It’s Life. Period. Goodbye

Jake Greenfield brought in the mail. Careful not to let his cats out.

Among the bills and flyers was a green square envelope.

He shut the door firmly and ran his finger under the envelope flap. He removed a note card.

“Dear Jake, My dearest brother Sam, passed away suddenly last Tuesday.” No further details, except that a memorial was planned at Sam’s home in Essex on the coming Sunday afternoon.

It was signed “Rebecca, Sam’s Sister, PS, I would love to hear from you.”

Jake sat on a chair beside the kitchen table. He took a long slow breath. Holding the card in his lap.

“Sam,” he said.

In high school they called Sam “the Russian.” He was not Russian. His last name was Rudski. So, they called him the Russian. His family was Polish. Maybe. Maybe Slovak. Maybe Latvian. Nobody knew or cared. Neither did he.

He was quick to smile. Quick to say, “Do what you guys want, I’m going home,” and the only one who saw no reason not to eat the last slice of pizza. 

There were three of them back then. Jake, Bob, and Sam, who hung out together. Played ball together. Driver’s licenses. First legal beers. College.

When Kennedy was shot, they watched the TV together. Then Oswald. Jack Ruby raising his right arm straight out from his shoulder, with the Dallas police and the reporters in black felt fedoras standing around, and he shot Oswald square in the belly with a pistol he’d pulled out of his overcoat pocket. Oswald winced.

They drove down to DC in Sam’s VW and waited in the dark cold wind outside of the Capitol to walk past the quiet coffin and then over to Lafayette Park, to sit on a blanket under the trees on the curb across from the White House. They watched Bobby, Jackie, Caroline, and John John walk behind the casket.

What they were seeing was unfathomable. They were nineteen. It was something never to be forgotten.

Sam was the first among them to fall in love. The girl lived up in White Plains. He sent her flowers and after he paid for them, he called Jake to say, “alea iacta est,” like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The die was cast, he said.

Everything they did or said back then was concrete, momentous, consequential, black and white, final, irrevocable. Neither good nor bad. It just was. They never gave a thought to any time beyond the present. Who they were was who they’d always be. There were no thoughts of the future beyond which shirt you would put on in the morning or which classes you had the next day.

Then there were weddings. First jobs. Children. They each moved away. None of them went to Vietnam. They grew beards and long hair. Bob worked for a big Pharma company. Jake got teaching job. Sam got a job working for Anaconda Copper right out of Fordham.

One day he showed up at Jake’s house. “I quit,” he said. “They are just fucking up Chile, paying people shit wages, mining the crap out of the ground. Capitalist shitheads,” he said. “They don’t give a shit about anything other than screwing people for profits. I can’t do that anymore.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I got a teaching job in Roxbury.”

“Where’s that?”

“Boston,” he said.

“A good job?”

“Boston’s all fucked up. Desegregation. Bussing. Crazy racists attacking school buses. Throwing rocks and bottles at kids. Retrenchment. Poverty. I’ll teach in one of the schools.”

“Oh.” Jake knew nothing about Boston or Roxbury. He was teaching in the Bronx. The South Bronx. High school biology. Things were not good there either.

They all moved around again. Grad schools. New jobs. Not necessarily better jobs but jobs they liked to think were better.

After another move, Jake got a call from Sam. “I moved to Essex. I found your number in the phone book.” They went out for burgers and beer at a place called the Farm or the Barn and talked about work and their new hearing aids.

When Jake got laid off in 2008, he started doing freelance work. Writing. Sam became a psychologist and stopped selling sandwiches and DVDs. They kept in touch.

One afternoon, Sam rode his new Yamaha 500 over to Jake’s. They sat in folding chairs on his back porch. They wore warm jackets and drank hot coffee.

“You look sad,” Sam said.

“Sad? I don’t know. You know I had a heart attack a year ago.”

“You told me.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, and you said you were doing fine.”

“I was.  I still am. A lot of stuff going on. I’m okay.”

“Listen, Jake,” said Sam. “I see patients all day long, and they say, ‘yeah, I’m okay,’ and I look at them and I know they’re not. We both know they’re not. I look at them. They look at me. Their eyes. The way they sit all folded up, looking out the window. They start talking and in three minutes tops, I get the whole picture. I’d love to say to them, ‘Look, we can drag this on for a few months or years and neither of us wants to do that. So, give me the word and I can tell you right now exactly what your problem ia and what you can do to change it. Period. Goodbye.’”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying. I know you. You lost your job, and you had a heart thing, and you have a hearing problem. It’s life. You had a lousy marriage and that’s over, and now you have great one. Something’s bothering you but it’s not the job or money or your heart, or your hearing. You think I don’t have shit going on? You think the guy next door doesn’t? Look around. See the trees. You have food in the refrigerator. You have a woman who loves you. I’ll tell you right now, what your problem is. You haven’t told her how you’re feeling. You’re holding it all in. Like your father. Go in there and tell her what’s going on, how you’re feeling, what you’re worried about. And twenty minutes from now, guaranteed, she’s going to grab you and hug you and the sun will come out and light up your sorry-ass face like high noon on the goddamn equator.”

That day on the porch was the last time Jake saw Sam.

The letter surprised him. He never expected, never thought, that one day he’d be sitting in a chair by his kitchen table holding a letter saying, “Dear Jake, My dearest brother, Sam, passed away suddenly last Tuesday.”

Just like that.

“Jake,” he could hear Sam saying, “it’s life. There is no secret. Nothing to figure out. It’s life. Period. Goodbye.”

Umi, Annunziata, and String Theory

Umi and Annunziata. Side by side. No earbuds. No Beats. The Harvard Bridge. Sunny. Warm. Late October afternoon. Cross breezes push ripples upstream.

Umi, I didn’t mean that I don’t really believe in string theory. I do, but…

… But Nuzzi, that’s exactly what you said, like in front of the whole class. I was like totally freaked. I never heard you say anything like that before.

I know. But I think I was just trying to say that it has no physical or philosophical relevance to me or to life, fundamentally. To actual life. Here and now. To you and me or anyone on the planet or in the entire universe.

In Theoretical Physics? Saying you don’t believe in string theory. Space-time. The event horizon. General relativity. The most basic theories of totally everything?

No, Umi. I was just like ‘Ok, so that’s how everything got created and all.’ As if that explains everything like life and all. But I mean it just doesn’t. It doesn’t have anything to do with real life.

What do you mean? Doesn’t it? The origin and expansion of the universe? The elemental seeds of all life?

It’s not that. It’s that it has no relevance to the lives we live. I mean I think of my grandparents and their lives. They got along great living in only three dimensions

Of course, and their life was good or maybe it wasn’t, maybe it was terrible. But the world changes and we learn new things, face new problems that need new answers.

I know that. The mathematics. The theories. They’re quantitatively and empirically provable theoretical concepts. But pragmatically and humanistically? They’re real and measurable and you can believe in them but ultimately, they have no relevant meaning, philosophically or practically. They are barren terms with no influence how we live or how we might choose to live. To me, at least, and possibly to you too, if you think about it.

You think I don’t think about things like that? You think I’m a basic geek?  

No, yes, Umi, but I don’t mean it like that. I mean take gravity. Nobody knows what it is, but you trip on a crack in the sidewalk and you break your arm. That’s gravity. Human relevance. Pragmatic. Philosophically, too. You make life decisions based upon your understanding of gravity. You teach your children about it. You don’t say, ‘Oh sweetie, stay away from the event time horizon, do you?’

You sound like a narrow nihilist, Nuzzi. I mean thinking that there is nothing that means anything except eating, sleeping, shitting, and fucking. There is no greater good, nothing more than our lonely finite selves in a vast infinite universe.

Umi, I am so not a nihilist. I believe totally in life. Life is the center of all meaning. That is why the end of time personally, is the only meaningful philosophical concept for us. Nothing is even close. What we do as human beings, how we live, how we treat others each day, is inherently, genetically, socially, and culturally imbedded in our biological being. The impermanence of life, finite time, knowing that at some point it all ends. That’s the only relevant event horizon with any pragmatic and philosophical meaning, not what may or may not happen billions of years from now.

Is that where all this is going? Giving more meaning to death than to life? You’re totally contradicting yourself. Life has joy, mystery, adventure, discovery, creativity, doesn’t it? Our brains, our consciousness, evolved because we have the capacity to know that there is more to life and being human than what you are saying. More to finding meaning in life than painting the side of a barn, having babies, and doing the dishes.

I’m not talking about doing the dishes.

Yes you are, Nuzzi. You’re missing what is essential in being human. Sitting at the edge of the sea and looking out and wondering what is beyond the horizon, and the next horizon. Imagining the things that we can’t see, the things only humans can imagine. That’s what being human is.

I feel like I need to choose one or the other.

Nuzzi, it’s not one or the other unless we choose to make it that way. Our brains are big enough for both philosophy and theoretical physics. But I have to say, what problem has philosophy ever solved for us? Name one. What can we learn about life from a philosopher that affects anything of meaning. Has it ever prevented or ended a war or poverty, racism, genocide, misogyny, or… ………….. stop, don’t look at me. Just walk over to the rail and let those two old people with ski poles walk by. Don’t look around, just look out at the crews practicing down there, and, like, maybe point to one and laugh out loud or something.

Umi, are you okay?

I have this weird feeling, like someone has been listening to us, and it’s not like just listening but actually writing what we are saying, like not just writing but like writing dialogue for us, like making us say what we are saying, like right this second when I am saying what I’m saying, and I don’t even know what I’m going to say next and it made me say that I don’t know… It’s like someone is writing a story I’m in and putting words in my mouth. Both of us.

That’s so totally weird. You’re not making this up, are you?

Or maybe it’s like someone with a high-tech AI content-generator app is using like a universal, multilingual, transducer, computer dialog algorithm listening to us, with like a long-distance, uni-directional tele-focus microphone using voice recognition on us to grab our voices on re-synthesis software feeding it back to us make us say this stuff? I don’t even talk like this. Have you ever heard me talk like this before? Either way, I bet they’re going to publish this in some podcast or a short story collection, totally co-opting and commodifying us without our permission, making us like not real people but just made-up words.

Or maybe he’s just writing that too, and making me say that, and isn’t it weird that there are no quote marks around anything we’re saying.

… Nuzzi…what’re you doing? Get down.

HEY, YOU, LISTEN TO ME, WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING … “so cut the crap, you creepy piece of cow caca.”

The Game

Enrique Quinones started playing tennis at the age of four. He was good. Everyone in his town said he was good. His parents gave him lessons. His mother told everyone she knew that it was Enrique’s dream that he would one day be a great player like Alex Olmedo or Pancho Segura, or Gonzales. He, of course, wanted to be good like them but he said to his mother, “Mama, it is your dream for me to be a great champion, but it is not my dream.”

And so, when he was ten and old enough to travel on an airplane by himself his mother sent him to stay with her sister in America so that he could have a great teacher and become famous.

When his aunt Bellissima brought him to the tennis schools in San Diego, they looked at him and told her to take him home because he was too old to learn to be a really great player. And so she took him to the biggest and best and most expensive schools in California and soon found the one she liked the best: the SHOQ Academy.

“What does SHOQ stand for?” she asked the director. “Swing. Hard. Or. Quit,” he told her. She thought that sounded just right, this was America after all, and she signed him up. She told Enrique good-bye, that she loved him very dearly, that she would come visit him every two weeks, and that one day he would reach his dream of being a great tennis player. “Good-bye, Tia Bellissima,” he said.

When Enrique graduated from college and turned pro, Edberg, Sampras, Chang, and Agassi were the top pros and Djokovic, and Federer, and Nadal were about his age, and he knew that he would never win a tournament they were in. But his aunt told him not to be discouraged. She sent him money and care packages and told him to remember to swing hard and not to quit. And so, he did.

He played on the pro circuit, in feeder tournaments, traveling from one city to another, staying in cheap hotels and, reading Kant and Nietzsche and Arendt, and eating takeout and Clif bars with the other players.

He kept hitting hard and not quitting and he became better and better, earning more and more ATP points, which put him higher and higher in the draws, letting him play lower ranked players in the early rounds with a better chance to make it into the quarters, semis, and possibly the finals. The promoters were making money. The sponsors were making money. The coaches and managers were making money, and he was making money. But not anything like one might dream of.

For a couple of years, during which he was playing both singles, doubles, and mixed doubles on the tour, he made enough to cover the airline and hotel costs with a little left over.

In his tenth year on the circuit, at a tournament in Palm Springs, Fiona Adler, a woman he knew at SHOQ and who had become a sports journalist when she realized her tennis career wasn’t going to happen, approached him and they started seeing one another when they were both in the same city for a tournament. They ended up spending more and more time together, nothing serious, and eventually she told him her sister had seen him play and she had a young son for whom she and her husband wanted to find a teaching pro.

“Enrique, face it,” said Fiona, “you’re good but not that good, you’ve been in this game ten years and you’re never going to make it big. Quit while you’re a name people know and have some money saved. You’re good looking. You start teaching and women from all over will want to bring their kids to you.”

“I doubt it, but okay,” he said. And so, Fiona introduced him to her sister, Ariana, and her son.

The boy was quick and confident, with near-perfect, sweet, natural strokes. He could feel the game. You could see it in the way he met the ball, not overswinging like most kids. He was loose. He hit like he was having a conversation with the ball. A natural talent. Enrique moved to Long Island took a job at a upscale tennis club and took the boy on.

Ariana brought the boy for lessons every day after school and all day on weekends, though Cal, her husband told her it was a waste. He said, “Let’s take him down to Bollettieri’s school in Florida. The hell with this loser teaching pro. What can you possibly see in that guy?

Ariana saw a lot. “He’s a good teacher and he knows what tennis academies do to a young kid. He knows that Conor is good, not enough to beat a Djokovic. But he sees him playing in college and maybe pros and loving it. Let him do that. Don’t turn Conor into a commodity you can market for your own sake. Give Enrique a year to get him into the juniors and see how he does.”

“You’re being small minded,” he told her. “Conor needs a chance to be great. He can have six months. That’s all.”

Ariana said, “Thanks. You won’t regret it.”

Enrique took Conor to the boys’ twelves and in three months he got a national ranking in the juniors. Ariana went along to all his matches. The three of them got along well. Conor liked Enrique and Enrique liked Conor. The problem was that Ariana liked Enrique a lot and Enrique liked her too. A lot. And one night after they had all said good night at a cheap hotel in Cincinnati … well, you know what happened.

So Cal, hurt beyond belief, said, “Ariana, what did you think would happen?” He sued for divorce and he took Conor, who was hurt well within belief and would not say a word to his mother, and their other son, Chris, who was too young to believe or understand anything or even to know what was going on, down to Bollettieri’s, leaving Ariana the house and all of his winter clothing.

She was heartbroken. All she had left was a home with an island in the kitchen and a gazebo in the backyard, friends who didn’t call, and the hope that Enrique would not leave her too.

He did not. He told her he loved her, and they sold the house with the island in the kitchen and the gazebo in the backyard and moved to Ecuador, where he taught tennis at a club outside of Guayaquil, not far from where he’d grown up.

Ariana cried a lot, missing her boys, sending them cards on birthdays and holidays and in three years they went to see Conor play doubles at the US Open where he lost in the third round, and they all went out together to an Asian fusion restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Flushing.

Their waiter asked everyone to smile and to lean in together. “More close, please” he said, and he took their picture with two separate iPhones and brought them two separate checks.

Pickleball? Yeah, That Sounds Like Fun or Myron’s Pickleball Altercation

So, tell me, Myron, what happened.

I got into an altercation in the park.

Did you get hurt? What kind of an altercation? What park?

The park by Brooklyn Bridge.

Did anyone get hurt? Did the police come?

No, no. Nothing.

What nothing? You look a wreck.

It got a little heated. Nobody got hurt. Millstein stepped in before anything got out of hand. Millstein’s a big guy. He stepped in.

Where did he step in, Myron. Just tell me what happened. What did you do?

I was playing doubles with Singer, and that guy Mickey something, and Rosalie.

Rosalie?

Singer’s sister-in-law, and she had to leave and so this guy comes on the court. You know, the pickleball courts by the bridge.

Yes, yes.

And so this guy I never saw before comes on and he says he’ll fill in for her and before you know it, we’re warming up doubles, and it’s not like the usual friendly game. He’s hitting smashes and boom-boom right at you. In the warm-up! And so then when we start to play, he’s telling us all where we’re supposed to stand and how to call the scores and which side we should be serving on and who goes first. And what he was saying doesn’t make any sense, it wasn’t logical at all.

Wait Myron, you have to understand, not everybody thinks like you do. Not everything has to make sense. Yes, to you it does, but not everybody. Myron, you can’t argue with some people. It’s not good for your heart. You just have to walk away. Leave it be.

I should have but I admit I was thinking I know how to play this game and who’s he to tell me? We’ve been playing all summer. Nobody said we were doing it all wrong.

And you got into an argument about some farkakteh game? Give me a break. You don’t have enough things to worry about? Now you have to worry about somebody thocking a wiffle ball at your head when you’re standing in the kitchen. Please, Myron.

It’s not that.

Then what is it?

He was serving the ball from the wrong side of the court.

And what.

So I told him and he said that I was wrong. And I told him what the rule was.

What rule?

The rule about serving from the lefthand side when your score is odd, and he tells me he’s first server and the first server serves from the right side of the court, and I tell him no and he says that’s the way it is where he plays.

And where does he play?

The Villages. In Florida.

What’s he doing playing in Brooklyn Bridge Park on a Friday morning in September?

He comes up to live with his sister in Bensonhurst for three months in the summer.

What, they don’t have air conditioning in the Villages?

I don’t know, but that’s not the point.

What is the point?

The point is that he said that he knows the rules because he plays in big tournaments and everywhere he plays they play by those rules.

What rules?

The ones about the first server. I tell him he should read the rules.

I should read the rules? he tells me, you should read the rules, he says.

Myron, listen to yourself. Calm down. Show me the rules.

Why?

Because I want to see why two grown men are arguing over something so important as a pickleball game, that’s why.

Here’s the rule book. I’ll show you.

Myron, don’t show me. Let me read the rules. Go make some tea. I’ll come in when I’m finished.

Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes pass. Myron’s tea has gotten cold. Millie comes back.

Myron, you like this game? Obviously. This game with server one and server two, but sometimes server two serves first, and alternating sides of the court, side out, side in, even, odd, a line is in, but sometimes a line is out, and what’s the score? Two-two-one? One-one-what? Who makes up a game like this. With an eighty-six page rule book, yet? You know who? People with too much time on their hands and nothing else on their minds? And they make rules so that you get into an argument with some know-it-all-from Florida yet, with a two hundred dollar uranium-coated power paddle in his hand.

Silence.

Look, Myron, I have news for you.

What.

I hate to say this, but you’re both right, I think. Both you and Mr. Florida Villages bigshot, and neither one of you is totally right. Or wrong.

What do you mean?

It’s the rules, Myron. They’re screwy. They contradict themselves. I think.

Listen to this, “Rule 4.B.2. At the start of each game, the starting server begins the serve from the side of the court dictated by the score.” Okay. Then, “Rule 4.B.6.a. At the start of each side out, service begins in the right/even serving area.” It’s starting to get confusing. And then, “Rule 4.B.6.b. When the team’s score is even, the team’s starting server’s correct position is at the right/even serving area. When the team’s score is odd, the starting server’s correct position is at the left/odd court.” That can’t be, can it?

Right. No. Yes. Right. It makes no sense. I don’t know.  

So, you can understand how someone would believe the part that doesn’t make sense to you because it’s right there in the rule book and it’s just the part that makes sense to them?

Yes. Now I do.

Listen, Myron, you go back there and if Mr. Villages is still there you tell him you’re sorry and that it’s all so confusing and no hard feelings and that he should come home with you and have a cup of tea. And, look, if he’s not there just forget about it, he’ll tell all his friends about the Brooklyn jerk he met. So what? Then next time just play with people you know and if someone new comes on the court you just say we play by the Official Brooklyn Bridge Rules, and if he has a problem with that, he should go take it to City Hall like everyone else does. On the other hand, maybe he knows what he’s talking about.

Easter Dinner at Heidi’s in SoHo

Some time ago, a college friend of Simone’s, Heidi, I recall, a tall, slender woman with near-black hair pinned back, covering just the tops of her ears, invited us to an Easter dinner at the new apartment in SoHo she bought with her partner, a man named Nathan or Natan, whose name I had forgotten and which I didn’t quite clearly hear when Heidi said it as we were coming in the door, and I was reluctant, perhaps out of simple misplaced courtesy, to ask her later to repeat it hoping she would say it again when he came into the living room, where we were seated, or perhaps, she might call his name to remind him that we had arrived, or to tell him to come in to greet us from the kitchen where he was feeding the dog.

We had not seen them since their wedding the previous spring, an affair with well over a hundred guests, at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. At that time, it was the only occasion we had been to there and we both very much enjoyed it. In particular, I recall the setting for the reception in an enclosed tent, with flickering, lambent, afternoon light shifting slowly across the white-clothed tables, as it sifted through the tall surround of oaks and maples which were especially lush that year after seven consecutive weekends of rain in the city, much to the chagrin and concern of the local business owners who depended heavily upon the foreign and domestic tourist trade, already depressed significantly by the  global financial crisis and bank bailout in 2008. It was also the year in which I had been let go from a job I’d had for over fifteen years. The weather was cool. We were seated at a table near the bar with other friends of the couple whom we did not know and with whom we exchanged pleasantries until they got up to dance, after which we never saw them again that afternoon or, in fact, ever again.

Simone said, as we got off the subway at Spring Street, “Maybe we’ll see someone from the wedding there today.”

Heidi, in a phone conversation she had with Simone the week before Easter, said that they were not traveling this year because they had recently acquired a dog, a rescue animal which Nathan, or Natan’s, sister Ailene had adopted from the Bideawee on 38th Street several months prior and for which, sadly, she was looking for a new home as she was leaving the country and could not possibly take the poor-dear dog with her to the Bordeaux University on a Fulbright scholarship, could she? No, of course not, said Natan (let’s just call him that) to her and they’d be thrilled to take care of the dog whose name was Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, though I can’t quite recall which, but I know he was named after one of the French existentialists of the mid twentieth century, who were the subject of Ailene’s doctoral dissertation.

Sartre, I think that was the dog’s name, after finishing its dinner, strained its way into the living room where Simone and I were sitting talking with Heidi. Natan was holding the dog on a very short, taut leash which he immediately let drop and let the dog rush forward toward the couch in which Heidi, Simone, and I had settled ourselves. It stopped abruptly and crouched directly in front of her, and consequently, between Simone and myself, its front paws spread wide apart, its haunches up, looking up at her with its pink-rimmed eyes and naked gums, ready, I thought, to move in any direction.

“He simply adores Heidi. He tolerates me well enough, but he loves Heidi,” Natan said.

The dog was a brindle. An American Staffordshire terrier who Heidi said was terribly affectionate. “Pit bulls are, you know,” she said, “but just saying that name gets such bad rap from most people. But you two are dog people, I think Simone said, so…”

“Simone is the dog person,” I said. “Not so much me but…”

“Oh, well,” Heidi said, “he’s just a baby,” she said, looking down at the dog and pursing her lips as you might in talking to an infant in a stroller. “He’s just getting used to us and his new surroundings, you know, trying to get the lay of the land, you know, figuring out who is the alpha person here and all…”

“… He’s adorable…,” Simone told her.

“But, I should tell you that you must not look him in the eye. He doesn’t handle that well. And so, I mean it’s no big deal, nothing horrible has ever happened, but just don’t look him in the eye. Just don’t.”

“Shouldn’t he be on the leash? I mean with one of you holding it?” I suggested.

“Well, no,” said Natan, “he’s better off leash, I mean, that’s pretty much what we’ve heard, that dogs on leashes get more aggressive. Right?”

And then he stood up. “I’ll make us up some plates and bring them in and we can eat and relax and talk in here. We kind of made a mistake by putting his food bowl by the table in the kitchen and now he doesn’t like it if anyone else eats in there.”

“They’re pretty territorial, I think,” said Simone, nodding her head, looking over at me.

Natan came back in with four dinner plates on a tray which he set down on a sideboard. Generous slices of spiral honey ham, mounded mashed sweet potatoes, and rows of roasted asparagus.

“Simone said you were vegetarians, I think, but this is Easter, right, and this ham is fabulous. Have you ever had it? Be vegetarian on Monday, right?”

He placed a plate on each of our laps and he took a seat in a softly upholstered chair opposite the couch and, just as quickly as he sat, he got up and carried his plate down the hall into their bedroom.

“He’ll be right back. He doesn’t feel comfortable eating, you know, meat, in front of the dog, but he’ll be back after he finishes,” said Heidi.

Turning first to Simone on her right and then to me close by on her left, she said, “I’m so glad to see you both. So much to talk about. Eat, eat. Before it gets cold.”

Small Plane, Blue Sky

A small plane, a prop, single engine, buzzed overhead this evening

While I was watering the garden in the heat before sunset

In this long summer drought. Smoke from the smoldering earth in the woods

Up by the quarries, drifted grey down our street in the breeze.

Another plane flew overhead once, in another September. That September with the clear blue skies

When Giuliani walked with a gas mask on, in the ash that ran down through the narrow streets.

He made himself the nation’s mayor as we rushed around him to help with the bodies.

In the evening, we walked past the black and purple Firehouse on Tenth street

And clapped our hands and some of us cried for the men and women

in their black boots who nodded back to us, and we all smelled the reek in their skin.

Soon then, on another blue day, we sat by the open window of a wine bar on Smith Street

Across the river from the copper-green statue holding a torch in the distance.

I drank a glass of Barolo, and she had a Chardonnay and the first three fighter jets flew lightning low

In close formation over the city. Why now, I thought, while we could still feel the greasy residue on our arms and in our noses and we thought about the incinerated bodies.

The Barolo was dry. And the next day I took the subway to work under the river with the copper-green statue to a tall building on 34th street near the post office and saw the troops,

Standing in twos and threes, in Penn station with their eyes fixed and their guns they held tight, muzzles pointed to the floor, fingers looped around triggers, and I looked away. We all did. Heads down, in the press of settling dread, afraid to look up.

Considering Salvation at the Corner of Ninth and Seventh

Eric Winsome was stuck. At a veritable standstill. Physically, stopped in traffic behind a late model blue Toyota Camry on 7th Avenue at the corner of 9th Street, and existentially, locked in a self-imposed worry-worn straitjacket of self-absorbed spiritual stagnation.

The light at the corner was green but a crammed B67 bus, lights flashing, kneeled, angling into the intersection in front of Smiling Pizza, picking up a line of passengers: Men in work boots with lunch buckets, women with shopping carts, drooling infants, juuling teenagers, and homeless souls with sacks of clattering bottles and cans bound for redemption.

Louise Little, the driver in the Toyota, her NicoDerm patch running on empty, held a cigarette in her taut quivering lips and a Zippo in her right fist tapping on the steering wheel to the Deep Purple Smoke on the Water guitar riff, which she had not gotten out of her head since she woke up this morning. In nine seconds, tops, she would either light up the god-damn Newport or run the yellow light the instant the lousy bus gave her a chance.

Eric’s fog-like crisis of faith was, simply, his unwavering acceptance of the Calvinist sublapsarian belief in predestination and in the decree made by God before the Fall that he would choose from among the living, those to be saved, and those not. Eric was thirty-four and he could not know within which group he’d be counted. How could anyone know? he thought. Worry and doubt consumed his every waking moment. Not the least of his worries, though, was whether Wendy, the woman he loved, and to whom he had plighted his troth just shy of seven years ago, would be in the same state of candidacy for eternal salvation as he hoped he was. He had his reasonable doubts.

“Seven years,” she had told him, “is one hell of a long time for a woman to wait for you to make a decision. I can’t wait for ever. My mother keeps asking me, will he, or won’t he?” Just this morning, waiting to brush her teeth in his apartment while he took his time in the bathroom she said, “Eric, shit or get off the pot, I have to get to work, goddamnit.”

On the corner opposite Louise and Eric, stood Lois and Irv Rothstein, an elderly couple waiting for the light to change so they could cross the avenue and make their bus for the early-bird special at Juniors on Flatbush. Though they were resigned to the possibility of missing it, they retained the hope that, God-willing, the light would change before the bus righted itself and they could flag down the driver and make it across the street before it left the corner.

Irv watched the light. Louise watched the light. Lois watched the light. Eric watched the photo of Wendy he kept on taped to the dashboard in front of him, The B67 began its slow rise. The light changed. Louise lit her Newport. Irv and Lois began their walk across the avenue, waving and calling to the driver.

As she walked, Lois’s upper body swayed slightly from side to side. It was the thickening, stiffening, of the arthritis in her hips.

Her shoulders rocked first one way and then the other. It slowed her down, and Irv, a spare man, a few inches shorter than his wife, held tightly to the sleeve of her jacket, trying to keep her moving and on an even keel. He held on to the brim of his hat with his other hand.

The walk sign flashed, nearing the end of its orange digital countdown. 14…13… 12…

“Hold your horses,” said Lois to the young woman talking on her cellphone in the car behind the bus, her grim lips holding a cigarette in the driver’s side window, but it was only loud enough for Irv to hear.

“Come along, dear,” he said to her, with concern and considerable affection.

As the countdown reached three, they had made it safely to the opposite curb and then at the precise moment that the zero flashed, Lois turned to Irv, “I dropped my glove,” she said, and she lurched stiffly up onto the curb. Irv looked back.

The glove, in a shade of green that matched her jacket, which she had been holding in her free hand, and which Irv had bought for her on sale at the Conways in Manhattan for her birthday, lay half-way across the roadway. Irv let go of her arm, stepped back into the street, holding his hand up to the path of the traffic. Lois teetered.

Louise hit the gas at the green light and, when she saw the man, only a few feet or so from his outstretched arm, she slammed on the brake pedal and twisted the steering wheel to the right to avoid hitting him.

At that moment a car horn from behind Eric blew, startling him. He stepped on the gas, rear-ending Louise’s Toyota, inflating both of their airbags and pushing her car up onto the sidewalk hitting Lois squarely in her stiff hips and crushing her against the back of the B67.

Irv’s heart exploded with the impact of grief, and he fell to the pavement.

Louise was later saved by the ‘jaws of life.’

And Eric? He sustained, with vertebrae-cracking suddenness, multiple spinal cord ruptures causing his surgical team to place him in a medically induced coma until they would be able to assess the best course of action, if any existed, leaving him with only a 50-50 chance of survival and plenty of time to ruminate, in his solitude, on his chances of salvation.

Small Potatoes

Moses Singletary was scheduled to be the first “public comment” speaker at the Thursday evening Board meeting but, given trouble he had in starting his car, he was late, and so Marvin Swallows and Bertie McGinty went ahead and had their turn making their comments to the board.

Their comments, as was the procedure normally followed at board meetings, would be taken up at a future meeting, though by experience, no date would be set for that and, given the way the board worked, it was possible, and even likely, that they would never reach a decision about when they might get to scheduling a discussion, let alone actually taking up the issue in a future public meeting, by which time their comments would be buried among the “Old Business” issues on the agenda, which required the re-initiation of the chair and agreement of at least two of the other four members, for discussion, and so they had not gotten to any issues like these in the seventeen years I had been attending board meetings.

The board was officially called the Board of Selectmen but most of us, and nearly all the women in town, either called it Board of Selectpersons or the Select Board or more often, The Board of Incredibles, though not to their faces nor in our letters to the editor of the local paper.

The newly elected board chair, Brett Bogart, was the owner of a successful local business, Small Potatoes, located in the center of town, with, admittedly, the best fresh homemade French fries on the planet. Hands down, the best, served in neat European-style folded paper cones, with a variety of seasonings, all available at no extra charge. The shop was a fixture in the community and his family was one of some sway and influence.

The other four members were considerably older and pretty much set to retire when their terms ended. They got elected and re-elected time after time for reasons most of us couldn’t fathom, other than the fact that they were the least odious of those running, and we came to regret doing so almost immediately. Understandably, they had been content to be carried along with Brett’s campaign slogan and his approach to governance, “Our business is the business of the town,” though none of them could precisely articulate the meaning of the slogan, but most of us knew it meant something like, “Keep the status quo, support and protect, at all costs, the interests of the businesses in town and beware of outsiders or do-gooders who will bring ruin to what we have and which we cherish now.”

When Marvin Swallows began speaking, he raised, once again, his concern about the bell tower in the town square. “Anyone can see,” he said, “that it’s too near the sea wall and it’s cracking, eroding from below, on land that’s sinking each year in some places and rising in others, and soon, maybe in the next nor’easter it will fall, taking our houses with it and none of us can get flood insurance and we have to apply for federal assistance now to make the structural changes, and we can’t afford to just study it for another three years, because our homes are all we have and none of us are your town millionaires. So I make a motion that the Board…”

“… I’m sorry, Mr. Swallows, that’s out of order. This is the public comment period, you can’t make motions at this time, next, Ms. McGinty… next,” Chair Bogart said.

“Can’t you let Marvin finish,” said Ms. McGinty, “I’ll give my time over to him.”

“Sorry, no can do, Bertie. You’re out of order, too. That’s not the way we work. Next… Mr. Singletary.”

Bertie looked over to where the other board members were sitting. They looked away.

Moses looked surprised. He seemed to be trying to get his thoughts in order. He seemed to have forgotten his introductory remarks, he was reordering his notes and when he did so and rose to speak, we could all see his hands shaking. His voice was tremulous.  

He cleared his throat. Swallowed forcefully. “Chair Bogarts,” he said. “I’m not going to ask to give my time over to Marvin there so don’t cut me off, thank you. I have a petition here signed by forty-seven certified residents of the town, many of them right here tonight with a request for the Board to put the issue of the policy of the Board appointing or removing members of town committees, boards, and commissions, up for a vote on the next meeting agenda. You know I used to be a door-to-door salesman, salesperson, I mean, and so I know people pretty well and people know me, and I know the town pretty well and…”

“It’s Bogart, no “s” Mr. Singletary, and time is short. Please get to the point of the petition you have there.”

“I will Mr. Chair, but I have the floor, and this is the public comment period, and I am speaking for the public.  So please don’t interrupt me again until I relinquish the floor, as you so willy-nilly do to others. I will read the policy proposal, but I will say first and foremost, that this policy and every policy you may make is less of a concern to us than the board’s total lack of consistency with which policies are implemented. The board has an appalling record, for all to see, of following or not following policies and applying policies arbitrarily or retroactively to suit the board’s whims and preferences. And let me remind you that the board is elected by the people to do the administrative work the people have assigned to it and nothing more.”

“You are out of order!”

“No, you are out of order. Like it or not it, this is a public comment period, whether or not you like what the comments are or who is making them. However, in the interest of time, I’ll give the petition to the clerk for the record.  But before I do, I want you to know that we all see what’s going on here. Whether it’s affordable housing, or the water regulations, or COVID mandates, or zoning, or the climate committee work, things we all care about, your wishes or your will are not our command anymore.

“Moses, you’re not delivering the freaking ten commandments here. Get to your point, if there is one.”

“You want the point? Here it is. If you remember your history, Alexis de Tocqueville visited us in the 1830’s and wrote a book on what he saw. It was called Democracy in America in which he praised our form of Town Meeting democracy…

“Mr. Singletary you’re…”

“This is not a question-and-answer period, Mr. Bogart, it is for public comment, and I will continue my public comment…”

At that point there was, for the first time all evening, a round of applause from those in attendance. “You tell him, Moses!” they cheered, and they clapped louder, and Bogart called for quiet, and Moses kept on speaking and it was hard to hear what he was saying so he raised his voice and he said,

“… but de Tocqueville soon came to realize that democratically elected officials, like yourselves, when unchecked, would hold too tightly to their power and authority and democracy would be undermined and he said, and I quote, ‘I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all,’ I hope we can all prove him wrong. Thank you for your attention and with that I yield the floor.”

There was a long moment of silence. Looks among the members of the board were exchanged.

And then, in the silence that remained, forty-two of the fifty-three members of the public in attendance for the comment period picked up their things and made their way out the door.

They gathered in the parking lot, in the fading mid-summer light. They looked at one another. And one could tell that warm sense of hope that they had felt when they left the building was, all too quickly, evaporating into the cool night air.

Notes on the Celebration in Honor of The Essayist on his Ninetieth Birthday

The celebration in honor of a well-known essayist’s ninetieth birthday was held on the Saturday following his birthdate. A Saturday amidst the blistering heat of a northeastern July, an uptick in Covid-19 infections, fires in the west and in Europe, reports of a monkeypox outbreak among gay men, and news of the Pope’s visit to Canada to apologize for the church’s treatment of indigenous children.

Lily, the essayist’s wife, planned the celebration, addressed, stamped, and mailed the invitations, using names she gathered from the essayists address book.

Full vaccination required. No gifts. Regrets only. The invitation said and was signed simply in a firm hand, Lily.

At four, the room had filled with guests. The invitation had said, ‘four ‘til seven.’ Anyone who knew the essayist for any length of time had surely known that he was punctual and expected punctuality. He always made his expectations clear. He was a Marine.

He often told me, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” I took him figuratively though he meant it quite literally. “How does that work?” I’d ask him. “It just does,” he’d say.

No one spoke about the heat, or the pandemic, or the hearings on television, wearing masks, abortion, inflation, gasoline prices, Ukraine, or the media. All of that, they knew, was the essayists bailiwick. They found other things to talk about.

Prosecco in stemware and small hors d’oeuvres were passed on silver trays by young men and women wearing collared white shirts and black pants. The music from the speakers in the dining area set aside for the gathering was loud and conversation became difficult. Names were hard to hear.

“Guernsey?” I repeated, not really believing that could be the woman’s last name.

“No, it’s Gert Seavey,” she said.

I nodded.

I sat in a seat beside Lily. The essayist sat next to her at the head of the table. His three sons were there, sitting at another table. He looked over at them often.

After the dinner plates were removed, Lily stood and nodded to her three boys. The first one, the oldest, the one who had come in late, was the first to stand and speak.

““I just flew in from Paris, and the plane was late.”

“We all can see that,” said his father.

“I’m happy to be here, Dad,” said his son. “I have only one word to say to all of you that epitomizes my father best. Forgiveness.” Then he sat down. There was applause.

“Thank you,” said his father, so softly that only those of us closest to him could hear.

The second son spoke anecdotally, and then the essayist’s granddaughter raised her hand. “I love you, Boppa,” she said, “you are the smartest, funniest, and greatest man ever in the world.”

Her grandfather bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said to her.

Lily looked to the third son. He shook his head and didn’t get up, and so she walked to the end of the room, where it was the quietest. She asked the waiter to stop pouring wine.

She stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, and, because the curtains had not been drawn, she appeared briefly in silhouette surrounded in a halo of white light and seemed like a dark apparition in a dream or an afterimage following the sudden appearance of the Madonna.

She asked for quiet in a voice as soft as a dove and she turned to her husband, whose smile we all could see. From a pocket in her light-colored flowered dress, she read from notes she had written. She recounted how they had met and all of her husband’s many accomplishments in life and then she asked the essayist to come forward, and she kissed him on the cheek as they passed and returned to her seat at the table.

“That’s my first wife,” he said. “I always say that.”

The room quieted.

“You all know I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded.”

“Nooohhh, Dad,” his sons said in unison.

“Please put your phones down and pay attention,” he said to us all.

He spoke without notes.

“There’s a line from Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, with an “E”, it goes something like ‘we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire–a brain, a heart, a spirit.’”

“I dreamt last night that there are two paths forward for humans on earth. This earth, where we were born, where we live, and where we will die. The two paths are not mutually exclusive. And neither path is one that does our species credit.

“The vast majority of us are on a path we have no control over. Nine-nine percent of us, are on a path headed back in time to life at its most basic. Sweating in toil, planting the crops that will grow in the narrowing bit of land suitable for them, hunting what animals survive, and gathering the little water we need to live.

“Our disregard for water will be our undoing. Drought and flood and fires have already begun. You see it all around you. While corporations and governments husband our most essential natural resource for whatever profit they can make and power they can wield. We are watching the demise of most of what is human existence. We have set a rapidly degenerative system in motion by our lack of regard for the needs of society. One another. We have lost our social conscience.

“We had long survived as a species because we evolved as social animals. We need one another. But what we have done in the last two hundred years, as a result of our self-centered greed and avarice and our disregard for one another, has set us on a downward spiral which will consume us. Through starvation, drowning, unbearable temperature extremes, and the wars that will erupt and eliminate the rest of us, along with almost every other living species.

“We have brought this upon ourselves because we have not paid attention. We saw what was happening and we said that was somebody else’s problem and we kept on making plastic and burning oil and coal. How brutally ironic is it, is it not, that the lives of past plants and animals that inhabited this earth for millions of years before us, their very carbon souls, are what we are burning, and which will bury us and crush us under intense heat and unimaginable pressure back into carbon chains again, and that is all that will be left of us.

“It did not have to be this way. We have willfully disregarded the wisdom of the past generations who lived in concert with the land and the water and who were swept away by our greed and our guns and the rape of our natural resources. We laughed at their ignorant simplicity. Their traditions. We failed to learn from them and their respect for the mysterious power of nature.

“On the second, more narrow path, some few will survive. They will be the ones who had the privilege and resources unavailable to the rest. They may survive in small enclaves into a temporary future, perhaps using advanced AI computing and multidimensional printers to engineer some semblance of artificial nutrition and a livable environment.

But, surely, around them both, the earth and nature will heal itself, perhaps creating a natural re-arrangement of our DNA with the DNA and RNA from which we all came, and life on earth will go on. The Anthropocene epoch will end and surely, with it, other species will fill the gap.

“As Wolfe once said, you can’t go home again, and we cannot. Not when you have burned your home to embers and released the fumes into the atmosphere to smother you.

“So, pay attention. Love your family. Love one another. Love the life you have while you have it. Heal the earth in any way you can. Return to the simple life on the earth that created us in any way you can. Honor it. Eschew the false and artificial and disingenuous.

“That’s all there is and that’s all I have to say. Thank you for coming.”

And then the cake was plated and served. Coffee was poured. The essayist sat beside his wife and drank a glass of milk and then we said our goodbyes and went to our cars and drove back to our homes.

The First Fruit Fly of July

“Will,” she says to him, “I see your July sadness taking hold.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Lin,” he says.

Will is standing by the lone window in the kitchen. One of the windows they’ve decided to have replaced. All of the windows need replacing. The cold air comes through them in the winter, and the heat in summer. The humidity in any season finds its way in. He is almost as old as the house is. He feels like his own heat is escaping. A coldness seeping in.

Linda is standing beside him.

“Do you remember that small two-bedroom we lived in, next to the big Congregational church in Brooklyn on Carroll Street that one winter?” he asks her.

“Of course. With the broken tile in the bathroom and the kitchen faucets that dripped, and wood floors that buckled and sloped toward the center, and how my mother came to stay with us to help with the twins.”

“And the windows that were cracked and broken and let the snow in?”

“And all five of us slept in the same bedroom at night to keep warm? Is it the windows that you’re worried about?”

“A little. I don’t know how we can pay for them. But, no, it’s not the windows. Not really.”

“Then what?”

“Everything.”

“Everything as in everything? Me everything?”

“Not you, Lin. The world. The country. So much is going on. All at once. I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. But you haven’t shaved since Friday. You’re looking forlorn. Lost, in lonely the way you get. I knew this was coming.”

“You’re acting as if it’s my problem, all of my own doing.”

“It is, though, isn’t it?”

“How can you say that.? Roe v Wade, the EPA, open carry, the separation of…”

“I know. I know. The world is too much with you. You need to take some of it off of your shoulders.”

“Us. Isn’t it ‘too much with us’?”

“Yes, us, you’re right. But I mean you and me. Not everyone worries like you.”

“My sister.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

“Yes, your sister does. And Wordsworth did.”

“And Sinclair Lewis.”

“Yes, Sinclair Lewis.”

“And you, too,” he tells her.

“Yes, me too. But I am more concerned about you, Will. When I see you get like this, I know what’s coming. It’s like when I see the first fruit fly in July. It comes in the door or hidden in a bunch of grapes, and then they’re all over everything. The bananas, the peaches, the lemons. And when, I see that the look in your eyes, the far away, sad, searching look, as is if you alone need to figure it all out, or the world will crash, I know what’s coming. You start to lose patience with people. What they say. How they say it. Question their meaning. Not always. Only when you get this way.”

“What do I or we do?”

“About which, she asked.”

“The fruit flies. Me.”

“The same for both. Clean up. Scrutinize and wash everything that comes in the house, put the bruised fruit in the refrigerator, eat or compost the rest. Maybe even buy only what you can use or read in a day. And, absolutely, stop reading It Can’t Happen Here. Now. Today.”

“But, I’m almost finished. I have only eighty-three pages to go.”

“No more pages. Fini. You don’t have to finish it. Listen, either he liberates everyone from the concentration camps and prisons and saves his family and the whole country in the end, or he doesn’t. Right?”

“I just want to see how it turns out.”

“How it turns out? Will, does that matter? It’s a book. It’s not your horoscope. Look at me. The ‘It’ in the book is happening right here. Right now, today. I see it. You see it. I know that. You know that. Anyone paying even the slightest sliver of attention knows it. But you seem to feed on it. Or it feeds on you. You read about it, talk about it, write about it, resent others for not talking about it. You drink it in. You can’t get enough of it. You need to stop.”

“I know, but it is all so horrible, so planned, so evil, so depressing.”

“Go get the book, Will. The book and the country are two different things. Similar, yes. But one you have some control over and the other, you don’t.”

He retrieves the book from his bedside table.

“Give it to me. I’ll put it in the refrigerator for you. It will be safe in there, and here, read this one.”

“The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing?”

“Yes. You’ll love it. You’ll laugh for a change. You’ll smile. You’ll nod your head. You’ll give yourself a break from the angst. Wordsworth is gone. Sinclair Lewis is gone. Rousseau is gone. Huxley and Orwell. Gone. We are here. Right now, and we will endure. I know others will not, and that saddens me. But we will endure.”

“Endure?”

Yes, is that not what we are together for? To be together here and now? To share the load? We need to have the windows replaced because we are too cold in the winter and spend too much to heat the house… we can’t expand the supreme court, or eliminate the filibuster, or save the eel grass and the Amazon rainforests all by ourselves. We can only do those things if we feel empowered, not downtrodden, defeated. Let’s give ourselves a break before we both feel like a broken, leaky, window letting in the heat and fruit flies. Can you do that with me?”

Interlopers

It is the end of December. Snow is at the curbs and on the sidewalks. It is cold. Mike Zwilling is sweating. He has loaded eleven cardboard cartons filled with dishes, silverware, books, scarfs, mittens, two computers, chargers, notebooks, pens, shirts, pants, earmuffs, overcoats, his bicycle, and snowshoes, into a rented E-Z-load U-Haul rollup rear-door van, double-parked on Thirteenth street, just below the park. Prospect Park. Park Slope. Brooklyn.

Thirteenth is a narrow, one-way street heading west, straight downhill toward the harbor. Toward the Statue of Liberty. New Jersey. Mike, too, is determined to head west. That’s the plan.

“Mike?” Angela, his wife of thirty-five years, wrapped tightly in a wool coat, arms across her chest, asks. “What, you think they don’t have pots and pans in Wyoming? Believe me, they do. Maybe even Cuisinarts. You don’t have to pack everything you own. This isn’t a Wagon Train episode. They might even have water, buckwheat, and flannel shirts. Carhartt’s.”

The Mike Zwilling is the fourth person from his block to leave the Slope for Laramie. The thirty-fourth if you count along Thirteenth, from Prospect Park West down to the Gowanus Canal.

He had told her, back in the spring, well over a year ago. “Get ready, Angie, if we lose the house in the mid-terms in 2022, we’re selling. We’re moving. We’re going to Wyoming.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The world is changing, Angie. The country is falling apart. It’s time we stop complaining and do something. Someone has to do something.  Guns. Climate. War. Abortion. Vaccines. The filibuster. Gerrymandering. Crypto. The Court. The country is splitting apart under us like we’re all standing spread-legged with one foot on either side of the San Andreas fault, looking around like we’re next on line at the bakery.”

“So? So that means we have to move?”

“So, we just have to stop talking about everything like it’s a Netflix mini-series. As if, ‘things are going to shit and so let’s just call it the new normal.’ We’ve got to take it seriously.”

“I am serious, but how does that have anything to do with Wyoming? Where’d you get that idea?

“Melanson.”

“Melanson?”

“I was talking to him. He figured it out. If we lose the House, that’s bad, but then we absolutely can’t lose the senate. If we do, it’s all over.”

“And… Wyoming?”

“Wyoming is the key, Angie. It’s simple math. Listen, Ange, do you know which is the least populated and, coincidently, the most solidly red state in the nation?

“Let me guess… Wyoming.”

“Right. Wyoming!” And, Angie, do you know how many people live in Brooklyn? I’ll tell you. Two-point-five-seven-seven million.”

“And, let me guess, Wyoming has…?”

“Bingo. Wyoming has precisely five hundred seventy-eight thousand, eight hundred and three. Total. The whole entire state. And seventy percent voted for Trump. That’s four hundred and six thousand, seven hundred and fifty-two and he won the state. And, how many senators does Wyoming have? And how many does New York have?”

“Two. I get it, Mike, two. The same.”

“So, Melanson says, New York doesn’t need us to vote. Park Slope definitely doesn’t need us. And Massachusetts. California. Vermont, Illinois, or New Jersey. They’re all in good shape. And so, if we can just get eighty-seven thousand people to move from Brooklyn to Laramie, we can flip the state. Eighty-seven thousand and we flip the whole state and we’re up two senators and they’re down two. Angie, we can be the one flapping seagull whose wings divert the tornado, the leaf falling from a tree in the forest that troubles the distant star. We can do that. It makes the greatest sense.”

“No, Mike. It may make sense to you and Melanson, but not to me. It may make sense to someone who maybe wants to see what life in Wyoming is like. But that’s not me. I can’t do that. I can’t leave here. My work. Our friends. Our apartment. This is our home. Our city. We’re here and not in Laramie for a reason. A lot of good reasons.”

“You can, Angie. Please. Think about it. We rent the apartment for few years. You can work anywhere. Write. Do your translations. Whatever. Anywhere. Work is portable now.”

“You know that’s not true. I can’t do my work just anywhere. I need people. Vibrancy. Face-to-face with the soul of a live, changing, self-critical, city. The dogs and babies in the park. The baby bok choy in market. The steam on the windows of Essa Bagel. Real pizza. The commotion. The variety. Excess. Access. The thread of a song someone is humming in the bank. All of that. No. I can’t go. I won’t go. I can’t live any place else.”

“Come. Please. You can’t know what your one part will play. The change we might make for everyone, everywhere. Maybe even ourselves.”

That was Mike then. In early spring. 2021.

In mid-November they talked again. Prices were rising. Ukraine was lost. Congress had been lost too. Despite any of the hope that had survived the primaries.

People were indeed leaving. Inflation. Selling their homes to developers. Getting priced out of anything they might have afforded a year before. Gentrification, like flowers in a desert after a rain, was blooming in every neighborhood.

“We have work to do in Brooklyn,” she told Mike. “Brooklyn politics, all politics, always flows with the money. If you leave, the big money flows in, and we get washed away. They own the politics and make the policies. There’s real and honest work we need to do here. On our very own street. I’m staying. We need to organize right here,” she told him.

Mike is sweating and shivering. The boxes are in the truck. Limo drivers are squeezing by, giving him the finger, honking, trying to get by without scraping their cars against the U-Haul.

And there stands Mike. Keys in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

“You two new riders of the purple sage head on west and write me when you get there,” she tells him.

She kisses him goodbye.

The engine clicks on.

“Wait, Mike, wait. One more thing. We don’t live here by accident. We didn’t choose to live in Wyoming or anywhere else.”

“Angie.”

She climbs up on the running board of the van. Her shoes are soaked through. She grabs onto his arm and the wide mirror.

“This scheme of yours is totally dishonest. It’s false and illegitimate. A manipulation you’d be enraged at if someone did it to you. Just like what’s happening here to us. You’d be nothing more than rustlers there. And someone is going to get hurt. My god, all I can think of is Matthew Shepard. What do you think they’ll do when they get wind of what you’re up to? Let Melanson and his kid go if they want to. Get out.”

She tugs on his arm.

“Unload the truck. Please. I don’t want you to go. I can’t let you go.”

When We Were Mallards

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

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

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

Sounds good, I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk in the Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While You Were Playing Wordle this Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds on a Wire

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the last one.”

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

“Do you want it or not?”

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

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

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

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

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

Victor enjoyed the casual familiarity of the simple gesture. 

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

One morning last spring, Victor brought his coffee out to the bench and squeezed in beside Benjamin’s briefcase.

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

“Oh, hello,” Benjamin had said. “I’m sorry. I was just distracted. I didn’t mean to seem to ignore you.” He moved his briefcase onto his lap.

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

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

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

“I’m a medical writer.”

“A doctor?”

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

“So, you’re not really a doctor.”

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

“I’m a film editor,” said Benjamin.

“That sounds like such a great job.”

“That’s what everybody says.”

“What do you mean?”

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

“Where do you work?”

“At home. All my equipment‘s there.”

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

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

“Yes. I can see that.”

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

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

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

“Yes…”

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

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

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

“Yes, but not often enough.”

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

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

She took the bag and left the shop.

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

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

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

“Today’s my last day,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

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

“How do you know that?”

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

“Shit,” said Benjamin. “I’m sorry.” 

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

“Neither have I.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do. I think I’ll just sit here for a while. I don’t want to go there. To go through that charade, playing surprised and hurt and angry. They’ve seen that show plenty. I’m not playing. I’m done. I’m too old for that.”

The train rumbled under their feet. It squealed to a stop and then started up again running toward the city.

Victor lifted the cup to his lips, breathed in deeply, and took a small slow sip.

Benjamin looked at him and then looked away, out toward the traffic on the avenue.

Breaking the Judy Blues Eyes Rule

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

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

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

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

I’m not really sure how it goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was not in the room when she died.

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

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

So, instead, they got married.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She died that afternoon while he was out walking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not dreaming

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

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.