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Chapter Three

NATALIE ENJOYED PICKING OUT NEW NAMES FOR THE children once Zeke explained why the change was necessary. Zeke was good that way, making sure she understood the why of everything they had to do. Moshe had only pretended to make her an equal partner in decisions, but he always got his way in the end. All along, Natalie had wanted to give her children American names, pretty names, names that meant something to her, not God. She knew better than anyone how a name could change a child's life. Hadn't she chosen "Natalie" for herself, keen to fit in, to erase the awkward foreign girl who was teased and belittled? And it had worked, too, worked like a charm. Besides, Moshe used "Mark" in the outside world. Even his store had a fake name, so who was he to lecture her on what was real?

But when she'd made that point, he said the store's name was a business decision, one made by his father. Robbins amp; Sons Furriers was too well known, too successful to change its name at this late date. It would be silly to forfeit the brand over this small point, yet pigheaded to perpetrate the self-destructive practice of cultural assimilation generation after generation. Those were his exact words, for this was how Moshe spoke when intent on winning an argument-and he was never not intent on winning. He strung together self-important phrases, as if the words could make him right. Natalie thought he sounded like an old man, and a boring one at that. They were Jews, Mark kept repeating, their children were Jews, and they must work hard to preserve their identity in a world that attempted to substitute the secular for the spiritual. Blah, blah, blah. When Mark started talking like this, Natalie left the room, at least in her own head.

"I'm not going to repeat my father's mistakes," he often said when making his big points, and Natalie longed to fling back at him the news that he had committed a far larger one. But Moshe didn't know that, of course. So she held her tongue. She ended up holding her tongue for ten years, a third of her life. Really all her life, for her father had been quick with a hand when she dared to question him. "Whore," he might say, for no crime greater than her having an opinion. "Thief," she'd countered once, just once, and he had struck her so hard that he had not allowed Natalie to sleep for two days, in case she had a concussion. He had been kind to her for those forty-eight hours, bringing her soup, hovering by her bed. He never hit her again, and he was never quite as nice to her again either.

Zeke, however, always treated Natalie as a partner, an equal. So when he suggested that the children should have new names-she, after all, was traveling under a new one, she had arranged that in advance-he had left the decision up to her.

"We should have done this earlier, before the first time, back in Terre Haute," he said. "They need new names-and new birthdays, too, while you're at it."

"That's a lot to remember," Natalie had said. She wasn't good with numbers, whether dollars or dates.

"Give 'em easy ones, then. Fourth of July, New Year's Day. Look, a blind man could see those are your kids. No one's going to ask a lot of questions."

Except Isaac, of course, who didn't want a new name. Isaac always had questions.

"Warren?" he said, making a face. They were at a rest stop, an old one that was not particularly inviting, even on a bright, almost fall-like morning. "Warren is a stupid name. Why do I have to be Warren?"

The twins, younger and more docile, accepted that they were Robert and Daisy, although they could not remember the names from one moment to the next, and stared blankly when Natalie tried to get them to respond, until she ended up using them together, as in, "Penina-Daisy, take your thumb out of your mouth and listen to me." Or, "Efraim-Robert Rubin, are you eating dirt?" Even then their little faces looked blank, as if she were speaking to them in a foreign language.

"I want to be Sandy," Isaac persisted. "Or Hank."

"Why? What's so special about those names?"

"Dad would know." What was wrong with him? Isaac had never been so sassy at home. But then he was growing up. It was just the natural order of things for a boy to get more combative as he grew older.

"Well, your father's not here," she said, stubborn as any Rubin man, perhaps more so. "So you will do as I say. And as Zeke says."

Zeke, who had been sitting on the next picnic table over, enjoying a smoke, looked up warily. He threw the cigarette down and ground it beneath his heel.

"You shouldn't litter," Isaac admonished. Zeke walked over and crouched in front of Isaac, forcing him to meet his gaze.

"You know what I always say, Warren?"

Isaac glared at Zeke for using the new name but didn't try to correct him.

"Call me whatever you like-just don't call me late for supper."

With that he had ruffled Isaac's hair, enveloped him in a bear hug-and then popped him into the trunk. "Got to make money today," Zeke said to Natalie, "because we sure didn't make any yesterday or the day before. Isaac may have saved us from making a bad mistake back in Mount Carmel, but we're scraping bottom now."

Natalie's stomach clutched when she saw her son's face in the split second before the trunk closed. It was so stony and unforgiving, pinched with the effort of not crying. He never looked more like his father than at such moments. He was her son, her oldest boy, and she loved him with a ferocity that rivaled any emotion she had ever known. But while Zeke and others saw Natalie in her children, the only face Natalie could see in Isaac's was Moshe's, and she didn't want to see Moshe's face anymore, because it made her feel guilty and sad. She didn't hate him. She just didn't love him, not really, and no woman should have to spend a life with a man she didn't love, when the man she did love was finally in a position to claim her.

With Isaac stowed away for now, out of sight if not out of mind, Natalie settled into the front seat. The twins began to sob, asking for Isaac-they had already forgotten all about the new names-but she told them it was okay, that he wanted to ride in the trunk because it was like a little bed, so soft, so luxurious. All this accomplished was changing the tenor of the twins' sobs. Now they wanted a turn, riding in the trunk, in Isaac's cozy little bed.

"Nice job, Nat," Zeke said. "Don't try to explain everything to them. They're children. They're not our equals. We tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it."

"But I thought that's what you hated about the way you were raised."

"When I was in high school, yeah. But not when I was fuckin' five." She shot him a look for using profanity in front of the children, and he put his hand over his mouth. "Sorry."

"Okay," she said, not wanting to fight. She snaked her hand across the seat and let it brush his thigh. She didn't dare touch him when Isaac was around, and even the twins would find it confusing if she showed Zeke too much physical affection. They needed more time to get used to the new ways. She had suggested they call him "Uncle Zeke," but he had quickly vetoed that. "That's not what I am to them," he had said, and he was right, of course. Zeke was going to be their father, more of a father to them than Moshe, who was never home, who worked all the time.

True, he had spent time with Isaac, talking and reading to him late in the evenings. But Natalie had always felt that was because Mark found Isaac better company than she was. They liked the same dull things, history and baseball, things found in books. During the day Isaac was obedient and loving, interested in the things she cared about. They had a standing date at 4:00 p.m. to watch that decorating show, the one where the neighbors changed houses. But when Moshe came through the door, it was as if Natalie didn't exist anymore. They ganged up on her, made fun of her. She was the butt of all their private jokes.

"Do you think," she asked Zeke, "that we should aim a little bigger? At least on your end? There's not much I can do to bring more money in. But if you don't change up, we're going to be working almost every other day. We burn through money so fast, what with motels and eating in restaurants."

"A man has to know his capabilities," he said. "Look at your father if you ever doubt the wisdom of that."

Natalie didn't have much affection for her father, but hearing him criticized caused the usual defensive reflex. "My father lost his temper at a bad moment, that's all. He was good at what he did."

"Yeah, but he got in over his head, didn't he? That's all I'm saying. He tried to be a big shot and ended up crossways with the wrong guy. Look, I learned how to do this. I paid attention, I listened. Small is the way to go. Small towns, small places, as close to state lines as possible. Just be patient."

As if she hadn't already waited forever, as if she hadn't proved she was more patient than almost any woman on the planet. She was beginning to think Zeke was a person who loved the planning, the buildup, just a little too much. She always did everything he told her to do, only to find there was still one more thing required of her.

There was a legend in Natalie's family about a relative, a great-uncle or something like that, who had hidden himself in a cupboard at the end of World War II and stayed there for two weeks without moving. He was the only person in his family to survive the destruction of his village. He was fourteen at the time, small for his age, and he never grew another inch after he came out of that cupboard. Natalie's mother said he was forever known as the "Little Uncle." But there were no photos of him, and Natalie's persistent questions threatened to unravel the story. (Where was the village? What year was this? Weren't the Germans in retreat by then?) Her mother finally made it clear that the Little Uncle was an article of faith in her family and Natalie was a bad sport for trying to undermine the tale. "This is what happens, when you come to America," her mother had complained at last, throwing up her hands. "Your children become Americans."

"Where are we going?" Natalie asked Zeke.

"Not Indianapolis," he said. "Too big."

"I didn't ask where we weren't going."

He gave her a look, but he liked that she had spirit, that she talked back to him.

"An-ti-ci-pation," he sang. "You'll know where we are when we get there."

"But how long?" She couldn't help thinking of Isaac, back in the trunk.

"Not long. Not long at all. Get your game face on."

The Plymouth hit a bump just then, and Natalie wondered if Zeke had done it on purpose, hoping she might cry at the thought of Isaac in his little nest. It helped if she cried, they had found that out the first time, when he had hit her. Well, not hit her, because Zeke would never hit her, just pushed her a little, shook her, when she had balked. At first she hadn't wanted to do her part, didn't see why they couldn't get by on his efforts alone. Moshe had never expected her to work. But this was a partnership, a one-two system, and Zeke couldn't do his part unless she did hers. The near miss back in Mount Carmel had convinced her of the brilliance of his plan.

But what if the story of the Little Uncle were true? What if Isaac, already small for his age, never grew into his height because Natalie let Zeke put him in the trunk? No, it was for his own safety, for his own good. Isaac was as stubborn as his father and his mother combined. He would keep trying to call attention to them, and the one thing they could not risk was being noticed. Zeke had been pounding on that point from the moment he met the children.

"Act like normal and you'll pass for normal," he kept saying. "If anyone's looking for you, they're looking just for you and the kids. They don't expect to see you with a man."

They jolted over another bump. But Isaac had those blankets and a pillow, and it was such a big trunk, and it wouldn't be for more than an hour, maybe less. An hour couldn't possibly stunt his growth. But the fear must have registered in her face, for Zeke glanced over and frowned at her, and the twins began to cry as if on cue.

"Jesus, pull it together, Nat." Zeke then called over his shoulder to the twins, "I'm going to teach you a song, a song my dad taught me when I was your age and we took trips. I'll sing a line and you sing it back to me, okay? Okay?"

The twins stammered between their tears, but the noises they made sounded like agreement.

" 'We're hitting the road'-come on, sing it back. 'We're hitting the road.' "

Natalie sang, providing cover for the twins' small, garbled voices.

" 'Without a single care!' " Zeke's voice was booming, almost too loud, and Natalie knew that his song was scaring the twins more than it was cheering them up. But she didn't want to criticize him when he was trying so hard.

" 'Without a single care,' " Natalie and the twins echoed.

" 'Cuz we're going, and we'll know where we are when we're there.' Wait-don't sing that one. But then you come in again: 'We haven't got a dime.' "

" 'Haven't got a dime,' " the twins lisped dutifully after a confused pause.

" 'But we're going, and we're going to have a wonderful time, yes, sir, we're going to have a wonderful time!' " Zeke slapped the dashboard as if they were having a wonderful time, but it all fell a bit flat in Natalie's opinion. The twins went back to crying, although not quite as loudly, and Zeke looked hopeless, his scariest look of all.

"You know," he said to Natalie, "there weren't supposed to be any kids. I told you-no kids."

"But mere are." She tried a light, careless laugh, as if Zeke were complaining about something at once trivial and beyond anyone's control, like the weather.

"There weren't supposed to be."

She let it drop, knowing him well enough by now to pick her battles. He was just being obstinate. The children couldn't have stayed with Mark. Children needed their mother. Besides, Zeke would soon love them as much as she did. Natalie had no doubt of that. Zeke would come to love them as he loved her, and they would be a real family at last.

Chapter Two | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Four