A Man’s Search for Meaning

Hello Malachi, it’s your mother. Don’t be worried.

I know it’s you Ma. My phone ringtone plays Ethel Merman singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses when you call. What should I not be worried about?

Oy! Your father is not doing well.

Not doing well? What do you mean?

I mean, I ask him, I say, Morris, what do you want for lunch? and he says, ‘lunch?’ Yes lunch. ‘I’m not hungry,’ he says. You want some herring? I say. ‘Herring, schmerring, whatever,’ he says. Come in, I tell him. And he comes and sits at the table like a cold noodle kugel. This is not like him, Malachi. First, he never used to miss a meal and second, he usually says ‘bring it in here’ so he can keep watching the television. He doesn’t watch any more. Only at night. I don’t know what to do. Morris, I say, what is wrong with you? ‘Nothing,’ he says. I tell him don’t tell me nothing. I know nothing when I see it and this is not nothing.

What do you want me to do?

Talk to him.

Ma, he doesn’t want to talk to me. I say, hi Dad, how are you doing? ‘How am I doing,’ he says to me. Yes, how are you doing? ‘How should I be doing?’ he says. I mean are you okay? ‘Okay? What is okay?’ he says. Then he says ‘I have to go, here talk to you mother’ and he hands you back the phone. That’s how our conversations go.

He used to yell at the TV. Scream, ‘Can you believe this crap?’ His face would get red. Turn it off I would say to him. ‘I can’t believe this is the country we are living in,’ he would say but he wouldn’t turn it off. Better you should have a stroke watching Wolf Blitzer? I told him. The Situation Room is not the situation room, Morris. You’re sitting in the Situation Room, I say, and you know what he says to me, ‘The situation sucks.’ My god, Malachi, I have never heard your father say that word in his entire life, not once, mind you. Not once.

Maybe he should see someone.

He should, but I don’t say anything about that. He wouldn’t do it. Men don’t go see someone, he says. They keep it in. They tough it out. He thinks he can take care of himself.

Ma, he must feel like he’s going through all of this alone. Living through every day in the same apartment. He doesn’t go out because he doesn’t want to get infected or infect you. He is losing his sense of connection with the city, his work, and his friends. He sees trouble in the streets, people being beaten, police beating others. When he was watching TV all day it was as if it would be him next being beaten, him next being gassed. Replay after replay of the same thing and seeing one man, night after night, calling for more of the same. He’s heard about this before. Hearing of his cousins, his grandparents, being rounded up and shot or shipped off in box cars to never come back. To be gassed and burned in an oven or kicked into a ditch. Viktor Frankl wrote, that when you live feeling that way, you’re shocked at first that this could be happening to you. You think it can’t continue, or it won’t be so bad, and then you wonder what will happen next and then you see that it keeps getting worse and that hoping for it to stop doesn’t make it stop. You scream at it. You’re powerless to make it stop.

Malachi, shouldn’t he be happy? We had an election. There’s an inauguration coming. There’s a vaccine. He’ll get it. He has underlying conditions.

We all have underlying conditions. Pelted each day with new miseries, new threats, new deaths, new things to fear. It wears you down. Nothing compared to what happened to his relatives, my relatives, but still, it wears you down. And what is going on now is not going to end anytime soon. It may even get worse.

I have never seen him so low.

With so many things to worry about, he’s apathetic. He’s past being shocked by what he sees and hears. The almost daily shocking atrocities have become for him, for most of us, the routine. So, you have to create a self-protective shell. You can watch police officers beat people protesting the killing of a black man for months, and bodies being piled in refrigerated trucks for more months, and then federal police get thrown down the capitol steps, hit with fire extinguishers and American flag poles, like a downward spiral that will last forever.

I know. It worries me in my heart. I want to help him.

Ma, please ask him if I can speak to him.

Hold on.

Hello.

Hello, Dad. Remember how you would always give me a book on my birthday and even on other days that were not my birthday and you’d say to me, ‘Malachi, this is a special book for a special boy on a special day.’

I do, Malachi.

Well, I am sending you a special book, because you are a special dad, and this is a special day. It will come in your email. It is an audiobook. It was written in the year you were born. And by a man whose name you might know, Viktor Frankl. I have listened to it and I thought of you all the way through, almost every line. Maybe you and Mom can listen to it together and maybe we can talk about it after. Will that be okay?

Of course, Malachi. Thank you. Here… your mother wants to talk to you. Bye.

Bye.

Bye, bye… here she is.

Sy Spiegelman Reading Proust on the F Train

It was hot. The sun, slow-walking toward the deep end of July. And Seymore Spiegelman was on the F train to work. Changing to the C at West 4th, he squeezed into the last empty seat in the car. The riders on either side were damp and overheated. He couldn’t concentrate. Opening and closing the book in his hand. Swann’s Way. Proust. Wrapped in brown paper. He thought it’d seem pretentious standing in the subway holding a worn copy of Proust. He would surely think that, if it were someone else doing that.

Proust is hard going. He’d started reading it many times before, only to nod off a few pages in and set it aside for another time. Maybe he just wasn’t up to the task. Maybe a new copy, a new translation, might give him a fresh start.

An article he’d read touted the brilliance of Proust, whose 149th birthday just passed, on July 10. One line he’d read wouldn’t leave him alone. “Even the dead,” it said, “when we least expect it, come back to remind us of their love and of our guilt.”

Death and July birthdays. His mother’s and his oldest daughter’s birthdays. One is on the twenty-first and the other on the twenty-second. It was his mother who had died, in years past.

On his run, the day before, he tried to remember which birthday was on which day, but he gave up. His wife, Bernie, would know, he thought.

So, he asked her when he got back.

“Sy,” she said, “here’s how I remember them. Your mother was born first, so her’s is on the twenty-first.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“But Dierdre is my first daughter, see. So, maybe she comes first.”

“You’re dripping. What happened to your knee?”

“I tripped on the hill down to Fifth. Cracks in the sidewalk, and it’s steep.”

“And you weren’t looking. Let me see that. Why didn’t you come right back? Look, the blood ran down into your shoe.”

“A guy on a motorcycle stopped. Asked me if I needed a ride home, but I said no. He had that solicitous look on his face. Like someone helping an old woman cross the street, leaning over, taking little baby steps, even with the ‘Don’t Walk’ light blinking and the drivers rolling their eyes as if they’re purposely walking slowly just to piss them off.”

“And so?”

“And so, I felt fine. I didn’t need any help. I just wanted to keep running. It was no big deal. He was like twenty-five and he was treating me like I was some old guy who should be home drinking tea, watching re-runs of Bonanza.”

“You’re not old. And maybe he did think that. Maybe he didn’t.”

“He seemed nice.”

“Regardless, Sy, now, when he tells the story, he’ll say, ‘there was this guy who fell on the sidewalk, who I helped get up, and then he’s like ‘I don’t need any help’ even though blood was gushing out of his knee like a faucet and he’s like some Usain Bolt has-been.’ Maybe you should’ve just let him drive you home and then he’d say what a nice old guy he helped out. The solicitous part is in your own head, not his. And, even if it was, who cares?”

“Anyway, I ran down to the Jackie Gleason building and then back up the hill by the Green-Wood cemetery. That’s like seven miles.”

“You ran into Sunset Park and didn’t bring back tacos.”

“I was bleeding.”

“I’m just kidding.”

“Remind me again, is tomorrow my mother’s birthday or Diedre’s.”

“It’s your mother’s.”

“I had a little trouble running back up the hill. Not because of my knee. I think my shoes are too heavy. Maybe I should get a lighter pair.”

“Maybe you should go see a doctor. Your shoes don’t all of a sudden get heavy.”

“I noticed it first last week when I was pushing the stroller with the kids up Second Street to the park. I had to stop a couple of times.”

“And you think it’s because your shoes got too heavy?”

“That’s how it felt.”

“You should drink more water and make an appointment with Edelman. Maybe you should go tomorrow.”

“I just ran seven miles. I really think I’m ok.”

“Your mother is dead now, what, four years?”

“Yes, I think so. I can never remember that one either.”

“At least you should remember her birthday.”

“What? Now you think I’m losing it?”

“Or, maybe it’s just your shoes.”

“Funny.”

“No, it’s just that you have trouble remembering it, not because you’re losing it, but because you have some issues there with your mother.”

“I do. That’s a different thing.”

On the train, he felt he should go home. Call in sick. He’d rarely done that. But he was sweating, feeling anxious. Proust was so hard to read. The run around the cemetery was hard. Harder than he’d said. His shoes were too old, too heavy.

He was beginning to panic. “My god,” he thought, “I feel like I am going to die.” At the 50th Street stop, he got up, took his things, left the train, and walked quickly across town to Saint Clare’s. He told the ER nurse he had chest pain. She asked him how severe. “A ten,” he said.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, and he sat down in the chair next to her desk, she checked his pressure, listened to his heart.  She picked up the phone. Held it to her ear. Punched in few numbers.

“What are you reading?“ she asked him.

“Swann’s Way.”

“Nice,” she said.

And that was the last he remembered until he opened his eyes to see Bernie standing by the bed, beside the IV pole. “What happened?” he said.

“Well, for starters, you had a coronary right there in the ER and they rushed you up, or down, or wherever it is, to the Cath lab. They put a stent in and you’re good to go.”

“My god. That’s so frightening.”

“Yeah, tell me about it!”

So, I guess it wasn’t my shoes.”

“You didn’t really think it was, did you?”

“I think I did. A little. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Likewise, Sy. Likewise.”

“So, what do you say, next year, we just pick up a garlic and onion pizza at Totonno’s and light a candle on my mother’s birthday.”

Dear Malachi, Your Sister the Zen, Is Moving to Alabama

Dear Malachi, how are you? I am at my wit’s end. Your father says not to worry, I’ve been there before and I always find that I have a little bit more string on that line. But this time I think he’s wrong. It’s your sister, Felicia. She told me she is moving to Alabama. I have nothing against Alabama, mind you, but, Alabama? I mean, who goes from Seventy-second Street and Fifth with a view of the park to Tuscaloosa? What does she know from Tuscaloosa? What kind of mishugas is that? I don’t know what to do. I hear they don’t wear masks there.

Ma, I’m okay. Of course, they wear masks in Alabama. Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio. Why is she going to Alabama?

Dear Malachi, I didn’t hear that on the radio. Don’t be so smart. Freida has a cousin whose son went to Alabama, Mobile, and he never came back.

What happened to him?

Dear Malachi, nothing happened to him. He got a job. He’s a big-shot lawyer. She says he makes good money, a big house, nothing like you could get here for the money.

So?

Dear Malachi, so, he met a girl and got married and Frieda says she never sees him, and she thinks he never goes to shul anymore. Your father says he’s an atheist. How many atheists do you think are in Alabama? Four?

Ma, but why is Felicia going to Alabama? And, I’m sure there’s more than four. Who cares anyway?

Dear Malachi, Felicia, my Jewish daughter, is going with her sensei, who I think she has a crush on, to what, become a Zen person like him? Your father says at least that’s better than being an atheist. Or a socialist. I don’t know what to do.

Ma, there is nothing to do. She’s an adult. She’s looking for herself. Her path, whatever. Looking for the meaning of life.

Dear Malachi, what do you mean, the meaning of life? You think life has a meaning? Listen, to me, you get born, you die, and in the meantime, you make dinner.

That’s funny, ma.

Dear Malachi, I’m not being funny. If life had meaning, don’t you think we’d all know about it? Someone would tell someone. Word would get around. Some things have meaning. Like algebra has meaning. Life doesn’t. Everybody knows about algebra. We learn it in school. That’s because algebra has meaning. You have x, and you have y ,and you get z. Boom. That’s the meaning of algebra. No big mystery. Your father says God tells us the meaning of life. Who said so, I tell him. My grandmother knew more about what’s what than God. At least she knew a good man when she saw one and she knew how long it takes for bread to rise. And it didn’t take her 40 years wandering in the desert, walking in circles, eating matzoh, to figure that one out. And don’t tell me they ate manna. Where’d that come from? God? Why didn’t he send them kasha varnishkes and some directions?

Ma, don’t you really think that life has meaning? I mean love and things like that?

Dear Malachi, I am sorry to say this to you, but in the words of Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it? You should read your history. Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, Peloponnesia, Genghis Kahn, Stalin, Hitler. Nixon, Pol Pot, Boko haram. Mitch McConnell. How’s all that for love? As you would say, give me break!

Ma, you sound so cynical. I’m surprised.

Malachi, Cynical? You live as long as I have and things start to add up. This has not been a good year. Maybe you think it’s unusual. It’s not. What’s unusual is that we have to wear masks and keep away from everyone. Big deal. First of all, that’s so horrible? And second, you think we have it so bad? You tell me how good the Melians had it by the Athenians? Or the Canaanites and Amalekites, all massacred by the Israelites, or the Congolese, Sumerians, Armenians, Yemeni, Aztecs, Anasazi. The Rohingya. Shall I go on? Do we learn anything from the violence, foreign and domestic? No, we just shake our heads and keep walking. Nothing to see here folks. You think COVID is a plague? It’s no plague. It didn’t have to get like this. The plague is politics. Ego, money, and politics. That’s the world’s oldest plague.

I’m sorry.

Malachi, don’t be sorry. Look, life’s no party. Never has been. If life was such a big party how come we didn’t invite the all the folks in Mumbai or Bangladesh, Nairobi, or Karachi. You think all the fat cats in the world just forgot to let two billion people who live on a dollar and a quarter a day, if that much, know about the big doings going on?

Ma…

Don’t give me Ma. I’m sorry, Malachi, I have to say it. I just don’t think we all get it yet. Maybe we never will. The seas will rise, the crops’ll die, the forests will burn the…. You’d think we might just give a damn about someone else, give a person a hand, ease up on the gas a little and say something nice. This year should’ve taught us that all-for-me-and-the-hell-with-you doesn’t work. You don’t shit in the stream because you can. It all runs downhill and that’s where the corn grows.

Ma, I know you’re right. I love you.

Malachi, I know you do. I love you too. I’m sad that Felicia is moving away. It’s not the Zen thing. She’s probably right anyway, hitting reset, with all that’s going. Maybe it’s good for her as long as a crocodile doesn’t eat her. I miss her already.

Alligators. Alligators live in Alabama, not crocodiles.

Ok. If an alligator doesn’t eat her. What a horrible thought, anyway. Call me later. I hate this texting thing.

Mama?

Mama?

Yes, yes. I had to go pee. I’m just so sad, Malachi.

I know. She’ll be alright. And, we’ll…

It’s not just that…  it’s everything. All of it together. All at once. It’s all so hard to take.

The American Red Summer

My mother was born into troubled times. She seemed to have absorbed the troubles as a window sash in a house by the shore might absorb the salt air making it forever hard to open or close.

She spoke little to me about those times. She made no judgments about them. Though what she did say, the words she’d chosen with care, the pauses in her telling, in which her eyes wandered over my shoulder and settled on whispered thoughts, words and names she repeated, soft as a heartbeat, and people and places which resonate with me still.

It was Tilda, she said, who told her about the world. Tilda was the only person who spoke to her about the troubles. It was Tilda’s voice she heard as her eyes wandered.

My mother was born in the summer of 1919. July 21. There was record heat. The flu pandemic, after raging for many months, had waned. Only to begin again in the fall. Unemployed men, black and white, young and old, soldiers having returned from Europe and the war, looked for work and found little or none, competing for the few jobs that could be found.

White workers struck for higher wages. They opposed the hiring of blacks. Black soldiers had seen a different, more accepting, life in France. Expecting that their country would have changed when they came back home. It had not. Unions kept them out and were, in turn, busted by the companies and the police.

Politicians claimed the Bolsheviks, the Reds, the unions, and the Blacks were behind it all. Wilson, in his second term, did not disagree.

The economy had slowed. The country was divided. Boundaries had been set, solidified, and fiercely defended. They rubbed up against one another like flint and steel.

Cities were riven. The Blacks and the socialists were hunted down and beaten. Blacks marched for civil justice. Union workers went on strike. White supremacists patrolled the hot white streets. White terrorists mobbed and burned Black communities. Set fire to homes and shops. Courthouses. Jails. Churches.

Black men and women were pulled from their homes, hung from tree limbs. Roped and burned in parks and town squares. Large white crowds gathered to watch. Black and white photos appeared in the newspapers. The soil on the ground beneath the dead men ran red with blood, appearing in the newsprint as a benign shade of black. White men and boys in slouch hats looked to the camera. Stood with shotguns and shovels. Living and breathing, though lacking the light of humanity in their eyes.

Seventy-six men and one woman were lynched that summer. Their deaths, their names, ignored or diminished in the press.

Tennessee burned in January. The first. The burning spread as pogroms spread. Like the rush toward war. Like seeds strewn in a breeze. Or like contagion in a pandemic. The infection builds momentum and moves along social fault lines. Detroit. Omaha. Elaine, Arkansas. Washington. Wilmington. Jenkins County. Charleston. All followed.

Twenty-six cities succumbed. Mobs and masses roved unchecked. Men in uniforms, complicit, standing by or instigating or pitching in.

On the July day before she was born, two men, one black and one white, argued about something: the war, politics, jobs, or a woman, on the corner on 127th Street and 2nd Avenue in Harlem. A short distance from her parent’s home. The men, shoulders back, goading. Pushing and shoving. Some boundary had been crossed. A white line. People sat and watched from high granite stoops in the heat. A gun was pulled from a pocket. Shots fired. A woman was hit and lay bleeding.

In minutes, the length of 127th Street from 3rd to 2nd Avenue was filled with men and women. Black men and women who, now ready and resistant, who had seen and heard of the killings in Omaha and Knoxville. Who had known people who knew people there. Men and women who could take no more violence in silence. People who Tilda knew.

Police came. Shots were fired. Blood ran along the side of the street into the sewers.

It was the American Red Summer.

Tilda, the name my mother would whisper, I learned, was the young black woman from Southern Pines, in Moore County, North Carolina, who lived with the family for many years. She cooked and cleaned the apartment for them. Cared for my mother. She cut out articles and photos each day from the newspapers my grandfather read in the evening and then left for her. She saved them in a drawer in her bedroom in a thick manila envelope. A chronicle of the troubled times.

One article told of a day, July 27, when my mother was only six days old. On the hottest day of the year in Chicago, 17-year old Eugene Williams, escaping the heat, drifted in the cool water into the “whites only” area of the 29th Street beach on Lake Michigan. He was soon surrounded by white men and stoned and he drowned to death. No one was charged. The Red Summer had spread from 127th Street in New York to the South Side of Chicago.

On that day, when my mother had opened her eyes and first saw her own mother, the American Red Summer was only less than half over.

When my mother was ten, and her family lost everything at the start of the depression, Tilda returned to her home in Carolina. She left the clippings in her dresser drawer with my mother’s name written on the envelope and, inside, a note to her in which she asked that they be kept safely for her until she could return one day for them.

 

A Further Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

The Hôtel de la Mer, was similar in some respects to the hotels that had been popular in the Catskill mountains during the mid-twentieth century. Those hotels were in what was known as the Borscht Belt. Jewish families, like my own, escaped the heat of the city for a week or two there and entertainments were provided: stand-up comedians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman and others performed there as were, occasionally, plays on their way to Broadway. From all of these I was naturally excluded and left to stay alone in our room because of my young age. Continue reading A Further Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

On Considering Quotidian Days

A thunderstorm passed over the island last night. Out of habit, we counted the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder, as if that would have any effect on us. How fast the storm was moving mattered none. We were going nowhere. We closed all the windows though we could have only closed those on the northeast side of the house. The wind was stiff and strong. We didn’t lose power.

The next morning, Peter is in the spare room cleaning the cat’s litter box. “Would you like some coffee?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

We sit and have coffee together. We do this most mornings now, talking about what we have to do today. We have our lists. He writes his on small index cards; sometimes on slips of paper. He carries them in his pocket along with a pen. He writes notes to himself. Notes about what he sees or hears or reads. Things he’ll look up. Ideas for the stories he writes. The last time we were in the city I bought him a box of the pens. I think they cost about a dollar fifty each. A box lasts him a couple years.

The last trip to the city was before the COVID. We haven’t been back there since before March. He says we probably won’t get there again for maybe a year or two.

“A year or two?” I say.

“At least. Maybe three.”

We wear masks when we walk into town. When we pick up groceries. He doesn’t come into the store. He waits outside. I carry a hand sanitizer in my purse and use the wipes they have there and I give him one when I come out. He listens to the radio while he waits for me. Or he reads.

We know a woman who died of the virus. A bright, talkative woman, about his age, in her seventies. She dyed her hair magenta. When we heard she was on a ventilator, we thought she was not going to make it. Three weeks it took. I see her and hear her voice and her laugh and it makes me sad. Both of us. I tell him I might dye my har magenta. Then there was Terrence McNally, and John Prine. He plays his Prine’s sad ‘Sam Stone’ on repeat some evenings, by the open window in the living room with a book in his lap.

He reads four or five books at a time. He’s reading Les Misérables he tells me. Halfway through it, reading four or five pages before he falls asleep at night. He says he has six hundred forty-two pages left.

“I’m in no hurry. I don’t feel the pressure I used to feel to finish books anymore,” he says, “like before, I’d rush to finish one so I could add it to my Goodreads list.”

“We need mulch for the front garden,” I tell him. “And a light bulb for over the sink.”

“Ok,” he says and writes those down on his list, along with the bills we have to pay.

We do a lot of gardening, planting bulbs and perennials, mostly. We walk and sit on the beach in the late afternoons, when the sun is still strong, the people are few, and the light burnishes our arms and faces.

I am seeing my students remotely and he has spent the morning mowing the lawn and writing. In the afternoon he brings me coffee and a sandwich for lunch.

“I have come to realize,” he tells me, “that this is the way it’s going to be for a very long time. The house, the yard, ourselves, is all we have.”

“I’m concerned about the virus too,” I say. “Getting sick and dying in pain, alone.”

“That’s not it,” he tells me. “It is good. It’s freeing. A freedom I’ve never felt before.”

“What on earth do you mean? This is freedom? What kind of freedom is being confined to home? To this town? Marking the days like Xs on a cell wall? It will get old pretty soon, don’t you think? What’s the point of doing all of the reading, exercising, weeding? To what end?”

“That’s it,” he says. “It’s an end in itself. Doing what I love.

“You have children, grandchildren. Don’t you want to see them? The museums? Restaurants? Protests. The elections? You are giving up on that? Don’t Black lives matter anymore? Climate change?”

“Yes, they do. They all matter. It’s just that the past few months, here with you, have been good. Our time together. The quiet. In the end, it all comes down to how you spend the time you have.”

“I am not disagreeing,” I say to him. “It’s just, you always say to me that life is a journey, not a destination. And now you’re making a destination out of this place in this terrible time?

“Can’t it be? Just ‘til there is a vaccine?”

“And what if there is no vaccine? What if there’s another virus? Then what?” I tell him, my voice raised in a way I don’t like. “Yes, let’s enjoy our time together, but don’t imagine that reading, or looking through old pictures and snipping daisies counts as a journey. Not in the world we live in. Not in the world I want to live in. We can wear masks and assess our risks and make wise choices and we can do that together. But believing in the good and working toward it is the journey I want. Flourishing, growing, learning, helping, making things better, bringing creativity into the world? I know you believe in all of that too.”

“I do,” he says, “but is a plasticized, commodified, self-centered, constantly-comparative life, driven by the need for a new-and-improved mouthwash and an addiction to a politicized news cycle the journey you want?”

“Mina,” he says, “I feel like we are buffeted by an unrelenting brutal storm, like the other night. All of us, this country, not just by the virus, but by those we have reason to expect to work on our behalf, a government we have elected to serve, not to rule by whim and envy and personal animus. Every day we count the seconds between the tweeted lightning bursts and the thunder of events, not knowing when they will hit us.”

We don’t talk for the rest of the day.

In the morning, he comes in with the last of the rhubarb stalks in his hand. He leaves his shoes at the door.

“Steve Inskeep,” I tell him, “says that Arizona, has the highest per capita number of new cases in the world. Bahrain was fourth, and Nick Cordero died.”

I can see by his face I have said the wrong thing.

He lays the rhubarb on the counter and leaves me alone. I don’t like how I feel. I don’t want to see the sadness in his eyes. I follow him into the bedroom and sit next to him on our bed.

“Peter, I have no problem with the way we are living now,” I tell him. “We are doing what is necessary and prudent. I love the time we have together. I love the beach and the garden. The Zoom friends. The time to read and think. I love what we have learned we can live without, but also what I truly cherish and want to have restored. I like going to a baseball game, working out in the gym with my friends, going to the city and having dinner in Wo Hop after a movie at the Angelica. I want all of that again.”

He turns his eyes to me. “Wo Hop?” he says.

The Yanks Are Coming

Dear Michael,

Your last letter was so sweet. I even showed it to my mother. You know she has had her doubts about you and me and about how young we are and what will you ever do for work when you come back home and also about your parents and that dreadful little sister of yours and her carousing and her smoking and how she never sends anyone thank you notes even for that wonderful tea set my mother sent her for her sixteenth birthday. The one with the tiny pink roses on the inside edges of the cups and saucers which cost my mother a fortune in her ration stamps. Continue reading The Yanks Are Coming

The Father of the Year

Gus is a tall man. He has the stooped shoulders of a scholar. His white hair is cut short. His hands are at his sides. He is wearing a white open-collared shirt and grey pants with cuffs. His shoes are scuffed brown lace-ups. He is holding a pair of pruning shears in one hand and several thick green beans in the other.

He looks at the boy beside him. His nephew. His sister’s son. Sees a bit of himself in the boy’s intense close-set brown eyes. Continue reading The Father of the Year

Malaise

It has begun to rain. Starting lightly. Gathering intensity as the sky darkens with the confluence, if that is an accurate or even applicable term, of the setting sun and the thickening of the low cloud cover. The red poppies in the front yard are being pelted with heavy drops as thick as rubber bullets. This seems to happen every spring a day or so after Memorial Day. Continue reading Malaise

Seize the Day

During a protracted period of convalescence following a rather routine, though nevertheless unfortunate, surgery which resulted in a quite unpredictable and unexpected series of complications, more serious by far than the condition for which the surgery had been performed, I fell into a time of deep despair for which I could assign no reasonable cause and out of which I saw no apparent avenue of egress, though, I must admit, due only to an ill-considered intransigence on my part, I sought neither professionally-qualified help nor the possible mitigation that might have been afforded by the use of widely available and efficacious prescription medications, or the less-costly advice of friends and the array of psychoactive formulations from which they routinely found relief from their own feelings of despair or disquietude, nor, as a last resort, the advice of my parents, only one of whom, my father, was still alive and in less than full control of his faculties, and with whom I had little contact and with whom I had a strained and awkward relationship,  and who, as circumstance would have it, if I remember correctly, resolutely, for only the reason that he distrusted doctors and others in society who professed to have knowledge or skills he lacked, had refused to have the same surgery I had undergone, despite having sustained a similar injury during a weekend game of doubles with three men of his approximate age and social status, all being solidly hard-working men living then in the relative comfort of a new suburban development, hastily created outside of the bustling city in which they had been raised, and for which they had deep affection and allegiance, and from which they left, with no little reluctance but with great insistence from their wives, as their financial circumstances improved, resulting, in no small degree, from the relative economic prosperity that devolved in the post-war period and spread, as tantalizingly as might the aroma of a cooling apple pie left on an open windowsill, during the rise of the Eisenhower middle-class, and in a time when that sort of outward population diffusion, fueled by the rapid expansion of the network of interstate highways and interchanges, as well as the general perception among some groups, that that was what was being done and what seemed to be expected of modern young families, what with modern appliances, wives who did not work and children who, according to the advice of well-respected clinical experts of the likes of Dr Spock and others, were being encouraged to spend their time at home playing out-of-doors being free, even though, contrarily, in their own minds, that is, in the minds of the men themselves, the time they had spent playing stickball, skelly, or handball in the city streets dodging sedans or riding subway cars far afield from their own neighborhoods seeking fortune and adventure, was the freest and best time of their lives, and from which the memories that most sustained them in times of their own malaise and self-doubt were made, and which bore little or no resemblance to the fey, childish pursuits of their own children, which, again in the minds of the men themselves, were of little benefit and which provided little of the toughening of body and spirit which the men felt was the object of the short time spent in youth and which would undoubtedly lead to a generation of coddled complaining namby-pamby soft-skinned man-children in ill-fitting and unsubstantial suits, tight underwear, and thin-soled shoes from foreign countries, who would be wholly and woefully ill-prepared for the challenges that life would set before them, and from which they would learn nothing and which would send them crying back to their mothers for succor and protection, from whom they would undoubtedly receive the unflagging confirmation of the belief that the world, in fact, neither understood nor fully appreciated them and from which they should be parentally shielded, rather than forcibly separated from the unquestioning, commodious, and all-too-welcoming maternal bosom, and from whom, it was inevitable, the type of relief sought by the wet-behind-the-ear men-children could not be obtained because it was from these very same eternally capacious bosoms from which they had been weaned so incompletely and so belated, and so well-beyond the time at which a clean break could have afforded both mother and child the distancing needed for the mental health of both of them and which would prepare them both for the harsh but inevitable exigencies of life in an exotic but unforgiving world full of both wonder and woe, opportunity and opposition, and, to be sure, the inescapable reality of death, regardless of the good intentions of one’s heart or the resolution of their beliefs, and the contribution, evil or beneficent, they had made in their lives to the commonweal, and so, casting aside any hope of receptivity from my father, I sought to find some refuge and relief in a perusal of the books I accumulated on my shelves over the years in the times I was flush with some expendable cash and relying upon the recommendations of the New York Times Book Review as well as books I had seen being read by strangers on trains, selecting particularly those books that the engrossed reader had been more than halfway through and which had that ineffable qualities associated with the dimensions of the book as well as the thickness of the pages, their rag content, and the presence or absence of the deckling of the edges, more often favoring the deckled edge for reasons I cannot well explain, and oftentimes finding an attraction in the way that the book might lay in the hand with the spine firmly held in the center and pages falling softly left and right over the palm as might a book of psalms or a bible in the hands of a Southern Baptist preacher as he commands the hearts of the faithful holding the book aloft as if it were a loosely-swaddled babe in his hands with the strength of both his fingers and of his convictions, and which he then cradles, the pages against his chest, as his voice falls in gentle cadences, his point having been made, and I, hoping to find such a book, running my fingers across their spines and sensing, what I could, by mere contact, what lay within the bound pages, as if the community of words contained within were communicated to me by an ineluctable and welcome force, that it came to be, through no volitional act on my part, that my fingers came to rest upon a used copy of Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recall purchasing on an afternoon in a long-ago September at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and which I had never read, as I was not familiar with either Bellow or his writing, and it was within the pages of this this book that I sought, with great hope, to find the solace I so sorely desired and could no longer find in the welcoming arms of my departed mother.

The Last days of Elsa and Albert at the Caputh Summer House

Elsa Einstein stands on her front porch. It is a morning in mid-September and the oaks down the hill along the lake are beginning to redden.A cool breeze stirs the folds of her skirt. She fills her lungs deeply with it and she watches it darken the liquid surface of the gray-blue Templiner See as it flows from Caputh northward toward Potsdam. Continue reading The Last days of Elsa and Albert at the Caputh Summer House

The Things I Didn’t Say When I Was Alive

There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Or just didn’t know how to say.

Maybe if I’d said them before it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.

We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. Some nights, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I’d wake up. It was your mother. She’d cry for hours at night. Stand by your crib. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t.

What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. I felt so bad that I wished I could cry myself.

I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were hard people. They didn’t laugh much. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays.  Rye bread. Pickled herring or whitefish. Potatoes with cucumber. Sour cream. A glass of tea with a cube of sugar.

They were Shnayders, tailors. Neighbors brought them suits to be let out or taken in. Patches to be sewn with hidden stitches. My mother’s machine by the window in the bedroom. My father at the table in the living room under the ceiling light. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing, humming and smoking while he worked.

They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. Smelling the pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Faces gray with creased foreheads.

My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions then. Babies like me dying. But I lived. As you did, when we thought you wouldn’t.

You were always small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. School, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home.

I would shiver too. I would sit in the bathroom, my head in my hands like I was lost in a forest in the darkest of nights. The wind in the trees was ghostly. Clouds covered the moon. There was no path out.

I saw that same feeling in you too and I didn’t say anything. I looked at you and I felt how alone you seemed to be. I saw me in your tight rumpled brow. Not a glimmer of happiness in your eyes. I should have said something. Stood beside you.

For this, I grieve.

One day, when she was at her worst, when you were a little older, I said leave the kid alone already, to her. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. In the middle of the night, I heard her. She was in the kitchen, where the phone was, calling her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said Stop it and I hung it up.

My father never once raised his voice to me or anyone. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. I was angry at her. I was angry at you, too.

For that, I am sorry.

And from then on things were different between us.

I didn’t know what to say to you. How to make words that would make it different. And it just stayed like that.

I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. I know it sounds like it, though. I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.

For that, I am in pain.

I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know then how to say it.

And then, when I could no longer speak, and you came with your family to see me, in your hospital masks and gowns, I could feel that sad, malign, knot in my chest loosen. The sad knot for what had been lost. For the happiness I could have shared and for the things I never said.

Two Men on a Bench by the Water Looking East

“No time to be homeless, is it?”

“No, sir.”

“Not a good time at all. There’s good times and good places, but not here and not now.”

“No sir.”

“Richard.”

“Jack.”

“Nice to meet you, Jack.”

“You too, Richard.”

“You got it? A lot of people do, you know. You gotta watch out. Be careful as shit.” Continue reading Two Men on a Bench by the Water Looking East

Texting While Kvetching

Dear Malachi, Forgive me, I don’t want to bother you. I know you are very busy with schoolwork. I don’t mean to be such a nudge, but I am a mother. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time. You know, children have to keep in touch with their parents. Cuomo said that.

Hi, Mom. I’m doing fine. I texted you just this morning. Are you and Dad okay? Continue reading Texting While Kvetching

Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

“Ma, where’s Dad?

“I sent him to the market.”

“It’s ten o’clock. He shouldn’t be out this late. I would have gone for you. What did you need so late?”

“Strawberries.” Continue reading Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

Things I Did Not Say When I Was Alive

There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Others I just didn’t know how to say. Things I want to say now.

Maybe if I’d said them before, maybe if I had acted differently, it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.

We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. I don’t think we were ready for you. Some people are. We weren’t. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. Ours. We all paid a price for it.

Some nights, when you were real little, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. It was your mother. She worried me. She’d cry for hours at night. You know how people get when they don’t get enough sleep. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t. Neither of us were.

What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Or she would say she didn’t know. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. That made me feel so bad that I wished I could cry myself.

I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were strict people. They didn’t laugh much, or at all. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays.  Rye or Challah with pickled herring or whitefish chubs. Potatoes with cucumber. And tea. Tea in the morning and with dinner. In a glass with a cube of sugar.

They worked hard. Shnayders, tailors. In our apartment. Neighbors brought them suits to repair. To let out or take in. Seams to sew. Hidden stitches. My mother had her sewing machine by the bedroom window. My father worked on the table in the living room under the ceiling light. At six, the clothes came off the table to set it for dinner. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing. He hummed and smoked while he ironed.

They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. The smell of pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Gray faces with creases in their foreheads.

My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions of people. Babies like me dying in hospitals and at home. But I lived.

You were a year old. Small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. And school, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home. She wasn’t like that before you were born. And she would cry in the night. I didn’t know why. She would go to your crib and stand there. Come back to bed, I would tell her. There was nothing I could do.

Maybe we shouldn’t have had a kid. Maybe we should have waited. Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe we were too young. Everyone was getting married then. That was it. That was what you did.

I think you felt the same way. I saw that and I didn’t say anything to you. You were what, twenty when you got married? Too young. I looked at you and I thought, this kid should wait. I should have said something. You wouldn’t have listened to me. Would you?

Maybe you would have. I thought if said something, your mother would kill me. I looked at you and I saw no happiness in your face. When I got married, your mother and I were all over one another. But you? Nothing. Blank. Like you two had taken a ticket and were waiting on a line to buy a pound of flounder.

Your mother and I had something, once. I thought we always would. But things changed. I think a lot of it was my fault. I remember being so tired I felt nauseous all the time. I can’t remember what I said to her once, maybe, leave the kid alone already. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. She went into the kitchen, where the phone was, and she called her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and she called her mother and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said stop it and I hung it up.

My father never once raised his voice. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. But from then on things were different between us. I felt like I was in a box. I worked. We went out sometimes and had a good time, but it wouldn’t stay that way.

I don’t know where it went wrong with you. As a kid you seemed distant. Even more when you got older.  I didn’t know what to say to you. How to start a conversation. And it just stayed like that. You were more like your mother. You weren’t like me. And so…

I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. It was just hard.

I did not want to put that on you. But then, I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know how to say it.

I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.

Never once in my whole life did I ever feel like your mother so often did, with her heart so filled with either happiness or sorrow. So much that she felt it could just burst open and have it all pour out.

If only once I could have felt that, maybe then I could have been able to say the things I should have said when I was alive.

Fishman the Fool

Marvin Fishman and Darlene Meriwether broke up.  She called him a fool. A loser. A leech.

Actually she said, “You’re a forty-two year old loser, with no job, no money, no prospects, living in Malvern, Long Island, in a four-bedroom center hall colonial with his mother and a cat that lives in the basement and pees in her plants. What kind of a person does that? A loser fool.” Continue reading Fishman the Fool

Little Men

On the evening of March 2, Youseff Ahmadi, in his nineteenth year on earth, and his second month in the United States, the fourth child and only son of Zaid and Hala Ahmadi, was struck in the back of the head with a baseball bat.

He lay bleeding from his wound, a severely fractured skull, on the gritty blacktop in the parking lot at the rear of Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, his bloodied black hair matted in the deep rent in his skull and in his being. Continue reading Little Men

Boxing Day, New York, 1947

A young mother holds her son in her arms, snug against her hip. He’s in pajamas. It is snowing and her husband has his high-buckled, black snow boots on. His pea-green army overcoat buttoned around his chest and narrow waist, standing at the door.

“I don’t think you should chance it,” she tells him.

His back is already turned to her. It is winter-morning dark. He snaps down the brim of his hat. Continue reading Boxing Day, New York, 1947

The Pompitous of Love

I am out back raking leaves. Bagging them in the paper sacks we get at the hardware store. Much like the store where I worked in summers during college, selling tenpenny nails and ball-peen hammers.

I’m raking leaves with Ezra. My son. He’s home from school in DC for the winter break. Till he meets up with his girlfriend and they drive back down to school again. Together. I like her. I’m glad for him. He’s pretty crazy about her.

The Goodenoughs across the street have six kids. All moved away by now. They pronounce their name “Good-now’ and it’s just the two of them and the one cat they adopted from the shelter. They keep up with their house. The yard. Flowers that match the season.

It’s been wet for the last few weeks and the leaves are matted dark and pressed flat against the ground and when we rake them up the grass underneath is soft and tender green. Not dried up and thin like the faded color of rye bread on the other more exposed parts of the lawn.

“Why do you think that is?” he says.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s warmer under the leaves and dark and the grass grows and greens up a little like they do when they first sprout from the seeds underground,” I say.

“So why do we rake them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why don’t we just leave them covered up like that all winter? Like if we weren’t around?”

I like the way he thinks. I like the things his mind turns to.

I don’t know what to tell him.

He is looking down at the grass by his feet. “So why do you do it? What’s it good for?”

“You mean is it good for the grass?”

“Yes,” he says. “Or is it aesthetics?” His voice has deepened over the year since he’s been away. His cadence has slowed.

I look around. The Goodenoughs had their lawn raked and blown clean before the first snow. Before they brought the softening, carved, pumpkins to the transfer station.

“Aesthetics, I guess.”

We hear a car and both look to follow its sound.

When his mother pulls up to the curb his eyes widen and a small curve comes to the corners of his mouth. His cheeks round. He is a beautiful boy.

He loves his mother. He loves her in a way that I cannot, nor can I know. I loved her first. But that has nothing to do with love.

He loved her the moment he took his first breath. As he was settled against her tired chest, feeling the rise and fall of her breathing. The first touch of her skin. Its redolence will be with him until his last day. A guide. A touchstone to his life.

Between them is a calibration that occurred in that instant. A setting or resetting of their biological reference points. The first shared recognition of an unshakable, wordless, similitude.

I love her too. Perhaps in many of the same ways he does. And then in different ways. Ways he will too, but with someone else. Maybe someone who smiles like she does. Perhaps not. But there will be something.

For me though it was a slower walk to love her. Slow but constant. Gravitational, almost.

A willing recalibration for each of us: of reliable habits, of a sense of self, a plumbing of personal depths.

We measured and adjusted our side-by-sidedness. Narrowing of the distance. Until being next to her was my only true place. Sharing a border, like two states, for which the only thing that separates them is an invisible understanding that they are separate but inseparable.

There was a brief introduction, ours. Confirming the names we had been told by others. A beginning. A lingua franca of friendship emerging at the copy machine. A need to see one another up close. A slow and hesitant certainty growing. A quickening when either entered the room. A pleasing recognition when you notice a strand of her hair on your shoulder.

Not enough is said about how two people come to love one another. To care for the other more than for oneself. To come to reach out for one another in the dark. To watch them as they grow and change. To ache when they ache.

Do we need to know the biochemistry of love? What good would that do? I don’t want to know. The neural pathways in the cingulate gyrus, or oxytocin receptors, or dopamine titers in synaptic junctions tell us nothing we don’t already know or need to know.

We, the three of us, walk together into the house. My fingers are numbed from the cold and wet. Ezra walks a bit ahead with his mother. I bring the rakes up to the back door. I think I will let the leaves stay where they have fallen until they are dried up and dispersed by the warming breezes we get here in April.

There is a picture of her I keep on my desk. In this one my head is down. I am wearing my black suit and she is in her white dress. My hair is not yet gray and hers is light and a few strands of it have blown across her forehead. Her cheek. She’s walking beside me. Looking at me, and her eyes are as bright and as clear as the July-blue sky behind her.

 

Robbie’s Roadside Drive-in Movie Theater

Marvin Blitzstein accepted the probate decision with a sense of equanimity.

Millie, his wife of twenty-two years, clutching a copy of Dickens’ Bleak House, saw this as just one more infuriating example of his intolerable passivity. His lassitude. His complete and consummate complaisance.

“Marvin,” she said as they had left earshot of the lawyers suite, “your brother, Melvin, who you don’t like and who you haven’t even talked to for the last eleven years, and who has unfailingly and unflinchingly screwed you out of everything you ever wanted in life, the long list of which I need not remind you of, walks away from yet another chance to make things right by you and he leaves you holding the bag of do-do once again, and you say what?” Continue reading Robbie’s Roadside Drive-in Movie Theater

The Golem on the X38 Bus

Simon Appelfeld was a good boy. He went to school each day. He obeyed the Sabbath. He did his homework. He brushed his teeth. He loved his parents and they loved him. He did not know how unusual he was.

One day on his way to school he saw that someone had left a book on the empty seat beside him on the bus. Continue reading The Golem on the X38 Bus