The Hollywood Life
by Lois Rosen
Though Aunt Bitsy was just a year younger than my mother, she scampered up the pool ladder like a teenager and threw her terry cloth robe over the skimpy two-piece Mom would have called indecent. “Be back in a jiff, Harriet hon,” she said, grabbing the ice bucket. “Wolfie, keep an eye on her.”
Uncle Wolfie nodded, looked at me in the pool, and closed his eyes. There was no lifeguard, but who needed one? I’d just finished another summer of swimming lessons at camp. Maybe I was only twelve, but I knew how to swim every stroke. Home in our apartment, I felt like one of those lost dogs on the street with their tongues out, panting in the heat. But in Bitsy and Wolfie’s pool, I became Esther Williams, Hollywood star, silver drops spraying around me like sparklers.
Their pool was as big as the one at the Yonkers Jewish Community Center, way prettier, too—roses on the fence and padded lounge chairs like the ones in Hollywood. This was the life.
Uncle Wolfie right beside the pool, reclined on his lounge chair, puffed his cigar, and read the sports pages of the Daily News. He was toasted brown as the crust on a loaf of bakery rye. His thick gold chain with a big gold turtle, a souvenir of their latest Caribbean cruise, glinted in the sun. He had a double chin, and his stomach bulged over swim trunks covered with tropical flowers. On his powder-blue chair pad, his massive, tanned feet revealed colorless soles.
“Uncle Wolfie, wanna see me swim the butterfly?”
What fun to have the whole pool to myself while my brother Al was in the guest bedroom watching color TV, gorging on Entenmann’s cake, or talking on the phone, without our parents knowing, to Brenda, the non-Jewish girlfriend he wasn’t supposed to have. I surged through the water, whipping my legs in the dolphin kick, propelling my arms, churning up fountains.
“You’re some swimmer!” Uncle Wolfie said.
I wanted Aunt Bitsy to see my new strokes, too, but she hadn’t come out of the house.
And what a house—a mansion in Long Island with so many rooms I lost count, plus lawns, fruit trees, and roses. As soon as Al and I’d arrived after the cab ride from Yonkers that Uncle Wolfie paid for, Aunt Bitsy had handed me a big wrapped box, and it was not my birthday. Inside was a flamenco doll from Spain. Gloria de la O wore a ruby-red dress with white polka dots. The skirt spread wide as she was tall with layers of ruffles trimmed in satin ribbon. She held a red lace fan and wore a tall comb in her hair and a white lace mantilla that reached to her ruffles.
“Thank you!” I hugged my aunt and stomped, shouting, “Olé!” Aunt Bitsy twirled and snapped her fingers, too.
Uncle Wolfie had slipped Al an envelope. “A boy’s gotta have some spending money to take out the cute chicks.” He’d already paid for Al’s SAT test prep classes and promised to cover college tuition, though Al hoped he’d get a scholarship to MIT or Cornell, knowing it would pain Dad to take his brother-in-law’s money.
After our last visit, Mom shook her finger at us. “Bitsy and Wolfie spoil you rotten. It’s a shame they can’t have children.”
Dad glared. “How was Disneyland?”
“Fine, the usual.” I didn’t need to rub it in about the swimming and sunning he couldn’t enjoy or the gifts.
The pool water, nice and cool that scorcher of a day, was clear aqua. Uncle Wolfie dozed. His mouth hung open. His smelly cigar rested in an ashtray, the Daily News dropped on the concrete. I could hear him snoring because I didn’t have to wear a bathing cap in their pool. I loved the smell of the baby oil he’d spread on his skin.
I dove underwater and watched bubbles rise from my mouth. I kept surface diving and somersaulting in various directions.
Then Uncle Wolfie woke, stood at the edge, and said, “Okay watch, Harriet. I’m going to show you the old cannonball.” He jumped into the deep end and made a tremendous splash.
I met him in the middle of the pool. “Wanna see who can swim underwater longest?” He agreed, and I said, “Ready, set, go!”
We both breathed in deep and swam like dolphins, diving and surfacing.
Side-by-side, we splashed our way to an inflated pool mattress and let our legs swish.
I blinked. What I saw coming toward us from the house seemed like Dragnet. Two police officers, a slight one like Sergeant Friday, and a gigantic one, with muscles expanding the short sleeves of his uniform, reminded me of the strong man in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In their blue uniforms, badges, guns in holsters, they rushed toward the water. “Mr. Sussman, by order of the Suffolk County Police we’re ordering you to come with us immediately.”
Uncle Wolfie huffed, catching his breath. We clung to our float in the middle of the pool.
“There’s some mistake,” he yelled.
The police officers stepped onto the rim of the pool, gesturing us out.
“What’s this about?”
The cops looked stern. Their badges glared. Could they be friends of Uncle Wolfie’s, dressed up for a joke like on Halloween? The short cop said, “Counterfeit subway tokens.”
I felt chilled. Uncle Wolfie held still. His face looked gray.
My brother, with chocolate cake rimming his lips, rushed inside the pool gate beside Aunt Bitsy. The short cop leaned toward us in his flat-soled, leather shoes and slipped on the wet edge. Flailing, he crashed into the pool. A tidal wave slammed our air mattress. It overturned, throwing Wolfie and me off.
The klutzy cop in the pool was in way worse shape than us. Wolfie and I rose, coughed a little, and treaded water. The cop was struggling under the water in his clothes. He couldn’t stay up with the gun, his shoes, and other heavy stuff.
Uncle Wolfie and I dove. He grabbed the cop under the elbow, I gripped the other arm, and we hauled him to the float. His hatless hair looked like seaweed dripping around his ashen face. He flopped onto the mattress, hacking and spitting, and saying, “Fuck’n shit!” and a lot of other bad words I wasn’t supposed to know.
Uncle Wolfie and I kicked the float toward the shallow end. The cop could stand. His badge, belt, and gun dripped like crazy. The dry policeman laughed, and I giggled.
We’d saved that guy’s life, but you know what the nearly drowned cop did? He lunged at Wolfie, grabbed his shoulder, and started to push him. “Out, now!” he yelled in a scratchy voice as if he had laryngitis.
“Swim!” I shouted, “where he can’t get you.”
“I’m getting out.” Wolfie walked up the concrete steps in the shallow part beside the soaked cop. Bitsy handed each of them a beach towel with her shaking hands.
The dry cop’s voice boomed like he thought Wolfie was hard-of-hearing. “Mr. Sussman, you’re under arrest for counterfeiting subway tokens.”
I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. Before I could help it, I threw up in the pool water. Bits of my lunch spread like crazy. I couldn’t stop. I threw up again. Al jumped in and helped me climb the steps. He didn’t say a word about how I stank or how I’d ruined the water.
One of those mean policemen, the huge-muscled, dry one, said, “Move it, buddy.” The dripping one pushed Uncle Wolfie again. I saw it all. I knew if Uncle Wolfie pushed him back, the policeman would put him in jail for a long time.
“Take your hands off him,” Bitsy yelled. “Police brutality!”
“I’m coming peacefully,” Wolfie said. We used to wrestle and he’d fought in the army infantry. But he didn’t kick or trip the policemen or anything. He reminded me a little of Martin Luther King, who marched and didn’t fight physically, even when people were yelling, throwing things, and even worse.
How kind and brave Uncle Wolfie was! But that didn’t mean stupid cops wouldn’t try to beat him up later and bash in his skull. Look what they were doing in the South to dark-skinned people who only wanted to sit at a luncheonette counter. And most people arrested in the Holocaust never ever came back.
My uncle hollered at Aunt Bitsy, “Goddammit! Stop standing there wringing your hands. Call Abe Farkas! Call the mayor! The numbers are on my desk. And Spuds Speigelman. Hurry!” To me he said, “Don’t worry, Harry darling. There’s a misunderstanding.” But his eyes kept blinking and his shoulders seemed curled in. His whole body reminded me of a turtle, hoping his back would cover him.
My uncle, who gave thousands to his synagogue and hosted charity events at this very pool, who gave me and Al so much, was being taken. “Stupid cops,” I said to my brother. “Don’t they know real criminals are running around all over the place?” Even if Wolfie did do what they said, they could have sent him a letter, made an appointment to talk. They didn’t have to arrest him. Subway tokens were just teensy metal things, smaller than pennies.
“Shh!” Al put his finger to his lips.
Aunt Bitsy, Uncle Wolfie, and the policemen went in the house and left Al in charge of me. I started to cry. He wiped off my face with the beach towel, wrapped me in another towel, and had me drink water. I wasn’t the only one crying. He dabbed his eyes. “You know Uncle Wolfie is going to be fine,” he said hugging me tight. “Goddamn Nazis.”
When Bitsy came back out, she handed Al cab fare. She said, “The lawyer’s going to meet them at the jail in a few minutes. He’ll get your uncle out on bail by tonight. Don’t you worry.” But she kept wrapping and unwrapping the belt from her cover-up around her fingers. I hugged her hard before we left and kissed her cheek. Al, who usually had to be prompted by Mom to kiss any relative, kissed her, too.
At home, our parents had, of course, already talked to Bitsy. Bubbie was in the living room beside Mom on the couch. They both had red eyes. “Come here, Harrileh,” Bubbie called me, and even if I wasn’t little any more, I still let her hold me against her and stroke my hair.
“Do you think he did it?” Al asked Dad, who was resting his head in his hands, facing away from us with his elbows on his desk.
“Ask me no questions. I’ll tell you no lies,” Dad said. “That uncle of yours. He doesn’t know when to stop.”
“Mom, Bubbie,” I said. “You should’ve seen it when the cop fell into the swimming pool. Uncle Wolfie and I saved him, but he pushed Uncle Wolfie and then he arrested him.”
“Harriet, please, we don’t want to talk about it. Just forget it and don’t worry. Your uncle’s a good man. You know that, don’t you?” Mom didn’t look at me when she said it. She stared at her crocheting but wasn’t moving the hook. She told my brother to go to the deli and bring back sandwiches for Dad, him, and me for dinner. She and Bubbie weren’t hungry.
The adults didn’t talk about it anymore. Mom had me show Bubbie my new school outfit. They wondered who my teachers were going to be the next day when I started the seventh grade. They sent me off early to bed to get ready for my big day.
When I got home from school, the Yonkers Herald Statesman lay on the kitchen table. The front page showed Uncle Wolfie standing with the wet and dry cops in front of the police station. The headline announced, “Former Yonkers Man Arrested. Cop Takes a Swim.” Smaller letters said, “Indictment Likely for Counterfeit Subway Tokens.” The article said Uncle Wolfie’s company made millions of them, that they were so well done it was impossible to tell them from the real ones.
Mom was on the phone talking about the article with Bubbie. She hung up when Dad got home and started making him a snack. Al was at a friend’s. I asked, “What’s indictment?” Dad snatched the paper and turned it over so Uncle Wolfie’s face lay against our plastic tablecloth. Dad looked like he was ready to explode at Mom. “It means when someone’s accused of a crime and a grand jury decides there’s enough evidence to try him or her. You understand?”
“But why blame only Uncle Wolfie? Maybe somebody tricked him. Anyway, they didn’t need to arrest him, put his picture in the paper, and embarrass him like that. You know he wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
“Harriet, Uncle Wolfie has been a very good uncle to you and Al. That’s all you need to know.” He patted my face with a napkin.
“But what if the police try to torture him or keep him locked in a room where he doesn’t even have a window? He’ll die.”
Dad sat down beside me in Al’s usual seat. Mom lowered the flame on the macaroni she was boiling for the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a backup meal. She must have spent hours on the phone with Bitsy. “This morning Bitsy called to say Uncle Wolfie spent the night in jail. She almost went out of her mind, but now he’s home. So you don’t have to worry.”
He never did have to go on trial. Every time I asked about it, Mom said, “You don’t really want to know how he got out of it and neither do we.” And though September was as hot as August, I didn’t get to swim in their pool again that year. Aunt Bitsy never called to invite me, and I didn’t dare bring it up.
In November, I received a postcard from Panama with a blue butterfly called a morpho. When Mom handed me the card, she said, “See, they’re not suffering. I should be so lucky.” Aunt Bitsy and Uncle Wolfie were on a long cruise through the Panama Canal, while what my parents called “the situation” blew over.
Dad said, “With money you can get away with murder.”
But he hadn’t murdered anyone, Uncle Wolfie. He’d made a mistake and got caught.
My parents explained it was like robbing New York City.
I asked, “But why did he need to do that for? They weren’t poor.”
“You’re asking me?” Dad said.
My flamenco doll, the last gift I got from my aunt and uncle that year, stood frozen in her pose on my shelf. Finally, I shoved the doll in a drawer. I didn’t want to play with it anymore.