Malachi and His Mother Deconstruct Good and Evil

“Malachi, you’re not eating. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Ma.”

“Don’t say ‘nothing,’ I know you. I know it’s something. You haven’t touched the tsimis and you love my tsimis. And you have that look on your face.”

“What look?”

“That ‘Ma, something is wrong but I’m afraid to tell you because you’ll be upset and maybe have a heart attack look on your face.’ That’s what look.” Continue reading Malachi and His Mother Deconstruct Good and Evil

The Death of a Friend

“The death of a friend,” thought Sedge, in the days after Adelaide had died, “was like a tenacious, frightful, early morning dream. One that holds you so tightly that you feel your lungs cry and you strain to pull yourself away and at the very same moment you feel so hopeless you want to give up and die.” Continue reading The Death of a Friend

After Adelaide

Sedgwick sits alone on the soft sand. The tide is receding. The sun stretches long shadows down the beach from behind the condos along A1A. The low-rise two-bedroom models suited to the needs and savings of the less-than-wealthy and less-well-connected winter people who couldn’t afford the tall, balconied, places fronting the intra-coastal. Single people mostly, women mostly, who come south when it gets too cold and too quiet up north. People he knows. Women he knows.

Adelaide was one of those women. Continue reading After Adelaide

Morty Silberman and the Quantum Uncertainty of Entangled Spirituality

Morty Silberman looked like shit. I told him so. Pale as a piece of pickled herring. Lines and probes around him like a trussed-up kosher chicken.

“I feel like shit,” he tells me.

Everybody in here must feel like shit,” I say.

“Did I tell you,” he says, “when the nurse was prepping me for surgery, she said to me, ‘You know, you’re pretty lucky. You got that crease in your earlobe.’ So I say to her, ‘And…?’ And she says to me, ‘And… most people with an earlobe crease like that show up a little too late downstairs with tag on their toe.’ No joke.” Continue reading Morty Silberman and the Quantum Uncertainty of Entangled Spirituality

My Dearest Malachi, This Is Me, Your Mother

My Dearest Malachi, This is me, your mother. This is a joke. Right? Your brother Myron has told me about your new, and you should pardon the expression, ferkakte, adventure. Why are you doing this to me? You think I don’t have enough to worry about? Why didn’t you tell us? Your father is a wreck. Me? Not so much. He is going to plotz. He’s sitting on the living room floor this very minute watching CNN for news about you and pulling his hair out. But you shouldn’t let that bother you. Continue reading My Dearest Malachi, This Is Me, Your Mother

Thinking Now of Other Things

Your dog is old. You look at her. Her clouded brown eyes. Fourteen. Fourteen is old for a dog. This dog. This whiskered Scotty, mixed with West Highland terrier and who knows what else. This dog. Your dog, with her black hair knitted with untidy strands of grey. Her hair now looking like the color yours was when you took her in. Continue reading Thinking Now of Other Things

Adelaide On the Beach

When Sedgwick saw the body on the beach, in the evening, he didn’t believe it was Adelaide, the woman he had been seeing for a few months, earlier, until they had wordlessly drifted away from one another, having never, he thought, made any sort of commitment to one another, save for the general assumption that they’d spend an evening or two together, sometimes during the week, when she was in town, Continue reading Adelaide On the Beach

The Double

Yakov awakes in a hospital bed. He does not remember being brought here. He does not recall a fall or feeling ill in any way. He has simply found himself in a hospital bed, wearing a cotton gown tied loosely behind him and an ID band secured around his wrist. On it is his birth date and his name: Goldman, Yakov P. What on earth? he wonders. What has happened to me?

His bed is in a double room. His glasses are on the tray table. His own folded newspaper. His cell phone. A card to him from his co-workers at the firm. ‘Get well soon.’ A menu with his choices for lunch and dinner circled. Continue reading The Double

Two Rooms With A View

Max lived at home. He was a junior at a small liberal arts school in the city on 68th Street, near Central Park. It had no dorms. Students commuted to school. Every single one of them. Walking down Madison or Park from high rises on the East Side or taking taxis or cross-town buses or subway trains from different parts of the city.

A few, like Max, lived outside the city, in slow moving suburbs with driveways, no sidewalks, lots of grass and azalea bushes, and golden retrievers that wandered along streets with names like Oak Lane or Spruce Street, until it was time for dinner.

He lived in a house with his parents.

A house they bought in the mid-fifties. A house built on what he thought must have once been a farm since all the houses were new and looked alike and the land was flat and the only trees that grew in the neighborhood were small maples the builder planted along the roads and which one day were expected to grow to be thick-trunked and tall with branches full of leaves arching over and shading the streets like in a Doris Day movie.

But when Max looked out of the window from his bedroom on the second floor with the windows facing the street, the trees look puny. Like tiny fake trees in a diorama or in a scene you’d make around a model train set which looked real only if you lay your head down on the green-painted plywood table so that you could watch the locomotive coming toward you around the curve with the faint puffs of smoke coming out of the smoke stack and the piston rods driving wheels with a clicking sound on the track joints like real trains and the smell of the electric engine inside it as it passed by your face.

His father had built the bedroom for him in the unfinished attic. He worked at night after dinner and on the weekends, framing the room with fresh-cut two-by-fours, and nailing the sheetrock against them along the walls and up on the ceiling joists and then laying tiles on the subfloor. He did the wiring and the outlets. He plastered and sanded and painted.

Max hated the room. The color of the walls. The door that didn’t lock. The built-in drawers that stuck. The lone light in the center of the ceiling. No chair to sit on. The empty feeling he had sitting on the bed, flipping the pages of Introduction to General Biology, the floor strewn with clothes he had worn and dropped where he taken them off, the dust in the corners.

He hated living in the house with his parents. The isolation he felt. The scrutiny. The questioning. They way they had of making every conversation seem like an inquest of some sort. ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Where are you going?’

The way words were twisted like the frayed prickly wire wound around the little hooks on the back of a thick picture frame. He hated himself for hating it all.

He looked once for another place to live. One closer to the school. In the city. A place of his own where he could read and study. Come and go when he wanted to. A place where he had his own key and the door would lock and where he could keep his things.

The place he found was on Nagle Avenue up near Dykman Street and the number 2 train. It was advertised in the counseling center. A rooming house. He took the paper down.

The woman who owned the place showed him the room. She walked up the stairs ahead of him. Her large wide hips swayed. Her legs struck each step hard. She smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, and unwashed feet. She said he could share the kitchen on the first floor with the others. He needed to bring his own dishes and towels. Clean up after himself.

She tried the door to the bathroom down the hall from his room and someone said, “I’m in here.”

In the room, there was a bed by the window facing the side alley. A chair and a table with a lamp with a pull chain. A wooden dresser. A waste basket.

He told her he would take it.

She left him to get the paperwork. She said it was one hundred a month. She needed one month up front in cash today. No checks. No trouble.

He sat on the bed, put his book bag on the floor and looked around the room. The screen in the window. The brick wall across the alley. City noises.

Before she came back, before she saw him, he picked up his bag, walked into the hall and closed the door. He walked down the stairs and out onto the street.

In his pocket was a token for the subway and the only three dollars he owned. He had no bank account. No job. He had an exam in the morning.

He walked up Nagle Avenue past the rows of two-story brick buildings. Past trashcans at the sidewalk edge. Past parked cars with the brown dust of time and the city on them.

He took a seat on the uptown number 2 and then transferred to the bus up through the Bronx and past Mount Vernon.

To the room on the second floor that his father built with his own hands, with the grey-blue walls, and the door that did not lock, and the bathroom down the hall with little pink tiles on the floor that he hated but did not have to share with anyone.

What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

Frank Littleton looked at the men around the table. Six of them, all wearing shirts they’d once worn in jobs in the city or for going to funerals or fundraisers. Collars spread open. Sleeves rolled to the elbows. Men he’d known and liked for years, some since they were boys sucking on summer peach pits and laying pennies on railroad tracks.

He felt care-worn. Knew they could read it on his face. As he looked up at each of them, quick as cats, they looked away. Their furtive eyes on one another but none on him. Continue reading What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

Watching Nadal on TV

Paul, a slim man, in his fifties, not much of a talker, is sitting in a chair beside a hospital bed in a cramped bedroom in a mid-priced condo on the east coast of Florida. The room seems dark to him. The chair is utilitarian and uncomfortable. Cold-chromed steel tubing with a flat fake-wood seat and a straight back. No place for a person’s arms to come to rest. Not a chair meant for sitting in for long.

His shoulders are slumped forward. He is looking at the bone-frail woman in the bed. Continue reading Watching Nadal on TV

The Man in the Mirror

There were some men that Bertrand could not stomach. Tommy Bahama was one of them. Bertrand could see him down in the back yard, in his lemon yellow Polo shirt, collar up, maroon sweater, draped over his fey, weak-looking shoulders, and loosely knotted in front. The sight of the man was enough to raise his gorge.

Bertrand carefully drew the bathroom curtain closed and stepped back from the window. The movement caused barely a ruffle, just enough to coax a breath of Cape Cod Fog from the air freshener on the sill. He was sure he had gone unnoticed. Continue reading The Man in the Mirror

The Bright and Shining Cities on the Hill

Thomas Hobbes paid good money for the boat. One hundred euros. He bought it, an outrigger, from a young man, a native of the island. A man named Paolu. The boat was serviceable and could be easily repaired. Paolu had thrown in the few simple tools he might need. For free.

He bought a sail too, and two weighted twine nets from another man. An older man. A fisher. A muscled and bent man with a strong, black back. Continue reading The Bright and Shining Cities on the Hill

Dialogue On the Way to Grandma’s House

Dialogue On the Way to Grandma’s House

My daughter is in the back seat of the Volvo. I can see her eating a peanut butter sandwich. She is her car seat. Her face is in the rearview mirror.

“Why are we going to grandma’s house?”

“Because it is Mother’s Day.”

“But she is not my mother.”

“No, but she is my mother.”

“When is Grandmother’s Day?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could it be tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why?”

“Because you have to go to school.”

“Why do I have to go to school?”

“Because you like school.”

“What if I didn’t like it?”

“But you do.”

“What if I didn’t?”

“You would still have to go.”

“What if you die when I am in school?”

“That is not going t happen.”

“But what if?”

“Honey, it is not going to happen.”

“What if I die when I go to school?”

“You are not going to die when you go to school?”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. You are a little girl.”

“But what if?”

“It is not going to happen.”

“Would you be sad?”

“I would be so sad that I would cry forever.”

“What is forever?”

“A long, long time.”

“How long?”

“The longest, longest, time in the whole world.”

“In the universe?”

“Yes. In the universe?”

“When will the universe die?”

“Never.”

“How do you know?”

“Einstein told me.”

“How does he know?”

“He worked it out in school.”

“Oh.”

Myra and Mose

Myra is sitting on the other side of the bed. The side closest to the window. The blinds are open. The thin morning light falls across her cotton nightdress in bands like an inmate’s prison garb. A few of Mose’s books are on the floor. Scattered, lying in disarray.

Her books are neatly stacked on her table, with her glasses, beside the reading lamp. The books, both of theirs, are overdue at the library. He had been reading The Confessions of Nat Turner. She hasn’t read any of hers in a while. She can’t remember when. The thought has ceased to cross her mind. Continue reading Myra and Mose

Is God Dead? No He’s Just Busy

God was late. He missed dinner.

“Marvin, where have you been, young man?” said his mother. “Dinner is cold, and your father couldn’t wait. He ate and He’s in his room working on The Book.”

Marvin has been auditing a class in Practical Applications of Advanced Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech. Three days a week with an afternoon lab on Saturdays. Continue reading Is God Dead? No He’s Just Busy

The Coffee Lover

Porter sits on the back porch steps. At Maureen’s. He is waiting for her. For her to come out. For her to bring the coffee she is making.

The air is cool, and a blanket of mist covers the tops of the white pines, blocking his view of the water, which lies down the steep sandy slope behind her house.

He brought pastries from home. It is Sunday morning. He has not read the Times yet. It lays folded on the stair next to him. They will read it together later. Maybe walk to the beach. Continue reading The Coffee Lover

The Death of A Good Man, All In All

The funeral service for the late Herman Kaminski was not well-attended. The Riverside Chapel in Mount Vernon was near enough to the Cross County Parkway for a quick on and off for mourners up from Manhattan or down from lower Westchester. It also offered an ample parking lot as well as a compassionate understanding of the religious traditions in a Jewish memorial service. For no extra charge, they provided the services of a Rabbi, one Arthur I. Shankman, who spoke with the bereaved family before the service. His fingers interlaced in front of him, he asked Kaminski’s two sons for any remembrances they wanted him to mention. They declined. Continue reading The Death of A Good Man, All In All

An Early Supper at Café Les Enfants Perdus

I sat at a table at Café Les Enfants Perdus in the 10th along the Rue des Récollets. Fonseca, the proprietor, with whom I was well acquainted, approached the table. He carried two glasses of Kir au Vin Blanc. He set one 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. This allowed me an unhindered view of the window onto the street. He raised his glass. I did too.

There was a chill in the air. The Paris spring was slow in coming.

“Mr. Marchand”, he said. His voice was hoarse. Perhaps he had been at the races that afternoon but I had not seen him there. “Please forgive this intrusion. I have seen to it that your soup and fresh bread will be out in a moment.”

“Thank you,” I said. Fonseca was not an overly gregarious man.

“Are you comfortable? I can put up the heat if you wish.” I told him no. There was no need.

“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 the States. I have to get to work myself.

I write in the evenings. The room on the Rue de Seine is most quiet in the evening. I have found that I work best after an early supper. I work until I think I have reached a point where I understand what the story is about and I leave it to settle a bit in my thoughts before returning to it the next evening. It works well for me. I can hear the river and I will walk along it on my way to our apartment. Perhaps I will bring home a bottle of Sancerre. There is a shop near the Bataclan that stocks the finest wines in the city

“Can I bring you another Kir?”

“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. I hope it will be to your liking.”

Fonseca inherited the café from his brother Bernard, the oldest of the three. Bernard suffered a mortal wound in a skirmish in the Dardanelles. He told the young nurse who had cared for him that he wanted to leave all of his possessions to the younger Fonseca. Bernard carried the license to the café and the deed to the family home in a leather pouch under his tunic. He gave the pouch to the nurse and asked her to deliver it to his brother. She did this.

Being a beautiful woman, disgusted with the war, she found the younger Fonseca to be a man of integrity and some mirth. To his pleasure, she had learned to cook at her mother’s side and soon she became indispensable to Fonseca who had little facility in the kitchen. After a while they married, though the marriage did not last long.

The aperitif was working and I found myself growing hungry.

Fonseca got up from his seat. He had some difficulty. He complained of an arthritic hip. “Your hip,” I said.

“It is bothersome. I am old for this work.”

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

I told him thank you and he returned to the kitchen.

The breeze off the river had picked up. It came in through the open windows facing the street. I thought I might go fishing in the morning.

 

 

The Woman in the Silver-Grey Mercedes

The woman was driving a sleek, self-assured, silver-grey, late-model Mercedes convertible. James Connaught could not make out the model number as the car passed by in the HOV lane heading north on I-84 toward Boston or, more likely, Providence. But he could certainly see who the woman was. It was early afternoon on a warm Friday and he was in a seat by the window, mid-way back on the driver’s side of the Bolt-for-a-Buck bus on his way home from New York to Boston. He had travelled into the city for a business meeting.

He knew her. Had seen her last less than three hours earlier. She was still wearing an onyx-black silk blouse she was wearing then, and her hair, closely resembling the same luxurious material, was pinned back with a silver clip at the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless. She was Zumba-thin and had an aura of cold, practiced composure. As if she were meditating in a meat locker.

James put down the book he was holding. His pulse quickened. His breathing sped. She was taping her fingers on the steering wheel, her head nodding in time to the sound system that encircled her.

The rage he had felt earlier that afternoon swelled once again within him. Then, she had been sitting across the table from him, in a comfortable room with the door closed, a folder in front of her, which she did not open.

He had asked her, he remembered, “What is going on?” To which the Mercedes woman had said, “You know exactly what is going on. We are letting you go.” And, with not another word more spoken, she left the room, with only a nod to Monica or Musette, the HR person who was there to clean up the mess.

He looked at Ms. HR, his heart plummeting with unanticipated sadness, as if he had just witnessed the death of a loved one, or as if a verdict had been read to him in a dark, Kafkaesque courtroom on an undisclosed charge with an undisclosed sentence. As if they expected him to be silent and to somehow accept that what was happening had been of his own doing, and that they were blameless and without the power to undo it and make it any different, and that he should try to understand their unfortunate and innocently impotent predicament.

As if he would then walk out of the room and down the hall past all of the office doors that were closed tightly, the office doors that were once ‘always open.’ The doors that hid the maleficent conspirators from bearing witness to the trouble they had wrought and with which they bore only a distant and quotidian relationship, tapping their pencils on their desk blotters, waiting impatiently until their temporary but necessary ordeal would be over and they could once again be opened.

And he did as they had planned. He signed the papers that had been placed before him and he walked out of the room and down the hall, stifling an insistent urge to knock on those high-ranking doors and ask for an explanation or better yet, an apology.

He walked to his desk and found a box someone had put there and he filled it with his few belongings, sitting, knowing that everyone knew before he did what was to happen that day, and when they should go out for coffee and a smoke or, if they needed to be at their desks, when not to raise their heads or to glance away from their computer screens, or cough or make any sound at all that would draw his attention to them and risk having to speak to him.

These people, the very same ones who had sat with him in a meeting that morning and who ate cinnamon-raisin bagels with cream cheese and drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of paper cups with him, and had known full well what would transpire later that day and said not a word, nor had given a look of acknowledgement of what would come to pass nor of what bullet, at the end of the day, they will have been spared.

His access to the computer server had been denied. They had made sure, in their premeditated efficiency, that he could not retrieve any of his files. As though he no longer existed to them; as though he had no longer had any value, perhaps never had, except in the generation of billable hours.

He sat on the bus, alone. He felt the urge to vomit. Around him were crumpled Burger King wrappers and pizza-stained napkins on the floor; the grime on the window beside him, left by other men, other women, who had leaned against it leaving their greasy mark as the only evidence that they had once been there. Around him, the odor of the lavatory and the smell of his own acrid sweat like onion breath.

The Mercedes had flown by. James was left with the weight of the future on him and the inescapable, unfathomable, thought of what he would do now, a man just past sixty-two, with a mortgage and bills to pay, and a wife and child waiting at home for him.

The Good Life of Avrum and Chava

Avrum and Chava own a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home in North Ossining, not far from the maximum-security prison down by the river. They have 2.5 acres, iron gates, their own artesian well, and biodegradable, earth-friendly deer fencing protecting their garden.

Avrum is a retired lawyer and Chava is a former social worker for the department of corrections at Sing Sing, where they first met.

In their fifty years together, they have led cautious, well-organized lives. They are vegans, fermentationists, grow their own fruits and vegetables. They use no plastics. They stopped using aluminum pans and deodorants years ago. They have no cell phones or a microwave. Their home is rid of mold, lead, polyfluorocarbonate aromatics, errant asbestos fibers, and radon.

They look like two well-pressed Dickensian waifs from Bleak House. Each of them is thirty pounds under weight. They consume no more than 800 calories per day and walk eight miles each morning to remain in strict calorie balance.

Their yoga instructor finds them existentially intimidating.

When they turned fifty, each assessing their risks, Avrum had a prophylactic prostatectomy and she a precautionary hysterectomy and full bi-lateral mastectomies.

They are friendly and sociable, literate, kind, careful, and caring people.

One recent evening, they were heading north on the West Side Highway after attending the final performance of the entire Ring Cycle at Lincoln Center when they were sideswiped by a gypsy cab with its lights off and were sent careening into the guard rail. When their front and side airbags deployed, given their light weight and small size, they were instantly crumpled and suffocated.

At the moment of their death, they are surrounded by a halo of warm mauve light.

A reassuringly back-lit vision of a sixty-something woman with neatly trimmed hair, a string of pearls, and a tastefully tailored white pant suit, appears before them.

She speaks slowly in a vaguely mid-western accent, “Don’t be alarmed,” she tells them. “Just try to relax. You’ll be all right. I promise.”

They look at one another, unsure.

“You are not dying or dead. You have been granted a reprieve; a permanent stay of execution so to speak; a lifetime dispensation.”

“Why us?” Chava asks.

“To tell you the truth, we don’t offer this to everyone. You’ve both lived exemplary lives of service, chaste, positive thoughts, and quiet restraint: Model citizens. No felonies. Frankly, just what we are trying to encourage.”

Avrum asks, “Wait, we’re not dead? Isn’t this Heaven?”

“No,” she tells him, “We did away with the heaven idea eons ago. It just wasn’t giving us the kind of results we were looking for. I don’t have to tell you about the present state of affairs: debauchery, gluttony, sloth, tax-fraud, sexual harassment, drones.”

“What if we take this offer, what happens next?”

“Well, nothing changes. Everything stays the same. You just agree to maintain your lifestyle. You stay forever just as you were fifteen minutes ago before the crash. We need folks like you to set an example for other couples.

“Nothing changes? Our bank account?”

“The same.”

“Investments? Health insurance?”

“The same.”

“Same. My God, think of all the books, movies, bar mitzvahs, operas. No pressure to do anything you don’t want to for-ever. You just agree to let us use your names and testimonials in a little subtle internet advertising promoting The Good Life and the launch of our new product line.”

“Think of it. Your home will be free and clear after the mortgage expires. Of course, you’ll need to have the wiring upgraded and the appliances repaired, replace the boiler, the roof when needed, you know the usual maintenance every hundred years or so.”

Sensing their hesitation, she adds, “I know this will work for you. For you both. What do I have to do to make this deal happen?”

Silence.

“Look, not to rush you but if you just put your thumb prints right here, you are free to go. You’ll never see me again.”

Chava and Avrum look at one another. He reaches gently for her hand, “I’m in,” he says, “Let’s take it.”

“Congratulations, Avrum. This is so you!”

“Wait,” Chava says. “What if we decide not to take the offer? I mean, what happens if we say no?”

“Well, no one has ever actually said no before. I guess you just get the usual, you know, one last meal of your choosing and then, well, it’s lights out.”

“A last meal?”

“Yes.”

“Chava, what are you saying?” Avrum whispers.

“Shush! What could we have?”

“Anything!”

“Anything?” Chava, lowers her eyes. “Well,” she says quietly. “Could I have three eggs, scrambled, wet, homefries, and wheat toast, no wait, make that pumpernickle toast, with butter.

Arum looks at her. He is aghast. “Chava, don’t do this!” he implores.

“Is that all?” The woman asks, looking toward Avrum.

Avrum shakes his head, “ Nothing for me.”

“Can I have a side of bacon, too?” Chava says.

“Of course.”

“And a regular coffee, light and sweet?”

“Chava, bacon, yet? Please!”

“Oh, Avrum,” she tells him. “ I’m sorry. I love you. I do. We’ve had a good life. What more could I ask for?”

She looks into Avrum’s warm grey eyes, smoothens her hand against his rough cheek and turns to the woman in white.

 

 

 

An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Margaret Donnelly, the administrator at TenderNest Assisted Living, tells Hector that his mother has not eaten breakfast for going on three days.

Each Saturday morning, Hector makes the drive from Bozeman to Billings to see his mother. Two hours each way, less if the weather is clear; more if there’s snow on I-90. His job keeps him in Bozeman. He works lift maintenance year-round at Big Sky. He calls it ‘Big Money.’ Continue reading An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Summer Solstice

Mid-day, and the sun is high. It seems to pause in the sky. There is little shade in the park. Mackenzie watches the woman cross the street. He knows her. ‘Helen,’ she told him that first time she came to run her dog on the patchy grass of the field by the tennis courts. After she left, he’d repeated her name to himself so he would not forget it. Continue reading Summer Solstice