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.
On the eve of my seventieth birthday, I dreamed I was a woman in a hooded purple velvet coat.
She-Me, standing on the jagged, angular, geometric rocks at the edge of the surging, curling sea.
It was evening, and the wind blew hard as it does when the moon is full and high and the heat of the day fades and the ozone-lavender lithium light rises off of the water and becomes the sky.
It was in the crepuscular hour. The time between the exhaustion of the waking day and the wonders of the unknown night. The hour when you could imagine yourself to be of one mind and also of another in unison. In a settled, common, unison. When yes and no are equal to the task of living and breathing and waking and sleeping and lifting and falling.
And the wind blew from the east and the wind blew from the west. And yet my coat was unruffled. It hung down from my shoulders to the toes of my shoes.
My black shoes which reflected the moonlight. The shoes I danced in as a girl. The shoes that I wore at my baptism in the faith and on the first day of school and on the day my mother died.
The shoes my father taught me to lace. The shoes so soft and snug and sturdy they filled my body with strength and soulfulness.
I held the moon in my hand and the waves curled under it. The waves of blue and white. The waves I felt I could walk away on. Walk to the moon on.
I was a girl-woman. I was a woman-girl. I was my mother’s-child. My child’s-mother. The slow admix of young and old. Of constancy and change in the moment. Of the years I had lived and the years I have not yet lived. The years before I was birthed and the years beyond the end.
My mother had worn a purple coat. The color of sadness and mourning set against the midnight black of her hair.
I stood at the edge of the sea. In the crepuscular light. In the coat my mother wore. In the coat my child will wear. In the moonlight in which my mother bathed and at which she wondered. The light that reveals and shadows, both. The softest light. The silent light.
I stood, a woman-mother-child, at the edge of the surging, curling, sea in the lavender air and entrusted myself to the mysteries I did not know, could not know, and the wonders I know I would never know.
And I stood with all of that. In the edge of the day and the night, and the dark and the light, and the light and the dark, in my hooded purple velvet coat that my mother had once worn before me.
Painting by Karen Maley. 2021.
Used with permission.
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.
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?”
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.
There were four of us in our family. Four Sisters. I was the youngest. I still am. Obviously. The point being, though, is that there were four of us, with fourteen years, depending upon of the time of the year you think about it, between the oldest one of us and the youngest one of us, and that we all were loved most dearly by our parents, who loved one another most dearly too. That point being that never once, never at any time or for any reason, was that love ever in question, and never once was it far from our minds.
In the summers, we’d all, all four sisters and my parents, stay at a small cottage on the Cape where the land is so narrow that from the cottage you could almost see the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. Some days all my sisters and I would walk up the beach to Provincetown, with my oldest sister watching over us. She still does. Watch over us.
We were like four boats tethered together in a slow-moving current. Not just when we walked along the shore to P-town, but always, in everything, in everything we did. Even when one got married and moved away to Maine and another married and moved to New Hampshire, and another who moved all over the world, and me who moved to New York. My sisters would call each other and we’d talk so we knew what was going on for the others. My oldest sister called most often, when she was in the states, and then more often than that when we all had cellphones.
My mother, herself, had six sisters and two brothers. My father had no sisters and no brothers, so maybe instead of being overwhelmed, as he might have been, he was swathed, sort of, by all of us. And when he became ill, we were all with him and all the time, to his last day, we were there, encircling him. Caring for him. Loving him. Not even approaching a comprehension, then, of how achingly we would miss him.
We were all fair-haired with light-colored eyes. We all had our mother’s quick smile. One of my sisters had hair most like my father. A muted shade of red. Ginger. A bit more like a warm honey. And as softly-waved as his was.
It was never all smiling and all laughter to be sure, lest you think I am making up a story detached from reality. And there were times, a good many of them, heavy with sadness, or raw with unkindness, emotions as if unleashed, and hurtful words, some meant and others perhaps not, but none of these were long lasting, none festering as they can be, and none, not one thing, said or done, that untethered us. That pulled us so far apart that the ropes broke and we drifted away.
We were tested, though, after my father died. It seemed then as if one thing after another came tumbling at us, divorce (more than one of those), and the heartbreaking, sudden, loss of my nephew (though I will say no more about that), money troubles, more serious money troubles, and then illness, and more serious illness.
We each had a degree of optimism— surely from my mother. A determined optimism, it was. One born out of the tempering heat of hardship she’d had as a girl, along with a stern sense of survival, a reverence for work, and for family above all, no doubt from a long line of Scots.
And so, one day, sister number three, the one with the bright, flame-like spirit that could flash with happiness or burn with a deep, unknown torment; the one who tested the bonds most, tested all of us, told us she had late-stage cancer. It’s hard for me to say that word or hear or even think of it, without thinking of her. It was my mother’s optimism, though, that gave us a shield against the inevitability we knew was to come. It was an optimism that buoyed us. Kept us afloat.
And so, when she needed chemo and radiation (two words that, still, are so horribly clinical and so harsh— because they are so clinical and so harsh—and so raw that I feel they could draw blood), she came to live in my mother’s home, and to lie in a bed in a spare bedroom, and where we came to help care for her.
By then, though, my mother too, needed us.
Was it, I could not help thinking then, or even now, that the sadness of my sister’s illness had taken residence in my mother’s heart? Flared her lupus and her kidneys, caused her edema?
And so, it was two of them, in the same home at the same time, who needed us and who, more than that, we needed. We sat by them and helped them walk, took them to appointments, bathed and cleaned them, absorbed their pain, bound their wounds, and breathed in the foul air of hopelessness.
We bore the unbearable with them. With each other. And, a few Novembers later, they died. One week apart. My sister first. My mother then followed, having resisted her own passing, for the sake of my sister… and for us. We grieved together, my sisters and I, and alone.
It has been a little more than a year since their passing. The house in which they died has been closed. The house in which we sat with them, in the too-warm rooms, and with ourselves. Where we said our goodbyes. Twice over.
I don’t cry so much anymore. I see them both. Pictures of them. Indelible Images. Sometimes there’s a knock on the door, with no one there, or a shifting curtain in a still and quiet living room, or those purple Scottish bluebells that sprung up anew in the spring and kept their blooms all summer and deep into fall.
The ache I feel almost daily is not always the hurting kind.
I know that they are gone. I feel that they are gone. I know they’re gone. And then, I cannot believe they are gone.
And still, I know, without a moment’s uncertainty, that we are all together. All four sisters. And I don’t cry so much anymore. Not so much.
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.”
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.
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… here she is.
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.”
“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, 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.”
“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.
“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, 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
After they had walked.
After they had walked, they drank soft red wine.
After they drank the wine, they ate. Sweet slices of pan de muerto with honey,
And, after they ate the pan de muerto, they danced.
“This is rich! Two men dancing in the middle of the afternoon,” said Sedge. “This is rich!” he said again. “That’s what me Mum would have said.”
They had gone back to Javier’s house. It was the day after the election though that was not why they had met on the beach or why they were dancing. Nor why Javier was wearing a mask, a COVID mask, a black one with the cadaverous white bones of a smiling skull face painted on the front, una calavera. It was the one he made for the Days of the Dead, on the weekend just past.
When they had gotten back to the house. Before they had the wine, Javier turned to Sedge. “I am sorry, my friend” he said. “Maybe we should not have walked all the way down to the inlet. Not today.”
“Maybe we had no choice,” Sedge offered. His voice as thin as a reed.
They had walked on the hard-packed sand as far south as the mouth of the intracoastal inlet. The closer they came to it, the more anxious Sedge felt.
They stood looking down at the water.
The tide was rushing out, forced, through the narrow inlet, pulling the water through in swift and strong swirling eddies. Coiling currents over and under one another.
Sedge could see how easily a person, a body, would be dragged down in an instant, below the surface, twisting and turning in the turbulence and carried out into the dark sea, possibly never to be found or perhaps, he thought, carried back somewhere along the long stretch of the shore by a reciprocating, incoming, tide, as had been Adelaide.
It was a year, almost to the day, since her body had been found on the beach. In her black bathing suit. The suit she loved, the one she wore in the picture he has of her on his phone, holding her glasses down at her side, rows of incoming waves behind her, standing in that quarter-turned, shoulders-back, way she did for photos. Her vanity showing. After which she put her glasses back on because she could not see more than a colorful blur without them.
The two of them, Sedge and Adelaide, had met Javier years back at a Ritmo 95.7FM fundraiser for Miami’s troubled Hispanic youth. He’d been the weekday morning man before the station was bought and went to all-day-cubatón programming and the youthful audience had become Latinx and Javier’s olden-days voice had aged him out.
They had become tight. The three of them.
After her body was found on the beach that evening, Sedge was beset with grief. So deep and so constant, it filled his days as completely as darkness fills a room when the lamp is extinguished. He wore his grief like a repellent raiment of rags.
At the sharp drop at the water’s edge, where the stream erodes away the sand, Javi touched Sedge lightly on the arm.
“Take this,” he said, separating a marigold from the bunch he held, carried from home.
Sedge took the flower as Javi tossed one and then another into the water, watching as each one was spirited swiftly away on the surface. He felt the near-weightless earthy vibrance of it, smelled its unmistakable pungency and, as Javi had done with the others, he tossed it into the stream.
“We do this to remember. To celebrate the dead,” said Javi.
“Yes. To celebrate their lives and what they have left with us. Siempre, always, una mezcla de la felicidad y la tristeza. The happy and the sad. So, we gather at their graves, or just together as we are now and we think good things about them and tell their stories. All of them. All the lives lost. Each one mourned. Those laid to rest and others who have never found a resting place. They all look to us to recognize them and to remember.
“How can I celebrate her death? What a horror that must have been. To die like that.”
“Do you know of any death, Sedge, that is not a horror?”
“And we celebrate that?
“No, of course not.”
“A person just like us who lived and died. As we will. Is that not what you want in some way. To have your life celebrated?”
Yes. The marigolds. We believe they have the power to open the door between the living and the dead, to bring their souls, their beingness, if you will, into the present moment. Your mom. Adelaide. A Salvadoran man with a family of eight who was disappeared. Trayvon and Breonna. A million people who had the COVID. My parents, who were Marielitos who climbed into a twenty-foot boat in the dark with one bag and held onto me and my brother for dear life. For dear life, and then…,” he said. “When we lose someone close to us, when we grieve in our hearts, and give room to the emptiness we feel, when we share that loss with others, we bring ourselves closer to them, both the ones we’ve lost and ones we grieve with. This is why we do this.”
“I am sorry for you. For them.”
“Listen to me, Sedge, I miss her too.”
“Not as much as I do.”
“Oh, no? How do you know that? You are not the only one to grieve for her.”
Sedge was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, he said. “I don’t know. I cannot know. I should not have said that.”
“Nor should have I, Papi,” said Javier. “Let’s forget that. Come with me. We will bake some Pan de Muerto together and talk of other things. We will put aside sad thoughts and pray together for them and us, and dance La Danza de los Viejitos, for we soon will be little old men ourselves.”
And they turned back. The sun hard and warm on the back of their necks and they spoke of Adelaide and their parents and friends and even those who they had never known.
Henry loaned me a book he’d just finished reading. A paperback. We talk books when we see one another. We read a lot. We play tennis together. On the change-overs between games we talk. Mostly about books.
We wore masks for a while, standing apart, on our side yards for a few weeks, back when the days were still cool and the grass was just greening up. When masks were recommended. Then, as time went on, and they opened the tennis courts, we agreed to stop wearing them when we got together. Continue reading All Men Are Mortal