Like most children of Holocaust survivors, Fraidy Horowitz had a complex relationship with both her parents and money. Inside their home they ate the old Jewish foods. Kishka. Kasha varnishkes. A schmear of schmaltz. Outside they dined at the fanciest restaurants. They belonged to exclusive clubs.
Inside their home every conversation was peppered with Yiddish. Every new acquaintance was eyed with suspicion, and every uniform sent a chill up their spines. Outside Fraidy attended ballet lessons and painting classes. No opportunity could be denied, no door could be opened wide enough.
In America, said her mother, every girl grows up to be a princess while every boy grows up to be a prince.
Though he never learned to read and write English, Fraidy’s father did know how to work hard. Somehow Morris managed to build a one-man paint shop into Miami’s biggest construction company. Dollars fell like manna from heaven. Fraidy grew up wearing Lilly Pulitzer dresses and toting Chanel bags. In the world’s eyes– and the world was always watching– the Horowitz family lived like the Trumps.
How they embarrassed their daughter! Stooped and squat, Fraidy’s parents barged their way through every crowd. They poked the air when they spoke. And if Morris and Ditty weren’t force-feeding her second and third desserts, they were plying her with cash. The shtetl shadowed their footprints wherever they went.
Years after they were gone, the lessons they taught Fraidy played in her head. She married a man who was dependable, a good wage earner, a devoted father. Lennie Slotkin wasn’t a doctor but he was close enough. He straightened the teeth of half the children in South Miami while Fraidy managed the books. Every bill and every check passed through her fingers.
Her father’s words were as entrenched as a prayer. If they bought a new car, it was Fraidy who negotiated the price. When they bought their dream home, it was Fraidy who tormented the realtor. Even though everything she and her husband owned was in both of their names, all of their friends and half of South Florida knew that Fraidy was in charge.
The day Avi approached her was like any other day. She had exercised at the gym and gobbled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the fly. Ever since she was a child, Fraidy had a tendency to put on weight. At home she nibbled chocolate bars, and finished the food off people’s plates. Outside she ate like a prisoner of war.
As always, she and her best friend Eileen met at Neiman Marcus. As usual, they ordered salads. Fraidy picked at hers while Eileen rearranged the lettuce. Her friend was wearing one of those bracelets that tracked calories and exercise. To give the appearance of being an athlete, Eileen wore expensive gym clothes all day long.
“Avi wants to make me a big party,” said Eileen. “But I told him no. I’m going to be sixty for Christ’s sake.”
“I remember your fiftieth,” said Fraidy. “Avi got half of the Heat basketball players to show up. The caviar. My God the champagne.”
They both smiled. Avi was a never-ending source of anecdotes and conversation fillers. After a few drinks, he was everyone’s confidante, their guru, their closest pal.
“I’m rolling back the odometer,” said Eileen. “Like they do on used cars. No more parties. No more jewelry. I’m done. I’m really done.”
Fraidy laid her fork on the table. She had known Eileen for close to twenty years. If Fraidy’s diamond ring was three carats, Eileen’s was five. If Fraidy owned fifty pairs of shoes, Eileen owned a hundred. But while Fraidy had Lennie, Eileen had married Avi Zager.
Avi was everything Lennie wasn’t. He was as good-looking as a movie star with a gold pinkie ring that glinted in the light. A fast talker with an Israeli accent. Everything came out gilded, smooth, a ribbon of words tripping off his tongue. He bought and sold property, always wheeling and dealing, bragging about the fortune he made even before the papers were dry. If there was one thing Fraidy didn’t envy her friend, it was her husband.
Eileen counted off on her fingers. “My parents both have Alzheimers. My daughter wants to be an actress, and my son is glued to his computer. Playing videos. Watching YouTube. Doing absolutely nothing all day long.”
Like Fraidy, Eileen came from a wealthy family. And like Fraidy, she knew every dime that went in and went out.
“Remember the old circus clowns?” said Eileen, “You know. The ones who looked up at the tightrope walker? That’s me. The circus clown. Running this way and that with the basket, always waiting for catastrophe to strike.”
Eileen suddenly looked her age. Fraidy noticed the grooves radiating from her upper lip, the furrows in her forehead. They both raised their hands and shouted Waiter! at the same time.
As she rode home in her car that day, their lunchtime conversation looped in Fraidy’s head. She couldn’t shake the suspicion that her friend Eileen was hiding the truth. Something was troubling her. Fraidy imagined all the possible scenarios, each one worse than the next…a kid on drugs, a biopsy, a cheating husband.
A few minutes later Avi called her cell phone. Avi never called her cell phone. Fraidy had no idea how he got her number.
“Fraidy, Fraidy, Fraidy,” he started.
“Avi?” asked Fraidy. All of her fears quickly congealed into one hard lump.
“You know that Eileen’s having a big birthday soon. A really big birthday…Are you there Fraidy? You’re not talking… is this a bad connection…maybe I should call back?’
“I’m here, Avi.” He’s only calling about her birthday. Thank God Thank God Thank God.
“Let me tell you, do I have a surprise planned! You know that car she always talks about, the car she wants more than anything in the world?”
Fraidy pictured Avi spreading his hands wide, gesturing. In truth, Eileen seemed oblivious to cars. They just served as a means of getting from one place to the next.
“Well there’s a silver one in the Jaguar showroom that’s a beauty. A V-8 fully loaded. And a bargain at a hundred grand. Are you there, Fraidy?”
Trucks were honking and a siren was blaring and the radio was playing country. If you have to choose between your dog and your man, you’d be better off picking your dog.
“A car,” said Fraidy.”Wow.”
“The thing is,” said Avi, “I want it to be a surprise. And you know how hard that would be with Eileen handling the accounts.”
All at once Fraidy saw her father hovering over the steering wheel. Like St. Christopher but shorter and without the beard.
Watch out for this one, said Morris. This one will steal your wallet and break your heart.
Fraidy waited for Avi to take a breath but the words just poured out.
“So I was thinking…maybe you could loan me the money. For a month tops. I’d sign some papers, we’d make it kosher.”
Fraidy knew there were already three cars sitting in their driveway. A Corvette. A Porsche. A Bentley. They owned properties all over Dade County. A strip shopping center in Dadeland. A warehouse in Hialeah. To Avi, this money was pocket change. A little rearranging. One hand helping the other.
“I have to check with Lennie first,” said Fraidy.
“Lennie?” laughed Avi.
Fraidy pictured her mother hovering over the sink, washing the cellophane, wearing a housecoat that was thirty years old.
“I need to know by tomorrow,” said Avi. “And remember it’s a secret. Out of all the people in the world I picked you, Fraidy. Eileen’s best friend. I know that you can keep a secret.”
She waited until dinner that night to speak to her husband. Lennie was a creature of routine. He came home from work, changed his clothes, sat down at the table. Then Fraidy served him a glass of wine and dinner. She watched him dive into his sugar-free, lactose-free pseudo ice cream dessert. Then she lowered the boom.
“Avi called today. He wants to borrow a hundred thousand dollars so he could surprise Eileen with a new car.”
“What kind of car?” His head was down, his spoon tunneling into his dessert.
“A Jaguar,” said Fraidy.
“That’s a lot of overbites,” said Lennie.
Fraidy heard her father’s voice once more. Morris seemed to be speaking from the air-conditioning vents, his voice wafting through the air.
Don’t be a schmuck, Fraidala. Don’t be a fool.
Lennie was grinning from ear to ear like he won the lottery. He got up from the table and wrapped his arms around his wife. “I think we should do it,” said Lennie. “Out of everyone Avi picked us.”
Fraidy peeled her husband’s fingers off her waist and narrowed her eyes. Avi’s all guy trips to the Bahamas were legend. There was a weekly poker game that was invitation only. Lennie had been waiting for that invitation for years.
“I downloaded some IOU forms on the Internet,” said Fraidy. “They’re perfectly legal. We just have to figure out the interest we want to charge him on the loan.” She scooped the dishes off the table, dumped half a bottle of detergent into the sink, and immersed her arms up to the elbows. Then she scrubbed like a maniac, splashing water all over the floor.
“Interest? We can’t charge interest,” said Lennie. “How can we charge someone like Avi Zager interest?”
“I can’t hear you,” said Eileen. She could have pivoted. She could have faced her husband and poked her finger in his face. Instead she anchored her feet and cranked the faucet full force. The future was laid before her like a map. Every instinct shouted no! But somehow the road they were traveling had swallowed them up.
A month later, Eileen’s birthday came and went. But there was no sign of the Jaguar in their driveway.
“I decided to order a new one,” said Avi. “Why buy this year’s model when the new one’s coming off the line?”
Another month, another page ripped off the calendar, and still no sign of the car. When Fraidy finally decided to call Avi, it took three tries to get through. He talked loudly and slowly. It was the voice you used when talking to children or the elderly or people who you thought were plain dumb.
“Let me explain how it works, Fraidy. Buying a car… is not a science. We’re a tool of… market forces. Trade barriers, tariffs, the price of oil, for Christ’s sake!”
Fraidy held her phone away from her ear and looked at it. The handset seemed to have turned into an alien creature of some kind.
“Avi, the thing is, I’ve got expenses. I need you to repay me the money, Avi. Sammy’s going to medical school not to mention Hava’s wedding.”
So many blessings, said her mother. You must be very grateful, Fraidy. To have such blessings in your life.
Suddenly Avi’s voice took on a harder edge. He talked quickly, like he was wrapping up a deal. “This car’s gonna be here in a week or two tops. If I knew you were going to be difficult, I would have taken my business someplace else.”
Two scenarios played out in Fraidy’s mind. If Avi actually ordered a car, she was worrying over nothing. Eileen was smart enough to trace the money trail. Fraidy would get her cash back somehow some way. But if there weren’t a car in the picture, if the birthday present were a scam, then what would Fraidy do?
You think you’re the only one? said her father. That thief’s probably got a list a yard long.
Still Fraidy couldn’t bear the thought of confronting her friend. This was the stuff divorces were made of. What price tag could you put on a marriage? A family? A home?
My parents both have Alzheimers. My daughter wants to be an actress, and my son is glued to his computer all day long.
Fraidy held the phone next to her ear one more time. “Whatever you can spare,” said Fraidy. “But I need the money and I need it soon.”
A week later, a cashier’s check for ten thousand dollars was delivered to Fraidy by courier. From that point on, her calls to Avi went straight to voice mail:
Avi, it’s Fraidy. We need to talk.
Avi, it’s Fraidy. One of us is earning interest on ninety thousand dollars and it isn’t me.
Avi, it’s Fraidy. If you don’t return my calls, I’m going straight to Eileen. I mean it Avi. Straight to Eileen.
Fraidy began waking in the middle of the night with her sheets soaked and her heart thumping. No longer did Lennie fantasize about joining Avi’s inner circle. When he saw his friend at a basketball game, Avi quickly turned around and ran the other way.
“Ninety thousand dollars is a lot of overbites,” said Lennie.
Fraidy took matters into her own hands. Avi’s office was located in an up-and-coming neighborhood sandwiched between art galleries and artisanal cafes. She circled the building day after day until she spotted the Bentley. Then she marched down the hallway and flung her purse on the receptionist’s desk.
“I’m here to see Avi,” said Fraidy. “Tell him that I’m here.”
The receptionist checked a list sitting by the phone. Instead of looking Fraidy in the eye, she gazed somewhere over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry. Mr. Zager’s not available.”
“That’s funny,” said Fraidy. “Considering there’s a beige Bentley convertible outside with a Heat license plate and a decal from our country club.”
“His car’s here,” said the receptionist, “just not him.”
Fraidy took in the expensive furnishings. A Romero Britto painting. A Knoll couch. The space age chandelier. “Can I make an appointment?”
“Mr. Zager’s not taking any appointments,” said the receptionist. “He plans to be traveling in Europe on business for the next two months.”
Business my ass, said Fraidy’s father.
Fraidy glanced at the receptionist, then she looked at the door behind her. In one swift move, she grabbed her purse and bolted towards the door. It didn’t take her long to find Avi. She just had to follow the sound of his voice booming on the phone. She let herself in.
“Excuse me, Herb,” said Avi. He held up an index finger and smiled at Fraidy. “Can I call you back?”
Fraidy couldn’t believe it. The man’s charm flicked on and off like a light bulb. He walked over to Fraidy and planted a kiss on her cheek. “And to what do I owe this lovely surprise?”
“I have expenses, Avi. Maybe this money’s not meaningful to you but it is to me.”
He opened a drawer, took out a rubber-banded wad of hundred dollar bills, and thumbed through it.
“What is that?” asked Fraidy. “Is that like… petty cash?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Here’s twenty thousand. I’m glad I can help.” He grabbed Fraidy’s elbow and ushered her to the door. “You’re like family, Fraidy. Whatever I can do, I do.”
Up was down and down was up with this man, thought Fraidy. Somehow he had convinced himself that he was doing her a favor!
From that point on, the Bentley no longer showed up in the parking lot. Instead Fraidy was forced to drive to Eileen’s house first thing in the morning. She parked her car two houses down, and like a private detective followed Avi throughout his day. One time she cornered him at the Capital Grille. Another day it was the hair salon. She waited discreetly for the hairdresser to finish. Avi was sitting in the mani-pedi throne with half his toenails trimmed when she worked up to nerve to approach him.
“What a coincidence,” said Fraidy. “I didn’t know you went here.”
It took Avi a few seconds to focus. The scent of lemons. The sounds of harps. The fake fists pounding on his back.
“Fraidy. Is that you, Fraidy?”
She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Seventy thousand dollars. Today. I’m not kidding about this, Avi.” She fished the IOU papers from her purse and waved them in his face. “Thanks to you, I’ve become my worst nightmare.”
On a table next to them was an urn of hot water and a tasteful assortment of teas. Fraidy pictured her mother opening her purse and shoveling the tea bags inside.
“I’m haunting you like a freaking ghost, Avi, until you pay me what is mine.”
Month after month, envelopes of cash were painfully extracted from Avi’s grip. A thousand here, five hundred there. Fraidy still met Eileen for lunch but now there was an invisible intruder, an eavesdropper sitting in a third seat. They gossiped about neighbors, worried over their children, talked about their favorite movies. But they danced around the big stuff. Fraidy had no idea what was going on in the confines of Eileen’s home. Who really knew?
She started keeping a ledger sheet in her head of Avi’s and Eileen’s expenses. The huge gifts to local charities. The brownstone in Manhattan. She noticed how people talked about them behind their backs. They spent lavishly, even foolishly. Those junkets to Vegas! The trips to Cabo! Fraidy lived in constant fear that one day their money would just dry up.
A year passed and still Fraidy was thirty thousand dollars short. Finally, she decided to give Avi an ultimatum. He had just finished a round of golf when she pulled her car up besides his. This time it was the white Porsche. La Gorce Country Club was bustling with tennis players, golf carts, power walkers. Lennie had bought a membership hoping to network and make some connections. They were lucky if they managed dinner there once a year.
She slumped in her seat as he approached. Avi was walking with a group of men, smiling and joking. He was two steps ahead of the others. Chin up, elbows out, cocky. Clearly the leader of the pack. When he clicked the alarm off, the others scampered. Then she lowered her window.
“Tomorrow,” said Fraidy. “Thirty thousand dollars by tomorrow. If I don’t get the money, I’m calling Eileen.” Then she turned on the engine and pressed down on the gas.
The next day she went on her computer and typed up a script. Line by line she’d give Avi his options. She’s hiring an attorney, she would say. There would be legal repercussions. Then she drove back to the country club and called Avi on his cell phone from a landline there. She’d knew he would pick it up, suspecting the golf pro, the maître d’, anyone but Fraidy.
“What are you doing calling Avi?” she said. “This is Avi’s phone.”
A wave of relief coursed through Fraidy. The opportunity she had been waiting for, the chance to clear the air, to get matters off her chest once and for all, had simply appeared.
“There’s a problem,” said Fraidy. “Avi owes me money. Big money. Thirty thousand dollars.”
“Did you know he’s dead?” said Eileen. “He died this morning of a heart attack. Did you know he’d dead?”
Fraidy was speechless. She was standing in the pro shop, speaking into a phone that sat on the counter. Does this shirt come in an extra large? someone asked her. Can I book a starting time for eight?
“At a time like this you have the nerve to talk to me about money!” said Eileen. “Shame on you!”
Every day Fraidy scanned the newspaper for an obituary, a funeral notice, a thank you from the various philanthropic organizations that Avi had supported. Nothing. A Jewish funeral has it rites and customs. An announcement in a synagogue. A seven day period of mourning. A parade of people bringing food and consolation to your home.
But each time Fraidy drove by the Zager house, only a handful of cars were parked in front. It was more than puzzling. It was suspicious. Within the week, Fraidy received a check from Eileen in the mail and a signed document drawn up by her lawyer. Done.
They met at Neiman’s one last time. Eileen seemed older. Paler. Shrunken. She didn’t even bother to lift the menu.
“I wish you had told me the truth,” she said.
“The truth?” answered Fraidy.
“Avi lent money and borrowed money. He was a developer. An entrepreneur. Everyone knew that.” She took a sip of water and lowered the glass. “But you…you played this game…this cat and mouse…he chased you, you chased him…I’ve never known such betrayal!”
Then she pushed out her chair and left the restaurant. Fraidy watched as she wove her way through the crowd until all that was left was a pinpoint in the distance. If time could be reversed, she had no idea what she would have done differently. All Fraidy knew was that she had created a mess. A wife was husbandless, a son and daughter were left without a father.
Outside, she walked from store to store and gazed at her whorled reflection in the windows. Then from nowhere she heard her father’s voice. She looked up. She gazed to her left and to her right.
No obituary notice. No shiva. No nothing, said the voice.
Fraidy eyes scanned the crowd. A mother with a stroller. A young couple walking hand in hand.
The man’s hiding in the Cayman Islands, said the voice. Walking the streets of Kazakhstan or Madagascar. With a hundred dollar haircut and a freshly pressed suit.
For a brief moment, Fraidy saw her future. The children would be grown and gone, her friends strangers. She would turn old and ugly and wear the same housecoat for thirty years. Fraidy felt as lost as a misplaced set of keys.
In America, said Ditty, every girl grows up to be a princess while every boy grows up to be a prince.
“Remember the old circus clowns?” said Eileen.
Don’t be a schmuck, Fraidala. Don’t be a fool.
She spun in circles, listening, waiting, searching for a sign. Yet, all Fraidy could think about, all she could wrap her head around, was the cool cold vision of a chocolate milkshake -with whipped cream. Freshly made and not from the can.