“Rose of Madison Avenue,” Fiction

by Joan Colen

   The brothers called Uncle Archie a nabob. Years later I found out what the word meant and as usual they got it wrong. A nabob was someone who went to India (usually British) and acquired great wealth. The brothers thought it meant a rich ne’er do well who sat around like a prince all day long.

   But Uncle Archie had never been to India except through the pages of his extensive collection of National Geographic magazines. And he wasn’t British; he’d attended business school at Wharton in Pennsylvania. Handsome with sparkling blue eyes, he looked like a WASP but he wasn’t that either.

    The brothers, and that included my father, Sam, thought that anyone one who wasn’t self-made was suspect. I wish I had more details about the family. I know the brothers had made a small fortune in textiles when their mill in Pennsylvania was converted during the war to make mosquito netting for our troops in the South Pacific. I know they worked in the New York office at big desks under the slogan “From Yarn to Finished Fabric.” But no one ever said how Uncle Archie met my Aunt Rose, the only girl in the family adored and later ridiculed by the brothers after she chose Archie, the nabob.

   “What did his education ever do for the nabob?” I heard Uncle Meyer ask many times.”He’s a spoiled rich boy, never will amount to a hill of beans,” Uncle George would say.

    “Married Rosie for the doughsy,” chimed in Uncle Al. “He’s never worked a day in his life.”

   “He reads too much — doesn’t know Phil Rizzuto from prosciutto — all those National Geographics and what does he know about the real world?” added my dad, who the brothers called “the Mohawk,” since his skin was so easily tanned.

    When Aunt Rose married a man with no money to speak of she became an object of pity. She needed the protection that only the determined brothers could give her.

   When they first married I’d heard that Rose and Archie had moved to a shack up in the Catskills for a while. Maybe it was romantic for about a week but eventually Rose was rescued by her brothers, who took Archie into the family business where he was able to do nothing comfortably for the rest of his life.

   Rose was squat and chubby like her mother, who was called Snipsy; she was worshiped by her sons. The brothers had wives; one was my mother, but they all took a back seat to Snipsy. Each son had his own kind of madness revolving around germs. Meyer was perhaps the most crazy as he swatted flies outside on the trees in Central Park and held a handkerchief over every doorknob he ever touched. When he died fairly young from a fall down the steps of the Lexington Avenue IRT, no one in the family ever took a train again. At his funeral, my Aunt Rose tried to jump into the grave with him. The rabbi was busy shoveling piles of dirt into the grave, as was the custom, when Rose grabbed the shovel; she started to moan and had one chubby leg halfway in the grave when the rabbi managed to pull her back.

   Rosie had loved Meyer best of all. She ignored his ridicule; she turned the other cheek.

   “Have us over for Passover, Rosie. After all we pay for your food.” Rose never defended Archie, or if she did I never heard it.

   I was in my early 20s by the time the brothers retired. During the winter they migrated to Florida. In summer they had their country clubs in Westchester. Rose and Archie stayed in the city. I was working at a low-paying summer job in the poetry section of Brentano’s bookstore. With a lot of free time between customers and at lunch, I decided to follow my Aunt Rose, who often stalked around the Upper East Side. Maybe if I understood her more, I might be able to figure out the rest of the family.

    She lived on East 88th Street between Madison and Park with Uncle Archie, who was seldom home. I knew she frequented Bloomingdale’s because I often went there on my lunch break. When I spotted Rose in the dress department, she was feeling fabrics with a kind of reverence and didn’t notice me watching from the Junior Miss department nearby.

   “I’d very much like to try these,” Rose said to the saleslady. “Do you have them in my size?”

   “Would that be a 16?”

   “Oh, heavens no,” said my aunt, “a 10.”

   “Oh I see,” said the saleslady with a “not in your life” look in her eye.

   I watched as the saleslady brought out three expensive designer dresses, all black. While she was in the fitting room, I hid behind a potted plant.

   “How are we doing, dear?” I heard the saleslady ask.

   “Well, maybe a 14 — these are cut very small.”

    Rose came out of the dressing room about 15 minutes later without the dresses. She looked a little stouter under the mink coat one of the brothers had given her. Aunt Rose looked from side to side — no saleslady in sight. She waddled over to the down escalator and exited the store. I went back to work determined to follow her again but I didn’t think she would ever return to Bloomingdale’s.

   When Uncle Meyer was alive, he loved to attend the auctions at the Parke-Bernet Gallery on Madison Avenue. He was a bachelor, but the brothers discouraged him from dating. Each time he brought a lady home, they would criticize her unmercifully. Thus, they were able to keep him as a caregiver to his mother. Until the fateful subway fall, that is. I had heard through the family grapevine that Rose had taken to attending the auctions now. Meyer was a prodigious buyer; in fact his nickname was Meyer the Buyer. He once bought an entire collection of stuffed heads and guns, although he wasn’t a huntsman — except, of course, for bargains at Parke-Bernet.    

   My next spying venture was at the gallery. Lo and behold, I spied my Aunt Rose looking longingly at a diamond necklace, part of the estate of a Countess Revinsky. She leaned over the case in one of the three black designer dresses I had seen her take into the fitting room, which fit snugly at the rear, and asked: “May I just take a peek at that beautiful necklace?”

   “Certainly Madame,” said the haughty salesgirl. She laid the necklace on a piece of black velvet.

   Potted plants were very popular in the early ’60s, and I had taken my usual spot behind one.

   When the salesgirl was distracted Rose slid the necklace into a B. Altman shopping bag and walked calmly but quickly away from the showcase. Out on Madison she ran toward the deli on 86th Street.

   In I went and took a seat at the counter. I took out my compact and pretended to powder my nose. I could see Rose at the front where they made the sandwiches. I saw her steal five dill pickles and put them in the same bag that contained the diamond necklace.

   I concluded then that it wasn’t what she took that mattered, it was the thrill of the heist.

    Later that summer I became involved with a young man and had more to do than tail my aunt. He actually liked poetry and asked me out when I sold him a copy of “The Wasteland.”

   I returned to school in the fall and tried to distance myself from family gatherings. My mother wrote me lengthy letters warning me about losing my virginity. But alas it was too late.

   In one letter she mentioned that Uncle Archie had been hit by a Madison Avenue bus. He was still alive but just barely. When the police found him he was lying outside of Parke-Bernet with a diamond necklace in his raincoat pocket. The police didn’t think he was in good enough shape to make an arrest. I prefer to think that he was attempting to return the stolen necklace. But in my family one can never be sure.

   Joan Colen is a fiction writer who studies with Grace Edwards at the Hunter College Writing Center. She summers in East Hampton.