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

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.

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 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

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.

 

 

 

The Periodic Table

Revson and I went to a lecture together at the Y on 92nd St. I had suggested it to him and I bought the tickets, as he had recently fallen on hard times.

We took our seats in the front row of the lecture hall. The subject was The Periodic Table, Primo Levi’s memoir as an Auschwitz survivor. And, since Levi had recently been found dead at the bottom of a long stone staircase, under very uncertain circumstances, the room was overflowing with anticipation. Continue reading The Periodic Table

Milton Silverman’s Last Thought

Milton Silverman’s Last Thought

When Milton sensed the end was near he told Magda he loved her. “Magda, I love you,” he said. And then he asked her to tell Vincenza, their daughter, to turn down the television set. He was adamant that the last thing he would hear would not be an Arby’s ‘We’ve got the meat’ commercial. Continue reading Milton Silverman’s Last Thought