HEDDA d’ KLASS Word Count: 5,221
By Ellen Hecht © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Ezra and his elderly father, Neiman, lived together in a three bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. His mother, Sophie, had died tragically in an accident involving the apartment’s elevator. Her walker had become stuck and while she attempted to disengage its wheels, the door’s sensor failed and she was crushed to death by the elevator door.
Ezra’s only sibling, Rachel, had become estranged from the family. She moved to Israel straight out of high school, met a man who ran a pickled herring processing business and, against their parents’ advice, married him. After seven years of marriage, she took their two children and moved to a kibbutz. She wrote Ezra that she had no intention of ever moving back home to Brooklyn.
Without a female remaining in the household, Ezra and his father were unable to actually “keep kosher,” a custom of Orthodox Jewish families who observe the dietary custom. The women of the family are in charge of their religious observances – having to do with food preparation.
Ezra tried. He and Neiman lived on cold cuts from the local deli and occasionally, a Goldstein’s Kosher Frozen Dinner. For lunch, they would sometimes have just a bowl of chicken soup, with maybe a slice of egg bread, toasted.
Neiman had become frail. Unable to take the stairs and unwilling to take the elevator, he spent his days seated at the kitchen table, looking out of the window over the fire escape. He would sit hour after hour until the sun was behind the building across the street.
Ezra would take him to use the bathroom and then move him to the recliner in the living room in front of the television. His father enjoyed musicals and especially anything with Judy Garland. After the news hour, Ezra would switch to the movie channel. Draping a crocheted shawl around Neiman’s shoulders and giving him a little pat, Ezra would take a suitcase from the closet and let himself out of the apartment.
His father would say, “God forbid you could become a victim of the same fate that took your mother.” Out of respect for his father’s wishes, he would always take the stairs.
When Ezra got to the club, he’d enter through the stage door in the back. The security guard would give him a nod and he would nod back.
“How ya doin’?" There would be a brief exchange, nothing more.
The place always smelled of stale cigarette smoke and for some reason, Menthol. Ezra would seat himself in front of the communal mirror that ran the length of the long dressing room table. He would take his place between Dave Horowitz, whose stage name was “Ivana ben Dover” and Marc Weisman, whose stage name was “Myra Hotpanties.” There would be some small talk, a shared joke – some talk about whether the house was full that evening and if the crowd seemed like they were in a good mood.
Wig secured and makeup applied, Ezra would pull on his large-breasted, padded bra, garter belt and fishnet stockings. He would wriggle into his sequined costume or perhaps the chiffon number. Then either Ivana or Myra would help zip him up. Sliding his size twelves into hot pink, high-heeled pumps, with his shoulders pushed back, fake tits thrust forward and head held high, Ezra transformed into the character who headlined as “Hedda d’ Klass.” He would make his way to the stage wings and wait for the other two. On musical queue, they would mince or prance, depending on their style, onto the stage of the Faygele Theatre, the only Jewish drag club in the entire city.
The Faygele was doing a bust-up business. While the economy had forced other clubs to let their live bands go and resort to recorded music, they had one of the few live bands still playing a drag review. It was due to the management’s savvy that the Faygele still had their band. The owner had struck a deal with them. They could keep their gig if they were willing to play during the week for beer and a share of the waiter’s tips. They would get paid cash under the table on the weekends.
The drinks were watered down and the prices were hiked up but with the smallest cover charge anywhere, the house was filled every night. Not a lot of effort or expense went into the performers’ costumes, but dozens of hours were put into developing the dance steps and lyrics of their bawdy songs. On stage, every suggestive bump, grind and arched eyebrow brought wolf-whistles, shrieks, hoots and appreciative applause from the crowd. By cross-dressers’ standards, they were a huge success. Their fans begged for their autographs every night.
Out in the alley they smoked cigarettes while some standup comic or Vaudeville-style act gave them a break.
After the last show, the three would remove their makeup and tuck the trappings that had transformed them into Ivana, Myra and Hedda, back into their suitcases. After a while, David and Marc had stopped asking Ezra to go out and close the bars with them. He’d always said no. Instead, Ezra would take his suitcase, say good night to the security guard, and walk to the subway station.
At home, he would let himself into the apartment and put the suitcase back into the hall closet. The light from the television would illuminate his father’s sleeping face where he dozed, just as Ezra had left him. Gently shaking Neiman awake, Ezra would take him to the bathroom. His father’s teeth would need to be taken out and put into a glass of water. He would help him use the toilet, then tuck him into bed.
Exhausted, he would take a shower and fall asleep on the sofa.
You might wonder how someone like Ezra found his way into the unusual sub-culture of drag queen performers. As they say, it’s funny how things happen.
After his mother died, Ezra boxed up the majority of her belongings and took them to the Hadassah Charity Thrift. He had been planning to take his father to live with Rachel in Israel and as for himself, perhaps travel a little – see the world. His parents had lived frugally, putting every penny into the stock market. If he liquidated their stocks, there would be plenty of money. But still, old habits die hard. While at the thrift store Ezra purchased two pieces of luggage for the trip he had planned, one for himself and one for his father. When he got home and opened the suitcases, he found one contained a gaudy sequined gown and fishnet stockings. The other contained a wig, stage makeup, a garter belt and a set of “falsies.” Inside an inner pocket there was a business card with the name of the manager of the Faygele Theatre. He tossed the whole kit in the back of a closet.
Within two weeks the stock market had taken a dramatic nose dive and Ezra had to sell out for pennies on the dollar. There would be no trip to Israel, no world tour for himself. They could barely meet their daily living expenses. Neiman’s medications were expensive. So, even though they lived within a tight budget and their apartment was rent-controlled, they fell on hard times.
By nature an extreme introvert, perhaps even an agoraphobic, after his mother died, Ezra realized that no one else would be taking care of them. Unless he was willing to leave the apartment, they wouldn’t survive. His father was elderly and becoming more incapacitated every day. It would be up to Ezra to do the banking, shopping and other errands.
Since their finances had become strained, he had begun to read the classifieds, both hopeful and dreading finding a job. During the day he had to stay home to look after his father. That only left working nights as a possibility. He briefly thought about becoming a night watchman. But he would have to carry a gun and the thought of violence – even the remotest possibility of having to discharge a weapon – filled him with revulsion.
But still he searched the classifieds. There was a job delivering newspapers in the early morning hours, but the pay was too low. There was a position offered working nights as a baker’s assistant. He took a cab to the interview. When it pulled up outside, he realized the bakery wasn’t kosher. He didn’t even go in.
On the way home he found himself in an area of the city he had never frequented. There were several theatre clubs and he recognized the name of one of them. It was the Faygele. There was a “Help Wanted” sign outside. He asked the cabbie to let him off and he went in. Ezra paid the cover charge and found a dark corner just outside the spot lights where he had an unobstructed view of the stage. He had to fight the urge to dash from the building, but sitting in the darkened corner, it wasn’t so bad. A waiter came to his table. Ezra ordered a small seltzer water. He also asked the waiter how he could interview for the job opening, thinking they were looking to hire another waiter. It wasn’t until the waiter told him the job opening was for “the talent,” that he paid closer attention to the stage performers.
After the waiter brought him his glass of seltzer, Ezra nursed it for close to an hour, studying the drag queens’ acts. He made a mental note that male patrons were stuffing money into the “girls” garter belts or down the fronts of their dresses. They were making a lot of cash for just croaking out songs and wiggling their tushies.
When Ezra got home, he took care of his father’s needs and after tucking him into bed, he opened the hall closet and groped his way to the back, pulling out the two suitcases he’d tossed in not that long before. He carried them into the living room and opened them up, pulling out their contents and draping each item on the sofa. Then he took off his clothes, down to his skivvies.
He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as he considered how he might approach putting any of those things on his own body. Tentatively, he pulled the sequined dress over his head. It was too narrow on the bottom to get on that way. He took it off. He pulled the zipper down and stepped into its opening. Then he stepped out, sat down and pulled off his shoes and socks. He stepped in again and drew the dress over his thighs and buttocks, putting his arms through the sleeves.
He turned to observe himself in the mirror over the credenza. Even though he hadn’t zipped it up, he could clearly see the bodice drooped where he lacked the large breasts which would have taken up the slack. He pulled his arms back out of the sleeves, letting the top of the dress hang at his waist. He fumbled for a while until he was able to figure out how to put on the bra with the false boobs. Once it was in place, he pulled the top of the dress up over them and slid his arms back in the sleeves.
For the life of him, Ezra could not figure out how to zip up the dress. It took a few minutes, but he removed the shoelaces from his tennis shoes and attached a paperclip to the end. In this way he was able to zip up the dress – and it fit!
He turned this way and that, hands on his hips, looking at himself from all angles. He pulled the wig on and adjusted it until it looked almost natural. He vamped in the mirror and smiled self-consciously. He was stunned to see that when he looked in the mirror, it wasn’t Ezra who looked back. Ezra wasn’t even in the room. Instead, there was someone else entirely. He had become this other, female person. At that moment Ezra realized he could hide inside that costume and take on another persona, this woman, this fearless, outgoing, flirtatious woman! He could do this!
He practiced for hours in front of the mirror, strutting back and forth as he had seen the performers do on stage at the club, tossing his head, raising his eyebrows, wagging his hips, flashing a lipstick-lined smile. He even found he could carry a tune. There was an awkward moment or two when he went to purchase high heels at a women’s shoe store, but the following week he arranged for an audition and somehow, he got the job.
Over time he established a routine and fell comfortably into it. The money was good enough. He never completely felt he belonged in the world of gay and cross-dressing men. But no one there questioned or judged him. Ezra always showed up on time for practice and performances and always knew his lines. He just kept to himself.
Time marches on, and with it, time brought Ezra’s father, Neiman, the onset of Alzheimer’s, gradually deteriorating him even more. One evening while Ezra was at the club, Neiman woke up in the recliner, got up to use the bathroom and in a confused state, left their apartment. At the top of the stairs, he became dizzy. He lost his balance and fell. A neighbor on the first floor heard him calling out for help. She found him where he had fallen and called an ambulance.
When Ezra returned home to the apartment in the early morning hours, he found a note taped to his door. It said, “Neiman – injured – taken to Brooklyn Jewish Hospital.” At that hour there was hardly any traffic and thank God it was easy to flag a cab.
At the E.R., the doctor assured Ezra that his father had only suffered some minor scrapes and bruises. He had been checked into the hospital for overnight observation. With a fall, there is always the possibility of a concussion. After Ezra peeked in on Neiman and saw that he was resting comfortably, he spoke to the nurse. She reported that Neiman had been administered some pain medication and suggested that he go get some rest and return after 9:00 a.m. She anticipated he would be able to take his father home.
At 9:00 o’clock in the morning, Ezra went to check his father out of the hospital. A nurse had dressed Neiman and helped him put his teeth back in. She told Ezra that there was a notation in Neiman’s chart that Dr. Rothman wanted to see the patient’s son before they left. In Dr. Rothman’s office, Ezra was informed there were concerns for Neiman and the hospital recommended that Ezra consider admitting him to a facility that would give him round-the-clock care and security. Dr. Rothman handed Ezra a brochure for the Guggenheim-Mankin Eldercare Home, shook his hand and wished him luck. Ezra knew it would take more than luck. It would take lots of money.
In a somber mood, Ezra followed the nurse who pushed Neiman in a wheelchair to the hospital entrance. A cab pulled up and Ezra and the nurse helped Neiman into the back seat and buckled him in. Ezra got in the front passenger seat and gave the cabbie their home address.
Staring out through the windshield, Ezra felt resigned. There was nothing to do but put Neiman in a home. At 42 years old, Ezra had never lived alone. And what would happen to his father – living with a bunch of strangers? But that was that. There was no debating that he could no longer take care of his father all by himself and he certainly couldn’t keep an eye on him every minute. For his safety and health, Neiman would have to go live at the Guggenheim-Mankin Eldercare Home. Why even postpone it? If Ezra instructed the cabbie to drive there straight from the hospital, he wouldn’t have to argue with Neiman over taking the elevator and he doubted he could carry him upstairs.
So, he would go, check him in and later bring his suitcase, toiletries and the framed picture of his mother and himself. Years before, when his mother had cut Rachel out of their lives, she had cut her out of the photograph as well. It was never re-framed. There was always that uncomfortable third of the photo missing. Ezra would bring the crocheted shawl and his father’s slippers. What more was there, really? An entire life summed up in things you could carry in one armload. Okay; it was settled. The cabbie would take them to the Guggenheim-Mankin home.
Evidently, the fall had shaken Neiman more severely than first evaluated at the hospital triage. In the cab he was unresponsive. Maybe falling down had been just enough to push him from tentatively considering joining the Alzheimer’s Club to becoming a full-fledged member. There was no point in asking Neiman if he wanted to live at Guggenheim-Mankin. He might as well have asked him if he wanted to go live at the White House with the President. Hell, today he didn’t seem to know who Ezra was; debate over.
They arrived and everything went surprisingly well. The intake person helped Ezra fill out the paperwork. She took his contact information – emergency phone number – things like that. She said she only needed Neiman’s birth certificate and proof that Ezra had the right to place Neiman in the home. No, a Power of Attorney wasn’t really necessary, nothing that official, not a court order. His own birth certificate would do. Could he please bring them in tomorrow? Sure. No problem.
When a nurse came to wheel Neiman away, Ezra gave his father a quick half-hug and told him he’d be back. According to the nurse, his father was just in time for the mid-morning snack. Kosher? Yes, of course, kosher. Possibly distracted by the idea of a snack, Neiman didn’t even wave goodbye.
The apartment had never seemed so dismal. Everything was pretty much just as it had been the day his mother, Sophie, had died. Ezra walked from room to room – he wasn’t much of a housekeeper. There was dust on everything. There was a funny smell that he guessed was coming from under the kitchen sink. Had it always been there but had he just now noticed it?
He absent-mindedly hung up a jacket that had been tossed over the back of a chair and sponged crumbs off the kitchen table. Then he sat down in a kitchen chair, the one his father always sat in and stared out the window.
Big changes – and all happening so fast. The whole thing was just exhausting. He moved to the sofa and fell asleep. Even though he had a bedroom, ever since his mother had died, he had slept in the living room. Hours later he woke up startled. It was after dark. He had just enough time to get to the theatre. Screw it, he thought. I’ll phone in sick. The owner of the theatre was understanding. Sure, take the night off. Only one night? It would be okay. Don’t worry.
In the morning, when Ezra finished breakfast, he began going through his father’s belongings. The first thing he needed to locate was his father’s birth certificate and also his own to take back to the home and complete his father’s registration. He remembered his mother had a fancy hat box where she kept mementos and she kept it at the top of his parent’s bedroom closet. You could only reach it on a stepstool; a likely place to begin looking. There were two hatboxes up there. He took them both down. He wasn’t surprised that in one he found his mother’s wig. Many orthodox Jewish women wear wigs. He didn’t remember ever seeing her not wearing it. Seeing it there gave him the creeps. It was a jolting reminder that she was really gone. Under the wig he found several Mother’s Day cards that he had given her over the years. There were none from Rachel. He took out the cards and set that box aside to take to the thrift store.
The second one seemed to have what he was looking for. The box was filled with documents. He took it into the kitchen and put it on the table, taking them out, unfolding each one, flattening them with his hands. They were mostly receipts. A manila envelope was stuffed with papers. He pulled them all out. The top one seemed to be his birth certificate and there was another one that had Rachel’s name. He squinted at the old typewriter font and realized he was getting old. Damn, he couldn’t read the faded print. He got a pair of his father’s reading glasses and was able to make out the words.
Nothing had prepared Ezra for what he was seeing. He sat down. He took the glasses off and put them on the table. He rubbed his hands over his eyes and cheeks. He put the glasses back on, picked up the two documents and turned towards the window for better light. There, he could see more clearly; they were adoption papers. Yes, adoption papers. They said he and Rachel were adopted at birth. There was never even the slightest hint over the years that his mother hadn’t given birth to both of them.
He set those papers aside and continued looking through the stack. He found his father’s birth certificate. Man, it looked old – hard to read. Funny, Ezra thought, that as his father had aged and his skin had yellowed, the paper that his birth certificate was printed on had yellowed with age too.
There were more old documents including another birth certificate, similarly yellowed and difficult to read but he knew it was his mother’s. He set that aside too. As long as he was looking, he looked through every document in the pile. There was his certificate of Bar Mitzvah. Some of Rachel’s and his school report cards, their high school graduation announcements. He gathered them all up and stuffed them back into the hat box. He put his mother’s birth certificate on top of the hat box and set everything on a table in the hallway.
Ironically, yesterday he though his biggest trauma was going to be having Neiman suddenly living with strangers and he, living alone, upsetting the fabric of their lives. Today, sliding his adoption document into the manila envelope with his father’s birth certificate, he realized it had been a tough twenty-four hours.
The smell had gotten stronger. Ezra opened the cupboard door, bent down and sniffed. That wasn’t where the smell was coming from. He opened the refrigerator door. Found it. The milk had gone bad. He poured it down the drain.
Ezra washed up and called a cab. He planned to drop off the documents and check in on Neiman. And if his father was lucid, he would ask him about his adoption.
The administrator’s assistant made a copy of both documents for Neiman’s file. She didn’t have a problem with accepting the legal strength of Ezra’s adoption paper in lieu of a birth certificate. Neiman had slept well, she told him, eaten breakfast and was in the recreation room. He’d even made a couple of new friends. Ezra greeted him – you look good, Dad, that sort of thing.
He pushed Neiman in his wheelchair down the hall, finding an inner courtyard with a sunny spot. They talked for a while about Neiman’s initial impressions of the home. He had mixed feelings, but mostly it was okay.
Then Neiman asked Ezra when Sophie was coming to take him home. Not a good sign, Ezra thought. If Ezra was going to ask Neiman about the adoption, he’d better ask now, today, while Neiman at least seemed to know who he was.
When pressed, Neiman defensively admitted the truth. Yes, yes, he said, Ezra and Rachel were adopted. And why not? What? Was it some kind of a crime? After all, he and Sophie couldn’t have children and they wanted a family. So they adopted. What was the big deal?
But Ezra persisted, why had it been kept a secret all those years?
Neiman responded, Why not? Like it’s anybody’s business? Like every Tom, Dick and Harry should know what goes on in their private lives?
Ezra pursed his lips together. He could never argue with his father’s Jewish, guilt-ridden logic. So it was a fact and that was that. It wasn’t like he could do anything about it. What else was there to do? Could he rage at his father for keeping it a secret – the huge lie that hung over the apartment their whole lives? Never mind. Get on with life. And that was that. He wondered if Rachel knew.
The nurse came to get Neiman. There was a karaoke hour coming up. Ezra gave his father – his adopted father – a kiss on the cheek. He promised to come back in a few days.
That evening, before Ezra left for the theatre, he stood for a moment looking at the empty chair in the kitchen. Then he took the suitcase out of the closet and left the apartment.
Everyone backstage asked if his father was all right. Ezra nodded and went to work, putting on his makeup, pulling on his wig, strapping on the fake boobs and wriggling into the sequined dress.
They did their first number, then went backstage to powder their noses and grab a cigarette outside. Just as they were coming back in, one of the stage crew came to get Ezra. The care facility had called. His father had suffered a stroke and had been taken to the hospital. Could he come right away? Everyone gathered around. Backstage became chaotic with offers of help. Ezra waived them off and made a dash for the door. Outside he hailed a cab.
At the hospital, there were raised eyebrows when Ezra arrived straight from the theatre, frantic, still dressed in his wig, makeup, dress and enormous fake breasts. Ezra suddenly realized why they were staring. What? Shouldn’t a person have the right to see his father? Even if a person was dressed as a woman? Even if that person’s father wasn’t his real father? A candy-striper showed Ezra to Neiman’s room.
Neiman didn’t look good. He looked paler than usual. The nurse gave Ezra a status report. It was only a minor stroke, but he had hit his head when he fell. He took his father’s hand and Neiman responded, opening his eyes. Ezra couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his father smile. But there he was, smiling. Shakily, Neiman reached his hands up to Ezra’s face, using what little strength he had to draw Ezra closer to his own face. He kissed Ezra square on the lips. Then he lay back on his pillow, whispered, “Sophie” . . . and died.
Ezra stood beside Neiman’s bed, in shock. His father was dead. And he had called him “Sophie.” He hadn’t recognized Ezra. Was it the Alzheimers or the wig, the makeup and the dress? For whatever reason, Neiman had thought he was Sophie, come to take him home.
Ezra sat down on the edge of the hospital bed as the nurse attempted to console him. She was so sorry, but there were papers he would need to sign. Tears welled up in Ezra’s eyes and his makeup began to run. He cried into the Kleenex the nurse offered him. His father wasn’t even cold and there were already papers to be signed. Screw the papers.
The doctor came to check Neiman for a pulse and made a “time-of-death” notation on his chart that he would fill in on the death certificate. He spoke with Ezra explaining that the hospital would need to know what arrangements he wanted to make for his father’s remains. His father’s remains; so this was it and that was that.
Ezra returned to the silent apartment and lay down on his parents’ bed. What now? Well, he would keep breathing. He would still eat, do dishes, use the toilet, go to work and keep breathing. He got up and showered, got into his pajamas and walked around the apartment. There was nothing to do. He had tidied up earlier. There was the hat box stuff he could put away. He picked up his mother’s birth certificate that he had left on top of the box and went into the kitchen. He sat down in his father’s chair and choked up as he put on his father’s glasses. Neiman wouldn’t be needing them anymore, but Ezra was getting older and now he did. Lowering his head, Ezra attempted to make out the faded print.
“Epstein.” Yes, that was his mother’s maiden name. And there were the names of his mother’s parents, “Abraham” and “Rachel.” Ezra’s sister was named after her. Next to “Baby Name” they had typed “Samuel.” Who the hell was Samuel? His mother’s name was Sophie. It must be a typo. He continued to read . . . “Sex: Male.” He lowered the paper and looked up. This was someone else’s birth certificate, someone named Samuel. Did his mother have a brother?
The answer was too much for Ezra, because, as far as he knew, his mother didn’t have a brother named Samuel. She didn’t have a brother at all. The answer was that his mother wasn’t his mother. Well, that much Ezra already knew. He was adopted. But it seemed the family secrets didn’t stop there. The reason for the adoptions; his mother was a man, apparently a man named Samuel.
Had Ezra’s sister found out? Is that why she left Brooklyn, left the country, cut off communication with the family?
The next morning, when the sun shone in through the window, Ezra was still sitting in the kitchen. The faded birth certificate was still on the kitchen table in front of him. In a kind of suspended animation, he’d spent the entire night reviewing his life – the way he had thought it was and comparing it with the way it really was, with the lies stripped away.
Finished looking back, he began musing about his future. Neiman had kept a life insurance policy. Ezra would be able to keep the apartment. He would get a passport and take the trip he’d planned. Instead of dropping Neiman off in Israel to live with Rachel, he would be burying Neiman’s ashes there. Then he would continue traveling. He would see the world.
Would Hedda make a farewell appearance at the Feygele Theatre? And then, would Ezra take Hedda’s suitcase back to the thrift store? Or instead, would he leave it pushed to the back of the hall closet? Or . . . would he take it with him on his world tour?
Those would be his personal decisions – and what business is it of yours, anyway? Like every Tom, Dick and Harry needs to know what goes on in a person’s private life?
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You might wonder how someone like Ezra found his way into the sub-culture of drag queen performers. As they say, it’s funny how things happen.