Gelber clicked on the email from Ancestry.com. He’d seen his wife’s 23 and Me results. They were captivating. In a way, like a biomolecular radio telescope peering into the origins of her own personal universe. Or like a Vermeer painting you could watch in reverse. Layer by layer of paint being removed by absorbent retrograde brushstrokes, seeing that the final perfect azure of the girl with the pearl earing’s turban had once been a rejected cerulean.
Gelber, the email told him, was an Ashkenazi Jew. That cost me 199 bucks? They should have just asked me, he thought. I could have told them that two weeks ago and they could have Venmoed me the $199.
His wife’s a Brit. Ireland. Scotland. England. Blonde and shimmery grey-blue-eyes. A gene for wet sticky earwax and one for bunions. Another for a rare Mediterranean fever of little consequence. Also, a gene from a warmhearted Neanderthal grandmother, for a tendency to hold on to things. Gelber calls them tchotchkes. Things like boxes of broken holiday lights, cracked tea cups, Hummel figurines, and single-spaced Christmas letters she receives each year from distant cousins living in condos in Naples, Florida. She’s a saver. It’s a genetic trait that Gelber believes, no doubt, has some hidden survival value.
He watches Henry Louis Gates on PBS on Tuesday evenings while he sips a glass of hot tea and wonders if Gwyneth Paltrow will have a slaveholder or a slave in her past. Or maybe a Polish rabbi, which is more likely. What could Gates tell Jerry Seinfeld that he didn’t already know? “Well, now, what’s up with that,” Seinfeld might say in that measured sardonic way he has of being both the subject and the smirking, cynical, observer at the same time.
Gelber knows little of own his past. What’s to know? What would it change if he did?
He also avoids thinking in any detailed way about his future beyond his fear, at some point, in a not-too-distant future, of not being able to breathe and that a fulminant pneumonia will be his last conscious human experience in life. COVID scares the shit out of him. The thought wakes him at night and it cringes his genitals as proof, if one needed it, that thoughts of doom are physical phenomena.
Of what good is thinking of the past? What did it matter if it was the Mongols or the Visigoths or the Nazis that his great-great grandmothers had escaped from long enough to pay forward their good fortune? What matters now to Gelber is none of that.
What matters most now to Gelber is if he will be able to escape a painful, unprovoked, death at the hands of roving vigilante Proud Boys in helmets and camo pants or the Hawaiian-shirted Boogaloo dudes standing back and standing by now in their well-fortified split-level homes with American flags flying on their front porches and re-tweeting about George Soros eating Christian children who wander into pizza shops owned by Hillary Clinton. That was more concerning to him. Is there a gene for that?
The Jews have had a hard time. Is there an allele for that? If so, what can be done about it. Nothing, he thinks. He’s not a pessimist. He’s a practical prudent paranoiac. Maybe there’s a gene for that. He instinctively senses when he’s the unwanted turnip in the soup. Westport Connecticut, for example. He once had brunch in a well-lit crepe shop there. A line of men in yellow Lacoste shirts with upturned collars, Bently Platinum sunglasses tipped back on their clean-cut hair, and cashmere sweaters loped over their shoulders, waited outside for him to leave. They were not Visigoths, but still he felt the vibe.
It’s more than an imagined driving-while-Jewish feeling. There’s more to it than that. It’s his fully-warranted healthy paranoia in the time we live in. Like the time when his sentinel genitals coagulated like a fried egg in warning as a dark green van, with peeling Trump bumper stickers on it, barreled toward him with the driver looking straight at him and giving him the finger and yelling, “All Lives Matter, you queer,” gunning the engine and swerving away from hitting him head on at the last moment as Gelber knelt on one knee on a socially-distanced busy street corner holding a Black Lives Matter sign for George Floyd and wearing a surgical mask.
Gelber is certain that the guy in the van thought that since he was not Black, Gelber must be a radical-liberal-commie-homo-tree-hugging-faggot-veggie-AOC-loving-socialist Jew, whose life, therefore, does not matter. Gelber knows he is seen by some as ostensibly, and only provisionally, “living” on borrowed time. He’s not one of those true Americans on the perverted mental list of the All Lives Matter types of people who, by dint of some vaguely defined demented criteria, are truly worthy of living and breathing.
His mother would tell him to watch out. “You’re a Jew”, she had said to him. “You look like a Jew. You dress like a Jew. They can smell Jew on you. Don’t be a fool, too.” She’s dead now. She was a true paranoiac. What would she see now hiding around every street corner? Maybe she was right. Maybe she felt the full pull of the well-earned gene for self-protection more strongly that he does. Maybe she had two alleles for that trait and he has only the one.
Maybe he is a fool, although he thinks not. May he’s a fraud. It’s relatively easy to hold up a sign on a street corner in North Whitepeopleville. But, maybe, when the real test comes and the first window is shattered or when he hears the hard knocking at his kitchen door, his DNA will know what to do.
Maybe he’s just not smart enough to know what to do when the real Visigoths come. Maybe he is. There must be a gene for that.