One hundred and fifty-two years after his accident, the one in which his wife Chava died, a young woman knocks on Avrum’s front door. From inside he asks, Are you a reporter? No. With the Board of Health? No. Are you selling Girls Scout Cookies? No. No Girl Scout cookies? No. Then what good are you? I have a pastrami sandwich I’ll share with you.
He opens the door a crack. He looks her up and down. She is wearing a long grey wool coat. Holding a bag in her hand and a small purse over her shoulder. Her hair is pinned back behind her ears. Come in, he says.
– My name is Miriam Osterman, she tells him.
– So, I am the great-great-grand-daughter of your brother Mischa.
He leans toward her. Looks closely at her face, the slope of her shoulders, the set of her eyes. There is, in this young woman, a palimpsest of the lost soul of his beloved Mischa. He hugs her. Unreservedly. Tightly. She reacts with softness.
– Yes, Mischa. I’ve been searching for my ancestors in old postings on Finding My Mishpucha.com. That’s how I found you: Born: Milwaukee, 1931; Moved to New York: 1953. Marrige: 1961. No children. Wife, Chava (nee Singer) died in 2017. No record of your death. I am so sorry about your wife. I am. I don’t know what to say.
– Nothing to say.
– But what happened? How could you possibly still be alive? You should have died at least a hundred years ago.
– Well, is all he says, pointing her to the one chair in the room and he sits cross-legged on the floor, watches as she unwraps the thick sandwich. Did you bring any mustard?
She passes him a small container. He spreads the mustard on his half of the sandwich. Licks his finger.
– What happened? I don’t know what happened. My poor Chava is gone and I am still here. I miss her like a loon misses the moon on a thousand, thousand, moonless nights. They say it was something genetic, in my telomeres, my chromosomes. My telomeres will keep lengthening forever, whatever that means.
– Forever? My god, people would do anything to be you.
– I don’t think so, Miriam. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Believe me. Alle ziben glicken. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Day after day.
– But, Uncle Avrum, what if it really is forever? I wish I could. I’d want to.”
– Do you have any idea what you are saying? It is pure fantasy. It is because we all live in fear of the ten foot black mamba of mortality. Instead of living the best in number of days you are given.
– But, just what if…?
– Yes, young Ms. Osterman. You tell me what if… What if you’d have lived so long that you outlived anyone who could remember you? What if you outlived your children and your children’s childrens’ children? Is that a good life? Is that a life to look forward to? Is that even life? Is that what God intended?
– I don’t know, she said. Would your brother not have wished for that?
– Would anyone really wish to outlive the trees and the salamanders? To outlive Methuselah? To outlast the rocks and the rivers and the sky? A life of saying Kaddish for everyone who you’d ever known? A life with no one left to say it for you? No one to be there to put a stone on your grave?
And then there are the little things. My dentist’s office keeps sending me postcards about a checkup. They think I still have teeth. I get the L.L. Bean catalogues. I haven’t bought anything from them in 87 years. I lost my license fifty years ago. I was too old, they said. Like that was my fauIt. I walk a lot. I pick up trash along the roads. I make things out of it and I leave them for other people. I make do. What have I got to complain about? I take care of myself. But now I know what a real life sentence is.
– Do you need money?
– Nah, money I got. I heard that they were closing up the social security but I keep getting the checks. The fakakta government. The city comes to check the house. They want to evict me but I’m staying. They shut off the electricity and the gas. You think I care? I got a wood stove. I cook on it, when I cook. I pay the water bill. I pay my taxes.
– You eating okay?
– I eat… I don’t eat. Makes no difference. I eat berries. There are no birds anymore. You’ve probably seen pictures of birds. Insects too. Gone. Soon the deer, between the heat and the coyotes and the shooters. They come near the house. They bring kids with them.
I keep the doors locked. I read a lot. The library is boarded but there are all those books in there. I get in, I get out. Nobody minds. You read books?
– I do, she says. Sometimes.
– I write. Nobody reads it. Who would? Why should they? I think a lot. Chava used to buy batteries in those big packs, candles, toilet paper. She saved shampoo and soap from hotels. Matchbooks. You never know, she would say. I use the toilet, you should pardon the expression, and I think of her. I think about her a lot. I cry myself dry.
– I’m sorry, Avrum. Would you like to finish the rest of my sandwich?
– It wouldn’t hurt.
– Could I come back sometime?
– Please, he says. I’ll be here, god-willing. Maybe a slice of pizza next time?