It was a mistake, of course, that first time. An accident. His hand brushed her breast as he was reaching for the hot sauce. Ginger pretended not to notice. She was looking down at her plate of green papaya salad with smoked tofu, but there was a sly smile, a smirk, he might have said, on her lips and Cogan knew what she was thinking.
He told himself it was her posture: She sat so erect and forward that her breasts were in the way, as if sheltering the tofu. And she was tall, a good two inches taller than Cogan. He was making it into a mathematical formula, with angles and arcs. Cosines.
Just moments before, Ginger had told him Rhoda Shipling had died. Miss Shipling had been Cogan’s high school geometry teacher twenty-five years ago. It was she who had kindled his interest in mathematics. He remembered how her chalk would break when she drew acute angles on the blackboard. The floor in front of the blackboard was speckled with bits of white chalk. He assumed she had died years ago. And he missed what Ginger was saying.
“I’m sorry. What?”
“The hot sauce, please.”
The second time was more or less intentional. After dinner he was dropping her off at her apartment and she asked him up. He helped her off with her coat and in the process brushed her breast with the back of his hand. She bent slightly and with her hands, lifted his head to hers, kissing him full on the lips. It proceeded as you would expect in the mid-Sixties from two people in their forties, and by the morning Cogan felt he was in love with Ginger Lapinsky, proprietress of the Lapinsky Family Funeral Home. But he had been down this road before and he cautioned himself not to equate sex with love.
Ginger’s apartment was a one-bedroom affair above the funeral home. Yes, she had a sense of humor about it. The question was, did he? Cogan laughed, of course, but that first morning, as he walked down the back stairwell and scurried through the parking lot, empty save for two hearses, and out onto Lawrence Avenue, he felt the full weirdness of it. He told himself he’d get over it. It’s no different than living above any business: a candy store, a tailor shop, a grocery. He himself lived above a grocery. Still, no matter where Ginger lived, she’d be the funeral director, the woman who buried the bodies. He imagined the comments his friends would make: Did you do it in a coffin? Were you just dying to get in her pants? Is formaldehyde an aphrodisiac? They could be brutal.
During that first lovemaking Cogan had a fleeting image of Miss Shipling’s cold, inert body laying below them, broken bits of chalk littering her casket. He wished Ginger hadn’t told him. “I’d like to see her one last time,” he said as Ginger lit up a cigarette.
“What? You mean now?”
“We’re alone, right? No one’s downstairs?”
“Okay,” she said. “Come on. Put on your shoes.” They were both naked.
Cogan thought this was the most illicit—and thrilling—thing he had ever done. Holding hands, dressed only in their shoes, they walked down the stairs to the funeral home. Ginger led him to one of the refrigeration units, opened the door and pulled out Miss Shipling.
Cogan gasped. “Oh, God. I assumed she’d be in a casket.”
“Not until morning. We have to keep things fresh.” Ginger pulled back the sheet covering Miss Shipling just enough so that Cogan could see her face.
“Poor woman,” he moaned. “She doesn’t smell fresh.”
“It’s the formaldehyde. Pretty awful stuff. By tomorrow morning, she’ll smell sweet as a rose.”
Cogan felt gloomy. “She was a great teacher. So long, Miss Shipling. God speed.” This was the closest Cogan had ever been to a dead body. His step back was almost involuntary. “I remember one of her quotes: Geometry is not true, it’s advantageous.”
“What does it mean, Herman?”
“I think she meant we’ve adopted it as a convenient way of explaining the real world.”
“I guess there’s something to be said for convenience,” Ginger pulled the sheet over the teacher’s face and rolled the body back into the refrigeration unit. They went upstairs and got dressed. “Nothing like being up close and personal with a dead body to get you out of the mood, huh?” she said with a laugh.
“It was stupid of me to ask to see her. I could have come to the service in the morning. Now, I don’t think I can.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Ginger said.
Cogan wondered what she meant by that. Would looking at bodies become a regular part of their lovemaking? Maybe she said, You get used to it. That made more sense. Of course she was used to it. She saw it every day.
While the trip downstairs put a damper on their evening, it did nothing to blunt the passion of their relationship. Over the next number of months their affair flowered and became the talk of the neighborhood: The insurance man and the funeral director. Cogan’s grandfather had started a neighborhood bank out of the ruins of the Great Depression. He loaned—or so the story goes—Ginger’s grandfather the money to open the funeral home. The bank failed, but Lapinsky’s prospered, and it was now one of the oldest funeral homes in the area. Aldermen, precinct captains, clergy, all the movers and shakers of Albany Park ended up at Lapinsky’s. Once they stopped moving and shaking.
Ginger was two years Cogan’s junior. They had attended the same high school. She had gone south for college. He stayed north. She had been single for the last six years. He had never married.
As their romance continued from an icy December into a glorious Chicago May, Ginger gently broached the matter of marriage. “We’re not getting any younger, Herman.”
Cogan’s response was, “Yes, but…”
Ginger, sensing she had gotten out ahead of the relationship, backed off.
“And how is the lovely Miss Lapinsky?” Cogan’s friend Stern, the druggist, asked one morning.
“Well,” said Cogan, staring at the fizzy glass of Alka-Seltzer on the counter in front of him.
“Well, as in healthy? Or well, as in there’s more to the story?” “She’s talking marriage.”
“And you, my friend,” said Stern, wiping an already spotless counter with a soft rag. “What are you talking?”
“We see each other almost every night. I do care for her.” He took a sip from the glass.
“You could do worse, Herman. She’s attractive. She’s got a good business. Life insurance and burial services: A match made in heaven.” Stern laughed.
Cogan nodded without smiling. He asked himself if this was what love—mature love—was all about. He felt comfortable with Ginger. They shared many interests. Her politics were coincident with his. She was certainly beautiful and the sex was more than adequate. Maybe Stern was right: a match made in heaven. So why the hesitation? Was he expecting bells to ring? The earth to move? He told himself to grow up.
For about a week Cogan had a sense that something was wrong. Ginger seemed sad, inattentive, withdrawn. She wasn’t laughing at his jokes. She wasn’t eating. One evening, sitting in front of the unlit fireplace in her apartment, Cogan asked, “Something bothering you?”
Ginger kissed him. “You’d have to know sooner or later. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, Herman. And it doesn’t look good. A brain tumor.”
“Oh, my God,” Cogan said. “No.”
“Tell no one, darling. I don’t want people fawning over me.” She laid her head on his chest.
“Of course,” he said. “But there must be something we can do. A specialist. A second opinion.”
“Second, third, fourth opinions. I’ve been through it all.” She told him the doctors had ruled out surgery. She was preparing to die.
Cogan searched for the right words, as if there was one set, one agreed upon formula that was most appropriate in this particular circumstance. “My God, my God,” he repeated.
“Let’s make the most of the time we have together,” Ginger whispered.
“Of course,” he said. “We’ll go on a trip, a cruise. Where in the world would you like to go?” Cogan was trying not to cry. He closed his eyes and pictured the two of them walking downstairs, naked except for their shoes. His mind went to the refrigeration unit, the sheet over the body, the casket. He pictured Rabbi Pearlstein giving the eulogy. “My poor Ginger,” he said out loud.
She told him how worried she was about who would run the funeral home after she was gone. She had no children, no siblings and the only relatives were distant cousins from out-of-state. “Marry me and take over the business,” she said to Cogan. “That way it stays in the family.”
“Technically, yes, but…”
“Do this one thing for me, Herman.”
“I’ll be seen as an opportunist. And I don’t know anything about running a funeral home, and what about my insurance business?” And, and, and.
She assured him he’d be able to do both. She would teach him the ins and outs of the death care business. “The competition here is fierce. Morticians on every corner,” she said. “Say yes, Herman.”
“Of course,” he said.
Over the next several days she showed Cogan the embalming machine, the preparation table, the galvanized steel body refrigerators, her inventory of caskets and urns, the makeup, the hearse and lead car. She went over the marketing materials and financial statements with him. “And don’t worry about all the little details,” she said. “I have good people. Gloria Kirshner is my right hand man. She knows everything there is to know about the business. She and Igor make a good team.”
“Igor? You’re kidding, right?”
“Yes, silly. His name is Lance. We call him Igor because he’s the guy who preps the bodies. Brings them to life, so to speak.”
“Funeral home humor,” Cogan said.
She squeezed his arm.
Cogan left that night with a sense of panic. He didn’t want Ginger to suffer. He didn’t want to lose her, and yet he realized he hadn’t been sure he wanted to marry her before the cancer. But now he was committed, honor-bound to marry her. Only a cad would say no in a situation like this. Still, he didn’t want people seeing him as a crass opportunist, taking advantage of a cancer-ravaged woman in order to get control of her business. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t, he thought.
“Rabbi, I’ve been seeing a woman for several months now…” Cogan often turned to his rabbi when he was confused.
“Yes, I know. Miss Lapinsky. Word gets around. A very nice woman. I knew her parents very well.”
“Yes, well Ginger, Miss Lapinsky, and I are considering getting married and...”
“Marvelous, Herman. That’s wonderful news.”
“Can I speak in utmost confidence?”
“Of course. Whatever we say here will go no further. You know that.”
“There is a complication.”
“Yes. She confided in me that she has a brain tumor. It’s inoperable. A question of time.”
“Oh, my God.”
“She nonetheless wants to get married because she loves me and she wants me to take over the family business—the funeral home. She thinks that way it stays in the family, so to speak.”
“Yes, I see. You want to grant poor Miss Lapinsky’s dying wish and yet you don’t want to be seen as taking advantage of the situation.”
“Yes, that’s it exactly.” Cogan knew there was more, that he had doubts about marrying Ginger aside from the look of it. But he couldn’t bring himself to tell this to the rabbi.
“The sages are not clear on this point,” the rabbi said. “You would be performing a mitzvah by marrying Miss Lapinsky and yet in most cases, profiting from a mitzvah is not permitted. But here, the very reason it is a mitzvah—so that Miss Lapinsky can keep the family business in the family—is tied to the profit you may or may not make. So, Herman, I think it is clear that you may marry her.”
Cogan left the rabbi’s office convinced that if getting married is what Ginger wanted, he was going to make that happen. It was the least he could do.
Preparing for the wedding was therapy for Ginger. Settling on a date, looking at dresses, engaging a caterer, reserving the shul, talking with the rabbi: Instead of draining her of energy, it seemed to invigorate her. Cogan was amazed by her stamina. After a full day of work and an evening of shopping, she was fresh and lively. She told Cogan a brief honeymoon in New York would be wonderful, and she’d leave those details to him.
He was spending most nights at her apartment now and one morning after showering he noticed the absence of medicines in her medicine cabinet. There were the usual over-the-counter remedies—aspirin, allergy pills, etc., but no prescription drugs of any kind. He found it odd that a woman dying of brain cancer would not be taking something for the pain or nausea. Something.
“Supposing,” he said to Stern the next day, “someone was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. What kind of drugs is that person likely to take?”
“Supposing?” Stern said. “Hypothetical questions like that are never hypothetical questions, Herman. What’s up? Are you ill?”
“It’s not me. But I can’t say anything else.”
“To answer your question, that person would be taking any number of prescription drugs. Cisplatin, perhaps. At the very least something for the pain. And you would know for sure that she’s sick.”
“I didn’t say she or he,” Cogan said.
“And I didn’t fall off the back of a truck yesterday, my friend. My advice: Be suspicious.”
Cogan didn’t need to be told. Was it possible Ginger had feigned her illness in order to get him to marry her? The thought overwhelmed him. Maybe she saw his initial hesitation and decided to do something. But claiming imminent death made no sense to Cogan. What was her rush? In the fullness of time there was a good chance he would have decided to marry her. Apparently, she didn’t want to wait. And how, after they got married, would she explain the obvious fact that she remained alive? Spontaneous remission? Incorrect diagnosis? What kind of mindset was he dealing with here? On the other hand, he had to admit, it could be seen as a remarkable declaration of love.
“How are you dealing with the pain?” he asked one evening. They were sitting on the couch in her living room.
“I guess I’m one of the lucky ones, Herman. I haven’t had much pain. Yet. Or any other symptoms. Dr. Glanz is amazed.”
Cogan reconsidered his suspicion. Was it simply that he was looking for some reason to back out? He felt small. And he kissed her softly.
One afternoon when it happened that Igor was in bed with the flu, Ginger was called away to help pick up a body. While Cogan waited in her apartment, the oncologist’s office called.
“Dr. Glanz wanted Miss Lapinsky to know the test came back negative,” the woman said.
“So there’s no cancer?”
“Cancer? I don’t know anything about that. I’m talking about her pregnancy test.”
Cogan was able to say, “Thank you,” and hung up the phone. First brain cancer and now she was hoping to get pregnant! Had she stopped taking her birth control pills? Cogan was having trouble breathing.
“The doctor called earlier,” he said. “Your pregnancy test was negative. Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to have a baby?”
“Oh, Herman. It was going to be a surprise. I was hoping you would like the idea. I thought you’d be happy. I’m sorry I failed you. ”
“You didn’t fail me. I just wasn’t prepared. And Dr. Glanz’ assistant didn’t know anything about your brain tumor.”
“Good,” Ginger said. “That’s a relief. Dr. Glanz promised me he’d keep it secret.”
For every doubt there was an immediate rational response. Was she being facile or simply honest? One minute Cogan chastised himself for being suspicious, the next his suspicion returned. It might be that Ginger would soon die and that she wanted to leave Cogan with a child. Or not. As he walked up the stairs to his apartment, he returned to what Miss Shipling had said: “Geometry is not true, it’s advantageous.” She told him there were different, and often contradictory, systems of geometry. Was one true and one false? Miss Shipling said it was a meaningless question. “Pick one. Geometry is a type of thinking you can use to discover solutions to a variety of life’s problems.”
Cogan sat now in the dark on the tufted armchair in his living room. The muted whir of the refrigeration units in the grocery below skirted the edge of his consciousness. Yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, no. “Review your hypothesis,” Miss Shipling instructed him from the grave. “Keep in mind the applicable assumptions.” Cogan understood it was time to do the math.