Of Nietzsche, Vonnegut, and Pastrami at Katz’s Lower East Side

“Hi, are you Carmella?”

“Yes. Miriam?”

“Yes. I’m so glad you came.”

“Thanks for saving me a seat. It’s crazy in here. I can’t believe it’s so packed at ten o’clock at night.”

“Sit. Please. Give me your ticket and I’ll order for both of us.”

“I don’t know what I want yet.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get pastrami on rye with mustard and you’ll love it. I promise. I’ll be right back.”

On returning to their seats with their tray, Miriam said, “Sorry it took so long. It’s part of the schtick here. Look at this sandwich. I thought we’d share one?”

“Oh, my God, yes, it looks incredible!”

“Let’s eat.”

“Forgive me,” Carmella says, chewing, “I looked at the book on your chair. You’re reading Nietzsche. What do you think? The ‘eternal return’ idea. You think he had it right? Vonnegut wrote something about that too.”

“I’ve never read Vonnegut, but maybe I should. I think Nietzsche had it right, mostly. About what he called ‘the eternal recurrence.’ The cosmology. It’s much more complicated now. But philosophically, I’m not so sure where he stood.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, sometimes he seems certain, even challenging the reader about the idea. At others, he seems as if he’s challenging his own thinking. But the cosmological part, based on astrophysical calculations, was the right idea.”

“But he didn’t know any of the mathmatical stuff, did he?”

“No. Nor that the universe, the multiverse, is recursive and nonlinear in spacetime, without beginning or end. Eternal in that respect. Billions of years of expansion, loss of momentum, and then gravity and entropy drawing all matter and energy back to a single massive point of dense black energy. Only to explode outward with an equal dark energetic repulsion like it is now.

“But he believed that the universe was cyclic, as others had years before him. Did you get pickles?”

“Yes, half-sour. And yes, no physical confirmation of cycling, like we have now. An infinite-seeming series of cycling. A kind of Bang, Bang, Bang, rather than one Big Bang. But, of course, the whole issue of cosmology is well beyond the limits of human existence, if not the limits of human thought. I mean what Nietzsche and others were really concerned about was what is the nature of human existence and thought. Right?”

“And God.”

“Yes. And God. Philosophically, he has some cosmological support about the absence of God. We think that the entire energy content of the universe, as we see it, is a closed system. There are no leaks through which energy can either be added or lost. More mustard?”

“Sure. But how does that relate to God?”

“In a closed system, there are no external forces, or energy, outside that can enter or leave. So, no motive, creative force setting it all in motion. So, as Nietzsche proposed, no god that created the universe.”

“I’ve never tasted rye bread so good. But what if there was, or is, a god force, which set it in motion and walked away. Or better yet, one within the universe. And we can’t see it. Some unidentified, hidden, immeasurable force escaping calculation in the physical mathematical models we have.”

“Some unaccounted-for glitch in the theory or the measurements of energy in the universe?”

“Yes. Do you want some of mine? One cosmic-repulsive-attractive-cohesive energy with the potential to form matter?”

“No thanks. We just don’t know. In our tiny inconsequential moment of spacetime, no matter how many infinite iterations of the cycle, assuming that in each cycle both life and humans will be formed, we’ll never know.”  

“And, if they don’t?”

“You mean one and done? Then what he thinks matters only if it helps us understand anything more of what makes us human and what matters in our lives. But, anyway, why should what he thinks matter anymore than me or you?”

“Now you’re sounding like Vonnegut.”

“Why?”

“Because there are no absolutes. It’s all immaterial. It’s all just a story. And what we know is obviously only subjective and transitory. All we have is what we think and how we act.”

“Exactly. But isn’t that the central flaw in human thought and philosophy. That any one person’s thought can define what morality and happiness might be? The best we might get from Nietzsche or anyone, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned, is a thought that we might consider. And, if that thought helps you find happiness as part of a good life, then that thought may be good. No more than that.”

“I don’t know if Nietzsche was proposing a universal happiness force. He almost certainly was not proposing one derived from the energetic core of the universe.

“Surely not. As if there was, in a teleological sense, a purpose to life. A predetermined achievable eternal goal of life. A cycle of eternal personal human existence in which we live and die and live again, ensuring that time and again, like a great Mandala, humans, we personally, would experience a rebirth to follow at some time, in the eternity of time, to live again and, as some believe, a new life, following this one, in which we’ll be born into a happier, more fulfilled, more moral, being. You’ve got some schmutz on your chin. No, no. There. Yes, you got it”

“Thanks. That would mean that there’d be a progression of increasingly happier states. And each generation of human beings would consist of people born happier and more fulfilled. But, so many people alive today live lives of hardship and little or no hope for anything different, just as so many have, generation after generation. If the universe were to be so programmed, why are humans still born into a life of sadness or unendurable hardship, given the thousands and thousands of generations of people born since they first appeared on the earth?”

“So maybe Nietzsche really proposed the concept of eternal return, as analogous to a life in heaven as a repetition of the life we have lived on earth, but only the good parts.”

“Yes, and would that not simply satisfy the belief we all have that the good moments of our life are worth remembering and make life worth living? And for those who believe that there is a god and an afterlife, it would somehow make the present life worth living?”

“So why do we look to philosophers to make up theories that no one really pays any attention to?”

“Because philosophers are filled with their own issues they’re trying to work out. And they have this sense growing out of their privileged position in life. The sense that they have earned it. Earned a better life by their good works or their good education, their charity, or their fortunes, or their piety. The feeling, among some, that they are fundamentally better than others.”

“For those, Nietzsche’s claim that God does not exist has no relevance. Because they’re übermensches, supermen, who see themselves as transcendent. Who regale in the trappings of a good life because it is what they have earned, or bought. It’s a comforting and rewarding philosophy for them.”

“You can be an übermensch and not believe in an afterlife or in eternal return. Isn’t that really what Nietzsche was saying? That to strive for a moral life is a goal in itself. The definition, really of the good life? Is that not what Vonnegut was saying, too? Be the best, freest person you can be?”

“Yes. I think, in the end, that is what Nietzsche might have believed. That when he posited the concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ it was really a ploy, a way to question pre-determination, a way to understand the meaning of free will, and that in life we ought to live the one best life. That to believe in a life after this life, as a second and third and fourth chance at a good life, ad infinitum, was not metaphysically tenable. That’s why he wrote that recurring life would, contrary to some other philosophies of reincarnation, be repetitions of the same hard life over and over again and why he settled on the concept of the Übermensch, not as an inherently superior being, but as one person, male or female, who strives to live the best, and in his view, the most moral life.”

“Brava. These are the very same positions that Vonnegut makes in his Tralfamadorian conception of time, which echoes Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence precisely. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to read Nietzsche like you do. I think Vonnegut is enough of a philosophical story for me.”

“Oh, my God. Look at this. It’s almost eleven. They’re going to close. I haven’t eaten even half of my half sandwich.”

“Let’s ask for wrappers for them. This has been delicious and fantastic, Carmella. We have to do this again.”

“Next Thursday? Vonnegut? The Sirens of Titan? At Angelica’s up on 187th?”

“Great. At ten again?”

“Ten, again!”

Carmella raised her half-full glass of Dr. Brown’s Celray-tonic. “Here’s to Tralfamadore and the Chrono-synclastic Infundibulum!”

 “What?”

“Read, and thus shall ye be enlightened.”

The Hungarian Deception

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

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

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

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

He hurried.

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

“To work,” he said.

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

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

“Coffee?” She pronounces it, kahvee.

“Nope. I’ll get it on the road.”

Dehogy?” (Nope?)

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

The snow was steadily deepening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

A Sudden Change in the Weather at Weeping Rock

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

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

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

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

They both knew it was over between them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He followed in her steps as best he could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One crack of thunder. Rain began.

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

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

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

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

“Up? Why up?” he said.

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

“Where?”

“Up there,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now,” she said. “Let’s go down now.”

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

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

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

An Early Supper at Le Gamin

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I sit?” he asked. I nodded.

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

Marchant raised his glass to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“May I pour you another glass?”

“Yes. Have you the escarole this evening?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah and Murray Discuss the Future

“Ma, where’s Murray?”

“Out with Zeus.”

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

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

“And could I do that?”

“Maybe, ask your father.”

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

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

“Ok, ma, thanks, I’ll ask Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that dear?”

“Nothing, Dad.”

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

“Did you leave a note in my in-box?”

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

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

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

“Unfortunately, Hadassah…”

“Hannah.”

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

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

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

 “You’re shitting me, right?”

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

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

“Nada?”

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

“You’re mocking me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what should I do now?”

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

Malachi and His Mother: The Aftermath of the Altshul Incident

“Mel Rothstein called me this morning. He had such tight anger in his voice. Like he was trying to stuff it back down. Showing me how in-control he was.”

Malachi was sitting across from his mother at the kitchen table. She had spilled some sugar as she was adding more of it to her coffee. She pushed the crystals around on the slick tablecloth with her finger as she spoke.

“What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘How could you?’ He said I had fomented an insurrection. An armed insurrection. At the temple. The ‘temple’ he called it. He said I had ruined the reputation of the whole congregation that he had worked so hard to make and that tweets or posts or whatever they call them had been posted across the internet. Pictures of me. Rage on my face. Leading a mob of radical Jews against the police. Calling them Nazis. Threatening them.”

“I saw the pictures.”

“He said that he expected more from me, which I know is a lie because he has never expected anything from me or any other woman beyond dull, mute, subservience and a look of thankful awe.”

She presses her finger into the mound of sugar she had created and picks up what has stuck to the finger into her mouth. Her lips curl, her chin wrinkling. She begins to cry. Malachi reaches across the table to toward her.

“I feel so terrible,” she says “I’m glad your father wasn’t there. I don’t know what he would have done.”

“Ma, I feel so bad for you. I know you meant well. In the most genuine, human sense, you saw a danger and you wanted to save everyone. You weren’t crying wolf, or ‘fire’ in a theater. You thought those cops were terrorists intent on shooting everyone in the room. The whole congregation was sitting like obedient sheep waiting for the doors to open and the shooting to start.”

“That’s what Rothstein called me. A terrorist. Worse than a terrorist, he said. He said I should be ashamed of myself for risking everyone’s lives for my own neurotic mishegas. He said I needed to get help.”

“Rothstein, ran out himself. He ran out without looking back, without offering to help anyone. He burst through the side door. He knocked down the officer there. He ran out of the building the second he heard you scream ‘get out!’ It’s only now that he feels embarrassed. He shouldn’t feel embarrassed. He did the right thing. You did the right thing. They had guns. They were acting like real active shooters. They meant to scare the shit out of you. Out of everyone. And, I may be wrong, but I think they got some sort of charge out of scaring the shit out a bunch of cornered Jews.’’

“Rothstein. I never liked him. But that is totally separate, Malachi. For the first time in my life, I feared for my own mortality. Not in the philosophical sense. Not just in conversation over cocktails. Not in that casual, intellectual, sense of ‘let’s all talk about death’ in some abstract, manageable, way. But in the real gripping fear of death in that very moment. Certain that you’d be shot and killed. Ripped through with bullets, and that my body, me, my mind, my thoughts, my very self, would be lost. Gone. Lost to consciousness. Lost to all reality, to all eternity. It is a fear unlike any other human feeling. That instant awareness of imminent death.”

“I can only begin to imagine how you felt, ma. When I was twelve or thirteen, at night, in bed, if I would think of the vastness of the universe or infinity. The blankness. The unending black void. I could feel my body exploding with fear. The fear of nothingness.”

“I don’t remember that. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to. I’d get out of bed in the middle of the night like I needed to escape my thoughts as though they were a physical being. As if death and nothingness were physical beings. Even though the total lack of physicality of them are really what is the most incomprehensible and frightening of all. I needed to get out. Just like you did. I left my room and I went to your bedroom door. It was closed and I didn’t want to knock. I didn’t.”

“You should have, Malachi, that’s what parents are for.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to wake you. It’s that I didn’t want to frighten you.”

“Frighten me?”

“I thought talking to you about death with you older, closer to death, that it would bring up those morbid fears for you. So, I just sat there until I went back to bed.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“That’s when I started saying a prayer at night.”

“What kind of prayer? I never taught you prayers.”

“The one with, ‘Our father who art in heaven.’ The one with ‘give us our daily bread’ and ‘the valley of death’. ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ I didn’t know if it was a real prayer. It just made me feel better to say those things. And I’d say bless my mother and father and list of all the people who I wanted to protect, and say them in exactly the right order or I’d have to start all over again to say it right, no matter how many times. And then there was one night, when I was going to bed and I’d always say ‘good night’ and ‘see you in the morgen’ like ‘guten morgen’, but instead I said see you in the morgue.’ And my god, I apologized a hundred times and then I cried and cried and all I could think of was that what I said would really happen and that you’d die because I said that.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, ma. And don’t be sorry for doing what you thought was right and good, no matter how it turned out. And forget about Rothstein. He’s not thinking of you, only himself.”

They look at one another. Eye to eye.

“My coffee is cold and I spilled sugar all over the table. Sit, I’ll make us fresh. And let’s talk about something else.”

“Critical Race Theory?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. You should hear what your aunt Frieda has to say about that. Like she might know what it means.”

Malachi and His Mother at the Altshul on Garfield Place

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

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

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

“Why didn’t dad come with you?”

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

“COVID?”

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

“That’s Bukowski.”

“What?”

“Charles Bukowski, the poet, said that.”

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

“It looks like the rabbi wants to start.”

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

“I have to get up.”

“Ma, wait. It’s starting.”

“I have to leave.”

“I’ll go with you.”

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

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

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

“I have to. You can’t stop me.”

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

“Malachi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone is watching us, Ma.”

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

“Shhh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long moment of silence passes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two officers step behind the doors again.

“See, Ma?”

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

“Please sit down,”

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

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

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

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

The Woman in Purple Velvet Coat at the Edge of the Surging Sea

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.

Text Box:  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.           

The Comforter of Sudden Silent Souls

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

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

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

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

He is not entirely alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What am I then,” thinks Mandelbaum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, he hears nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not time yet for Silverman to come.

He thought he heard a voice.

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting in Line at the Church of the Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a rush to marry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marry me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t hold your breath.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth According to Miriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had become her father. She hated herself.

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Book of Exodus by Candlelight in Scarsdale

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

It always starts with the crocuses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to honor the suffering.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“Why no?”

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

“How can you say that?”

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

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

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

“Can I pick two?”

“Okay,” she said.

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

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

The Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From whence comes my suspicion?

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

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

We’ve all been vaccinated.

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

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

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

Somebody to Love

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

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

The two of us.

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

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

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

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

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

He was screwing a woman at work.

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

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

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

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

“Great run,” I said. He nodded.

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

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

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

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

At my tits.

“Okay, tiger, enough!” I said.

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

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

“It was only a quick glance.”

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

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

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

“How do you know that?” I asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Millie and Mike Moskowitz’ COVID-Bubble Pre-Game Show

Mike: Boy, the Packers really bit the big Aaron Rogers-apple, didn’t they, Millie?

Millie: Yeah, it was a real Red Zone zombie-zone-out.

Mike: A god-awful goal-line goof-up.

Millie: A big Brady bad boy benefit bonanza boondoggle. But look, Mike, now It’s almost game time!

“Yeah. Ok. So, quick, Mom, did you ever suspect you had a half-brother, I mean before now?”

“Can we just not talk about it? Can we just sit quietly and watch the TV?”

“Aren’t you happy about it?”

“Happy? Are you meshuggeneh? The whole thing is ridiculous.”

“Cousin Shirley said this guy emailed her and he wants to meet you.”

“I should meet him, yet? No way. I’m not interested. I’m 68. I lived my whole life without a brother. And that’s the way I want to keep it,” Millie said.

“But you knew this Skip guy, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know. Vaguely. Maybe. A name like Skip, though, I should remember. A Shlomo?, maybe not, but a Skippy, yes. And who names a kid Skippy, anyway?

“So, you maybe knew him?”

“No. I didn’t say that. The 1960s were still the 1950s. No kid knew who was who then. Nobody told us anything.”

“He told Shirley he went places with you…”

“He said that?!”

“I think…”

“Michael. If this is who she’s talking about, there were friends of my parents with a kid. I saw them once in my whole life. Once. We went to Washington. To the Library of Congress. Us and this other family. To see the book my grandfather wrote. It was there in the library. My mother always talked about how he was a lawyer and he wrote law books. Like on the lawyer shows. With the kind of beige and red spines. And we sat at a table in this huge room with tables and lamps and someone brought us the book with my grandfather’s name on it. I never saw my mother so proud and happy. That’s all I remember. But these people had nothing to do with us. We never saw them again.”

“But this Skip guy, told Shirley your father came to their house with presents for his mother and all. Not just on holidays but once a month.”

“What? Once a month? That’s nuts.”

“Yes, and your father would give his mother money for groceries and the rent.”

“That’s crazy. He’s making this up. Or Shirley is. She never liked my father. Why, I don’t know. He was a good man. He loved my mother and me. More than anything in the whole world. He would never do anything like that. We lived in New York for god sake. He had a job. It has to be some other guy.”

“But Ancestry said there were DNA matches, she said.”

“Ancestry, Shmancestry. They just say that so you’ll click on it pay them more money. Look, I know about DNA from Finding Your Roots. You know there are matches from ten generations ago. But this Skip person saying it comes from my father is farkakteh (BS).

“He could be family.”

“Family he’s not. Family is caring, suffering, joy. Day after day. Missing them when they’re away, leaving a hole in your heart when they’re gone. Family is not DNA. We’re all DNA. That doesn’t make us all family. Somebody shows up willy-nilly and she wants right away to make them family?

“Listen to me, Michael. People like making something out of nothing. For fun. There was this TV show called This Is Your Life.” Some famous person would be tricked to come on and the host would say, ‘This is your life, Chaim Pupik’, or whatever his name was and then the person’s third grade teacher would tell some cute little story about how the guy once pulled a girl’s ponytail in class, and they’d hug and then the host, Ralph Edwards, would say, ‘and now here’s Mary Lou Lefkowitz’, or whatever, and a fifty-something with a pony tail comes out and everyone would clap and go ‘aaaahhh.’ Enough to make you sick. Who’s to say Lefkowitz was who she said she was? Look, people want schmaltz. Real or not real. TV gives them schmaltz. Life is not schmaltz.

“The past is past, Michael. Some things need to be left alone. What if this Skip guy was someone like my uncle, who lived with us for two years? He was a sleaze. When I was twelve, when he thought no one was looking, he’d touch me, brush his fingers across my chest, and say, ‘Millie, what a nice dress you’re wearing.’ Imagine how I’d feel if that low-life pervert ever tried to come back into my life saying ‘hey, let’s get in touch’ like nothing ever happened. How horrible that would be. For all I know this Skip person might be my sleaze-ball uncle calling himself Skip? Put yourself in my shoes.”

“I don’t think it’s anything like that. Mom, it’s only the genome. People are finding one another all over the place.”

“So, which is it, Michael? Family or the no-big-deal genome? Either way, I’m done. Would you please put the god-damned Superbowl game on and pass me a toothpick and the Swedish meatballs?”

“Okay.” He shrugs, reaching for the remote. “Let’s forget it.”

Then, Millie says, quietly, “I think it’s a scam.”

“What?”

“Look,” she says, “There are three possibilities: Number one, if it’s a real match, regardless of how many generations ago, I want nothing to do with it. Number two, it’s a total trivial non-story, so forget about it. And, Number three, it’s some kind of a scam. And, I’m going with number three. I watch The Impostors on Netflix. I know from this stuff. The guy’s pulling a fast one, and I’ll bet you fifteen bucks on it, and another twenty-five, two-to-one, on KC and my man Mahomes by ten points. You in?

“I’m in.”

Millie: And, now, welcome everyone to the 2021 LV Superbowl!

Mike: In the beautiful new Louis Vuitton Stadium

Millie: In the heart of downtown of Las Vegas

Mike: Brought to you by the makers of the limited edition, high performance, Lamborghini Veneno

Millie: And now for the National Anthem sung by the great Luther Vandross

Mike: With Lindsey Vonn doing the play-by-play

Millie: Me? I got nothing. I’m done.

Mike: Okay, I’ve got one, and our color commentator Lawrence Vickers, fullback for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys.

Millie: Wait, wait, I have one more. And stay tuned for the Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon Verbena hand cream half-time show.

Hobbes’ Good Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t accept this,” said Hobbes.

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

These Uncertain Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Man’s Search for Meaning

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

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

Oy! Your father is not doing well.

Not doing well? What do you mean?

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

What do you want me to do?

Talk to him.

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

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

Maybe he should see someone.

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

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

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

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

I have never seen him so low.

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

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

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

Hold on.

Hello.

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

I do, Malachi.

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

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

Bye.

Bye, bye… here she is.

Like Love, Sort Of

Over the past few years you have been faithfully reading the stories I have written. Thank you. I hope there have been some you liked. And, surely, there were others which left you flat, or worse.

But, that’s all to be expected. As, I’m sure, there were moviegoers who liked, maybe even raved about, the movie Ishtar. There you go. As with liking a movie or not, liking a story or not is really only a part of what stories are about. I did not like Ishtar when I saw it. I am pretty sure I walked out before it ended, but you know what? I still remember it. It has become a piece of me. I even enjoy the not-liking of it.

A story, or a poem, a photograph or a painting, a sculpture, or a film, as a medium through which a relationship is established. It is through that, that a connection is made. And the connection can be a deep one, with several working parts.

The connection between a writer, say, and the reader, is a relationship forged through the medium of the story.

And too, there is a connection, a relationship, made through the story, between the person whose story is being told and the writer who tells it.

Why am I telling you this? Because I believe that the reader is owed, from the writer, both truthfulness and faithfulness. Truthfulness to the subject, to the story, and to you, the reader. And at the same time, there is a bond of faithfulness between the writer and the mystifying muse: that person or that force that is the source of inspiration for the story.

Let me explain.

I often find myself waiting for a story to come. For the words to come. I feel dry. Barren. I feel at loose ends. I try thinking in the shower. Not thinking in the shower. Thinking of nothing, as if that were possible for me.

I am only now coming to appreciate that worrying about waiting for the words to come, is fruitless. Stories are not about the words. Don’t get me wrong. One right word in the right place can make or break a story. The right word refines, clarifies, intonates, and conveys, the story. Finding the right word is both arduous and essential. It may take draft after draft after draft to find the right one. But… that is the work part of story writing. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.

I once wrote a story about an older man I’d known many years ago who lived across the street from us. He was a grocer and he mowed his lawn several times a week, like going to mass. In the spring, the heat of summer, and into the fall.

Late one afternoon, a year or so ago, I was in my own back yard mowing my lawn. The sun was lowering and the green of the grass could almost make one cry.  And, as I pushed the mower, that same man, Vito, who is long gone, was there with me, pushing his mower alongside me through the grass.

You may have read the story.

On that late-afternoon, when Vito came, I ran into the house and stood at my desk and typed the story he’d brought with him.

As I typed, I watched him roll the mower out of the garage and onto the lawn. I saw Angie waiting for him in the kitchen.

It was his story. The story he brought with him. I used his name because I felt it would disappear if I had called him Fred or something like that. His wife, Angie, too. I thought of her along with Vito. What she might be thinking. It was Vito whose voice I was translating, transposing, to the page. I was afraid that if I changed his name, I would be unfaithful and he would take his story away.

Sometimes, a name comes and brings a story with it. A person I may never have known but who, for a while, I come to know. Like the two men on a bench looking east out over Gloucester harbor during COVID, or Adelaide on the beach, or Sedge, Malachi and his mother, Sy Spiegelman, Camus, Sloane and Mona, or Meyer Rothstein and Moishe Feingold eating a Thanksgiving dinner together.

And then, sometimes, a story does leave. Picks up and goes. As if it had come looking for someone else.

Oftentimes, after a story has been told, it feels as if no story will ever come again. That I have told the last one. That there will be no more stories. That someone else will be the one to whom the stories will come.

Then I despair. My mood drops. I am sad. It affects my days. I feel lost.

I need them. I am sad to say that. To admit that. As if it is a shortcoming. A lack of faithfulness within me. That sounds so self-centered. It is, I know. Thinking like that. That makes me despair all the more.

The stories, their souls, come only when I don’t beg for them. Don’t try to conjure them.

They cannot be conjured. They won’t come. You can sit at your desk, me at my desk, and wait. You might as well take a walk. Make coffee. Call a friend. Speak with the cashier in the supermarket. Take a nap. Mow the lawn.

A story is like love. Love resists conjuring. Forcing. Love, I believe, comes when it comes. And when it does, it lives in you. And stories you connect with are like that. Like the people you love.

Like a train, when a story comes, you get on it and see where it goes or you don’t. It’s your train or it’s not. You have to be on the platform. You can’t make the train or a story come by wishing it into being. Like love, sort of. Or like waiting for the cat to come home. Cherish it when it does. And cherish the readers when they come, too.

Thanks to all.

Sy Spiegelman Reading Proust on the F Train

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

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

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

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

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

So, he asked her when he got back.

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

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And so?”

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

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

“He seemed nice.”

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

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

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

“I was bleeding.”

“I’m just kidding.”

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

“It’s your mother’s.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s how it felt.”

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

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

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

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

“At least you should remember her birthday.”

“What? Now you think I’m losing it?”

“Or, maybe it’s just your shoes.”

“Funny.”

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

“I do. That’s a different thing.”

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

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

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

“What are you reading?“ she asked him.

“Swann’s Way.”

“Nice,” she said.

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

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

“My god. That’s so frightening.”

“Yeah, tell me about it!”

So, I guess it wasn’t my shoes.”

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

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

“Likewise, Sy. Likewise.”

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

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

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

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

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

What happened to him?

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

So?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s funny, ma.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry.

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

Ma…

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

Ma, I know you’re right. I love you.

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

Alligators. Alligators live in Alabama, not crocodiles.

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

Mama?

Mama?

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

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

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

Los Días de Muertos

After.

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.

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.

“Celebrate?”

“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.”

“Then what?”

“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?”

“The marigolds?”

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.

K.

K was awakened shortly after dawn. He had not slept well. A machine or what sounded to him like a machine thrummed off and on during the night. He resisted arising, choosing to remain motionless on his pallet, eyes closed to the light through the window sweeping across the room, transversing his face as it passed from one wall to another. Continue reading K.

The American Red Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the American Red Summer.

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

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

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

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