Everybody Loved Robby


Robby was a talker’s talker. A suave raconteur. A lady’s man and a kibitzer par excellence. A man who could move you with many words or one. And he always had the last word too—that was his signature move.

But that was back, back, way back—in the time when everybody loved Robby. Really did. The girls especially. When Robby’s wife Ida was alive you would say they were comfortable, yes, but you wouldn’t say they were rich. One day he got sick and Ida went out in a fit of love to the best store in town. She bought him a two thousand dollar cashmere robe. She was that crazy about him.

But these days, Robby sat in that robe in the Emeth Jewish nursing home, yelling “bastard” at people, right into their faces. He did it for no apparent reason, although he seemed to do it more on Fridays than other days. Today was a Friday and he did it: Just before the Sabbath service, just before the young girl rabbi, the skinny one with the near crewcut, rode up the driveway on her bicycle and sailed by the security guard, raring to go with the songs and the blessings.

The chapel where they held the service was down from the dining hall, behind carved wooden doors to the left of the foyer, where the residents gathered from the three living floors above. Friday nights they gathered to either attend the service and then dine, or just dine without attending the service.

Robby used to love the service, but once again he didn’t look like he was going tonight – not the way he was acting. He rolled his wheelchair back and forth, back and forth, until they opened the doors to the dining hall. To Sophie and Celia, two of the residents who were in the foyer as well—leaning on the rails of their walkers and waiting for the young girl rabbi—to them Robby didn’t have his good-day look, which was cherubic in that chubby, pink-jowled Winston Churchill way. At this moment he looked like Orson Welles in a black rage.

Cherubic was a Robby thing, it was Robby at his best. When the Jewish orchestra came on Wednesday afternoons and played that Havah Nagila stuff—also Glenn Miller songs from the Ida days—Robby often left his wheelchair, ever so lightly, as though he was levitating, and danced around it, holding onto the arms for support. Wednesdays were Robby’s brightest day. Fridays his darkest.

“The mind is a funny thing,” Sophie said to Celia. “Pieces fall out of it.”

At that moment, the doors of the dining hall opened and Sophie and Celia watched Robby roll right by them to go in. He was greeted by Vivalyn, one of the large Caribbean women who ran the dining hall and, for the most part, ran everything in the Emeth Jewish nursing home.

“What, no service?” Vivalyn asked. “You must be hungry.” She moved behind Robby’s wheelchair and seized it, aiming to roll him to his favorite eating spot.

“Bastard,” Robby roared. It was a loud roar. Out in the foyer, Sophie and Celia heard it. So did several other residents, who were spilling out of the elevators and gathering for either dinner or the service.

“Who you mad at?” Vivalyn asked, in her husky, soothing voice, as though she were talking to an overtired child. “Who make you so mad?”

“Bastard,” Robby roared again. “Bastard. Bastard.” But as he raged, he never looked at Vivalyn, not once.

Sophie turned to Celia, wagging a painted fingernail. “They should call security.

It’s a disgrace. On Friday night too. On Friday night it’s a sin.”

“You think they’ll call security?”

“They should. They should.”

Right then Shulamit, the girl rabbi, breezed into the foyer with her guitar.

And right behind her, a wheelchair shot out of the dining hall like a bullet. It was Robby, his Orson Welles face twisted in a boiling scowl.

Vivalyn ran after him, still trying to calm him down. Also trying to grab the wheelchair, to keep him from tailgating the rabbi. “There, you see? It’s Shulamit, with her guitar. She’ll make music. Don’t you love the music?”

“Bastard,” Robby roared. He roared it so loud everyone heard. Sophie, Celia, and Shulamit had to have heard it too, although you couldn’t tell from her face. It was all hepped up, in that blissful way of hers, from ear to ear.

Smiling sweetly, Shulamit bent down to greet Sophie and Celia, to welcome them to the Sabbath and the service. “I love you two,” she said, in that musical voice of hers.

Robby wheeled his wheelchair right behind her. Scowling. “Bastard,” he roared, right at her back. But she didn’t even flinch, much less turn around.

“What about him? Isn’t he…?” Celia asked Shulamit, who bent lower, and dropped her voice.

“Isn’t he what?” Shulamit asked breezily. “That’s my problem. I don’t love everybody.” She surged ahead, opened the chapel doors and began singing and playing her guitar. Sophie and Celia, moving like tortoises in their walkers, entered and sat down. So did the other waiting residents, all except Robby, who rolled his wheelchair right to the edge of the threshold and parked himself there, glowering at Shulamit and the growing crowd around her. Eventually, Shulamit put down her guitar, walked right up to him and, smiling sweetly and beatifically, shut the doors in Robby’s face. As the doors clicked together they grazed the wheels of Robby’s chair, and he roared the b-word again. Shulamit, serene on her side of the shut doors, went back down the aisle to resume the service. She deftly changed a guitar string, tuned it, and launched into a sustained period of playing and singing and blessing. She sang so joyously it was as though the happy spirit of the Sabbath was bouncing in her every pore.

Vivalyn remembered the day the old rabbi left and Shulamit first pranced into Emeth with her guitar. Right away, Robby muttered something about Shulamit’s eyes or eyebrows looking like Ida’s, his late wife’s. Vivalyn knew the signs. She wondered then and there what Robby was thinking. Whether he had a crush on someone seventy years younger than he was.

Although Celia trusted Sophie, there was one thing she never, ever discussed with her. The night she and Robby made music together, way back when in the old neighborhood. It started out at the old Shangri-la Ballroom, and Celia could still hear the woodwinds and the velvet sound of “Perfidia.” She could still feel the spot in her back where Robby’s arm had pressed as he glided her over the parquet.

And why mention anything to Sophie?—It was just one night, and it was ages and ages ago.

Sophie and Celia still talked about Shulamit’s very first guitar-playing service. Not only was Robby there in the chapel, he was right up front, his face as cherubic and pink as a fat peach. They remembered the way he stepped out into the aisle, moving more into the air than onto the floor—floating on his feet in time to the music. As he floated, he edged closer and closer to the guitar, to the hands that were caressing the strings. Then he put out his own ancient pink hand, like a hungry bear extending a paw.

But that was many months ago, just before Robby’s big birthday. And now, at the age of ninety, Robby sat in his wheelchair and stared at the outside of the carved doors, grinding his false teeth and shouting, “bastard.”

Until, at last, security noticed.

The security guard yawned. He and Robby were the only ones left in the foyer. He rolled Robby into the elevator. The elevator doors slid shut and the foyer was quiet, except for the low buzz from the dining hall—and Shulamit’s rousing voice and guitar echoing from the spellbound chapel.

As the elevator rose, the security guard said, “She’s a good singer. You think?”

As usual, Robby had the last word. He roared his final “bastard” of the night.


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