The Kiss by Barbara L. Baer

Anton Chekov wrote the definitive story of a mystery kiss and the dreams that warm lips impart. My aunt, Mildred Loeb Stein, by contrast, wins in the quantity department with more than 20 attempts at her own version of The Kiss, in various stages of completion. We don’t know how many iterations the Russian master needed, but I suspect rather fewer.

Aunt Mildred also leaves behind the record for marital silent treatment: after she found her husband Hermann in flagrante, the couple spoke only through their son Joe for the last fifteen years of their lives. ‘Joseph, tell your father that he is having fish tonight’; ‘Joe, tell your mother that I will take my dinner outside.’ Joe performed his job of intermediary without complaint. ‘Why are you their carrier pigeon?’ I had often asked him. ‘They need me,’ he always answered.

I am Mildred’s adult niece, Carole, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. My side of the family is in the film business and up to our ears in deadlines, but when Joe called about Mildred and Hermann’s sudden death, I flew to Denver to be with my first cousin, not so much as a legal support, but to be a shoulder Joe could lean on. Joe has never left Colorado, where he was born, and has lived no farther from his parents than Boulder where he did his degree in metallurgy. He moved back to Leadville to consult on the re-opening of mines and rented a house on Eighth Street, two doors down from his parents.

Now no-one but G-d will ever know if, in the final moments, car wheels spinning on the icy road, Mildred cried out to Hermann to save them, that she forgave him or never would, before they tumbled over the cliff.

Our great grandfathers, brothers who were married to sisters, were pioneer Jews who went west to provision miners in the Rocky Mountains. In our parents’ generation, Uncle Hermann became a dentist, while my father, a more dramatic character, made his way from the mailroom to agenting to script-doctoring. My parents’ marriage was filled with cocktails, while Hermann and Mildred seemed to suffer life in dreary, 19th century, arctic Leadville where snow could fall eleven months of the year.

The night of the phone call, Joe was distraught. ‘I should have been with them. They wouldn’t have …’ he sobbed down the phone. ‘They’d be here now if I’d driven to Leadville with them.’

‘Your father was a terrible driver, Joe. You couldn’t have done anything, and you’d have gone over the cliff with them.’

‘If I hadn’t gone to see my girlfriend…I’ll never forgive myself.’

My first thought was that flagellation runs in the family, but instead I congratulated Joe on having a girlfriend, his first as far as I knew, and asked her name.

‘Ceci. She’s kind of a girlfriend, but Mom and Dad hadn’t met her yet.’

‘But Joe, do you like her, like her a lot?’

‘I do. She’s amazing. She’s a little older and works in graphic design. She’s pretty and she seems to like me. Gosh, how can I be talking about her at a time like this?’

More sobs. It wasn’t a surprise to me that Joe hadn’t had a girlfriend, despite being good-looking, gainfully employed and a listener.

‘How did you meet?’ I was thinking ‘online’, but he said it had been in a coffee shop in Boulder.

Joe was waiting for me at Denver airport wearing a black band on the arm of his black suit. Mildred and Hermann’s bodies had been retrieved from the crevasse and were at the mortuary, from where they would be transferred to the Jewish section of Evergreen Cemetery the next day.

Joe was shaky as we rounded the mountain curves to Leadville.

‘I’ve got a favor to ask, Carole.’

‘Joe, anything.’  Joe was more like my younger brother than a cousin.

‘Mother’s writing. I can’t bear to look at it. I’m asking if you will.’

‘What kind of writing?’

‘You’ll see when we’re home. I intend to place what you select into the coffin with Mother.’ Joe wiped his eyes. ‘We’ll burn the rest. I think it’s what she’d want.’

Since the funeral was the afternoon of the following day, there was no time to lose. The Stein home was cold as a refrigerator, but Joe soon had the heat blasting on the second floor where I would be sleeping.

I volunteered to look at their will—I was more qualified to do that than to assess literature. He brought a nosh, a set of folders and a box and set them before me. The smallish cedar box looked more like a child’s coffin than a repository for secret letters, or whatever it was that Mildred had been keeping under layers of tissue.

A champagne bottle stands empty, evidence of betrayal.

Snow fell outside the window. I turned on all the lights and sat to read. Before long, I’d gone through four versions of a typed story Mildred had entitled The Kiss. Chekhov, Aunt Mildren wasn’t, I knew that much, though, blessedly, no version of the story was long. There was always a Hermann Stein, a dentist, who met and married Mildred Loeb, a secretary for a wedding card company. Time passed, years of marriage, an adolescent son, a normal life, until the afternoon Mildred made her unannounced visit to her husband’s dental office on the last day the office was open before the Christmas holidays. Hermann had not told her there would be an office party, but the streamers hanging across the mantel of the reception area and the unfinished pieces of chocolate cake on paper plates, disclosed the celebration she had not been invited to attend.

The staff was gone. Even Delia, her husband’s hygienist, was nowhere to be seen, but Mildred heard a woman’s laughter, followed by her husband’s deep voice. She opened the door to the inner room where he practised. There was the sterile tray with gleaming silver instruments, and the new dental chair she had saved to purchase for him, with Hermann, bending Delia over it, his large, white-coated back rhythmically moving above her smaller figure.

The kiss went on for seconds or minutes or hours—as it turned out, it would go on for the rest of Mildred’s scrivening life. After the Christmas holidays, Mildred, who worked for the Chamber of Commerce and was researching the history of Jews in Colorado, began to push her rock of a kiss up the hill. In each version, Hermann remains the same, but Delia is protean: at first plumpish and pink-skinned, shrieking when she sees Mildred, then dark with Cleopatra bangs and a lynx’s eyes. She’s Leda, bent over by a swan dentist. A champagne bottle stands empty, evidence of betrayal.

I took a break from reading, and descended to the warm living room. ‘What do you remember about the time your mom’s silent treatment started?’

‘My father picked me up from junior high, not saying much, but Mother was the talker and we were the quiet ones. In the kitchen, nothing was on the stove. Mother didn’t come down to prepare meals for three days. From then on, she didn’t speak to Father.’ Joe told me there was a history of grudges in the Loeb family. ‘It might be genetic. Wives of Mother’s grandfathers didn’t speak for years after one criticized another’s brisket.’

‘This went on for fifteen years, a decade and a half?’ I asked, and Joe nodded.

I returned upstairs. One version actually ended in murder: film-noir Delia stabbed with a gleaming dental instrument. In another, my aunt had tried to write a soft-porn version, a naked Delia’s backside and a white-coated Hermann shtupping her. When I got to the bottom of the pile, the most recent version, only weeks old, I sighed with relief.

Instead of the usual setting and suspects, Mildred had gone back a century to the Leadville she had been researching. Stepping away from the family was like opening a window in an airless room: Enter Baby Doe, the beautiful dance hall seductress of Leadville who was caught in flagrante with Senator Horace Tabor, Colorado’s wealthiest and most powerful man, by his wife, Augusta Tabor. Augusta, the ‘mother’ of Leadville’s rough and ready population, came out the favorite in local, then state opinion. Tabor lost his senate seat, and Mildred then captured the fall-out in a convincingly detailed history, substituting her own characters for the ultimate retribution: Hermann and Delia die in poverty in a howling blizzard—true to the legend emblazoned on mugs and shirts for Leadville’s tourists.

‘Don’t consign this one to the grave,’ I said. ‘Your uncle, my dad, has always wanted to write a screenplay set in Leadville, past and present.’

Joe shook his head.

‘Nobody will be any the wiser if we keep just this one,’ I pleaded.

But Joe just closed the cedar box.

Barbara L. Baer is a teacher, journalist and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of four novels in print from various small presses, most recently “The Ice Palace Waltz”, and has published shorter pieces in anthologies and periodicals.