When We Were Mallards

When we first met, my husband, Mycola, told me that he thought we were like two ducks. Two mallards in a vast lake in a country far away. Like mallards, he said we were.

We were walking then, in our long overcoats, on a busy street in the city where we both lived. There were people and families all around us going into and out of shops and restaurants and sitting in the sun on benches in the park. Children running underfoot. Cars. Buses.

“Petra,” he said, as that was the name my mother called me by, “like we live in a mile-wide and ten-mile long lake with tall firs growing close to the very edge of the rocky shore, and plenty of places for us to build a nest and hide our ducklings in the reeds, whenever we would be fortunate enough to have them. And when the last of them grows up and flies away, we will swim side-by-side and stick our heads down deep below the surface and pull up bits of grass and noodle around for tiny crustaceans in the muck. And, we always be together and always be beautiful.

Sounds good, I told him.

And he said, “qwakk, qwakk.” And I loved him. You silly goose, I thought.

He is gone now and I live each day in great and constant misery. I live in a place of icy dark and metallic fear.

This is my life now, and for how much longer it will be I don’t know. This is not how it had been. When we were mallards. But that matters little now. Now, I cry and my body shakes so hard it is hard to take a breath. I wish for death but I only vomit.

I have no place to go. I have no home. No clothes apart from those I have on.

Two weeks ago, while we were sleeping, the door to our house was being battered and we could hear it beginning to buckle and break. Mycola and I woke my mother and our little girl and we ran out through the side door. We knew they were coming but none of us knew when that would be. We had heard the trucks but we thought they had passed through on their way to someplace else.

We ran in the rubble of the streets. My mother stumbled. She could no longer run. She fell and we tried to pick her up. She screamed in pain. She could not stand. Or she refused to get up. I don’t know.

Our entire world has been changed. We mean no harm to anyone. We hurt no one. Not once in my life have I hurt anyone.

I should say we meant no harm to anyone. Now, I have lost all my balance. My forgiveness.

When your mother has fallen and you cannot pick her up. When your child is running and trips on bricks and glass from the walls of the apartments your friends lived in on the fourth floor of the building you pass, and you can see their now-empty rooms and their broken, blackened, walls, and you see the face your daughter as she sees them too.

When you hear the crack and see the flashes and feel the air itself beat like a bully against your chest so hard it crushes you and a moment later it sucks the breath from your lungs, and you lose your grip on your bag and you cry out in the pain you have not yet felt.

And you cry out in a voice so loud it it hurts your throat, to a god you have believed in all your life, in a voice you never used before and to a god you do not know and who no longer can hear you.

And you think of Isaiah 2:4, “And he shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” You had read those words and you had once believed them.

And now you know that the world itself is a sword lifted up and thrust toward your throat. And your hands are tied behind your back like your husband’s were when he was beaten and dragged away and another man who lies dead on the ground beside you.

When nothing else has any meaning. This god or that god, or the rules of war.

What kind of people make rules of war like rules of grammar or poker? How do we need rules about who to kill, and when it is permissible and when it is not? Words without meaning which are ignored. Humanitarian is another of those words.

And then you see the last bus pull away without you. And there is no water and no food and no toilets.

When there is no hope, and the days of the hopeless hope you once had have passed, when you are crowded in amongst the dead and the starving and the dying, in the cold and dark, you will see, only then, what you could not ever have imagined when the world was big and the sun was bright and the air was clear, and war was only a word for a place where others lived and died, and conflicts which were given names and had dates of when they began and when they ended, and numbers of dead and wounded were counted, and crosses were hammered into the thawing ground with the rounded iron backs of shovels that had dug the shallow graves by men too old to fight.

And you will know how it was that men had done this because you saw the grim and vacant disregard in their faces, inches from your own. And know that they they had planned and considered this one option and that other option, and each one had only one intent and that was to kill this many nobodies here and that many nobodies over there as they could. And the greatest sinfulness that we have known and written down in all the holy history books and agreed to since the beginning of time, held no sway with them. That men with no souls had done this. And they did it with hot white hatred.

I know that now, and I know that this war, this new war without an historical name yet, and with no end date to write in books, will have no end for me. I will die in the midst of it.

And I hope for death to come. I need to live and I want to die.

A Walk in the Park

Between the end of his first and the beginning of his second marriage, Arnold Bregman lived alone and he soon came to believe that he had been involved in a murder. He became certain that he had plotted, planned, and killed a man. A man he did not know. A man with whom he had no relationship. A man whose disappearance would never be attributed to Bregman. A murder with no motive, no means, no opportunity.

This certainty, no matter how implausible, would not loosen its grip on his mind. It came and went, but while in its hold, he had no reason to disbelieve it.

Distraught, and with no one he felt he could talk to, he consulted a psychiatrist referred by a friend. After a few sessions, the psychiatrist said Bregman showed no signs of psychosis and exhibited none of the signs of an aggressive, psychopathic, sociopathic, or dangerously disturbed personality.

But why then, Bregman asked, would I have such thoughts in the first place, and why can I not get these thoughts out of my mind?

Bregman was not an unintelligent man. He should have been prepared for the response, being familiar with what was said about psychiatrists and how they worked, but he was nevertheless surprised when the psychiatrist said, with his legs neatly crossed, and with a face as straight as the crease in his trousers, something like, “so tell me, why do you think that is so?”

Bregman replied that he did not know and that he had hoped that the psychiatrist who had an array of framed, embossed, and signed diplomas from what appeared to be distinguished universities on the wall behind his desk, would be able to tell him.

“I see,” said the psychiatrist, which is another tactic Bregman should have expected from a Park Avenue psychiatrist, who, in his grey blazer and opened collared shirt, shifted in his seat on the chair opposite to Bregman, recrossed his legs in such a way as to align one leg over the other at the knee with no space whatsoever between his two legs and with the heel of his well-polished black oxford on his left foot only inches above the shoe on his right foot, and he looked at Bregman.

Bregman, following these appointments, often found himself attempting to replicate the same move while seated on the subway downtown but was never able to and he wondered if there was something unusual about the bones and ligaments of the man’s leg, or the width of the man’s hips, or if, perhaps, he was using this move to distract him enough from his troubles that he would begin to get to the bottom of things.

Nevertheless, over several weeks, Bregman increasingly doubted the value of continuing with therapy. He’d seen the psychiatrist, whose name was Ostrove, nodding off frequently during possibly pertinent parts of their consultations, which annoyed him to no end, though he had never been able to bring it up to the psychiatrist. This left Bregman feeling somehow unworthy of the man’s attention and that he must be a terribly boring person, despite the fact that this was the man’s job and he was being paid a great deal of money, which Bregman could ill afford.

Bregman recalled that his father had a low regard for psychiatry or psychotherapy of any kind. People, he said, should not wash their laundry in someone else’s sink. The only time he ever said that was after Bregman’s mother’s failed attempt at suicide.

Sometimes, Bregman thought that the psychiatrist was actually quite shrewd. He was merely playing at nodding off just to test Bregman. To see how far he could push Bregman to react to being treated so badly. To see if Bregman would not tolerate being so blatantly disrespected and that then his true, basic, typical male, belligerent self would emerge explosively, and his true violent and aggressive nature would be revealed. As if it lay silently deep inside him like a cat, crouched, taut, and ready to strike.

Ostrove’s office was in an expensive apartment building in the upper East Side of New York, near the park and a small French patisserie and bookstore that sold high-end travel books. Bregman was browsing there, having arrived early for his appointment, and the thought came to him that maybe Ostrove was just not as good as he had been told. But, rather than confront him about his dissatisfaction, Bregman decided that he would stop seeing this man and stop therapy altogether.

Bregman never considered himself a violent person. He avoided conflict. Neither of his parents were violent in any way, though Bregman’s mother always seemed to act as if his father had the sensitivity of a spring-loaded mousetrap. This was Bregman’s feeling, not necessarily hers.

Bregman planned to tell Ostrove that he was going to stop coming to therapy because he felt they were getting nowhere but, before he got up the courage to speak up, Ostrove suggested that Bregman might agree to hypnosis as a possible and more productive approach to therapy and they agreed that the at next session Bregman would submit to what Ostrove described as light hypnosis.

The night before the hypnosis was to take place, Bregman lay in bed and saw himself as clear as day with three men in the basement of someone’s home. It was not Bregman’s home, but it might have been.

The room was dark and cold. The brown walls appeared a deep ferrous red in the light cast by a lamp in the hallway. The room had a dirt floor and below the only window was a cast iron manhole cover from a city street which Bregman knew covered the hole which held the remains of a man still clothed but cut up into pieces and packed tightly into the cramped wet space whose sides were rough with protruding stones which glistened with what Bregman knew was the blood of the man having seeped out of his cut and mangled flesh and brutally broken bones.

The men had met because they had gotten word that an informant had told the police they would find a body at that address. They planned to move the body.

Bregman had no doubt that it was a setup, and police were coming and were at that very moment at the front door and would soon find him and the body, and he knew that he would be arrested and tried and convicted of murder, facing certain death himself.

The one way out of the basement other than the stairs was down a narrow hall with several turns, twisting one way and then another, that Bregman had never been down but of which he had detailed knowledge. They made their way out into an alley down the street. They were filthy with grime from the basement. Blood on their hands. They stood in the light rain that was falling. Bregman felt no relief. There was no doubt that he would be caught. They traded schemes of escape, or to blame someone else, or to kill one of their own and make a getaway.

Bregman was unable to dispel the reality of the experience. He got out of bed, still living in its solid grip. He could not allow himself to be hypnotized by this Ostrove character. He would not go to the appointment. If he did, he feared he would reveal his true nature. He no longer knew what had actually happened or what was a fiction. Ostrove would turn him in. But then, what if he didn’t show up for the appointment, what would Ostrove do? Track Bregman down? Report him to the police? Was the lure of hypnosis merely a trap?

Bregman stood outside of Ostrove’s office. He was tempted to leave and find a seat in the French café next door. He did not. He was innocent, was he not? Of course, he would go to the appointment. Ostrove would hypnotize him, and it would all be cleared up. There would be a plausible, credible explanation. Some unresolved Oedipal feelings they would work on together. He would be freed of this terrible belief of being a horrible murderer.

Bregman reasoned that he, like others at the very cusp of making such a momentous revelation, and uncovering the singular, life-changing solution, which would loosen the grip of his anxiety, was simply resistant to discovering the truth.

As he stood outside of the office, the woman who regularly had the appointment before Bregman, came out of the door. She nodded at Bregman and went on her way. The faint smell of her cologne, though, reminded him of a woman he once knew, and of the relationship they had, which ended unhappily. She had called him after they split and told him he had treated her badly and that she loved him and he did not love her back and that he, by his insensitivity, like all the other men she had ever known, and perhaps all men, had killed a part of her and she told him he would have to live with that thought for the rest of his life.

He followed the woman down the stairs, but she was not on the street.

He stopped himself. What was he doing? This is absurd, he said. What am I doing here? I am standing on a New York City street. The street is clean. The sun is shining. I am well-clothed. I have enough to eat and clean water to drink. I am safe here. I want for nothing. I have bad dreams. Who doesn’t? I am one of the very few fortunate people in the entire world. You want some advice, he said, do what matters most. Don’t dwell on the unchangeable. Stop at the used book stalls along the park. Find a good book. And by the way, did you ever check Ostrove’s repair record? Look, do you think if you ever really killed anyone you’d be standing here on Park Avenue, worrying about it?

Bregman walked downtown along the low stone wall of the park, crossed through the Sheep Meadow to the west side at 65th Street, and caught the Broadway local train at 59th Street and Columbus Avenue. He stopped for a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese at Murray’s in Chelsea and sat by the window, watching the people walking by, carrying their backpacks, their worries, and the few evening’s groceries with which they would make dinner.

Home Fries

“Miriam, how about scrambled eggs and home fries for dinner. Sound okay?”

“Sure. That’s good.”

“Or would you rather something else? Like pancakes or oatmeal.”

“No, no. That’s really good. Yes, Eggs. Eggs and home fries. Good. Or pancakes … either one would be fine. Thanks for cooking. I’ll make some coffee. Okay?”

“Yes. Regular?”

“Regular. But not too strong, right? It’s almost ten. But, maybe pancakes instead of eggs.”

“Pancakes, good! I saw Kenn at the food pantry yesterday. First time since COVID started. Over two years ago. Hard to believe it’s been so long. He looks the same. He asked about you and the kids. Maybe make decaf, instead.

“Masks? How’s he doing? Could you use the gluten-free flour?”

“Yes. Gluten-free. Nobody was wearing masks and we had to sign in with a vaccination card. He’s doing fine. He looks great. Still working. Same Kenn. Same laugh. Same smile.”

“That’s good. He’s a good guy.”

“Miriam, just thinking, when the time comes, will you let Kenn know of my passing?”

“What? Sure, your passing? But can I wait to call until after we finish dinner?”

“Miriam…”

“…No, no, you’re right, until after your passing would be best. Whenever that might be, of course. Sort of timelier, to wait, you know, more conventional. More expected. More routine.”

“Miriam…”

“Why are you asking me this, anyway? Should I be worried? Are you feeling okay?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what? Yes, I should be worried? Yes, you have chest pain. Or yes, no. No palpitations? No shortness of breath.”

“Nope. None of the above.”

“Then what made you think of it?”

“I don’t know. I just was thinking about how when you don’t see people for a long time and then you see them, like I saw Kenn yesterday, and it’s a good feeling and then I thought how there are other people you don’t see for some time and you wonder what happened to them and you might want to know that they died so you can give yourself a chance to pause and think of them. Almost like a moment of grieving for them. Almost even as if in that moment they are present to you. Almost like how you would feel if you saw them on the street. That feeling of reacquaintance, of renewing the friendship, and then when they walk away you recall how you had missed seeing them without even knowing that you were missing them. You didn’t actually see them, because they’re gone, but it feelsclose to that feeling. Like they were actually there in front of the bookstore looking in the window where you used to see them. And then they’d come in and say hello. But it’s all in your mind.”

“Or in your heart. Coffee’s done. Should I pour it?”

“In your heart, yes. And the pancakes are ready.”

“That’s a good feeling, right? Oh, god … I have to make another pot of coffee. I can’t drink this. It’s terrible. I was watching you cook, and we were talking, and I started think about dying, you and me, or passing, or whatever, and I must have lost count of the scoops I was putting in.”

“I know. It’s way too strong. Even if it’s decaf.”

“It’s not decaf. I forgot. I used the regular. Maybe I’ll just have tea. But, what brought on this change? In saying ‘passing’ I mean, now? You never liked people saying ‘passing’ before. You thought it was false.”

“I know. I’ll have some tea instead too. I was just thinking it just seems to me that saying ‘passing’ is gentler, more like saying ‘leave-taking’ to me now than it did before.”

“I like it too. I like how it sounds. The sound of ‘leave taking’ too in saying ‘passing.’ It has the feel of temporalness. Maybe I mean temporariness, if that’s the right word. Even though we know it’s not temporary. I remember, though, when you used to say that people who said ‘passing’ were only skirting the issue. Like they were taking the long way around, or the safer way around the subject. ‘They’re afraid to face up to reality of death,’ you would tell me.”

“Now I feel that there’s a kindness about saying, “She passed, or he passed.” I think we can understand what we are saying without including all the heavy, insensitive bluntness. Tempering our language is just out of a consideration for the circumstances.”

“And, certainly, if someone told you that their mother passed, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, you mean she died?‘ Right?”

“Yes. Right. Of course not. The kitchen smells so good. Doesn’t it? The browned potatoes and onions. The warm pancakes.”

“Maybe when you preferred saying ‘dying’ you were really avoiding feeling about it yourself. Making it seem removed from you, objective, just a fact, so it wouldn’t touch you.”

“Maybe. You’re probably right. Hopefully, as you say, it is more meaningful, and visceral, and emotional than just semantics and I’m learning from it, but nevertheless, at the same time, my fear of the inevitable remains undeterred.”

“Sometimes, I think it’s healthy to recognize reality and then you can ask it to step out of the room for a while. And today?”

“I don’t know. Today? Ukraine. Ted Cruz. The collapse of the East Antarctic Ice shelf. Madeline Albright. The Milky Way expanding. I don’t know. Sometimes, I just think about it all and I feel sad. Sad is tolerable. And then other times, like today, it seems to climb into my lap, with its foul breath, and looks me in the eye and won’t look away.”

“I know, Will. I know. Look at me… Let’s eat.”

While You Were Playing Wordle this Morning

While you were playing Wordle this morning, I made a fresh pot of coffee.

While you were at the kitchen table playing Wordle this morning my sister said she’s having a mammogram and a bone density test in the city today and then she’s going to an exhibit at the Whitney later with her friend Sybil who had the double mastectomy and the chemo and then the reconstruction four years ago, and how, after I had mine, I refused the chemo because we wanted so much to get pregnant.

While you were scribbling letters on the edges of the newspaper, playing Wordle this morning, I made oatmeal for breakfast. The steel cut oats you like. Though I don’t feel I can eat anything at all today.

While you were saying words out loud, playing Wordle this morning, I filled our pill boxes for the week and called in the prescriptions for your mother. She also needs more Depends and Metamucil. The apple spice kind, not the chocolate.

While you were playing Wordle this morning I worked out on the elliptical machine and emptied the dehumidifier into the bucket for watering the plants. And I thought about how much oil costs now and we need to turn down the thermostat again because we can’t afford another fill up before spring, and how we need to call your friend again about solar panels for the roof, though I don’t know how we can pay for it, much less for an electric car.

And, while you were playing Wordle this morning I wrote a check for Sudan and one for the Pine Street Inn. Twenty-five for each. And I thought about how Paul Farmer just died. And how he was such a good person. At least I think he was. He did good work. I’m sorry we lost him.

And then, while you were playing Wordle this morning I folded the laundry and poured the last of the coffee in your cup and you smiled at me with your “this is a hard one” frown-smile.

And your mother said your father went to say morning prayers with his friend whose mother, in Kharkiv, is now somewhere near the border with Poland. She said she is a refugee in her own country, and I thought that if we ever had another child, I would name her Oksana.

I imagined that since I was born, a billion stars had been formed in the universe, and a billion more had died, and it will take a million light years before anyone will know that they had come and gone, and I decided that I want to have a green burial. I don’t want a big expensive coffin. Don’t let anyone talk you into it. And I don’t want to be burned in an oven. And I don’t want whatever that fluid is they pump bodies with, and I don’t want someone putting makeup on me and combing my hair and I don’t want people all staring at me and telling you how peaceful I look, and I don’t want to be dressed in any of my clothes. And no bra or panties, and no shoes. Nothing. That is ridiculous. Just wrap me in muslin and put me in the ground.

While you were playing Wordle this morning, I ordered Cloud Cuckoo Land and the new Amor Towles book from the library. I’m eighty-eighth on the list for one and thirty-fourth on the other. I can wait, and by then half a billion pounds of Greenland ice will have melted. Maybe more.

And I started to think about me being a skeleton one day and that’s the only thing that gives me any peace about dying. Being a skeleton that someone in five hundred years or a thousand will dig up and brush the dirt off my bones and put them in a box like they are a gift, and they will know that I was a woman and I had two children and I broke my wrist when I was nine and I didn’t eat any meat or dairy. Thinking that makes me feel good.

And, while you were playing Wordle this morning, I brushed my teeth and when I rinsed my mouth out and saw my reflection in the mirror, I felt suddenly chilled to think of a million women like me with a million children like ours, leaving their homes and everything they own, running from vacuum bombs over streets like ours. And leaving behind them husbands and brothers and sons, and maybe their fathers, who will be holding rifles given to them even though they had never picked up a gun in their whole lives before, and then they will stand in the snow in the doorway of the bakery shop where only last week they had bought a loaf of bread, waiting to shoot at Russian tanks filled with boys and maybe some girls looking through view finders at them in the crosshairs and each of them ready to kill one another, dead, dead, dead.

And, while you were playing Wordle this morning, I gathered up recycling for the transfer station though I don’t believe for a minute that any of it really gets recycled. And even if I’m wrong, I wonder what good it will do if the steel mills and the crypto currency people don’t do recycling and Dow Chemical keeps pumping out plastic beach chairs.

While you were playing Wordle this morning, I thought about how sad I feel even though we have heat and food to eat and water to drink and I have never lost a child, and no one has shot at my son in his car, and no one has driven me from my home, or grabbed me from behind and pushed me to the ground and raped me, or bombed the street I lived on, or anything so horrific as that.

And, while I was watching you work on the Wordle puzzle this morning, I felt how much I love you and the children and how all of life is so precious to me and how fortunate we are, and how it seems that our life and the lives of so many others can mean so much but at the same time mean nothing more to some men than a handful of melting snow.

And so, while you were playing Wordle this morning, I sat on the toilet, and I cried for all of that, and for things I didn’t know I was crying about, and I cried and I cried, and I felt as though I would never ever stop crying.

Bird on a Wire

On the way to the F train stop by Prospect Park, Victor Maisel stopped for coffee at the Two Little Red Hens. A tiny bakery on 8th Avenue, between 11th and twelfth Streets. The morning was cold and there was a short line ahead of him. He scanned the pastries in the display case while waiting to order. 

He was unsure of what he might order or if, in fact, he would order anything other than the coffee. 

A woman wearing a long black broad shouldered cashmere coat was waiting in front of him, tapping her foot in a way Victor found annoying. She reminded him of the tall tightly wound actress in Just Shoot Me. 

He felt like saying to her, ‘There’s really nothing either of us can do to speed things up, so give yourself a break.’ But then he thought, ‘Isn’t it just as foolish of me to be annoyed with her for being annoyed?’ His mother would have told him he was just caught in the finger trap of one of his dark moods.

Just Shoot Me ordered a cinnamon bun and said, “Isn’t that one missing some icing?” “Can I have a different one?” 

“It’s the last one.”

Victor could see that. Surely she had when right in front of Victor’s eyes she had pointed to it, but perhaps, he thought, maybe not. 

“Do you want it or not?”

“Yes, but could you put a little more icing on it?”

She turned back to Victor. “They try make you think it’s the very last one so that you take it even though the reason it’s the last one there is because no one else wanted to take it. But, if it really is the last one, I want it and there’s no reason I can’t have it the way I want it, you know what I mean?”

Victor did know what she meant. One needed to watch out for oneself. No one else will. People take advantage. Treat you badly. Intentionally. Without cause or consideration. 

A middle-aged man in a newsboy hat and a gray gabardine overcoat was sitting at the window counter facing the avenue. He looked at Victor, casting his eyes upward in a theatrical ‘God help us!’ plea. Which Victor saw as recognition of the shared moment. 

Often, on passing by the shop on his way to work, Victor saw him sitting alone with a coffee cup on the bench in front of the pastry shop or at the window inside, as he was then. The man, Benjamin, would always lift two fingers and nod as Victor walked by. 

Victor enjoyed the casual familiarity of the gesture. 

The young girl behind the counter went to the back of the shop, holding the bun in one hand and the bag in the other.

One morning last spring, Victor brought his coffee out to the bench. Benjamin had moved his briefcase to make room for the two of them. 

Benjamin was wearing neatly pressed tweed trousers, a pale blue button-front shirt, open at the collar, a soft brown faux-leather jacket. Eyes lost in thought.

“Oh, hello,” Benjamin had said. “I’m sorry. I was just distracted. I didn’t mean to seem to ignore you.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Mind if I sit here?”

“No, no. Not at all.” Which he pronounced as ‘nota-tall.’

Before Victor could think of anything to say, Benjamin said, “What do you do?”

“I’m a medical writer.”

“A doctor?”

“Not a real doctor, as some would say. No. I used to be a college teacher and now I work for a Med Ed company.”

“So, you’re not really a doctor.”

“No, not in the way I think you might mean it. No.”

“I’m a film editor,” said Benjamin.

“That sounds like such a great job.”

“That’s what everybody says.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it sounds a lot better than it is. It’s not glamorous, like you might think. I don’t know any actors or anything like that.”

“Where do you work?”

“At home. All my equipment‘s there.”

“I’d love all that independence. It must be good.”

“It could be, I guess. But it’s, you know, kind of isolating. I mean it’s good in a way. I can work at any time of the day. Start whenever. No distractions. But it’s isolated. You know what I mean?”

“Yes. I can see that.”

“I mean, sometimes there’s no work, and then it’s all high pressure, getting the dailies back at night. I mean that kind of makes it feel less creative, you know. More like a plumber knee-deep in water…” 

“I’ve never worked like that. On my own time. Take the jobs you like. Get them done. Move on. Your own person. I have to be in the office by eight-thirty at the latest every day. They watch you come in. When you leave. You have a certain number of billable hours you have to work each week. Time sheets. Project numbers. The runners bring the job folders in. You sign for them. Then they come pick them up… and it’s not really Med Ed. It’s more like Med Ad.”

“I’d love that. The hustle and bustle. Meetings. Do you have meetings?”

“Yes…”

“… The exchange of ideas. The back and forth, riffing off one another. The vibe. It sounds great.”

“… but meetings are mostly a waste. They drag on and when you leave someone asks, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ Really. And even when I go back to my area. They call them areas now, open plan, no doors or windows. I find it difficult to write, even to think, in the midst of other people, working or not working. The physical pressure of people while I am working is oppressive.” 

“Don’t you find, though, that creativity is fed by other ideas, words, images?”

“Yes, but not often enough.”

In the bakery, with two more people lined up behind him, Victor began to feel dizzyingly warm. 

The girl came back out and showed Just Shoot Me that the baker had added extra icing.

She took the bag and left the shop.

Victor asked the girl if there were any more cinnamon buns. 

She looked at him. “No, that was the last one. There’s another batch in about an hour.”

“That’s ok. I’ll have a coffee, black with sugar, and… no, yes, no, that’s it. Just the coffee.” He brought the coffee over to the window where Benjamin sat. Cars hustled by toward the bridge. Victor tugged at his tie. Opened his top shirt button.

“Today’s my last day,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“They’re going to let me go today,” Victor said.

“How do you know that?”

“They let the medical director go yesterday. No notice. Right after five, they called her in. Just a one-on-one with HR. She called me to tell me that I’d probably be next. No reason, they told her, just pack your things, and when she came out of the meeting, all the office doors along the hall were closed. Like everybody knew it was coming and nobody wanted to be seen witnessing it. Like when the lights flicker at midnight when someone gets the electric chair.”

“Shit,” said Benjamin. “I’m sorry.” 

“Yeah, thanks. I don’t want to go in today. I’m thinking about calling in sick and let it just end like that. I’m not putting myself through that. I’ve never been fired before…”

“Neither have I.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do. I think I’ll just sit here for a while. I don’t want to go there. To go through that charade.”

The train rumbled and squealed underground on its way toward the city.

Breaking the Judy Blues Eyes Rule

Nathan M. flew from Logan to West Palm Beach. He had taken a few days off from work. His son, the oldest one, picked him up at the airport, and they talked, mostly about the weather in Boston, their jobs, and the Mets on the car ride up to St. Lucie. It was spring training season and it felt like late July in the Back Bay.

 Nathan asked his son if he could turn up the car radio. Billy Joel. Piano Man.

His son always had Billy Joel on whenever Nathan got in his truck. He wondered whether his son really liked Billy Joel or if he only played it because they used to listen to him, volume turned high, when the two of them lived together. That was in the years after his mother and Nathan had split and his son moved back home after college. Either way, it made him happy. He could feel his shoulders relax.

“He says, ‘Son can you play me a memory?

I’m not really sure how it goes

But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete

When I wore a younger man’s clothes.’”

His son had started calling Nathan pretty regularly after his mother had been diagnosed with ALS. This was after he’d finished grad school, gotten married to a young woman from Mississippi, and they moved to Florida to be near to his mother.

Nathan and Helen, the boy’s mother, had three children and all three had moved to Florida to be near her.

Nathan now had two young children with his new wife. They lived in Boston, close to where her family lived.

He’d flown down when his son called to say that Helen was dying, asking if he wanted to come see her for the last time.

Each of his children and their partners were there. They were all in her spare bedroom with the hospital bed and medical equipment. No one spoke when he walked in. They looked at him and smiled. He and Helen had had a troubled past.

Each of them took turns sitting briefly in a chair by Helen’s bed. The IV drip had been unplugged, though the line with the morphine pump was still clicking on and off. Nathan sat by the bed once, maybe twice, for a few minutes each time, hoping and not hoping she would open her eyes and see him there. A thin blanket covered her body. Her face was sharp and gaunt.

He and Helen had married in August of sixty-six. It was hot and he’d worn a suit he’d rented.

Nathan had kept one picture of her. The first one he’d ever taken of her. On one of the first days they’d spent together. The only one he had of her by herself—not with friends or in a crowd of tourists wearing plaid and untucked shirts in front of some famous monument or around a table with smiling people with raised glasses leaning in towards one another though they’d only just met one another.

In this photo she’s standing beside his car. In three-quarter profile, one skeptical eyebrow raised. Her hand shading the sun from her eyes. In a light-colored summer dress. The photo was from September ’65. A little less than a year before they were married.

After Nathan had been there for a while, the hospice nurse had said, “Sometimes, right near the end, you see, one or the other of you might consider leaving the room, to ease the passing.”

She’d said it to all of them, but he was the only one who then left.

He went out for a walk. Passing pastel condos like hers. Neat lawns. Palm trees. Swept driveways. Clean white cars with Michigan and new Sunshine State plates. Nobody to be seen in the yards. No sounds other than those of yelping poodles behind drawn curtains and trucks on the interstate.

He was not in the room when she died.

In the ten months before he and Helen were married, they had taken short, uncomplicated trips. Sampling large pizzas with garlic and onion in places they’d never been before, sharing a Coke with no ice. Eating the whole pie right there in the booth, wiping the grease off their chins and fingers, laughing, giving half-serious points for crust, chew, sauce, cheese, and its New York-style foldability, compared with the others they’d eaten. Tony and Tina’s on Arthur Avenue, Joe’s on Carmine Street, Pasty’s on 56th Street. The Famous and not so Famous Original Rays.

Driving around with the windows open playing the Zombies and Stones tapes. Cramming for organic chemistry exams together: The sequence of steps in the hydrohalogenation reaction of an asymmetric alkene. The Bischler-Napieralski reaction. He wanted badly to go to medical school. She wasn’t interested in any more school and wanted to get a job.

So, instead, they got married.

 Before that, in June or July, Nathan told his older brother that he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t go through with it. No way. He was twenty-one. Scared. Rushed. Not at all what he wanted. His brother said if that was a legit reason for not getting married, nobody would do it. “You need a better excuse than that,” he said. If that was his only reason, it wasn’t good enough.

It was during that part of the sixties that still wore the clothes of the fifties. Pre-Woodstock. Pre-sexual freedom. Pre-EST. Pre-consciousness-raising. The pre-let’s-think-about-this-and-see-the-world-for-a-while-before-we-just-rush-into-something-stupid part of the sixties.

His brother said their mother would throw a shit fit if he backed out. And so, he didn’t. They moved into an apartment together. Bought an Ethan Allen couch and a rocking chair. They nailed pictures up on the walls and kept their socks and underwear in separate dressers.

Neither of them knew anything about marriage, at least not good ones. They followed a hand-me-down script they were given, with nothing more than that to go on. Nothing that might help them avert twenty years of quiet unhappiness, depression, anxiety, resentment, isolation, loose and muddled affairs, and weariness. No real, deep, understanding of love to guide them.

Both wanting, expecting, to love and to be loved. And when they didn’t know how to make that happen and didn’t see a way out, they both kept stepping deeper into a muddy river which only got wider the further they got in.

They were little more than adolescents made up to look like adults, with three children and the old thin-at-the-elbows neuroses their parents had given to them. They were no good together, and each was too afraid to say it.

They split. They found they were so much better apart. Happier. It just took so long for that to happen.

She died that afternoon while he was out walking.

Then, as she lay, so recently alive, so recently herself, all of that past came welling up in him.

And so, he cried. For her. And for himself. For their shared and separate sadness before they split. For the joy they had missed when they were together.

On the flight back up to Logan, looking down at the blue, blue ocean, he listened to the circling lyrics of songs he once knew by heart and only now remembered as fragments on repeat in his brain. Words and melodies worn deeply into the grooves of his synapses.

Only then, belatedly, did he see that he had broken the Judy Blue Eye’s Rule.

He had stood by her bed. Taken his turn in the chair beside her. And, even then, at that moment, when she had so little time left, he had not seen her as who she was. Only who she had been … and only in relation to himself. As he had done in the past, seeing her only through his too-young-to-see-clearly eyes.

Even then as she was near to breathing her last human breath, his vision of her was still clouded by the remnants of who she had seemed to be in the past. Not the woman she was. The one who she always had been, and he could not see. CSN. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.

“Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now

I am not dreaming

I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are…”

The Hungarian Deception

Erik slept in fitful bouts of disturbed sleep all night. Words, phrases, faces, as if pasted on to the rims of a perpetual motion machine, or better yet, a snake devouring its own tail, woke him, or at least, brought him to the thin subliminal edge of nearly-waking. In those moments in which he did awake, he looked over at the clock and out through the parted window blinds behind him.

His wife slept quietly in their bed. Bliss, their three-year old, lay in the space between her parents, curled against her mother’s back.

Snow began falling shortly before he woke. He knew it was coming. Expected it. Moving in from the northwest, off the lake, tracing the path of the highway south and eastward toward the city. By six o’clock there were already four inches of fat, wet flakes blowing in swirls around the streetlights, sticking to the road in front of his house and to the west-facing sides of the other homes in the neighborhood.

Feeling ragged when he got out of bed, he shaved and dressed silently in the bathroom. He’d set out his clothes for work the night before. His brown wool knit tie, grey flannel shirt, jeans.

He hurried.

“Hová mész?” his wife whispered, (Where are you going?) in Hungarian to him in the near-dark room.

“To work,” he said.

Verk? Te örült vagy? Egy tonnaszar hó esik teher!” (Are you crazy? It is snowing a shitload out there!”)

“If I leave early, I can come back early.”

“Coffee?” She pronounces it, kahvee.

“Nope. I’ll get it on the road.”

Dehogy?” (Nope?)

He told her to go back to sleep, he’d be fine, not to wake the baby and he went into the kitchen and sat down at the table, keys in his hand. He did feel crazy.Crazy and irresolute. Irresolutely trapped knee-deep in a mess of his own doing. He needed to leave. Right away. To not leave, to even think of not going, of letting Liesel go by herself, was more than crazy. Unforgiveable. He wanted to be with her. It was the right thing to do. He said he would. Given his word. That was a laugh, was it not. His word. He wanted, too, so very desperately to put an end to all the deceit. He would tell her that.

The snow was steadily deepening.

The few people left in the waiting room looked down at their cellphones or at the folded magazines in their laps. No one spoke. They shifted in their seats, making as little a disturbance as they possibly could. Crossing and uncrossing their legs at the ankles. Jittering bended knees. Wet footprints marked smudged lines across the carpet. A table lamp lit in the corner of the room.

Each of the women there shifted their eyes to the inner door when they sensed it opening, anticipating when the nurse would appear and read their name from a clipboard. The few men among them only looked up when the woman they’d come in with heard her name being called and then she’d get up quickly. And then the men would leave.

They had planned to meet at six-thirty in the parking lot at the commuter rail station. He’d often met Liesel there, leaving one of their cars at the uncrowded south end of the lot and then driving to some other place, in some other part of the city, to a park or to the back of a library, or to a café where they might not be seen by anyone who might know them. This had been going on for almost a year. They’d once met for an afternoon at the empty apartment of a friend of hers. Muzzy, a high school friend, he thought. He had never met her.

He stood to get up and leave the house and then he stopped and sat back down.

Leaving home in weather not fit for driving would only mean another lie he’d have to concoct. He could call Liesel’s house and pretend to be from the clinic saying they were not taking patients for the day, and she could call later to reschedule. But then what would rescheduling do? It would only put this off for another day. That would have solved nothing and how would she explain to her husband a call from anyone that early in the morning. But then, perhaps Muzzy would take her to the new appointment.

Liesel was punctual (always), obsessively well-organized, more of a person in control of things than he. She demanded punctuality. Of course she would certainly have called the clinic, checking to see that they were open and expecting her. She should have canceled when they knew about the storm. Maybe she had. But more likely, she’d already be waiting for him, parking lights on, engine running evenly, her hair still damp from the shower, and the lizard like tracks of her near-slick tires being eradicated by the freshly falling snow.

The procedure Liesel was having this morning was scheduled for eight o’clock, twenty miles in toward the city. A grey one-story clinic building by the highway, behind a tight hedgerow of cypress trees.

At six forty-five, Liesel turned off the engine, pounded her open palms against the steering wheel until they hurt. “Fuck,” she said. “Fuck him.” She got out of the car, her head and face wrapped in a thick woolen scarf against the wind. She scraped clear the windshield of encrusted snow and got back in and started it up the again. Turned the wipers on. And then saw, through the gauze of snowflakes, the lights of his car. You bastard!

When they called Liesel’s name, she rose, bent over, and whispered closely, and sharply, into his ear, Erik, lisen to me, menj el most, és gyere vissza értem két óra múlva.” (Leave now and come back for me in two hours.)

He turned his head to look at her, but she stopped him and grabbed his chin in her stiff, long fingers.

He nodded.

“End von more tink,” she said, in a voice just loud enough for the others to hear, “yu dirty peeze of cow sheet, tek of det Filadelfia Freedum beisbol het frum yur beeg bawld hed, end tek doze googly eye glesses frum of yur fayz, vitch yu tink meks yu look jus lik Elton John, becose you only lokk like a ful, end yu r embearazink me. End ven yu cum bek fur me, brink me a plen begel vit crem chees end a blek coffee. Du yu here me?”

He nodded.

Pliz belif me, Erik. ven I tel dis tu yu, És ha valaha is mesélsz errõl a húgomnak, meg fogsz halni!” (And, if you ever tell my sister about this, you will die!”), she said.

She then stood up, straightened her bek and left the room without looking bek at him.

He shrugged on his overcoat, left by the front door, and got into his car.

A Sudden Change in the Weather at Weeping Rock

Harris and Cortina ate pancakes with butter and syrup at a table near the door of the park’s visitor center, a short walk from the trailhead. It had rained. Their clothing was soaked through. Their boots were filled with mud. They were bedraggled. Shaken.

Men and women in expensive looking hiking gear and sleek backpacks came through the door. Their sunglasses set back atop their heads, they looked around, and smiled at the couple eating pancakes, in a way as if the two were unfamiliar guests at a wedding party who no one wanted to sit with.

Harris poured syrup over the cakes. It trickled down over the round edges.

Cortina did not look up from her plate. Her hair dripped.

They both knew it was over between them.

Harris poured himself second cup of coffee and lifted the pot toward her. She shook her head.

He put the pot down and she picked it up and poured a cup for herself.

They’d made love the night before, in Bullhead, in the back bedroom of her mother’s doublewide, and they’d slept late. They had to hurry, then, to start the drive up to Zion. Neither of them liked to feel pressured.

Cortina’s mother worked at a casino in Laughlin, on the Nevada side of the Colorado River.

The day before, she had taken them to the casino for breakfast in the employees’ cafeteria and then they swam in the river. The flood gates at Lake Mead were open and they floated down river a few miles in the swift, brown current and then walked back up along the road to Harrah’s and jumped back in again.

By the time they reached the Weeping Rock trail head, it was almost noon. It was three hours up over the East Rim into Hidden Canyon and another three down.

Cortina had taken the trail once before. It was narrow. Two yards wide at its widest. Switchbacks crisscrossed the steep face of the mountain.

Cortina led. Single file. She called back to Harris the names of every tree and rock formation they passed. Kaibab limestone. Fremont Cottonwoods. Quaking Aspen. Utah juniper. Bristlecone pine. Navajo sandstone.

He followed in her steps as best he could.

In the canyon above the rim, protected from the wind, they drank the last of the water she had packed.

Harris, his legs covered in fine red ancestral dust, saw himself as a free young man who’d once lived in the quiet sacredness of the canyons, on the plateaus, and down along the creeks in the valleys. He felt they begged to be worshipped.

When the sun traversed the rim, Cortina said they needed to head back down. The way they’d come up. He thought there must have been another, easier, trail down.  

They’d been together for about a year. They talked books. Shared pizzas and salads. They once took a weekend trip to Block Island, rode rented bikes, and bought rolls at a roadside bakery. They were both reading Blindness then. She liked Saramago’s writing more than Harris did.

She had two children. Teens. They lived with her and spoke badly about their father’s new wife and with whom they spent weekends before she became pregnant, after which they felt they were no longer welcome.

He found them hard to be around. Cortina knew that. She said he would get used to them over time. That they meant well, though Harris doubted that.

Down from the rim, they walked in shade. The rockface on one side, and nothingness on the other. Far below, cars were leaving the park.

Harris’s boots slipped on the downward slope a few times, and Cortina told him to keep a safer distance behind her.

There had been a magnetic rush between them when they’d met. An outsized hunger for each other.

She had a literary mind. She knew things he did not, making references to authors and books he’d not read. She hated Hemingway. He suspected it was the man’s matter-of-fact unfaithfulness, rather than his writing, that she disliked. She abhorred Roth. He sensed a peremptory rebuke which he took personally.

Further down, the wind picked up. An updraft. The trail was shadowed by tall darkening clouds.

Cortina unstrapped her backpack and removed a poncho which she put on. She had not packed one for him. He had not thought to bring one. It snapped in the wind.

One crack of thunder. Rain began.

Pebbles skipped down the mountain face from above them. They walked down a few yards, no more than ten or fifteen, looking for some shelter. There was none.

Larger stones fell with the sheeting rain and, in moments, rocks the size of coconuts tumbled down. Water sluiced around their feet. Harris felt he could not breathe.

She screamed at him. “Turn around, go back up!”

Boulders the size of steamer trunks clattered and bounced around them. He shuddered in horror as each one passed.

“Up? Why up?” he said.

“Just listen to me, damn it, we have to find some cover.”

“Where?”

“Up there,” she said.

She pointed to an outcropping of rock they had passed. He did as she said.

“Get down! Make room for me and don’t move!”

Whole sections of the rock wall split off and slid down the mountainside, tumbling out and hitting the side again lower down, some landing on the switchbacks and others bringing down trees and shattering at the foot of the mountain.

Harris’s breath came in short, panicked gulps. He forced himself back against the rock. The nearness of death, the reality and imminence of it. At any moment they could be swept out into the nothingness.

They waited only for the next moment to come and to pass.

When the rain finally stopped, the sky cleared and brightened, waterfalls broke out of crevices in the rockface.

“Now,” she said. “Let’s go down now.”

He flew home to New York alone. She drove the rental back to Kingman.

He saw her once again. A chance meeting on one of the avenues uptown near the Met.

She had let her hair grow out to a soft and appealing shade of gray. It was cold, and they spoke for only a few minutes before she turned and took the arm of the man she had been walking with.

An Early Supper at Le Gamin

I sat at a table in Le Gamin on 10th Ave and 17th St.

Marchant, the proprietor of the café, with whom I had become well acquainted, and with whom, on occasion, I attended the bicycle races, approached the table.

When I came in, he was leaning back against the half-wall separating the kitchen from the dining area. I was early.

Too early for New York people to have supper. Those who worked uptown and lived in one-bedroom walk-ups in Chelsea or the West Village near the river, south of 23rd where you could still occasionally find place for under two thousand a month.

And where, in the hours after dark, after the meat packers closed up, narrow-hipped women and men in high heels walked the streets or stood with long legs outstretched and smoked on shadowed corners under the elevated railroad tracks and bent to look in the rolled down windows of the cars slowing along the curb.

He carried two glasses and an open bottle of a St. Amour Beaujolais. He set the cork and bottle down and placed one glass in front of me.

“May I sit?” he asked. I nodded.

He took the chair opposite me so that he retained a view of the kitchen. I had an unhindered view of the street. I could see the park across the street. One of those vest-pocket parks created in small vacant lots during the Lindsay administration.

Marchant raised his glass to me.

In the years before Giuliani chained and locked the park gates shut to keep unsavory characters out, I would sit with friends and smoke and talk books and writing. The Park has a sign now that says, “No adults unless accompanied by a child under 7.” It’s hard to say whether that keeps away the unsavory characters.

“Mr. Birnbaum,” said Marchant. His voice was hoarse. Perhaps he had been at the bicycle races that afternoon, but I had not seen him there.

“I have seen to it that your soup and fresh bread will be out in a moment.”

“Thank you,” I said. Marchant was not a gregarious man. He seemed weary. Wearier than when I had seen him last.

The M11 stopped at the corner. In front of the laundromat. The bus kneeled and a woman with a Burberry scarf around her neck and a cat carrier stepped to the curb. Spring had been slow in coming.

“Are you comfortable? I can put up the heat if you wish.”

I told him no. There was no need. The sushing of the bus as it righted itself came through the window.

“Very well,” he said. “And your wife. She is well?

“Yes,” I said.

“She is a lovely woman. A woman of great taste and beauty. Will she be joining you this evening?”

“No. It is Wednesday. We have our meals apart on Wednesdays. She works late and then sees some friends of hers from Hoboken. I must get to work myself.”

I write in the evenings. The room I rent by the month on the West Street is most quiet in the evening. I have found that I work best after an early supper. I work until I think I have written a draft that is not terrible and then I leave it to sort itself out a bit before returning to it the next evening.

After I finish for the night, I walk along the river to our apartment in SoHo. I will bring home a bottle of Sancerre for Alize. There is a shop on Little West 12th that stays open late.

“May I pour you another glass?”

“Yes. Have you the escarole this evening?”

“I am sorry. It did not look good to Franco. He purchased several bunches of Swiss chard instead. He is cooking it now. I hope it will be to your liking.”

Marchant, some years ago, inherited the café from his brother, Bernard, the oldest of three boys. Bernard had suffered a mortal wound in a scuffle with a few young toughs outside a bar on Christopher Street.

He was brought to St Vincent’s. He told the nurse who had cared for him that if he did not survive, he wanted to leave all his possessions to the younger Marchant.

Bernard, a careful and somewhat fearful man, always carried a note to that effect, the license to the café, and the lease to the family’s rent-controlled apartment in a leather wallet sewed into his waistband. He asked the nurse to remove the wallet and begged her to deliver it that night to his brother, which she did, at the risk of losing her job, or worse.

She was a beautiful woman. Marchant found her quite attractive, and they began seeing one another. A short time later, disgusted with the blood and misery she saw each day in the hospital, and finding the younger Marchant to be a man of integrity and some kindness, asked if he would let her work with him in the café.

She had learned to cook at her mother’s side in Marseilles and, as Marchant had little facility in the kitchen, he agreed and she soon became indispensable. The business grew. After a while they married, though the marriage did not last long.

Long enough, though for them to have a son they named Franco.

I found myself growing quite hungry. I opened the napkin and placed it across my knees. Franco makes a good bouillabaisse.

Marchant got up from his seat. He had some difficulty. He complained of an arthritic hip. His pre-existing condition, he called it. Though one evening he shared with me that he had taken a fall in a six-day bike race which unfortunately ended his hopes for the kind of life he had wanted to live.

He returned from the kitchen with the soup, a thick slice piece of bread and small plate of chard. “Bon Appetit,” he said.

I told him thank you and he turned back toward the kitchen. He seemed to pause, as if thinking of something he had intended to say and either had forgotten or had decided at the end not to.

The breeze off the Hudson had picked up as it does in the evenings. It came in through the open windows facing the street. If we don’t have rain, I think I might go fishing in the morning and perhaps the bicycle races in the afternoon will be good.

Hannah and Murray Discuss the Future

“Ma, where’s Murray?”

“Out with Zeus.”

“He names a dog Zeus and he gets away with it? Isn’t that like sacrilegious, or illegal or something?”

“Hannah dear, it’s only sacrilegious if you first make a law against it. Like, ‘thou shalt not covet’ or ‘thou shalt not name a dog after a major- or minor-, or even half-god of the universe’, for example.”

“And could I do that?”

“Maybe, ask your father.”

“But what if I make a law like that and someone breaks it?”

“Well, Hannah, I guess it might depend upon several things like, who breaks it, or if only one breaks it, or if a whole lot of them break it, or if they break it by only thinking about it, or planning to do it, or doing it only once, or if they do it a lot while no one is watching, or if they do it and then apologize after but nobody believes their apology, or if…”

“Ok, ma, thanks, I’ll ask Dad.”

“That’s good dear. He’ll appreciate that since…”

“Dad, Ma said I should talk to you. It’s about Murray.”

“Have you spoken with Murray about the matter first?”

“Not exactly, sort of, but not in those exact same words.”

“Well, dear, it’s disrespectful if you go over your brother’s head without speaking with him first, and so I suggest that you give some thought to possibly…”

“My god, no wonder nothing ever gets done around here anymore.”

“What was that dear?”

“Nothing, Dad.”

“So, Murray, Dad said I should talk to you about something super really important.”

“Did you leave a note in my in-box?”

“I tried, but it was full and not accepting any more messages, not since the BCE changed to AD.

“Am I detecting a note of hostility and an incipient challenge to the established proto…”

“Cut the crap, Murray, I’m you your sister. I need you to get in touch with Moses.

“Unfortunately, Hadassah…”

“Hannah.”

“Unfortunately, Hannah, Moses passed on some time ago.”

“Too bad. He was your front man, your mouthpiece, your homey with the commonfolk. And then you just drop him off at the edge of the Jordan like a day-old knish? Who’d you get to replace him.”

“Ah, good question. I’m still interviewing. I’ve had so little time to… I wish I had made better use of his skills, sending him off into the desert was just a holding action until I…”

 “You’re shitting me, right?”

“I’ve had a few good prospects but, you know how it is with…”

“I cannot goddamn believe this. You’re telling me that you you’re okay with things down there with the floods and fires, polar ice melting, a million species of plants and animals you made yourself all those zillions of years ago, gone (and don’t tell me it was only six days because we both know that’s a crock because of the mutability of spacetime) and you do nothing? Nada?”

“Nada?”

“Murray, are you even paying any attention? It’s not like it was just an unpaid internship with Moses. He traipsed through the wilderness for forty years to find the promised land and when they got there you told him you’d changed your mind, and said ‘no dice folks’, go back down the mountain and walk around for another 38 years and then attack the Amorites and, no worries, you just massacre them and take their land. Are you kidding me? Then you did the same with the Reubinites, the Gadites, Manassites, the meteorites and stalactites and stalagmites, the Hittites and the Bagelbites, and the others.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“And you sent them off smiting and wandering, meanwhile saying don’t worship the stars and the moon and the earth and the water but the should obey you about what they should eat and how many prayers to say how many times a day, and don’t eat anything non-kosher. When soon there’ll be no more shrimp or pigs anyway, Murray. I hope you took pictures of all the mountains and valleys and islands, giraffes, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and Euterpe precatoria palms, because you can say ‘sayonara baby’ to it all unless you get off your skinny-ass butt and do something. Maybe you should have just let them go on worshiping the sky and the trees and the water in the first place.

“Look, bro, you signed up for ‘eternal.’ No one told you to say that. Moses kept calling you ‘the Eternal.’ He didn’t call you the ‘maybe-sometimes-guy’, or the ‘just-for-a-little-while-guy.’ They counted on you. People believed that shit. Have you looked at your firmament, by the way? Filled with satellites and pieces of satellites, used rocket parts, methane, microplastics, mylar balloons, and dead insects.

“You wanted a monopoly. ‘Have no gods before me.’ You said that. And with me and Myron here, and all the rest of us, Artemis, Aphrodite, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, Buddha, and Gaia, … sure, we had our problems but nothing like what’s going on now. At least we answered the phone. But with you, who does anyone get when they call customer service?

“Face it, Murray, Deuteronomy may really have been the last chapter for you.”

“Thank you, Hannah. I get it. I don’t need your help if that’s what this is supposed to be. I’m not interested. I just figured I’d get them started and then, you know, let free will take them the rest of the way, right? That was the whole point with the snake and the apple.”

“But Murray, look where that got them. I mean after they ate the apple and put clothes on, you could have dropped some hints about the black plague or Styrofoam, or anything with the word ‘atomic’ in it, or don’t build houses downhill from Vesuvius, or avoid anyone with Stalin as a last name, or don’t dig down further than say ten cubits, and stay away from gun powder, bat caves, and people who won’t wear a mask, for example.”

“So, what should I do now?”

“You need a new Moses type, Murray. One with creds. Experience. Charisma. I’ll set you up, man. Word! I can get you touch with this guy named LeBron.”

Malachi and His Mother at the Altshul on Garfield Place

Malachi helps his mother step into the side entrance of the shul. The tall mahogany front doors on 8th Avenue were closed. Locked tight. And so, the two of them walked around the corner and up Garfield and then up the stairs through the side entrance, down the hallway to the sanctuary.

They took seats in one of the rear pews, passing the Rothsteins, the Arbeiters, and the Edelmans seated in the front pews. The ones they paid good money for.

The room was near full. A mixed, arrhythmic, hum of voices. Air conditioners whirring. The smell of aftershave and leather shoes.

“Why didn’t dad come with you?”

“Your father? He says he doesn’t do gatherings anymore.”

“COVID?”

“No. C-R-A-B-B-Y. He says he likes people well enough but he likes them much better when he doesn’t have to be around them.”

“That’s Bukowski.”

“What?”

“Charles Bukowski, the poet, said that.”

“Don’t tell your father. He thinks he made it up.”

“It looks like the rabbi wants to start.”

“Welcome all, I am Rabbi Plosker. Let us begin. We are all aware of the alarming increase in hate crimes and mass shootings. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, the Chabad of Poway, the AME in Charleston. And while we work against violence of all kinds, visited upon people of all faiths, we must also protect ourselves with guards, and vigilance, and yes, with preparedness.”

“I have to get up.”

“Ma, wait. It’s starting.”

“I have to leave.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, you stay. I thought I could do this but I can’t. I have to go. I cannot be here for this.

She gets up and, clutching her purse, walks toward the side door. The way they’d come in. A police officer is now there. She turns and walks back up the center aisle toward the main entrance.

“Ma’am,” the officer there tells her, “I’m sorry, but you can’t leave.”

“I have to. You can’t stop me.”

“Ma’am,” the officer extends his arm, takes a step to obstruct her way. “Please, ma’am. We have a protocol we need to follow and I ask you to cooperate, for the benefit of all.” 

“Malachi!”

“I’m sorry ma’am you have to go back to your seat.” He touches her elbow and points her back down the aisle.

She sits down. She’s shaking. “Malachi, please say something. Look what is happening here.”

“Ma, it will be okay. Nothing’s happening. Trust me. Look, the rabbi wants to begin.”

“The rabbi? She wants to begin? She wants to begin with the Gestapo barring the doors?”

“What are you saying? The police do these trainings all over the city. In mosques, churches, synagogues. It’s for our own safety. We need to know what to do if, God forbid, something happens, and a someone with a gun comes in.”

“Let me tell you, Malachi, open your eyes. The someone’s are already here. There are two someone’s with guns here, and one is at the front door and the other is at the side door, and the Plosker herself, invited them in. She invited them in, yet. With guns, yet. Tell me, who comes into synagogue with a gun? I’ll tell you who. My dead grandmother knows the answer in her grave. The SS, that’s who.”

“Everyone is watching us, Ma.”

“Yes, they’re watching. With their goddamn eyes closed. They’re watching but not seeing. This is the most farshtunkene idea I have ever heard in my life and, you, my own son, brings me here.”

“Shhh!”

The officer at the back of the sanctuary is holding an air horn, a large orange klaxon. He’s wearing sunglasses, dark uniform, a peaked cap, epaulets, and a COVID mask. He nods. Touches his visor with two easy fingers.

“Sergeant Petersen here,” the rabbi says, “will lead us through a training in an active shooter drill. He will show us what to do, if it should ever happen, God forbid, in the very, very remote possibility of an active shooter coming into the sanctuary. If we are prepared, and we act quickly and with intention and preparation, we can save our lives and the lives of all of us.”

“That’s right,” says Petersen. “We are here to help keep you as safe as possible. I promise you, no one will be hurt. We ask you first to turn your phones off.” He waits. Everyone fumbles with their phones. “In a few moments, when you hear the sound of the horn…”

“Malachi, take me out of here. I can’t do this. I will have a heart attack. I can’t. I can’t… I will die in this room.”

“…and as soon as you hear it, I want you to immediately do whatever you would do if an active shooter came into the room.”

Sgt. Petersen steps back out of the sanctuary and closes the doors behind him. The officer at the side entrance does the same.

A long moment of silence passes.

The doors open. Both police officers, wearing COVID masks, both with the Klaxon horns pointed at the pews, step in.

Blam! Blam! Blam! The horns crack open the air. Again, and again and again. Like a pair of monstrous screaming jackhammers. 

A woman in the rear screams. Three men in the front row stand up and look to the back, then the front. Toward the blaring sounds. The rest stand, look around, and then duck under the pews, covering their heads and pulling the others down with them. Some grab for their phones. Malachi pulls at his mother’s skirt. “Mama, get down here.”

The cracking, blasting, sounds stop. There are cries from all sides.

Petersen, holding the Klaxon in his hand like a hand gun, walks down the aisle, pointing with it from one side to the other, pointing at each one of the half-hidden, half-crouching, cowering, people.

“You’re dead! You’re dead, you’re dead,” he says to each of them.

The one at the side door explains, “The worst thing you can do is to stand up and look at the shooter, giving him a target. The next worst thing is to crouch under the pews. You make yourself a stationary target. A dead one.”

“You’re all dead. Every one of you. Figuratively,” says Petersen. Now let’s try it one more time.”

The two officers step behind the doors again.

“See, Ma?”

“See what, they told us nothing about how we should react.” she says. She stands up. “This is their new trick,” she yells to everyone.

“Please sit down,”

“Yes, please sit down,” the rabbi calls out.

“That was a sham! One crazy kid bursting through the door like Dylan Roof or Gregory Bowers doesn’t kill enough of us. That was just old-school anger. This is the new and improved U.S. version of mass killing.”

“Someone, take her out of here,” says Rothstein.

“They’re not going to let me out of here. Not you either, Rothstein. Not peacefully. They have us where they want us. They have us all trapped, totally lulled into fearful, willing, trusting fools, placated, convinced they mean no harm. Like how they convinced my grandparents to wait in line for the boxcars, carrying their suitcases and children, and then in line at the showers, for godsakes. I know what’s coming. Everyone get out. Now. All of us all at once. Make run for it. Rush them. I swear, our only hope, is to take them by surprise. Because the next time those two doors two open they’ll have AR-15s and…”

The Time of Wild Violets

I ran into that man again. Logan. The one who was telling me about the wild violets. Back before COVID. The one at North Station. God, two years ago. You believe it? Two years. It’s like an entire year vanished. That’s crazy, right? Like the year disappeared and the days are now laid bare like rocks at low tide. How we got that Noro virus in that Mexican place Franco took us to when everyone was washing their hands except in Florida and we started throwing up during the night and we thought we were coming down with COVID because it was March and we had just heard about it and it was before we started wearing masks and not touching our faces. And when Fauci said don’t touch your face and the minute he said that I couldn’t stop touching my face. But that was after we got back home and before I had that diverticulitis. And the last day I played tennis. With Zeno, the guy from in next door. Where the old woman lived and then went into the nursing home in February and died in a week and her son put the house on the market and it sold right away because people were moving out of the city. That must have been in April when they closed the courts and playgrounds and everyone who went to the beach was wearing masks and walking eighty-seven feet away from everyone else and I remember thinking, ‘that’s a little much of an over-reaction isn’t it’, but that’s what was happening then. We’d pass someone at the beach, before they closed the beaches too, and people wouldn’t even look at you, as if they could get infected just by making eye contact. And then Nadia died of it. Anyway, he, I mean Logan, was wearing the same black suit with the wide lapels and the red bow tie he was wearing that first time. That was late May or maybe early June. That’s important, I think, but nothing is really so important about him or the story. It’s just that I met him again and he said the same things in the same way he did that first time. That slow, lower-case way he has of speaking like an e e cummings poem. And we fell into the same conversation we had that first time and I was tempted to point that out to him but decided against it because that would be rude. As if suggesting that his memory might be failing, though he was not that old, or that he had been drinking though I smelled no alcohol on his breath and he was not slurring his words or anything. Anyway, what’s so weird about him, I mean seeing him again last night, is that we were sitting in North Station like we were the first time but some people were wearing masks and all, though most were not, which by the way, he was not, but he said nothing about COVID. Nothing at all. Not a single word. I mean that is incredible, isn’t it? You meet somebody now or you Zoom and right away they’re into vaccines and variants, like it used to be the weather or basically only the weather. It’s like ‘how are you?’ and they start telling you about who they know who got COVID or their cousin who says the whole thing is totally bogus, that they’re overcounting cases and it’s not as bad as everyone is saying, and she’s a nurse so she must know, or someone else is saying three people in their family died from COVID in like in the same week, but mostly it’s like how this whole year has been crazy, right? Like after 9/11. So it was only after he waved goodbye to me as I was walking through the doors to the train that I realized that I had spent the last twenty minutes talking to someone I barely know and we didn’t talk about COVID or George Floyd, or Trump, though not that many people are talking about George Floyd or Trump anymore, at least people I know, which is probably more a sign of the total moral junkyard people around here are living in, that like George Floyd was murdered in front of our eyes almost exactly one year ago and it’s like, ‘okay, that’s over!’ Not that I want to talk about COVID or George Floyd all the time with everybody but, you have to recognize that these terrible things happened within the last year, January 6, and Kyle Rittenhouse, and all those mass shootings, like one just the other day in San Jose, but tomorrow that will fade in memory and conversation just like COVID and George Floyd, and Columbine and Las Vegas, and Emmett Till, and Amadou Diallo, and Sandra Bland. Anyway, just like the last time, he sits down next to me on the bench by that crowded sports bar and he puts down his two black instrument cases, an alto sax in one and a bass clarinet in the other, and he asks me what instrument I play and I tell him I don’t and he says, ‘you look like a cello man to me,’ like he knows my secret dream is to play a cello, then he says ‘let me guess your age’ and looks me over like I’m a salami and he gets it right on the nose again but now I’m two years older so I know he’s not just throwing out a number and then he says, ‘I can tell it in your shoulders,’ and I pick up my bag of Bova’s pastries to go to the train and he tells me that a man my age should do some shoulder rolls each night before bed and that I should look for the wild violets coming out this week and how the purple of the flowers and the green of the leaves vibrate in your brain together because they’re complimentary colors, and how he knows my heart will sigh when I see them still damp in the morning, and that it would do me good listen to some Gershwin sometime, Porgy and Bess, even though he said he can tell by looking at me that I don’t like woodwinds much, I should listen for how the woodwinds sway like dune grass in a sweet-smelling breeze blowing soft off the ocean through the streets of Catfish Row on a Charleston summer evening, just like he said that last time before the COVID and all.  

The Comforter of Sudden Silent Souls

Harold Mandelbaum is a shomer. A watcher. A guardian of the dead.A comforter of sudden silent souls.

He is sitting on a thin cushion on a straight-backed wooden chair. The only chair in the room. A table lamp is lit in the corner. It provides only enough light so that he can read and to allow him to dimly make out his surroundings.

The walls of the room are painted in an accepting shade of gray. A gray with a tint of brown that emanates solace. A gray that seems to him like a pair of soft brown eyes. A gray that absorbs sorrow.

There is no sound in the room beyond that of his own breathing, an occasional sigh or cough, and the creak of the chair as he shifts his body against it.  There is no window in the room. Only a door. And the door is shut.

He is not entirely alone.

In the center of the room is a table and on the table is the body of a man. Milton Hershkovitz is the man’s name. A man of about seventy. A man unknown to Mandelbaum until he entered the room.

Mandelbaum, himself, is a man of seventy-three years.

It is three o’clock in the morning. A Monday in May. An open book lays across Mandelbaum’s knees. And from it he reads. He reads quietly to the man and to the man’s soul.

He came into the room and sat in the chair by the table with the body of Milton Hershkovitz on it at a few minutes after midnight. He had relieved, Seidman, the shomer who came before him. Seidman nodded to him when he left. This is sacred work.

Mr. Hershkovitz had died in the late afternoon. His body had been washed and wrapped in a linen shroud. Kaplan had been the first watcher. Then Konigsberg. Then Seidman. Now Mandelbaum.

From the open book Mandelbaum reads the Shema, “Shema yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echod.”

After death, it is said, that a person’s soul must not be left alone. The shomer comes to sit with the body and to lend comfort to the soul.

Mandelbaum feels a presence in the room. A stirring. A stirring in his mind.

What binds a soul to the body? What then releases the soul?

Mandelbaum believes that Hershkovitz’ soul is hovering over the man’s body. It is unsettled. Seeking peace. It will remain with the body until the body is buried. And then the soul is free.

Hours ago, the soul in the room had been bound to Hershkovitz. “Was the soul not, in fact,” Mandelbaum thinks, “the man called Hershkovitz? Was it not the soul which suffered when Hershkovitz suffered? Which rejoiced when Hershkovitz rejoiced? Loved when Hershkovitz loved. Felt terror when Hershkovitz felt terror? What was Hershkovitz if not his soul? What or who could Hershkovitz be without his soul?”

“What am I then,” thinks Mandelbaum?

“What more can I offer Hershkovitz now than to be in this room, at this time, with his soul? To sit with it. To ease the pain of separation. To mourn its loss. The loss it must feel.”

“Where will the soul go? Is it unsure? Does it not know how to leave or where to go? Is that the stirring I feel? Or is it my disquieted soul I feel? Is it my soul who is the teacher, or is it the learner? Is it seeking guidance or must the soul remain here until it has safely passed along to another one a message?

Mandelbaum listens. He hears nothing. And so, he reads once more from the book of King David’s Psalms.

“…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”

He covers his eyes, sitting in the silence and the semi-darkness. His feet find a more comfortable position.

And then he reads from the Book of Job. In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. 

He reads a story of anguish, of suffering, of sin and redemption, of transgression and forgiveness, of praise.

Still, he hears nothing.

“There is nothing to hear,” he thinks. “Who is to speak in this room but me? Who is to listen?”

“It is not for me that I read these psalms and verses. Is it not for the one here who listens without ears with which to hear,” he thinks?

“It is for the peace of the soul who resided within Hershkovitz and which is now released,” he says to himself.

His eyes tire. He rests. “This is allowed,” he says to himself. His eyes flutter and close. This is allowed.

He is awakened by a stirring. A shiver. He opens his eyes, expecting Silverman to be at the door.

But it is not time yet for Silverman to come.

He thought he heard a voice.

“Listen, Mandelbaum, don’t kid yourself. You are reading to yourself. No one else is here. You are doing a good thing. A mitzvah. This is true. But listen to the words carefully because is it not, in truth, to me, your own soul, you are speaking?”

And after Job had prayed for his friends, and the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him…

And then Mandelbaum rested again and when he heard a knock on the door, he opened it and let Silverman come in.

And, as he left, as the two men passed one another in the doorway, each looked into the eyes of the other, and Mandelbaum nodded and then he went home.

They will call him again, he knows. Another man, another night, another sudden, silent, soul, and he will go and it will be a mitzvah.

Waiting in Line at the Church of the Transfiguration

Morriah held a place in line for Max. The sidewalk in front of the church was dry and grey and the late December wind banked around the corner from Fifth Avenue and west along E. 29th Street. It was all she could do to keep her balance against the wind, what with one hand atop her head to keep her fur Bergman-like pillbox firmly in place and with the other holding her grey overcoat gripped tight around her, and to hold the nosegay of three red tea roses and some frilled greens close to her chest.

The hat cost more than she could afford. The nosegay was unnecessary but her mother had paid for it. Reluctantly. Grumblingly.

Morriah touched her chin. She had covered a small raised pimple with cosmetic her mother had given her. She looked at the other couples in the queue. The way they were dressed. How tall they were. What shoes they wore.

She politely excused herself, changing her place in line twice, three times, moving to the end of the line, as couples, arms entwined, entered the church ahead of her, an apologetic look on her face.

Max had come. But he had left the license on the dresser in his bedroom at his parents’ apartment on Broadway and had to take two buses uptown, retrieve it, and meet her before the rector closed the doors at noon.

Her mother, if she knew what had happened would have said, “Don’t hold your breath waiting for him, Morriah. But, no worries, if he doesn’t show, I can return the flowers to Adler’s if they still have some signs of life in them.”

There was a rush to marry.

The war had started it. Pearl Harbor. The Nazi’s. The Italians. The Japanese. Roosevelt made it imperative, not so much the rush to marry, but the sense of existential threat. Everyone felt it.

The country was attacked and that demanded an immediate response. The need to martial resources, to rally to fight, to sacrifice, do what the country needed of you. Get your hands dirty. Offer up your life for it if that’s what it took.

Urgency grew up from the soil, filled the air with its pungency, flowed in the insistent streams of voices, radio, news hawkers on the streets, clutches of neighbors in the lobby. It was unavoidable and insatiable.

Morriah felt the threat to the well-ordered life she’d imagined, she’d invested in. Planned on. Hoped for. A marriage. A wedding. A home. Children. A happy life. All of it was threatened by a world she had no control over. If she could get a job, she would. What would she do though? Steno? War work of some sort. Not at all what she had planned on.

There was all that and then there was Max. Brown hair and soft brown eyes. An off-center smile.

They’d danced. Fast and slow. In the rushed rhythm of the moment. In the basement of the church.

Max had signed up. To fight. Do what he was expected to do. He asked her to wait for him though he had no idea what that actually meant. How that feeling would translate into something real in his life. It actually had no translation that entered his mind beyond the heroism of it. Of the sound of the words he said to her, “I have to go. Will you wait for me?” Words that seemed to flow out of him without thought. Without anything but the desire to go, to fight, to have meaning in life, to earn it, what ever it was. And to be wanted, admired, needed, waited for.

Of course, she would wait for him. Though she too had no of idea what that meant, waiting for him. Of course, she would wait until he came back. They’d marry. She would write him letters he would open in his barracks or in a trench somewhere with gunfire and aircraft overhead and thunder in the distance. There was magic in it all.

They both felt the magic. Life had become magical. You would do what you were called to do. It was your duty.

And for both of them. The magic erased the unknown. The war became the known. And the known was the urgency.

“Marry me,” she said.

She’d worn her hair up like Olivia De Haviland. A dark blue suit. The small bouquet. There was no time to plan for more than that.

In January, he rode the bus to Fort Worth. A green foot locker. Half-full.

Morriah lived with her mother until a month or two before the baby was due and then she would take the train to be with him, to have the baby there, in Texas. And they would be happy.

And all would be well. She would keep the house and care for the baby. He would see her when he could until his orders would come. And then she would wait again for him.

And she did. She made the meals, cleaned the spills, washed the diapers and the dishes and the floors, and called the landlord when the sink or the toilet backed up. She endured the heat and the Texas humidity, and paid the bills, called the doctor, held the baby, the crying baby, the baby boy she had named for her father. There was always something in the oven or bubbling over on the stove and the wash in the machine in the hall. She read popular novels. All, a measure of happiness because she was waiting.

And in August, in her housecoat and her hair undone, and she’d not seen Max in a month, she was not happy. “When we move to San Diego it will be better,” she told her mother.

“Don’t hold your breath.”

And then it was to San Antonio, and Eagle Pass, and Brownsville.

And on a hot December afternoon, on their tenth anniversary, when the boy was nine and the girl was seven, Morriah waited in the still air and shade of the front porch for the delivery of the dryer they’d bought.

She’d have to tell the delivery man she couldn’t accept it. They were moving again. She didn’t know where.

She’d called her mother; told her that Max got new orders. Korea. And ask if she could come back to New York and stay with her and wait until he came back.

“Of course, dear,” her mother said. “Of course.”

The Truth According to Miriam

Miriam had never been one to live in the moment. In fact, she knew few among her small group of friends and no one among her shrinking family who could do that.

How could anyone, she thought, having survived beyond the age of three or four, not look forward to a better future or resist the pull of the past, searching through the rubble on the side of the road for mistakes, missed opportunities, pitfalls, and pleasures, few as those were.

Now, looking back as she so often did, she felt that she had learned all of the important, essential, existential, lessons that life had to teach her, and had accepted the mysteries for what they were. To know the past hurdles so as to avoid the next ones, or to take them in stride, or to be readied for the fall if and when it might come.

One needed to do that. Did that not make sense? Are people not just deluding themselves if they pretended not to? Did they not regard the past as the wisest of teachers?

But for Miriam what often came with the backward look was sad-eyed self-recrimination. A rebuke of sorts directed at herself twice fold for some long-ago, ill-considered act, some insensitive remark, or some impolite transgression. A rule ignored; a confidence broken; a friend let down. Paying a price once back then and once again in the present.

It was this that she wanted most to change in her life. To say to herself, as her mother might have if she were still alive, “Lighten up, Miriam, cut yourself some slack. No one but you gives a fat flying rat’s ass about it. Drop it. Let it go. What’s done is done. No one cares.”

Her mother had been the kind one and her father was, if not quite kind, not always threatening, though there were the times when she felt less than comfortable in his presence, when he would ask her a question. A simple question it would seem. But her father asked no simple questions. Oh, they seemed simple enough. “Did you leave the water running in the sink?’ “Where have you been?” “Did you finish your homework?” “Did you eat all the pickled herring in the jar and leave only the onions behind?” “Are you telling me the truth?”

Ah, but that was really the issue between Miriam and her father, wasn’t it? That was the real and underlying issue she had with him. His emphasis. No, it was more than an emphasis. His expectation. No, it was more than an expectation. His demand. Yes, it was his demand, always his demand, for the truth. “Are you telling me truth?”

But Miriam felt that his demand for the truth was met with distrust. An abiding mistrust. And she, only a child, a young girl.

It was actually, in fact, his core belief that she was not telling him the truth. That in fact, she was going to lie to him. That she’d lie to him about the littlest things. About medium sized things. About the big things. And it was not just with Miriam. It was with her mother. With his own brother. With the world. The world was lying to him, had lied to him, and was going to lie to him again.

What was his obsession with the truth? What, looking back, she thought, was he hiding? Was he truthful? What was his measure of truth? Was there only one truth? One absolute truth? And if there were two truths, a his and hers, was one truer than another?

As a young woman in her twenties, and this is the part of the past that nagged most at her, that she regretted most… she found herself, for a time, wearing the very same coat of deceit that her father had wrapped around her. She lied to men, to women. She lied about the most meaningless things. She hid behind a mask of honesty. Verity. Railing against dishonesty. How easy it seemed to be duplicitous, to dissemble with disregard. How intoxicating. And how sad a person she’d come to be.

She had become her father. She hated herself.

It was this road that she looked back on now. This road of rubble she walked. This road she had crawled on until she was able to stand and walk. The road that was steep and dark. The road that was the past. The road that she’d left behind.

At the funeral for her father. Actually, before the funeral, she was asked if she would say a few words. Perhaps tell a little story. Perhaps a fond memory, an anecdote or two, not more than five minutes. Something that those gathering would like to hear. Something personal, heartfelt. A reminiscence, maybe.

She had declined. The heavy-lidded rabbi with the mournful eyes and black fedora nodded his head.  

And then, at the graveside, for there was no actual funeral with songs and bible sayings, and organ music, and it was only just the family, those who could make it on a Tuesday morning in March, those who were still alive, though not her mother who had died several years before, those who had thought to come, when no one else spoke up for him, they all looked to Miriam.

And so, Miriam picked up the shovel that had lain beside the open grave and she scooped up a half-shovel-full of the mouse-gray earth and tossed it down onto the wooden box and said, “To be honest, we never really got along all that well, not really, my father and I. But he taught me everything I know. He was a man beholden to the truth. The truth as he saw it. As he wanted to see it. And in the end, isn’t that the only truth? Are not those stories which we tell ourselves, the sad and happy songs we sing in the shower, in the end, the only truth we will ever know?”

Reading the Book of Exodus by Candlelight in Scarsdale

Sally Leventhal turned away from the kitchen window. The first purple crocuses were pushing up through the last patches of crusted backyard snow.

It always starts with the crocuses.

Jesus Christ! she thought. “The damn crocuses,” she said.

Hennie, her husband of eleven years, heard her and said nothing. He knew what was coming.

A wave of dread seeped up like marsh gas from the pit of her stomach. Hennie saw it in her face, that underwater look. His heart sank.

She hated Passover. The preparation. The work. The house cleaning. The changes of the dishes. The food to be thrown out. The food she must prepare.

She was a smart woman. Patient, rational and reasonable. She was Jewish, but not that Jewish. She knew the story. Slavery. Oppression. The persecution. The killing. “I get it,” she would say. But in the end, she hated it in a way she could neither articulate nor explain.

Hennie, though, now felt that it was the right thing to do. His parents were not observant. They didn’t keep kosher. But he had been in the war. He had fought the Germans. Not in the actual fighting. But he would have if they had sent him over.

The war changed him. He’d seen the skeletal faces of the Jews. The piles of bones. Everyone had. The evil men could do and could abide. He needed a way to bear witness. He too found it hard to find the words for it all but the Passover seemed a foothold.

For ten years, more, it had been the same. Sally had her questions and complaints. And for each one Hennie had had an answer. “Please Hennie, just this one year can we simply wash the regular dishes in the dishwasher? The sterilize cycle? Twice?” she pleaded.

“Sally,” he said, “that is not what we were commanded to do, do you think they had dishwasher in Egypt?

“No, do you think they had two sets of dishes? Four, if you count the milchidik

 and fleyshik sets. Did they have Streit’s Matzohs, in three flavors and Easter colors?”

“Of course not. But we do. And we do this now because they couldn’t. And because of those who did it were killed for only that one reason.

“But Hennie, I don’t believe. You don’t either. This is your own crusade, not mine.”

“I am not asking you to believe. All I ask is that you do this for me, because I love you.”

“I know you do. But does that mean I have to turn this house upside down for two weeks? To show that you know that people have suffered? Been murdered? Have been enslaved? Spent forty years in the wilderness eating goats every night and manna every morning and drinking magic water? Where did that come from, anyway? And for what? So that we can eat cholent and drink Manishewitz, leaning on a pillow? There are other better ways… better ways to remember and to make a difference.

“We need to honor the suffering.”

“What? By making me suffer? I already know what that’s like.”

“Stop,” he said. “You’re sounding like your mother.”

“No, you stop. Don’t tell me about my mother. That’s your answer for everything. This is not about my mother. It is about me. Listen to me! I don’t want to do this. Not now. Not anymore. Why can’t you just hear that?”

Each year she gathered up the chametz, all the leavened food and whatever it might have touched. Cleaned the refrigerator, the freezer, the drawers, each room, each closet, the basement and the car and the donut crumbs, and the dog’s food, the cosmetics, burning it all in the trashcan on the porch.

And every year she stood at the bottom of the attic steps and Hennie handed down the cartons of green glass dishes with the fluted edges. And she soaked them clean and filled the cupboards she had scrubbed and lined with flowered shelf paper.

She shopped, chopped; made horseradish, roasted the egg and the chicken neck, and the brisket, the burnt offering it. “A burnt offering? Are you kidding?”

“Don’t walk away,” she said, because that was what he had started to do. “Stay with me. Here. Talk to me.”

He turned back to face her. “Can we do it just this one more year, and then no more?”

“No.”

“Why no?”

“Because that way is meaningless,” she told him.

“How can you say that?”

“Hennie. You mean well but you read from the Hagadah words you don’t understand while your father falls asleep and the dinner gets cold and your nieces fight over the afikomen for the dollar you will give them. And the next day we are no different from the day before. The symbols have become some self-congratulating abstraction. Do they ever make us feel better or change the state of the world?”

Her brown eyes were resolute. She had never talked to him like this before. He stood with his arms at his side.

“Pick one thing”, she said. “One thing that you can truly say means the most to you about Passover and I will pick one thing. But don’t pick the wine because that is what I want to pick. And that will be our Passover.

“Can I pick two?”

“Okay,” she said.

And on the first night of Passover, while his relatives gathered at aunt Ethel’s in Flatbush and hers went over to cousin Ida’s in Washington Heights, Sally and Hennie sat in their dark kitchen in the glow of two lit candles and ate matzohs that Sally baked from scratch and drank the wine that Hennie bought at the shop in town by the train station, and scooped up the warm charoses they made together.

And for the next seven evenings, by the light of two candles, they read the entire book of Exodus, a little bit each night, reading each and every line and every single one of the footnotes, and talked very, very late into the night.

I Saw Him Once Upon the Feathered Granite Rocks

I saw him once upon the feathered granite rocks. His leathered soles. Speckled sand mingled with lazy toes and strips

Of slippery, shreds of sea-green kelp. The Eastern Point boy,

Wore a wide-brimmed hat. His eyes in August shade. Blue all ‘round him. At the edge. On the furthest reach of sharp-edged stones,

Extended out into the water as a crook’d arm, flung out in the depths of sleep, and pointed toward the Avery Ledge and the Dry Salvages.

In the lowing sound the ebbing water makes,

I thought him a painter. Browned knees in short white pants. Though without the painter’s gear. His hand,

Raised to his chin. Looking East, gazing into the past. The backs of his calves warmed by the low arc of the western sky that brings the weather and unhurried, unfaltering, future.

Across his shoulders, a faded summer tunic. I think now it was. Though I was on the headlands above. Where the breeze was stronger. His fair hair, damp. Unruffled as

Swells, like harbor seals barely brushing by below the unbroken surface.

Gathering, then, he was, scooping up, reminiscences like shells,

Dropped from a height by grey-tipped gulls. Done with the crabs and mussels they’d excavated. Dead. Drying. Bleached,

Yesterday. Halcyon inferences,

In later scribbled lines: monuments to past disasters remembered only now, fondly.

The thought, when turned in a phrase, an incarnation of sorts,

An annunciation of wonder, of despair,

At what the sea will bring forth or hold back or tear and toss and polish.

Time, the sea monster, he thinks,

Rolls its back against the past, and erodes, consumes, in daily mouthfuls, the approaching years.

How could he not think this, as we who walk this path each day, at the edge of the sea,

And he, an august visitor,

Who would later think to write, how empty and desolate is the sea?

Only then, when he was young, alone upon the great, quarried granite stones, in the haste of August,

Licking ice cream drips off of his strawberried lips.

The Company

Fanny Perlstein is soft-spoken. Trim. Well-dressed. My brother’s wife. She wears belted skirts and medium-heel Cole Haan pumps. She must have several pairs of them. Or she likely purchases a new pair before the one she has been wearing looks worn. All of them are of a color called oxblood, if that name is still in use. They are always well-polished and all have leather soles and heels made of a material that is clearly not rubber.

The sound her shoes make as she walks is a click-tock. Authoritative. A sound that might make one turn and look. Though nothing else about her would draw any attention to herself. No ostentation of any sort. No indication that a risk of any order higher than crossing against the green would ever be undertaken. Certainly, no social risk. No political stance expressed that opposed a commonly agreed-upon norm.

She calls to mind a slim stalk of winter wheat. One stalk, indistinguishable from the hundreds of others in a field, waiting, green, near-dormant, throughout the cold months, awaiting a return to vitality and growth in the spring. Enduring a period of personal solitude amongst a crowd.

Her’s is not of the look of muted-heather and woolens. The look of old wealth. The look of comfortable socks, tweeds, and natural fabrics you might envision while reading the novels of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton. Her’s is more of the Architectural Digest or old issues of the Sunday New York Times Magazine ad look.

When we dine together on occasion, she might order the baked haddock or the pasta of the day, or more often, she’d order what my brother had just ordered. She has never ventured into sashimi, say, or unagi, kasha varnishkes, shawarma, kimchi, vindaloo, or baba ghanoush.

I have never seen her in any state other than unruffled. She is not prone to fits of passion or to indiscretion. I cannot envision her engaged in a flirtation, a dalliance, or a one-nighter in Baltimore, much less an actual affair. She apparently passed through mid-life without missing a step or looking up old high school boyfriends, or buying a new Volvo.

There is something, though. Something measured. Perhaps too measured. Too neatly folded and ironed.

I keep waiting for a revelation of some deep-hidden darkness. For a secret past to emerge in a slipped word or a creased and flattened note fallen accidentally from her wallet or a wry smile at a line in a movie as if she had once been in a similar situation, in a predicament that only a Nikita, an Amanda Peel, or a Dominika Egorova character might find herself caught in and which hinted of a hidden fissure in an otherwise well-concealed life.

She seems like someone kept in a witness-protection program since adolescence. Someone whose name had been changed, and who had learned to root for the Chicago Cubs instead of the Yankees. Someone trained to be unprovoked. Un-provocable. Implacable. Avoiding expressions of pity or sadness, ecstasy, consternation, confusion, empathy, condescension, suspicion. Any of these.

I have come to suspect, with little justification, that she had once been an agent of the CIA. Recruited, plucked out of Harvard or Yale as so many had been in the late sixties. Young men and women who studied hard. Got decent grades, who had been identified by a well-connected professor for some ineluctable qualities of rigor, or academicism, unquestioning patriotism, interiority, intensity, and detachment.

Had she ever poisoned someone, plotted the overthrow of a dictator or a communist leader? Could she snap a person’s neck with her bare hands?  Had she used code and encrypted messaging devices? Kept a cyanide tablet in her purse? Taken a lover in Paraguay? A woman who tried to turn her and whom she had in turn tried to recruit as an asset. A woman who was married to the defense minister who was plotting a military takeover of the government. Sex and spycraft seem inseparable.

From whence comes my suspicion?

There were the years she worked for the USAID. A mid-level position. Moving from place to place. Leaving my brother at home. The two children. A year in Paraguay. Another in Eritrea. Disbursing funds for development. Moving easily between Embassy offices and home government agencies, banks, NGOs, learning only enough of the language to seem harmless and friendly. Monitoring the Russians and the Chinese. And then the year in Nigeria. Years in which the USAID and the CIA were joined at the hip. How could she not have been involved? Could not have known what she was associated with? Was she merely an unknowing pawn doing good work for a bad, if not immoral, arm of the state?

We’re having dinner with her tonight. We have not seen them, Fanny and my brother, for over two years. They’ve been living in Miami. COVID restrictions and our own calculus of infection risk has kept us at home. Before that, we hadn’t the money.

We’ve all been vaccinated.

I expect that I will open our door and she will smile, standing a shade behind my brother, and I will smile back. Her smile is complicated. As if she is simultaneously smiling and thinking quickly of something to say to me. Something witty and provocative and to which she knows I will respond equally quickly and wittily. This is how we have come talk with one another. An argot that lends itself to friendly, diversionary, insubstantial, communication. A measure of casual, risk-averse, comradery.

My brother will hand me a bottle of wine, perhaps a pleasant, slightly sweet, rosé from a small vineyard outside of Rome, NY, which we will open and share, with a mild cheddar and a basket of triscuits and wheat thins.

Looking at Fanny, then, taking her coat, I may begin to question my motivation, likely driven by my repressed jealousy and prurience, in having placed on the living room coffee table, along with the wine glasses, a used paperback copy of The Red Sparrow.

Somebody to Love

Our first long run was along Ocean Parkway. A flat, straight road. Running east, from Jones Beach toward Gilgo and Captree. The beach on our right. Hidden behind high mid-day dunes.

Larry set the pace. Hard and tight. Like a driving Tom Tom: quarter notes in 4/4 time.

The two of us.

I was Jack Bruce on bass to his Ginger Baker on drums. My Keith Richards to his Charlie Watts. Jack Casady to Spencer Dryden running the bass line on Somebody to Love.

The parking lot at the Oak Beach Inn was packed full. All the beach lots were. Cars held in check by park rangers, waiting for spots to open. Lines of cars stopped between the beach entrances.

Girls standing beside pink-painted VWs, or leaning back, elbows bent, against wide, black, Ford F-150 tailgates, legs crossed, in cutoff jeans. White pocket flaps peeking out below the finger-like fringes high up at the top of their Bambi-colored thighs. Waving Coronas. Smiling like peaches in the sun. Radios set to BLS.

Larry looked at them without breaking stride. He always looked at the women. He loved looking at the women. His eyes were drawn to them like a robber baron’s eyes are drawn to a 16-ounce rib roast.

Doing eight-minute miles, we did the first twenty in a little over two-and-a-half. If we kept up, we’d do the 26.2 to Captree in three-forty-nine.

He was screwing a woman at work.

No doubt, she’d told him her husband didn’t understand her. He probably had said the same thing to her about Meredith. He probably told her he loved her. He probably thought it was true.

He never said a word about it to me. We never talked about that kind of thing. I knew, though, for a fact, that his wife did understand him. She totally and completely understood him. Without any doubt, she understood him fifty times better than he understood himself. She’s the one who told me.

“He’s thirty-nine,” she’d said, “and he has a dick.” What else do you expect? He can’t get over the fact that in ‘69 he had a kid, an 8.5% mortgage, and a bald spot. The river of free love, drugs, and rock and roll was flowing swiftly past him and that river flowed in only one direction. The only really free love he could have had then was the only one he didn’t want,” she told me.

We hit Captree in just under four. Took off our shoes and walked down to the water. He pulled off his shirt.

“Great run,” I said. He nodded.

The water is clear and green. The waves are high and loud. He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the water. We dove through the waves.

When we came out, I turned away from him, out toward the water.

I love running with him. He paces me. Pushes me. Past what I ever thought I could do. Running beside him, step for step, breathing easily, it feels like I could run forever.

“Let’s get a drink,” I said, my back to him, peeling away my soaked, clinging shirt from my body.  When I turned back toward him, he was looking at me.

At my tits.

“Okay, tiger, enough!” I said.

“I wasn’t looking. Besides, there isn’t that much to see,” he said, in that thickened, fourteen-year-old, gonadal, hard-on-induced, voice he gets as if his salivary glands, in sympathy with his testicles, have swollen his airway half closed.

“You were too,” I said. “You had that Daytona Beach spring weekend look on your face.”

“It was only a quick glance.”

“It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t a glance. It was a full, two-handed, lingering, eye-grope. You thought I couldn’t see you looking.”

I leaned over the water fountain. He was a little behind me. I could see him rearranging himself in his running shorts. I’m thinking what it would be like if I turned around while he was doing it. “Just a quick glance, Tarzan,” I‘d say. But I didn’t.

His wife knows all about him. “The new one,” she says, “teaches English. She graduated two years ago from Barnard. You’d think she’d know better. God knows, he doesn’t. She has a flat stomach, a tight ass, and legs like steel.”

“How do you know that?” I asked her.

“How do I know that? He’s never uttered the word ‘Barnard’ before in his life. And now he’s said it two dozen times in the last month. I’m there slicing eggplant and he’s like, ‘hey, you think we could afford to send Lydia to Barnard when she’s ready for college?’ Or, ‘didn’t Chuck’s sister go to Barnard?’ I’m not saying he’s an idiot, but he could play a convincing one on TV. Lydia is four-and-a-half.”

“No. I mean, the ‘legs like steel thing,’” I recall saying.

“The woman who works in the principal’s office at the high school where he works, knows my friend Eileen, and she plays mah jong with us when one of us can’t make it. And so, she filled in for me the week I had my wisdom tooth out and she told Eileen she sees them sneak out for 45-minute lunch breaks together, and she swore Eileen to total secrecy. That’s how I know.”

We’d parked my car in the Captree lot and drove back to the lot at Jones Beach, Field One, where his car was.

In the car, he talked about running New York together.

“New York has hills, big ones,” he said. “It’s not like this. Don’t expect to finish in sub-four.”

“We should run hills,” I said. “Maybe in two weeks. Molly is away that weekend. We could run out to Sag Harbor.”

He never asks me about Molly. We’ve been together for almost as long as he’s been with Meredith. We sometimes have dinner with him and Meredith. Molly and I make like we don’t know what’s going on with them. He acts like Molly is my roommate. Even when she twirls her fettucine alfredo around the tines of her fork and guides it into my mouth, her palm just below my chin.

I know he’s a dick. With his desperately permed hair he thinks covers his bald spot. I don’t have to like him. I just love running with him.

Hobbes’ Good Intentions

Hobbes had come to stay, to live, or perhaps more pointedly, to die, on the island. The island itself was dying. And again, more to the point, the island was being killed. Inundated. Drowned.

Drowned by the sea. The Pacific. The same Pacific that had brought the fish and coral reefs. The warm winds and the rainwater. The coconut, the palm trees, and breadfruit, mangroves, bananas, and taro.

Hobbes had come to the island when the tipping point had been reached. When the Doomsday Clock had read sixty-odd seconds before midnight. After the world had been warned and climate commissions had made their predictions and treaties had been signed and money had been promised and deadlines had been missed, and wars had been fought and children had died and people fled their homelands and many were left to die in refugee camps or in life rafts.

Hobbes had come to the island when the world’s will to change never equaled the need for change.

He had come when there was still talk of the slight sliver of hope that the global warming could still be stopped. That Bill Gates would stop it. Or the UN. Or someone, somehow. A sliver of hope, no matter how small, that was still seen as large enough to be used as an excuse to not actually take action.

It was Hobbes’ hope that when he came to the island, when he had declared that he would remain there until the waters rose so high that he would be swept away to die, he would capture the world’s attention like a priest immolating himself on a street before an astonished crowd and cameras flashing, and that change would then come.

The people of the island stayed for a while and then they left in boats and planes to go to Fiji or other islands that would still take them. Hobbes remained as he said he would.

One day, a large motor boat came to the island.

Hobbes was surprised at his ambivalence at seeing the boat approach and at the three men who got off. One was the last islander to leave and another was the one from whom he bought the house and the outrigger. The third was a very old man.

The old man called Hobbes by name. He carried a message from the islanders who had left. It was that Hobbes could no longer stay on the island.

“Mr. Hobbes,” he said, “I thank you for wanting to bring attention of the world to our plight. However, now it is time for you to leave.”

Hobbes looks at the old man. Puts his rough hand to his forehead, rubs it across his eyes. “But, why,” he asks.

“Because,” said the man, “this our island. Our people have lived here for thousands of years and our ancestors’ spirits will always live here. If you stay, you will only appropriate our voice. Usurp our worth in the eyes of the world.

He continued, “The sea, having taken away our home, our food, our livelihood, our history, was not sufficient to bring change. You have come in good faith but if you stay and die you will be seen as the martyr. You will be the Christ on the cross. Your suffering and dying will be seen as more valuable, more horrific, than ours has been. Your sacrifice will count for more than ours.

“Mr. Hobbes. Please go home. Go back to your family. Give your interviews to the Guardian in your comfortable living room and leave this place to us.”

“Leave what place? There will be nothing left of this place for anyone.”

“It is our home. And when the seas recede, as they will, one day long after you have died and I have died and our children’s children have died, our people will return to this island. It is our island, not Gilbert’s Island or Hobbes’ island.

“Not the island of the man who once came to this place like a white savior when we, the indigenous people of this island, carefully considered our options and, as a people in charge of our own destiny and with dignity, chose to leave it, voluntarily, to leave it as it was when the sea had come to reclaim it for a while and to which we will certainly return one day.

“Not the island of the white saviors who came time and time again, taking minerals from our mountains and leaving behind slag heaps, the valley polluted, their roads and runways, and to sell to us plastic and T-shirts we have no use for and who brought their schools and guns and firing ranges and their atomic bombs.

“We are not ignorant. We did not bring upon ourselves the rising water and the storms, the acid that eats away the reef and kills the water plants, and drives away the fish, and the heat and drought that empties our wells.

“It is you who are ignorant. It is you and your brothers who have ignored what the earth has been telling you year after year. It is they who are destroying our home and the lives that have been lost through ignorance. The billions of animals and plants and fish and sea birds, insects and whole habitats that, by the arrogance of their ignorance, were destroyed, never ever to exist again. And do they mourn them? Do they cry for them? Does this make them resolve to stop the murder? It does not.

“All their words and promises are meaningless. They have been of no help. Their deeds and their religion of the bulls and bears they worship above all else have brought this upon us. The marketplace where they buy and sell lives, where they place their faith and devotion which motivates their every thought, their every action, and blinds them to all else.

“I have given up all I have,” Hobbes said. “I came here in the hope that people would respond and help. I am not like the others.”

“I believe you are not,” said the old man. “We mean no harm. We want the same as you do but for now we want to honor what is left to us.”

At that, Paolu, the man whose house Hobbes purchased, the last one standing on the island, stepped forward and offered Hobbes an envelope with payment for the house and outrigger.

“I can’t accept this,” said Hobbes.

“Please do,” said Paolu. “We have accepted our fate, Mr. Hobbes, you can do no more for us. If you want to help the earth, go to where the resisters and deniers live. Build your hut along the Thames, or Battery Park, or Melbourne. We did not ask for you to come here, but now we ask for you to leave with us and go speak to the power where it lives.”

These Uncertain Times

In recent days, I have been preparing to move from a large high-ceilinged loft in the West Village in which I’ve been living with a good friend I’d met in graduate school years ago and into a tiny one-bedroom space on Hester Street, across town on the Lower East Side.

Rune, my friend, had abruptly decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to his father given that Rune’s mother died suddenly of a COVID-related illness. She had, up until only a few days before her death, been a healthy and robust woman of short stature, high resilience, an indomitable spirit, and the steel-plated bearing of a person who, early in her life in Kyoto, had endured deep hardship and constant uncertainty. She’d been raised by her mother after her father died late in the war with the Allies, leaving them destitute, with no apparent means of support, and with only their desire to survive.

I could not afford to purchase the loft and Rune needed to sell it. Though it was a surprising turn of events, I understood and appreciated the circumstances and came to see the opportunity for a welcome change of environment.

In the midst of watching the Biden inauguration, I sorted through cardboard boxes stuffed with research notebooks, manuscript drafts, and reprints of journal articles I’ve accumulated over the years and which should have been tossed long ago, and I came across a scientific paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Agents and Artificial Intelligence in 2014, which Rune and I had attended together in the city of Angers in the west of France.  

Rune, being a member of the society, brought me along as a guest though I, a biologist, had only the most rudimentary understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of AI. The paper was titled ‘Quantum Probability and Operant Conditioning: Behavioral Uncertainty in Reinforcement Learning’ and I have no recollection of why I had felt the need to bring it back to the states and then to file it among my other papers, though it was likely a tangible reminder of our time together.  

I sat on the hardwood floor of the apartment. A warm mid-afternoon light streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows as I read through the paper.

For no reason I can identify, as I read the paper, I experienced a growing consciousness of a post-inaugural mental and emotional reset beginning to wash over me. It was akin to slowly immersing myself in a warm bath or to feeling the soothing, unexpected, touch of a long-lost lover. I had a growing sense of distancing myself from the ragged, rageful, and disorienting last four years of the Trump administration, though it had been only a matter of a few hours since I had watched the surprisingly peaceful transition to the new president’s administration.

The constant tension I had been gripped with during those years was dissipating. The reflexive need to check my email and the constantly breaking newsfeeds was no longer vexingly immediate. My ability to focus my attention on the details in the paper grew and I became caught up in a discourse on behavioral positive-negative basis vectors in quantum state space. The difficult concepts applicable to human and AI responses to uncertainty began to flow through my mind as easily as clear water in an unimpeded woodland stream at the start of a spring thaw.

Whether or not the former president and his witting and unwitting enablers, had planned the relentless perpetration of shape-shifting uncertainty and disruption we endured over the last four years, I saw clearly in this short theoretical paper a reasonable explanation of the social, economic, psychological, and political angst in which we had all been caught and perhaps also, a way forward.

In short, the authors presented a cogent argument, based solidly on the dynamics of  ψ wave function in quantum mechanics, for the way in which the behavior of systems as widely different as stock market movement, political opinion, and human behavior, operate when the degree of uncertainty increases beyond an experiential norm: namely, when the degree of randomness and unpredictability of a system feedback either strays or is pushed beyond the limits to which the system was designed to operate and for which there is neither an homeostatic nor a stochastic mechanism for the maintenance of a system stability.

We all expect a degree of randomness in our lives, a certain degree of unpredictability that we learn to live with and accept as normal. AI systems, too, accept and learn from unexpected responses and build them into their database. Algorithms are designed to incorporate a level of unpredictability. For example, a rat can adapt to being unsure of a reward or punishment for a while but when the unpredictability frequency goes beyond a certain expectation, it loses interest and no longer pays attention. It becomes unpredictable itself. Apathetic at one moment and violently aggressive at the slightest perceived provocation at another. It has lost its sense of control. It becomes berserk. Its life is disrupted. It becomes asocial. Sociopathic.

I set the paper aside and, in that moment, I was struck by the confluence of the many seemingly random and unpredictable events that had recently entered my life: the death of my dear friend’s mother, his impending move from the city, my need to move to a new and unfamiliar location and the possible risk of exposure to infection during the move, uncertainty of when, if ever, I would qualify for the COVID vaccine, the waxing and waning fear that the city would be beset by groups of rioters bent on disruption following the inauguration, the realization that my financial situation would change with an increase in my rent and the depressingly uncertain economy, along with the unexpected pleasant memory of a past time spent with Rune, brought to me by a scientific paper whose language I could only barely grasp but the meaning of which, I felt, in a way, had been transformational.

I saw that neither the system nor I had failed. That neither had exceeded the limits of its ability to recover, and that a young woman with a radiant mind had spoken with a wisdom we and the system had been aching to hear.

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.