much smaller than what she was used to, it really was adequate.  There was natural light throughout. 


And then Marguerite sold the family home designed by her grandfather and constructed with his funds.  Her father grew up in it.  And Marguerite and her sister Juliette were also raised there.  Maman was deeply fond of all things French, truly a Francophile, and Marguerite and Juliette paid the price.  No one openly mocked their names or their demeanor, but their peers found them to be affected and assumed they were snobs.  Of course, Maman’s blue-blooded lineage on both sides didn’t help.  Not quite back to the Mayflower but close.  But Maman didn’t appear to care about any of that.  She never talked about it, even changed the topic when society ladies questioned her about her background.  She was mostly interested in reading and writing verse as delicate as she herself.

Papa found Maman’s Francophilia utterly ridiculous and chuckled when he heard Marguerite or Juliette calling their mother “Maman” as she insisted they must.  Marguerite never found out why he ever agreed to giving his daughters French names.  To Maman’s consternation, Papa sometimes called Marguerite “Margie” and Juliette “Julie.”  Neither Marguerite nor Juliette cared one way or another what they were called.  Although it concerned their own names, the whole matter seemed to have more to do with their parents and their incompatibility than with either of them.  If they were careful, Marguerite and Juliette could avoid even these slingshots that careened through the house at expected (meals) and unexpected (family reading time in the parlor, housework) times.  Marguerite attributed Maman’s Francophilia to a favorite French teacher (Miss Bowden?) in finishing school.  Only Maman never mentioned her and never answered Marguerite’s inquiries about that teacher or about France even.  Maman had only been to that country once—on her continental tour before she married Papa—and had never taken Juliette or Marguerite there, despite their repeated entreaties.

The building itself was now completely dark, as it never was when the Van Nuys family lived there.  Maman was afraid of the dark and always left lights on throughout the house.  Marguerite continued that tradition to this day.  Well, to this almost-day, she corrected herself.  Already, so many changes to get used to.  More to come.

Maman’s friends were mortified about the sale.  They conveyed this mortification to Marguerite at visits, rather than in writing.

“Not to them.  Couldn’t you keep it in the faith, if not the family?  Isn’t there a church that could be interested in your home?  Surely, my dear, there’s another way,” Miss DeVries said.

“Your parents would be turning over in their grave,” Mrs. Byrne agreed.

Marguerite nodded vaguely and ushered the visitors out after a respectable interlude of iced tea and cucumber sandwiches.  The ladies meant well, she knew that.  And she didn’t agree or disagree with either of their assertions.  It didn’t matter—the sale had to go forward.  Marguerite accepted that she was an aging spinster who inherited her mother’s love of introspective verse.  If she were going to get by on the inheritance Papa left her, she had to move.  Marguerite just couldn’t pay the bills at the family mansion.  She’d tried to enlist family members to either purchase the home outright or subsidize her living there.  No one was interested in either option.  I had no choice, Marguerite reminded herself on the sidewalk facing her ancestral home.  Still, their home had left the family’s hands under Marguerite’s purview.  She didn’t blame herself exactly for its loss, but there wasn’t any way around that fact, either.

This familial silence was not unfamiliar to Marguerite.  When Juliette ran away from home to join a far-away utopian community, Maman was grief stricken.  No one came by to comfort her.  No one told Mama or Marguerite that everything was going to be fine.  Where were Miss DeVries and Mrs. Byrne then?  That responsibility fell on Marguerite’s narrow shoulders.  Even Papa refused to comfort her.  Maman kept asking, “Why?  How could she do this?”

“I don’t know, Mama.  Here, let me read you some poems,” Marguerite said.  What was the ideology of that community?  Socialism?  Anarchism? Free love?  Free love!  Ha!  As if any love were ever free.  Marguerite suddenly wished she could remember.  Only then she’d been so furious at Juliette’s deserting, no abandoning her without word or warning, and just before her own coming out to boot, that she blocked out the news, and Juliette herself from her inner life.  Her love of Juliette certainly hadn’t been free.  In fact, it had come at a great cost to Marguerite and to their family.  She wondered if Juliette had found love in her great escape, free or otherwise.  She remembered brushing Juliette’s long hair only several nights before she had left.  Juliette of the golden tresses, Juliette of the silver smile, Juliette of the many friends.  Juliette, the favorite daughter of both parents.  Why had Juliette left all of that?  Where had she gone?  All that remained of her were her clothes (given soon after to charity) and the briefest of notes:

Dearest Papa, Maman, Marguerite,

I must leave you now—if only to breathe.  Please don’t look for me.  I will carry your love with me always and send you mine.

Yours always,

Maman implored Papa to go to the police, to hire a detective, to do something.  Papa, his lips pressed into a thin line, only responded with “What for?  It will only prolong the scandal” or “Isabella, let it go” or by silently returning to the newspaper or task at hand.

Still, the family and neighbors did attend Marguerite’s coming out ball.  All of them in decked in their finest finery—polite, attentive—wished Marguerite well.  Many told her how lovely she looked, but Marguerite felt herself to be pale, wan even.  She would gladly have called off the ball altogether, turned off this spotlight rendered grotesque in the wake of a family … tragedy.  Yes, that is what it was.  She didn’t care what her father said about how Juliette would surely return.  Marguerite knew from the outset that she wouldn’t.  Juliette had always chafed at the conventions of bourgeois propriety.  Even as a little girl, she climbed trees and went fishing and played ball with the boys.  With a runaway sister, could Marguerite really consider herself a “debutante”?  But Maman insisted that her coming out ball had to take place. 

“Why should you suffer for the sin of your sister?” she asked.

“But why should I be on display for all to see and pity?” Marguerite retorted.

“Never you mind.  We’re going to have a lovely party for you, my dear.  And that’s final,” Maman said.

And so it was.  The entire home was lit by candles—in candelabras, candlesticks, and floating in small glasses.  Music and conversation drifted through the air.  Maman had never been lovelier nor Papa more dashing.  Marguerite forced herself to get through the evening without any major faux pas, never touching any of the tasty morsels proffered in her direction.  And get through it she did.  Somehow.

That was the last party the Van Nuys held in their home.

Yes, all of that was long since over.  And the coming out hadn’t done Marguerite much good in the end.  Minus Juliette, or rather, with Juliette’s absence hanging like a pall over the evening, Marguerite herself seemed somehow incomplete.  There had been a few gentleman that called following the ball.  One in particular—Robert Newcombe—quickened Marguerite’s heart. Only Robert lost interest—or perhaps her meager dowry—discouraged his interest.  Marguerite overheard her parents talking after dinner about her prospects in response to Robert’s dowry demands.  Papa refused to further mortgage their family home, despite Maman’s pleas.

“William, just how much interest do you think she will get?  With our declining fortunes?  And a runaway sister?”

“If Newcombe is going to step away because of her dowry, then he’s not the right man for our Marguerite.  She’ll find someone who is right.  It’s really that simple,” Papa said.

Only Marguerite never did find someone who was right, and it hadn’t been at all simple.  Would it have been so terrible to give Robert what he demanded?  And what was it that he demanded?  Marguerite heard that Robert had spent much of his twenties and thirties wandering through India.  Perhaps Marguerite could have run away, like Juliette.  Two runaway daughters!  What would Papa have said then?  Only, of course, Marguerite had not run away.  Even now, even tonight, she couldn’t seem to tear herself from this ancestral home.  Strange how one’s entire life path is decided through a conversation briefly held after dinner in a father’s office.   A mother’s failed plea, a father’s insistence.  There was so much more to say on the topic of Marguerite and Robert and Marguerite’s Love Never Found, and yet so little that need to be said.  The decades—sometimes with visitors, but largely spent alone—spoke for themselves.

Facing the façade of her former home in the dark, Marguerite found herself praying that her home was in good hands.  She hoped the new owners would come to value the crystal chandelier, the black and white marble tiled floors, the butler’s pantry, as she and her family, even Juliette, had.  All its many nooks and crannies.  Marguerite hoped that her home would welcome and provide longstanding shelter for its residents of the Mosaic faith and that they would care for it and preserve its spirit as her own family had.  She had heard that it was to be transformed into a house of worship.  She wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.  At the very least, it portended heavier foot traffic and added wear-and-tear.  Would the marble floors endure?

Marguerite turned away from what she would always consider her family home.  She had bid her farewell, and now, she would return to a life on a smaller stage.  The guilt she felt over relinquishing ownership of the house would surely return with her, as well, flourishing in these narrowed quarters.  There, she would review the sale from every possible angle.  What could she have done differently?  Could she have cajoled/persuaded/coerced relatives, however distant, to purchase it?  Would that have been better?  Had she sold it willfully to take revenge on her wife who had denied her dowry?  Was this her dowry, finally at this late stage, to her unmarried self?  She would live frugally; the funds of the sale would have to last.

Marguerite looked down at the pavement, which was uneven and cracked in parts.  She certainly couldn’t risk falling.  And yet neither could she dawdle. Still, she was determined to maintain a brisk pace.  She didn’t really care if anyone saw her walking about alone.  What could they say to her now?  Bereft of the family homestead, wasn’t she already “fallen,” if not technically a “fallen woman”?  Or was it (this branch of) the Van Nuys family itself that had fallen and she only the last (unless Juliette were still alive), most incidental member?  Marguerite wondered if any of the family friends would deign to visit her in meager rooms.  Would she receive them? 

As she walked down the street, Marguerite thought of the publication proposal she was drafting of a prospective volume of Maman’s collected verse that awaited her on her writing desk, itself one of Mama’s French antiques salvaged from the wreckage.  What period was it?  Louis XV?  Maman would have known.  The book wouldn’t compensate for Marguerite’s failure to retain the home in the family, but Marguerite was certain Maman would be pleased to have her work out in the world.  Marguerite envisioned ivory-colored thick paper, and the words in Bembo font.  She could see the title page now: Not Too Late for Us: Selected Poems of Isabella Schulyer Van Nuys.  Perhaps with a garland bordering the title page?

Although Maman never gave public readings of her poems, she occasionally recited them to Marguerite and Juliette when Papa was out of the house.  Maman read with such force and passion, her pallor and shyness momentarily lifted.  The girls were enchanted, incredulous at the transformation in their mother, rather than attentive to her words or their meanings.  Those readings too stopped after Juliette ran away.  But something in the drama of those remembered semi-private readings convinced Marguerite to proceed with a publication of volume of Maman’s poems.  Marguerite decided she would include the following dedication in the book:

To Juliette, wherever you may be

 Marguerite was sure Maman would have approved of this, too.  And readers wouldn’t have to know that the dedication was hers and not Maman’s.

Marguerite turned back for a final look at her former home.  She swore she saw a dim light flicker in the upstairs front window.  I’ve been out on the street too long, and I’m too tired, she thought.  I really must go, she told herself.  Before she got to Maman’s manuscript, Marguerite would make herself some tea.  Chamomile, with a half a teaspoon of honey would perk her up.  For inspiration, she would remove the photo of her just “come out” self seated on a rounded velvet chair before Maman and Papa at the foot of the grand staircase from the family album.  She would find a frame for the photo later.  For now, she would place it against a crystal vase of white roses.  Maman’s favorite flower.



BIO: Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of six books of poetry, including most recently A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released on the Multikulti Project label (www.multikulti.com) in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists. With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, 2016). His short stories have appeared in Hamilton Stone Review, Jewish Fiction .net, The Jewish Literary Journal, Jewrotica, Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing, and Second Hand Stories Podcast, among other publications. Please visit his website at www.yataub.net..