In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
Miri Ammerman and her best friend, Natalie Osner, were sprawled on their bellies on the thick, tweedy wall-to-wall carpet of Natalie’s den, waiting for the first-ever televised lighting of the famous Christmas tree. The den was Miri’s favorite room in Natalie’s house, not least because of the seventeen-inch Zenith, inside a pale wood cabinet, the biggest television Miri had ever seen. Her grandmother had a set but it was small with rabbit ears and sometimes the picture was snowy. The furniture in the Osners’ den all matched, the beige sofas and club chairs arranged around a Danish modern coffee table, with its neat stacks of magazines—Life, Look, Scientific American, National Geographic. A cloth bag with a wood handle, holding Mrs. Osner’s latest needlepoint project, sat on one of the chairs. A complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica took up three shelves of the bookcase, along with family photos, including one of Natalie at summer camp, in jodhpurs, atop a sleek black horse, holding her ribbons, and another of her little sister, Fern, perched on a pony. In one corner of the room was a game table with a chess set standing ready, not that she and Natalie knew how to play, but Natalie’s older brother, Steve, did and sometimes he and Dr. Osner would play for hours.
She and Natalie sang “White Christmas” along with Kate Smith, then oohed and aahed with the crowd, with the whole country, when the tree was lit, signaling the start of the holiday season.
Later, Miri found out her mother had been there to see it live, one of the two thousand spectators. Rusty told Miri she’d been pushed and shoved as the crowd pressed forward until she’d decided it wasn’t worth the effort and left to catch her train to Elizabeth. She could see the tree any old day on her way home from work.
FOR MIRI the real start of the holiday season was her mother’s birthday. Miri was sure Rusty had felt robbed as a kid, having a birthday so close to Hanukkah, but Rusty assured her that no, she’d never minded having a holiday birthday. It made it more special.
This year Hanukkah fell at the same time as Christmas, something Miri thought should be the rule, not the exception. She vowed she wouldn’t wait until the last minute to do her shopping, but here she was on Saturday, the day before her mother’s birthday, on a mission that took her downtown to Nia’s Lingerie, a shop on Broad Street. Neither she nor her second best friend, Suzanne Dietz, who smelled of Noxzema year-round and had the best skin of any girl in their crowd, had ever set foot in Nia’s. Just the word lingerie was enough to send them into fits of laughter. It sounded like something Mrs. Osner would say in her southern drawl instead of underwear. Underwear was what Miri and Suzanne bought at Levy Brothers, one of two department stores on Broad Street. Underwear was white cotton. But lingerie—lingerie was something else. Not that there was anything suggestive in Nia’s windows. Not a bra or girdle in sight. And nothing black. Navy blue was as close as it got. Still, who knew what they’d find inside? Miri had clipped an ad from the Daily Post: THIS SEASON GIVE HER NYLON TRICOT BY VANITY FAIR. She wasn’t sure about nylon tricot but the ad from Nia’s showed a half-slip for $3.99, something her mother might appreciate since she’d been complaining about the worn-out elastic waistbands of hers.
A single chime announced the opening of the door as Miri and Suzanne entered the shop. Inside, it was busy with holiday shoppers but not overwhelming the way it would be at Levy’s or Goerke’s, the other downtown department store.
The shoppers, all women, talked in hushed voices. A small white Christmas tree with silver ribbons threaded through its branches, topped by a silver angel, sat on the display table. Satin bedroom slippers and delicate bed jackets in pale colors were arranged around the tree. Who wore bed jackets? Rusty had a woolly robe and two flannel nightgowns for winter, and a seersucker robe and a few cotton nightgowns for summer. Maybe movie stars who were served breakfast in bed wore bed jackets. But there were no movie stars in Elizabeth, New Jersey. None that Miri knew of, anyway. Even Mrs. Osner didn’t have a bed jacket. If she did it wasn’t hanging in her closet, because Miri had been through that closet a hundred times, ever since she and Natalie had become best friends two years ago. Miri and Suzanne were still babysitting partners and ate lunch at the same cafeteria table every day—they just weren’t bests.
“Can I help you?” a pretty young woman asked Miri.
“Are you Nia?” Miri hadn’t planned to say that. It just slipped out.
“I’m Athena, her daughter. What can I show you today?”
Athena—Miri didn’t know anyone named Athena. Such an exotic name. Wasn’t Athena the Greek goddess of wisdom, arts and something else, maybe war? She’d loved her book of Greek mythology in fifth grade. Uncle Henry had given it to her. Every night they’d taken turns reading myths to each other.
“Are you looking for something special?” Athena asked.
When Miri didn’t answer, Suzanne nudged her.
“It’s my mother’s birthday,” Miri said, coming back to the moment, “and I was thinking of a half-slip, maybe a nylon tricot half-slip.”
Before Miri had the chance to dig the ad from her purse, Athena said, “I have just what you’re looking for. What size does your mother wear?”
“She’s either a small or a medium, depending.”
“Really, a small?” Athena said, as if a mother couldn’t possibly be a small.
“She’s five-five, a hundred and fifteen pounds.” Miri knew everything about her mother, every detail of her life, except for one, and she wasn’t going to waste her time thinking of that today.
Athena brought out a few half-slips. “Double slits,” she said, holding up one. By Vanity Fair, $3.99. “This is the nylon tricot. Feel how soft it is. It won’t cause static.” She laid a size small on top of the medium to show Miri the difference.
“My mother wears a medium,” Suzanne said quietly, as if she were giving away top-secret information. “And she’s bigger than your mom.”
“Go with the small, then,” Athena advised Miri. “She can exchange it if it’s the wrong size. What color? We have it in white, pink and navy.”
“She goes to business in New York,” Miri said. “She wears dark colors, especially in winter. So I think navy.”
“An excellent choice,” Athena said. “Can I show you anything else?”
“I need to get her something for Hanukkah, but—”
“Hanukkah is like Christmas,” Suzanne told Athena.
“Yes, of course,” Athena said.
Miri gave Suzanne a look. Why would she bother to explain? Not that Suzanne didn’t pride herself on knowing all about the Jewish holidays, not that she didn’t love throwing around the Yiddish expressions she’d picked up from Miri’s grandmother. Suzanne knew way more about the story of Hanukkah than Miri knew about Jesus.
“I can’t spend as much this time,” Miri told Athena. Both she and Suzanne had saved their babysitting money for holiday shopping. They’d already chipped in to buy the little sisters they babysat a box of five finger puppets for $1.50. The girls were going to love them. But at this rate Miri wasn’t going to make it through her list.
“How about stockings?” Athena said. “You can never have too many, especially when you go to business.”
“But stockings are so boring.” Miri turned to Suzanne. “Don’t you think stockings are boring?”
“I don’t know,” Suzanne said. “I was thinking of getting my mother stockings for Christmas.”
Miri backtracked. “I didn’t mean they’re not a good idea.” Suzanne’s mother was a nurse. She wore white stockings with her uniform. But Suzanne chose the new seamless stockings by Lilly Daché, three pair in “Dubonnet Blonde,” nicely packaged and tied with a red ribbon.
Miri was thinking of a less practical gift, something that would make her mother laugh. Something Rusty could show her friends at work, saying, My daughter gave me this for Hanukkah. My daughter is such a card! When she was little she’d always made something at school, a painted clay ashtray, a decorated coaster, a pin made of buttons. Rusty had saved every one of her handmade gifts. But now that she was a month from her fifteenth birthday, painted clay ashtrays were a thing of the past.
Suzanne checked her mother’s name off her neat, alphabetized list. Miri’s list was in her head and was neither neat nor alphabetized. But at least she had a good birthday present for Rusty. At least she had that.
“I hope you’ll shop with us again,” Athena said.
“We will,” Miri told her.
Then she whispered to Suzanne, “The next time we need to buy lingerie,” making Suzanne laugh as they opened the door and stepped out into the icy wind and blowing snow from yesterday’s storm.
On Sayre Street, a brisk fifteen-minute walk from downtown in decent weather, a ten-minute bus ride on a day like today, Rusty Ammerman had already finished the laundry and vacuuming. The two-family house on a street of other two-family houses, each with a small, neat front yard, was divided into an upstairs apartment, where she lived with Miri, and a downstairs one, where her mother, Irene, lived with Rusty’s brother, Henry. But the doors between the two floors were never locked and Miri spent as much time at Irene’s as she did upstairs.
Rusty was putting the finishing touches on the Hanukkah gifts she was wrapping for Miri. The Lanz nightgown was at the top of Miri’s wish list, not that Miri had told her in so many words, but Rusty knew. All the girls had Lanz nightgowns. She’d seen that in the photo from Natalie’s slumber party, with four of them in Lanz and Miri in ordinary pajamas.
She hadn’t planned on the white angora mittens with leather palms, but she couldn’t resist when she saw them in the window of Goerke’s last week on her way home from the train station. They certainly weren’t practical, but Miri loved angora. The next best thing to having a pet, Miri said, since the dog or cat she wanted was out of the question. The house was too small, no one was home all day, and pets were a responsibility, not to mention an expense. Besides, Irene wouldn’t hear of it. Rusty should know. She’d lobbied for a dog when she was a girl, when they’d lived on Westfield Avenue in a single-family house with a backyard, close to her father’s shop, Ammerman’s Fine Food Emporium. She’d recruited Henry to beg with her.
“We already have a cat at the store,” her mother had said. “You can play with Schmaltzie anytime you want to.”
What kind of name was Schmaltzie for a cat? Rusty’s father had named him. “Because he’s fat,” he’d explained. “Because he looks like he eats too much schmaltz.” Her mother used chicken fat—schmaltz—in the chopped liver she made every Friday.
“Schmaltzie catches mice,” Rusty had said. “That’s why he’s fat.”
“That’s his job,” her father told her. “But he still likes to play.”
“I want a different kind of cat,” Rusty told him. “One who lives at home, or else a dog. A dog would be even better.”
But then the market crashed, and in the Depression that followed a pet was the least of their concerns.
Rusty hid the wrapped presents in the corner of her closet, on the highest shelf, not that Miri would snoop around the way she had when she was little, but still, there was something satisfying about hiding them.
Now that she’d finished her housework for the week, a little luxury was in order, starting with a long, hot bath. As the water ran in the claw-foot tub, Rusty chose her bath salts carefully, sniffing each one. Was she in a lavender mood, vanilla, musk? Yes, musk. Something to remind her she was just turning thirty-three. She was still young. It wasn’t too late. She stepped into the steamy bath, then lowered herself, sinking lower and lower until only her face was above water.
Downstairs, in her first-floor apartment, Rusty’s mother, Irene Ammerman, poured a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream into a crystal decanter, to welcome the holiday shoppers she hoped would flock to her house from four to eight p.m., despite the falling temperatures. She’d sent out penny postcards, inviting all her regular customers, encouraging them to bring friends.
This morning, before he left for work at the newspaper, Henry had opened her dining room table to its full length, big enough to seat twelve. She’d created a tabletop display with fluffy cotton, white as fresh snow, arranged the Volupté compacts just so, then scattered sparkly snowflakes around. The snowflakes would make a mess, she knew, and she’d be Hoovering tomorrow morning, but they were worth it. This year’s line featured a style to appeal to every taste. If you wanted gemstones, there were gemstones. If you preferred gold accents on silver, fine. And if you wanted simple but elegant, there were plenty to choose from. She set the Ronson lighters, the other line she carried, in small groups, ranging from large silver tabletop models to small, pocket-size squares. There was still time to have the Ronsons engraved, but not much.
She had to be careful what else she put on the table. Last year she’d used her leaded crystal candlesticks to add height to her display, along with a few colorful antique bowls. A mistake, since customers assumed they were also for sale. So she sold a few bowls, making up prices on the spot. But the candlesticks—no. She didn’t have much left from the old days, when they were flush from the store, and these she was keeping for Rusty, or Miri, or even Henry’s wife, if he married, which she hoped he would.
Yesterday, she’d splurged on a wash, set and manicure at Connie’s Beauty Salon. She needed to look as stylish as the gifts she was hoping to sell. Presentation was presentation, and that included her. She moved the family photos, usually lined up on the sideboard, to the top of the spinet to make room for her famous coffee cakes. Her customers would expect a nosh. She touched her lips to Miri’s photo and stood it next to one of Max, her husband, who’d died two weeks before Miri was born. Boom boom boom—just like that—Rusty turned eighteen, Max died, Miri was born. She was forty-one at the time and in one month she’d become both a widow and a grandmother.
Bad things happen in threes, her cousin Belle reminded her, but Irene couldn’t say that Rusty having a baby at eighteen was a bad thing, or maybe it was, given the circumstances, but the baby herself was not. The baby, Miri, was a precious gift, with her grandfather’s high cheekbones and dimpled cheek. Not a beauty like Rusty, not yet, but growing into her looks. The eyes, she knew where they came from, but she kept that to herself. She hoped to god she would never again come face-to-face with the person responsible for those eyes. If she did she didn’t know what she might do. He’d better hope she wouldn’t have a carving knife in her hand. If she kept thinking of him she might need a nitro under her tongue. She brushed off her hands as if brushing away bad thoughts and poured herself a small glass of sherry.