Emerson’s Unexamined Life

The chances are good that there was once a time in your life, as there once was for young Emerson Pickering, in which philosophy held a deeply personal, transactional, and purely experiential meaning. A visceral, intuitive, and non-verbal understanding of the essential contours of human existence. A time when freedom and existence were conjoined.

Think back to a time before MasterClass.com. Before adult ed sessions in the middle school library. A time before you checked out books from the self-help remedial-reading section of the library. Before reading Kant, or Buber, Nietzsche, Jordan B. Peterson, or scrolling down Shit You Should Care About on Instagram.

As Pickering knew then, as we all knew back then during that time in our lives before having been thrust into the onrushing stream, that all that one could possibly need to know about life you already knew without knowing you knew it. That existence and happiness were simply one and the same.

A child of the late post-war baby boom. Emerson, most likely just like you, led an unquestioning, unexamined, and untroubled life. This was when Emerson Pickering was four going on five. After which, if you’ll remember clearly, and if you are being brutally honest with yourself, things started to turn sharply toward the south end of the curve.

Had he been able to read philosophy then, he would likely have disagreed with Socrates. Unlike Socrates, Emerson would have said then that the unexamined life is absolutely the best life. What was Plato thinking? Emerson was a pragmatic existentialist. Obviously, Plato and the others had lived very different lives from Emerson’s. If they knew something he didn’t know he would not have wanted to know it.

Surely, in his defense, Plato would have said, “Ah, yes, Emerson, wait, wait. You’re young. Wait.”

Until the age of four, Emerson was an only child. He had, with little exception, no worries. His mother was warm. He loved cream of wheat cereal in the morning. The sun in the afternoon. The stars at night. Crayolas. Chicken soup. Sleeveless sweaters. Sweaters with sleeves. Hats with earlaps. Snow. The way raindrops ran in crooked paths down the outside of a windowpane.

His thinking then was random. Responsive. Immediate. Free. Drawn to what was in front of him. Unguarded, Without artifice or intentionality. Without motive. Without restraint. Without questioning.

What was there to question? If a pencil lead broke, his mother would sharpen it. He didn’t wonder why pencil leads sometimes broke.  He knew. He’d pushed too hard on the point.

His concern never ventured beyond that. He was unconcerned with where pencils came from, or was the lead really made of lead or something else? Or, what, in fact, was lead? Where do you get lead, anyway? Why can’t you eat it? How much does it cost? Was buying stock in lead a good long-term investment? Or why were the good pencils always yellow? Who painted them? What makes a good pencil? What makes a pencil bad? Does using a pencil make you a good person? Can good people make bad pencils? Can bad people make good pencils?

And, as for chicken soup, he didn’t wonder where it came from before it was in the bowl in front of him. The concepts of provenance and “before” never entered his mind. And he had learned to be flexible. If one day the bowl contained no chicken soup, he might have had reason to consider where chicken soup came from, but fortunately for him, that never happened because on those days the bowl would have tomato soup in it.

There were other things that went unquestioned.

His grandmother had soft cushiony arms and white hair. She made fried bread on the stove.

His father left the house in the morning and read the New York Post and smoked a pipe when he came back home. His hair smelled sweet like maple syrup and tobacco.

He had a bed in his own room with a window, a dresser, a lamp, and a closet he could sit in.

Life was like being on a sailboat on a wide, calm lake in Maine in July with no black flies while someone else minded the sails. Though, admittedly, he had never been on a sailboat or any kind of boat on any kind of water. And he had never been to Maine or even knew what Maine was. He didn’t actually know anything about sailboats, lakes, or black flies. So, there was nothing to consider. Nothing to want. He simply spent each day quietly floating along.

When he was four, actually four and three-quarters, in September, which was one of his favorite months, because the leaves on the trees would turn bright colors, and you could smell them in the air and crunch them with your shoes, and the light in the afternoon would seem more orange than yellow and it would make your skin feel smooth, his mother went into the city for a weekend and he didn’t go along.

Socrates, if he might have been watching, might have said, “Ah, yes, Emerson, could this be a sign of uncharted waters ahead?”

And then, while his mother was away, he saw that his grandmother, who he was staying with, seemed to be busier in the kitchen. And she talked on the phone a lot, and he watched as she washed and folded piles of clothes that he used to wear when he was little, and then she put them with the old plastic rattles he had used and teething rings and the small square washcloths with images of ducks on them, in boxes tied up with pale yellow ribbons and arranged them on the table in the hall. And she asked him, no, told him, not to touch them before his mother came back from being away.

Where were his washcloths going?

The comfortable contours of life had begun to change.

Would his pencil be next to go? Would he need to ask for another one? If he asked, would he get it? Should he try to get two and hide one away? And, would it stop with pencils? Would his chicken soup be next?

Would he need to go out each day, like his father did, and find his own pencils and chicken soup? Would there be enough? Would he have to share them? If he didn’t share his pencils and soup with whoever was getting his washcloths, what would happen then? What would happen to him? What was happening to him? Was it something he said?

With All Due Respects

Myrtle Molloy arrived the Riverside Memorial Chapel in Mount Vernon. She’d taken the bus up from Washington Heights. She was careful to be on time and to be dressed appropriately.

The chapel rests beside an overpass above the Cross County Parkway. The ample parking lot had only a few cars. Likely as not, she figured, the others had taken the bus as she had.

Not so. The funeral service for the late Sol Nussbaum was meagerly attended. There were no flowers. No organ music. No candles. No golden light streaming in through high stained-glass windows. Jews, she thought, just don’t know how to do funerals. Maybe a few candles would help.

She took a seat in the back row. Up front, the rabbi was speaking with Nussbaum’s two sons. His fingers were laced across chest. She thought he looked like an expectant sparrow waiting for a few crumbs. He nodded and the two men sat down beside their respective spouses at either end of one of the front pews. Winter coats filled the space between them.

A smattering of others, none of whom had she ever seen before, sat further back, along with the four pall bearers, and the Memingers, Nussbaum’s neighbors from across the hall. Mrs. Molloy took a tissue from her purse and began dabbing at the corners of her eyes.

Some of the others leaned toward one another, whispering, no doubt, about what little was known about the man’s passing. All speculations, however, because Myrtle had told none of them about how she’d found the man.  

Sol had lived alone. Since his wife died.

Needles and syringes he’d boiled and used to inject his wife with insulin littered their bedroom dresser. Pills, ointments, bandages, alcohol swabs. Blood-spotted bits of gauze still lay on the floor beside their bed. What a mess, she thought. How could the man live with all of that around him and not clean it up?

They’d removed the wife’s leg below the knee. He visited her three times a week. Taking the bus up the west side to Mother Cabrini Hospital. Sol said that he sat by the window watching the boats on the river, holding Dora’s hand, and listening to her breathe.

Mrs. Molloy felt sure that Dora’s ghost lived in the apartment because her belongings were still hanging in the closet and folded at the foot of the bed.

In their wedding picture, Dora was a young, slender girl with a rounded face, a narrow, pinched nose, and a thin smile. Sol said she was born in Vienna. She spoke little English. She never talked to Myrtle. She was probably a socialist, Myrtle thought. They owned the tailor shop on the ground floor of the building. Dora mended suits and dresses in the front window facing Broadway, sitting at her Singer, behind rows of colored bobbins.

When Dora’s eyesight failed, Sol hired a neighborhood girl who stole from the till, and he let her go. Myrtle had told Sol not to hire the girl because she was a Catholic and not one of them could be trusted.

When someone scrawled Jew across the front of the shop door, Sol found a buyer who paid him in cash, which he kept in an envelope at the bottom of the salt tub beside the stove, but no one was supposed to know about it and Myrtle never let on she knew it was there.

The Nussbaums never went out. Never caused a problem. They were quiet. They had two sons who grew up, joined the army, found women, and moved away. That was it.

They never owned a car. He walked to the markets and the park. He had no one he would call a friend. He kept cottage cheese, scallions, sour cream, rye bread, pickled herring, and celery in the refrigerator. Otherwise, she knew his cupboards were mostly bare. He drank tea from a glass and read the Herald Tribune in the afternoon. As far as she knew, he owed not a penny to another soul and paid his rent on time.

He was hard of hearing and listened to the ballgames with the Tribune on his lap, and always had a lit Herbert Tareyton filter-tip hanging moist from his lips.

After Dora died, he spent a short time at his older son’s home. He said they talked about him at night. The wife didn’t like his smoking or how loud he played the TV, how he left his dishes in the sink, and how she said he roamed the house at night. His son never defended him. And then Sol asked to be taken back home.

It was Mrs. Molloy who found him. She lived downstairs. She had the key because she worked for the landlord and collected the rent each month.

When the last month’s rent was five days late, she knocked on the old man’s door and when no one answered she opened it. She had to hold her apron to her face against the odor. It was the worst odor she ever smelled.

She saw the poor man’s remains in the tub. The body was claimed by the younger son who lived in a high-rise condo in Tampa.

None of the relatives could bring themselves to go through his things. She cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. Sold off the furniture and sent the older son an envelope with birth certificates and other papers she found. A framed picture of the two boys hanging in the second bedroom. One of Sol, long faced, in a dark suit, a homburg, and rimless glasses, standing beside his seated wife in a modest black dress and cloche hat, his hand resting on her shoulder.

She said she had found nothing else of any real value and asked could they please send her the last month’s rent to cover the cost of cleanup.

When the rabbi asked if anyone had a few words to say about Mr. Nussbaum, only a fleshy, middle-aged, man wearing a postman’s jacket rose to speak.

“Uncle Sol” he said, “was a good man. He took me to the movies, and we talked baseball. He never made no trouble for anyone. He worked hard. He lived to be 89. What more could you ask for,” he said with a smile, fingering a piece of paper he’d taken out of his pocket. “He loved his boys, but he kept stuff inside.”

He looked at the two brothers, sitting apart, in the front pew. “Maybe he just didn’t know how to show you,” he said to them.

“Once when I was really little, around seven I think, because it was before the Dodgers moved away, we came out of a movie and were getting on the subway at Dyckman Street, it was really crowded, and he was holding my hand and he pushed into the car, pulling on my arm to get me in through the doors behind him when they started to close, he kept pulling on my arm trying to get me in and I thought I wouldn’t get in and the train would leave me behind and I started crying and saying ‘help, help’ and then a man started to push the doors open wider but then more people started pushing and another man was elbowing me even though I was crying and then uncle Sol…”

“Harold, stop. Just stop.” The younger son stood. His face reddening. What are you saying? That’s a lie,” he said. It was me. It was me he took to the movies and me who got caught in the subway door. Not you. You’re making this up. Shut up. He was my father, not yours.”

“Then why didn’t you tell the story? Tell me that. All’s I’m saying is he was a good man, and someone needed to say that.”

“No, you sit down and be quiet, both of you, all of you for that matter.” Myrtle was standing with her hands balled into fists on her hips.

She looked around the room.

“You people make me so angry I could spit. You’re all so cheap and ungrateful. A man died and what’s left of him is up there in a box. You couldn’t even spring for a decent coffin? And arguing now about what? You should be grateful he took any of you to the movies. What did any of you ever do for him, anyway? Where have you been all these years? Somebody should teach you all some respect. Some respect for the dead at least.”

She picked up her coat, strode past the pall bearers and the Memingers, and out through the doors and down the steps into the street. It was not until she got on the bus at the corner that she remembered she’d forgotten to ask for the money for Nussbaum’s last month’s rent. “Shit,” she said to herself, “you can just kiss that money goodbye, Sweety. And after everything you’ve done for them.”

I cannot say that I love the earth.

I cannot say that I love the earth. Though I do. As my mother. As I did before I knew she was not me. Before I learned she had a name not mine. Named, as if she were not me. Apart from me. As if I were not her and she were not me and we were, in truth, or in some reality, not one. As if all that exists were not one. As if there were a need or a purpose to name and be named and loved separately. Undifferentiated

I follow the sharp cloud-shadow passing quickly across the grass, over the road Across which a tortoise walks toward the farther side where it knows, has long known, Where the cool stream with sheltered warm pools and rolling eddies, and where the minnows run among the edible eel grass and waving waterweed, Until it flows and sinks into the soil and, in time, into the sea.

I feel the heat of the sand and the slips of algal strands and the imprints of the running dogs Being washed away by the receding waves with the pecking sandpipers close by keeping pace With the thin barefoot young man with a brown beard checking the time and distance With almost every step for hours until the sun goes down Behind the frame houses with salted porches and with summer rent to pay.

And the sticky white lines in corrugated roughed-up bark of the tall pine holding fast Against the leaning of my back, and my head tucked down from the dripping of the rain from the ends of the pendant branches, so near to the canyon edge with the Flinging squirrels and ranks of twisted pinyons and the sudden wind in updrafts in the afternoon so long and slow, reddening the rusted curl of the eastern rim, when seen from far below along the rushing river And the layered limestone washed walls.

While the coolness brings the smell of wood smoke and walnuts, and purple flowers in clusters on the plains close to the ground for warmth and those that bloom all summer long when there is rain or those which wait for another year when the drought years come or drift to another place, another space. Where its life is reignited and redefined again and again by place and time and random need, and circumstantial opportunity.

I cannot say that the earth loves me but somehow I feel it does. We are of the same breath and substance. As my mother and I. From which we coalesced from stardust and carbon and molybdenum, and methane in the breeze, the magnesium and iron from the sea, in time-gathered clusters of sister-and-daughter cells, all alike once and then growing apart not unlike the ancient others, speciating, some becoming green or not and feeding on the ones who did and to whom they owe their life. And from which life after life grew and which could easily have survived and been sustained by taking nothing and leaving little of what existed behind. Though that was not the destiny of this generation.

I cannot say that I love the earth, but I do. Perhaps not enough.

I cannot say that the earth loves me. I believe its existence is love.

No matter. I feel it. In the warming water and the battering wind.

We mean so little, we do. While we scrape away at its crust. Dig into it, bleed it. Suck it dry.

I know it cares not. Soon we will be gone.

Leaving scars and our prints in the sand that will one day wash away.

Alice in Chains

Alice Gompert and Harran Schlamm had once dated. In high school. When they both shared the crystalline innocence of a pair of snowflakes falling toward the windshield of a slow-moving Class A Vista Winnebago heading north on I-290.

He turned to her now, at age twenty-four, with his still-undiminished snowflake eyes, sitting in ‘their’ booth, the one they once sat in back in the old days at Marvin’s Merry Melodies, an ice cream and candy shop in Evanston, IL. The shop, formerly a record and tape store owned by Fred Gompert, Alice’s father, who presciently, on the cusp of the digital music revolution sold off all of the stock, gutted the place, and with advice from Bob Bigelow, his brother-in-law, a self-made, wealthy entrepreneur, who said that the future of retail was in ice cream, and who set Fred up using his controlling interest in Kelley Country Creamery, the foremost ice cream maker in the state of Wisconsin, where “they know their ice cream,” and he signed a ten-year exclusive Evanston sole-distributor contract with KCC, and installed vintage booths, counters, freezers, and lighting, and never found the need to change the name on the store marque.

Harran, with tentative, downcast eyes and his damp hand gently resting on Alice’s elbow, said, “Can I ask you a question?”

She glanced at the hand on her elbow. “Yeah, sure,” she said, “like what?”

They had dated for all of four, non-consecutive, weeks. They’d been sweethearts. Or, I should say, Harran considered them as such, while from Alice’s point of view, they were just friends, thoroughly devoid of any possible deeper feelings and any attendant benefits. He’d taken her to three Alice in Chains concerts, one per year, when the band played up in Kenosha. It was not the actual Alice in Chains they saw. The band was called Alice’s Chains, an AIC cover band which Harran said were way better than AIC anyway. But that didn’t matter, because it was only the name of the band that was the way cool thing since it included Alice’s name.

Alice’s parents, Fred and Lillian, had driven them, waited in the parking lot, and brought them back for ice cream at the store, opened especially just for them. Three evenings. Each of which Harran counted as a full week of dating. Then there was the senior prom to which Harran invited her the day after the night of the junior prom to which Alice had gone with George Blechta, a twitchy dweeb who danced like Elaine Benes doing a version of the Stroll. And she, of course, said yes, but ended up not going because she had a tonsillectomy the day before the prom and then spent the next six days recovering from surgery. He brought her the corsage he had purchased and counted that as week four.

He looked at her there, once again sitting together in their booth, and said, “Alice, would you…”

“Harran, don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t ask me what I think you’re going to ask me.”

“What do you think I…”

“Harran. I’m sorry. This is just not such a good time for me, okay?”

“Okay… Would you…,” he said then, “… would you ever think of going back to New York?”

She sighed, “I don’t know,” and shifted in her seat so that his hand dropped away from the warm bend of her elbow.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I went there because I couldn’t live here anymore. This store. Opening at ten and closing at six every day, every day, and dinners at home with parsley, a starch, and a protein on every plate. This little place with its little routines and its niceties that feel like crustless white bread triangles with low fat cream cheese spread and seedless cucumber slices.”

Harran looked at her as though he was listening to her.

“I went to New York to get away and I loved it. Loved every minute of it. People from all over the world in one place. Working and reading actual books. Staying up after nine o’clock and going to Czechoslovakian movies. Eating dinner at ten. People on the subways. I once sat across from Sarah Jessica Parker on the F train and it was like “oh, okay,” and bumped into John Turturro in Bruno’s deli in Park Slope. And when I heard Sinatra singing ‘If you can make it here you can make it anywhere’ on New Year’s and I cried each year because it’s true. True, true, true!”

“So, you’re going back, then?”

“And then it all came down. It all came down around me. The buildings. The thundering, shaking noise that has never stopped in my ears. And the horrible, horrible clouds of oily, burning, grey-black smoke, choking your lungs and burning your eyes, and filling your body with such enormous fear like someone was holding onto you and who won’t let you go, and you panic and plead, and they still won’t let you go.

“I couldn’t stay there. I tried. I tried to be normal. To feel normal. I tried. And walking in Penn Station each day with soldiers in camo, desert camo in Penn station, with machine guns pointed to the floor, their fingers so, so near the triggers. Everywhere. Street corners. And you want to cry out to make it all stop and to go back to the way it was before. But it never will. People just stopping on the street. Just stopping and putting their heads down and covering their eyes and crying. Crying so softly, hiding their faces from you. And you, you just walk by and then you start crying yourself. You knew. You knew that all those faces, the flyers taped to the walls and the fences and lightposts. They were never coming back. They were dead. You knew it because it was a nightmare in a clear blue sky. And it was the realest thing you will ever see, and never forget.

“I am covered with it all. The incinerated flesh and plastic and metal. The incinerated lives. And that morning, that same Tuesday morning. On the C train. At seven fifty-five. People I was sitting with, looking at their phones, holding onto the railings. At the station under the buildings, got off and took the elevators up to work in those buildings.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Harran, I am not who I was before. I don’t know who I am now. It’s not just that the buildings fell. It’s how and why it happened. The senselessness of it. How people planned this murder. And others knew about it and said, ‘yes, go do it.’ And governments knew, had to have known, and were complicit. For what? To make us feel attacked and attackable. Vulnerable. Ultimately, personally, vulnerable. Not theoretically. Not philosophically. But materially, demonstrably, vulnerable.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know you are. And I know you cannot know what I‘m feeling. The feeling that you matter less than nothing. And that nothing matters. Realizing that everything matters. That everything matters so little and yet that everything matters so much. That breathing and trees matter. The sky, the person sitting next to you, the woman in the library or working the fryolator in McDonald’s. They all matter. That everything matters and nothing matters.

“And then what? Instead of sadness, healing, and introspection, Hillary Fucking Clinton and Chuck Fucking Schumer voted, voted in the Senate, to knowingly, calculatingly, bomb and burn and incinerate thousands more people? To plan it. Execute it. Calling it ‘shock and awe’ like a Call of Duty video game. I knew better. They knew better. And still they voted to say go ahead to George Fucking W Bush and his fucking father who was once the director of the CI fucking A. He knew about the Saudis. They all knew about it. They could have stopped it all and they just went ahead did it with smiles on their faces.”

“Please don’t say that.”

“Say what?”


“Oh my God, Harran. Me saying ‘fucking’? That’s what bothers you? I shouldn’t say fucking in my father’s fucking candy store, in Evanston fucking Illinois? Because it may disturb some people? They should be fucking disturbed. Take a look around, Harran, has anyone one died because they heard me say ‘’fucking?’”


“Don’t tell me Alice. I’m not Alice. I don’t know who this person is anymore. I’m going.”

“Don’t go. Where are you going?”

“I don’t fucking know, Harran. You know that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night because you feel like you’re falling? That’s the feeling I have every night. But I wake up in the morning and they don’t. Can you imagine the feeling of falling, to be falling, to have the room falling with you, the ceiling crushing down on you, as the last feeling you will ever have in life? I pray you don’t ever know what that feels like. I have to go.”

“Why did you even come back?”


“Why did you come back?”

“Don’t ask me that. I don’t know. I think I was hoping things would be different here. But they’re not.”

“Could you let me out?” he said.


“Let me out. Please, I have to go.”

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.”


“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!”


“Read, and thus shall ye be enlightened.”

And for the Clothes We’d Worn Then

If there’d been a sit-down funeral for her or if they’d scattered her ashes at sunset on the beach at the Jupiter inlet, I don’t know.

If they’d done that, scattered her ashes at the beach, it was without me. The ‘they’ here being her children. My children. Our children. I hope they did that.

I’d heard that she would swim there, at the inlet, in the mornings and then dive there in the afternoons, riding the current out by herself to the reef beyond where the waves break and the water is clear and the parrotfish and grunts are plenty.

I had been there, though, with all of them, on the afternoon she died.  

She lay on a hospital bed in her guest bedroom. We took turns at the chair by the bed, leaning close and touching the back of her hand. Saying last words. Whatever words would come.

The IV drip had been unplugged, though the line with the morphine was still clicking on and off.

We were married in ‘66. August. Hot. I wore a suit I’d never worn before and never wore again. That’s a good thing about rented tuxes. You never have to look at them again, hanging in the closet with patches of memory stains stuck to them.

I have a picture of her. The first I ever took of her. On one of the first days we’d spent together. The only one I have of her by herself; not with friends or a crowd in plaid shorts in front of some famous obelisk, or at a table with smiling people we only knew in passing. She’s beside my car. The ’56 Renault. A three-quarter profile, one skeptical eyebrow raised. The sun in her eyes. Wearing a light-colored summer dress. September ’65. A little less than a year before we were married.

I was not in the room when she died. I’d gone out for a walk. The condos all looked the same as hers. One floor. Neat lawns. Palm trees.  Swept driveways. Clean white cars with Michigan and Sunshine State plates.

I can’t remember if I suggested the walk or one of the kids did. Someone said the hospice nurse had said, “sometimes, to ease the passing, you see, you might consider leaving the room right near the end.” I was the only one who left.

In those ten short months before we got married, we’d take short, idling, weekend road trips. Filming segments of our Great American Pizza Bakeoff. Her idea. Ordering a large garlic and onion pizza in some place we’d never been before, sharing a coke with no ice. Eating the whole pie right there in the booth, wiping the grease off our chins and fingers; giving points for crust, sauce, cheese, and fold, against all the others we’d eaten. Albany, New Paltz, Brooklyn, Hoboken, Trenton, Philly.

We’d meet after classes and drive around with the windows open playing the Hollies, the Kinks, the Stones, Dylan. All the while trying to remember if a hydrohalogenation reaction with an asymmetric alkene followed the Markovnikov or the Anti-Markovnikov synthesis rule, or the names and functions of the ten cranial nerves.

But then, in June, maybe July, I said to my brother, that I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t go through with it. No way. I was twenty-one. Scared. It felt wrong. Rushed. Not at all what I wanted. He said if that was a legit reason for not getting married, nobody would do it. “You need a better excuse, than that,” he said. All I knew was that the panic that shook me was my only reason. It wasn’t good enough.

It was then in that part of the sixties that wore the clothes of the fifties. Pre-Woodstock. Pre-sexual freedom. Pre-EST. Pre-consciousness-raising. Pre-let’s-think-about-this-for-a-while-before-we-just-rush-into-something-stupid.

My brother said my mother would throw a shit fit.

Did, “your mother will throw a shit fit” compare at any level of equality with, “I don’t think either of us is ready for this?”

Neither of us knew anything about marriage, at least not happy ones. We were following a yellowed script we were handed.

Nothing more than that between us. Nothing that might help us avert twenty years of quiet sorrow, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, resentment, isolation, loose, muddled affairs, weariness. No love to guide us.

There were months of punishing silences. Punishing each other for wanting, expecting, to be loved. For not seeing a way out. Each of us stuck on an unsteady rock in a swift-running stream, and both afraid of the water. ‘Swim at your own risk’ signs all around.

We were unformed adolescents, dressed up to look like adults. We were wearing the thin-at-the-elbows, hand-me-down, itchy neuroses our parents had knitted for us.

We’d gotten it wrong. All wrong. We were no good together and too afraid to say it.

We were so much better apart. It just took so long, so worn down with so many bruises, to see that.

She died while I was out walking. I came back and everyone was quiet; eyes down. Holding one another.

And, as she lay, so recently alive, so recently herself, all that past came welling up in me. Unbidden. Unfettered.

And so, I cried.

For her. For her sadness before we split.

For me and the sadness I carried.

I had a new life, but still I cried for all that had been lost and for what had been done in the absence of love.

And too, for the long days of reading Donald E Westlake and Agatha Christie at the beach and , for cramming with her for exams, for eating no-guilt garlic and onion pizzas. For friendship. For doing what friends do and we had once done.

For not knowing how to say I’m sorry. For not knowing how to take off the clothes we had been given and been expected to wear when they neither suited who we were nor who we wanted to be.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Lester doesn’t write me anymore. He used to. Once a week. It’s been six months since the last one. I wait each day for a letter from him. I know better than to hope for one, but I do.

He writes well. He works at it. He puts his heart in it. His soul. Truly, his soul. He curates his words. Looks for the right one. Or, if needed, conjures one himself. So few of us feel we have the permission to make up words. He does that. I’ve never tried.

I love him.

I don’t know where he is.

We read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail together. All of us. Nine men. Eight of them black, one white. And me. I am a white woman. I teach writing. I work in correctional facilities. That’s where the work is. Rikers Island. Edgecombe. Queensboro. Mostly at Rikers.

In class one afternoon, soon after I started teaching there, he said, “What is a word, anyway? A representation, right? Only a sound. With a meaning you give to it. A meaning you get from it.”

Another man turned to him and said something I didn’t understand. And then he pretty much kept his mouth shut after that. I could see what life was like for him. Bruising.

The next day he wrote me a letter. I’d given them cards with my name and address so I wasn’t surprised that he wrote. He’s the only one who did. Of the nine men, he was the only one who wrote. It was a letter writing class.

He signed the letter, ‘Lester.’ He used the single quote marks. I wrote back.

After that, we wrote to each other once a week, even after the class ended.

None of the men were yet alive in 1963, when King wrote his letter. None of them had read it before. Some had heard about it, they said.

My husband, at the time, thought teaching the letter was a bad idea. “You’ll stir them up,” he said.

Of course, it’ll stir them up. That was part of the point. The other part of the point was the language. One thought flowing into the next. Torment, outrage, love, courage holding each other in every paragraph. A letter like that is not a cover letter for a job application. It’s the manifesto of a movement. Of course, it will stir them up. It should stir everyone up.

We read the first five paragraphs the first day. Each one taking a few sentences.

We talked about the words. The unfamiliar ones. Ones that held the most power. Purposeful words. Simple. Direct. Unflinching.

They asked who was King writing to? Why is it six pages long? We took four weeks to read it.

By the end of the fourth week, Lester wrote that he felt his life had been changed by reading it.

He thought about me each day, he wrote.

The issue of non-violence was approached with care. Did King make a good case for it? Was he just being naïve? Was he inviting harm to others? How could he expect men, women, and children to stand still and take a blow or a bullet or a mauling by a dog? How does non-violence apply to them? Can you be non-violent in Rikers? Did you feel like King in any way? Unfairly and prejudicially treated by a hostile system? An agent of change?

They talked about Attica. White supremacy. Incarceration. Reparations. All of that. John Lewis. Malcom. Bobby Seal and Philadelphia. After each class they wrote a letter about something that came up for them. Letters that some of them read aloud. Letters They would not read.

We read Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s words were transcendent.

They read. Faithfully. They wrote. Letters to family. Girlfriends. Cuomo. Newspapers. Thoughtful letters. Filled with a clear and well-tempered passion.

The more I saw him, the more I came to need to be with him.

I wrote a letter to the judge for him. My husband told me I’d used bad judgment. That I was going too far. “What is too far,” I said.

“This is,” he said.

We read Celie’s letters in The Color Purple.

“I’m only trying to help him.”

“Let his mother help him.”

“I have the resources his mother may not have.”

“My God, listen to yourself! You’re not the mother to the world. You have your own two kids. Think of them.”

“Exactly. I am. Would I not want someone to do for them what I am doing for another mother’s child? Would you not want that for them?”

“But my children will not be in jail. They won’t hold up a grocery store.”

“How do you know that? How can you say that with such walled-off self-centered surety? We could be one terrible mistake away from that. Would you want your child to spend one night in jail, much less five or ten years? What or who would they be when they came out. This man is asking for help and I’m helping him.”

“You’re being duped. Used. Face it. Grow up. There is a big hard reality out there that you can’t seem to get. You do the crime; you do the time.”

“No, you’re the one being duped. Your know-it-all, I’ve-done-it-all-on-my-own, the self-made-man bullshit you tell yourself. Eighty-five percent of people in Rikers has not been convicted of a crime. That’s eight thousand men and women behind bars. Eight thousand. And they’re in that hell hole because they couldn’t make pre-trial bail. They’re not criminals.”

“They really have you by the short hairs don’t they. This homey saw a bleeding-heart liberal walk in the door holding a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and you’re it. You planning on paying his bail?

“Fuck you.”

“No, fuck you.”

We wrote back and forth for almost a year. A few friends helped me put up bail for him.

By that time, my husband was tired of sleeping in the basement and he moved out.

Lester needed a place to stay and he moved in. The kids were pretty okay with that. But nobody else was. I mean nobody.

Then my husband took the kids from me.

Lester and I said we could make it. We’d find a way.

We did.

And then we didn’t.

He needed to go. He said he’d write. Tell me where he was. Told me that sometimes you define yourself by how other people see you. And then, by who you were at another time or place. But then, it’s only who you are in relation to who you need to be. He thanked me and then he left.

He’s right, of course. He needed to go. And I’ll make it, I know. Somehow.

I still write to him. It helps me make sense of things. To make peace with myself.  I may mail them if he sends me his new address.

The Time of Wild Violets

I ran into that man again. Logan. The one who was telling me about the wild violets. Back before COVID. The one at North Station. God, two years ago. You believe it? Two years. It’s like an entire year vanished. That’s crazy, right? Like the year disappeared and the days are now laid bare like rocks at low tide. How we got that Noro virus in that Mexican place Franco took us to when everyone was washing their hands except in Florida and we started throwing up during the night and we thought we were coming down with COVID because it was March and we had just heard about it and it was before we started wearing masks and not touching our faces. And when Fauci said don’t touch your face and the minute he said that I couldn’t stop touching my face. But that was after we got back home and before I had that diverticulitis. And the last day I played tennis. With Zeno, the guy from in next door. Where the old woman lived and then went into the nursing home in February and died in a week and her son put the house on the market and it sold right away because people were moving out of the city. That must have been in April when they closed the courts and playgrounds and everyone who went to the beach was wearing masks and walking eighty-seven feet away from everyone else and I remember thinking, ‘that’s a little much of an over-reaction isn’t it’, but that’s what was happening then. We’d pass someone at the beach, before they closed the beaches too, and people wouldn’t even look at you, as if they could get infected just by making eye contact. And then Nadia died of it. Anyway, he, I mean Logan, was wearing the same black suit with the wide lapels and the red bow tie he was wearing that first time. That was late May or maybe early June. That’s important, I think, but nothing is really so important about him or the story. It’s just that I met him again and he said the same things in the same way he did that first time. That slow, lower-case way he has of speaking like an e e cummings poem. And we fell into the same conversation we had that first time and I was tempted to point that out to him but decided against it because that would be rude. As if suggesting that his memory might be failing, though he was not that old, or that he had been drinking though I smelled no alcohol on his breath and he was not slurring his words or anything. Anyway, what’s so weird about him, I mean seeing him again last night, is that we were sitting in North Station like we were the first time but some people were wearing masks and all, though most were not, which by the way, he was not, but he said nothing about COVID. Nothing at all. Not a single word. I mean that is incredible, isn’t it? You meet somebody now or you Zoom and right away they’re into vaccines and variants, like it used to be the weather or basically only the weather. It’s like ‘how are you?’ and they start telling you about who they know who got COVID or their cousin who says the whole thing is totally bogus, that they’re overcounting cases and it’s not as bad as everyone is saying, and she’s a nurse so she must know, or someone else is saying three people in their family died from COVID in like in the same week, but mostly it’s like how this whole year has been crazy, right? Like after 9/11. So it was only after he waved goodbye to me as I was walking through the doors to the train that I realized that I had spent the last twenty minutes talking to someone I barely know and we didn’t talk about COVID or George Floyd, or Trump, though not that many people are talking about George Floyd or Trump anymore, at least people I know, which is probably more a sign of the total moral junkyard people around here are living in, that like George Floyd was murdered in front of our eyes almost exactly one year ago and it’s like, ‘okay, that’s over!’ Not that I want to talk about COVID or George Floyd all the time with everybody but, you have to recognize that these terrible things happened within the last year, January 6, and Kyle Rittenhouse, and all those mass shootings, like one just the other day in San Jose, but tomorrow that will fade in memory and conversation just like COVID and George Floyd, and Columbine and Las Vegas, and Emmett Till, and Amadou Diallo, and Sandra Bland. Anyway, just like the last time, he sits down next to me on the bench by that crowded sports bar and he puts down his two black instrument cases, an alto sax in one and a bass clarinet in the other, and he asks me what instrument I play and I tell him I don’t and he says, ‘you look like a cello man to me,’ like he knows my secret dream is to play a cello, then he says ‘let me guess your age’ and looks me over like I’m a salami and he gets it right on the nose again but now I’m two years older so I know he’s not just throwing out a number and then he says, ‘I can tell it in your shoulders,’ and I pick up my bag of Bova’s pastries to go to the train and he tells me that a man my age should do some shoulder rolls each night before bed and that I should look for the wild violets coming out this week and how the purple of the flowers and the green of the leaves vibrate in your brain together because they’re complimentary colors, and how he knows my heart will sigh when I see them still damp in the morning, and that it would do me good listen to some Gershwin sometime, Porgy and Bess, even though he said he can tell by looking at me that I don’t like woodwinds much, I should listen for how the woodwinds sway like dune grass in a sweet-smelling breeze blowing soft off the ocean through the streets of Catfish Row on a Charleston summer evening, just like he said that last time before the COVID and all.  

In the Waves of Waking this Morning

In the waves of waking this morning I was troubled by a thought about the earth. Not the melting and heating of it or the rising or sinking of it beneath the sea, or the mud slides and the dust clouds of it now, about which I worry and think about to the degree of obsession, and read and talk about— but the turning of it.

The turning of it. The simple rotation of it.

In the waves, sinking and rising, as I was, through the layers of sleep, the question of, ‘which way does the earth turn,’ became weighted and unsettling. Because I found, in half-sleep, that I could not answer it.

From the east to the west or from the west to the east? The simple answer was simply elusive. More than elusive: troubling in its inaccessibility. More than troubling: a gripping doubting of my own mental capacity: my ability to retrieve what is known. What I once surely had known.

My daughter is flying tomorrow from Boston to LA. East to west. Her first flight. It worries her. I feared flying when I was younger. Crashing. Dying. I was frozen by the thought of it. My mother gave me one of her valium pills. It helped. But upon landing in San Juan, in my Bermudas and sandals, I realized that I would need to remain there. I feared the return trip. I had not planned for the return flight— for the extra pill I would need. The return trip, the thinking of it, the worry about it, even on the beach—Luquillo Beach—stole the present from me. Stole the softness of the sand, the warmth of the sun, the breeze in my hair. How the future can steal the present. The fear of the future robbing the reality of the present.

But… to the turning of the earth. Like a clock. Or not like a clock.

The sun in the sky. Rising and setting. The orange-scarlet in the mornings and the pink and purple in the evenings. Rising over the water here and setting over the land.

This simple point— the direction of the turning— is something I should know. The turning which creates our days and nights. The transit of the stars. The days by which we measure the hours which fill the years of our lives.

I know that I know this. Long have known this. As I know left from right and up from down. Tall and short. Past and present. As I know who I am and the names of my children.

I don’t expect to remember the name of the actor, the tall one whose wife died, I think, in a ski accident, like Sonny Bono did. Hitting her head into a stanchion, I think. But the actor. The tall one with hair that likes to flop across his forehead. Endearing him. Softening him. And his voice, also soft. The heartfelt seriousness of it. It will come to me. And the singer. The the drummer of a band. British. The band was named for him or maybe not. I see them both in my mind. Their names elude me. They will come to me if I don’t think of them. Later, when I’m making toast or washing the dishes. Liam Neeson.

It doesn’t worry me much when the names don’t come. It‘s not as though they, the names, ever were so much a part of what I knew, needed to know, that I could not step around the emptiness of the erasure and go on with what I was doing, needing to do. I easily made do without the name. Phil Collins. But the name of my son. That name comes instantly to me with ease, as does may own name. But I think about the day I will not know his name. Or perhaps, my own.

The day I will know but not be able to find it among the other things I had securely settled in my brain because of the need to find them when I need them. To use them. More important than the house keys or my glasses. But the name I gave him and which he wears. I still know his name as I know the word ‘earth’ and what it means.

As I woke, I thought that knowing the way toward which the earth turns and causes the winds to blow and in which time seems to move, would never be hard to locate. I’d always be able say with confidence, ‘sure, I know that. How could I not know that? ‘

And I went into the kitchen to make the coffee and I stood by the window and saw the sun in the eastern sky and I knew from where it had risen, its arc, and where it would set later.

And I drew a rough picture of the earth and the sun on a scrap of paper and arrows to plot out the spin in my mind. To reason it out. The logic of it. The science of it.

The penciled lines were momentarily reassuring. But I know that I may not always know how to do that. That not only would the answer be irretrievable but I may lose the ability to restore it. And with that, loosening my assured grip on reality.

I worry about that. It is an essential, almost constant worry. It is the way that the future is stealing my present. Starting with an easily dismissed sense out-of-sync-ness, but progressing to an unsettling knowledge of out-of-touch-ness.

Perhaps, when that theft may happen, I won’t take notice of it… just float away on it.

Hobbes’ Good Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t accept this,” said Hobbes.

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


The wind blew without stop all night. Each time Sedge awoke he could sense its shoulder against the apartment walls. Hear the low moan of it in the alley like that of some lone animal that had escaped death, but narrowly so. A wolf, a cougar. A predator, wounded, hidden, pursued in the dark, poised to defend itself, viciously, at all costs. Its involuntary moaning, though, bringing attention to its whereabouts. Its vulnerability.

He imagined himself being forced out into that moaning wind, the cold, out through the apartment door in his thin bedclothes. Being shoved from behind by a pair of indifferent arms pressed into his lower back. Letting him fall. Leaving him to crawl there nearly naked at the bottom of the steps in the New York dark with what was left of the warmth of the bed covers rapidly dissipating into the night air. Feeling his muscles quiver and shake and begin to stiffen.

He turned in his bed, sliding his hand between the mattress and the bedspring. Tentative. The knife was still there. A relief of sorts. It had not been found. Or if it had, it had not been moved. Or if it had, it had then been carefully returned to its original position and the sheet made taut and smooth again. He was unsure though of which of these it was.

He’d concealed it there. The sharpened blade angled so that he could grasp it firmly, quickly removing it without cutting himself. A kitchen knife with an edge so fine it could cut with ease through a tomato skin.

He’d practiced turning and reaching for it under the mattress in the darkened room so that there’d no longer be any hesitation or thought required to pull it out without a snag. Turn, reach, grasp. Turn, reach, grasp.

How he hated himself for this. Hated himself for so many things. Having it come to this point. Living as they did. How does a person come to burrow himself, so afraid, into a hole so dark, so cramped, so deep, that there is no room to move? A living interment. A hole of his own digging. A victim of his own perpetration.

All of it was all his own fault. The things that he done, like dominoes he had tipped. Not with malice. He was simply a liar and a cheat.

Oh, how his father, in that repeated, sharp-edged, punishing way of his, drilled into him the horrid shamefulness of lying and cheating. The sting of the man’s hand against his face. And so why, or how, had it come to this? That he had come to this. This was not who he wanted to be.

To have become so numbed, so indifferent to the feelings of others. Those he’d claimed to have feelings for. To loathe himself for what he’d done, was doing, to others. A spreading web of unexpected repercussions of thoughtless, self-serving, self-destructive acts. Like cracks deep within a frozen lake from an idly tossed stone.

The knife was absurd. Hiding it under the bed was beyond absurd. Would he actually use it? Of what use could it possibly be? And then what would become of him? He’d not thought beyond the present. He never did. That was the most absurd of all.

One time: She asked him, “Why are you so late?”

“I had a flat and had to pull off the road and it was dark. You know how it is on the Westside Highway up before you get to the piers. No lights. The cars rushing by. No one stopped.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

“No place to call from. I was just trying to get home soon as I could.”

Another time: “Who was that on the phone?”

“Just a wrong number.”

And then: “Who were you talking to when I came in?”

“Someone from work.”

Then again: “Where did you get that horrible silk shirt in the closet? I thought you hated things like that.”

“I know. I do. I just had the urge to try something different.”

He knew she didn’t believe any of that BS. So lame. They rarely spoke of anything meaningful, sincere, anymore. A guarded barrenness between them. Mutual suspicion. What was known and what was not. It mattered what was said. What mattered was what was not said.

Him, living in a dark hole with a sharpened kitchen knife under the mattress. Her, with her back turned. Could she not feel the same way? Angry, threatened, defensive, fearful?

But what, he wondered, if anything, would she do?

One evening before she came to bed, being involved in something of no concern to him (she always stayed up late, coming to bed long after after he’d fallen asleep or merely appearing so), he closed the door and crossed the room, knelt down, and reached carefully deep beneath the mattress on her side of the bed.

It was that night, and on each successive night, for long months on end, he found himself, as he was on this night, awakened at the slightest sound or movement in the bed, hearing then the moaning wind blow. Fearing being grabbed by the neck, dragged away, and forced out into the wind, clutching, with his arms outstretched behind him, with one hand, the one holding the helpless knife, grasping ahold of the door jamb on one side and with the other attempting to wedge his fingers into the scant space between the door and the hinged frame on the other, straining, in wretched desperation, to keep himself from being squeezed out, propulsed, through the narrow opening into the cold and dark. Resisting.

It was himself he heard, crying out as a wounded, frightened animal might, or perhaps as might a man in his late thirties, feeling trapped and buffeted in the darkness by the demons of his own terrible creation. Alone and rudderless. Afraid of himself. Afraid to acquiesce to the punishment he knew he deserved. Afraid to stay and afraid to go.

“Sedge,” she said.


“Did you say something?”


“I just thought I heard something.”





Sally Ann Finkelstein For President

Sally Ann Finkelstein turned sideways to the mirror. She swayed slightly, smoothed her hand gently over her tummy, tucked a curl of silvery hair behind her ear, and checked her teeth for lipstick stains.

She was a pleasant looking woman. Pleasant enough. Though perhaps more in appearance than in manner, given the effect she had on some, though she meant neither insult nor harm.

Continue reading Sally Ann Finkelstein For President

Schneiderman’s Thoughts on Leaving the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

How long could I continue to endure the trapped isolation and constant disorienting uncertainty at the Hôtel? Or the apprehension that my perception of what was real and what was not was distorted. That what I took for my own identity was fragile and figmentary? That my thoughts, my very substance and existence was a nightmarish fiction. Worse still, that the Hôtel itself was insubstantial, discarnate, incorporeal. That the space it occupied, and myself within it, did not exist beyond the workings of my own mind.

And so, at some point, while immersed in this all-encompassing interiority, I began to question my sanity. I could not, though, determine when or how long it may have taken me to arrive at this point. For, at the Hôtel, time, like space, had no value, it had no presence in my life, no meaning. Time did not exist for me. There was no chronology to events. There was no before or after. There was, therefore, no sense of cause and effect. No such thing as, if A, then B.

Whatever sense of personal agency I felt I had, it was both false and limited solely to my intention to put one foot in front of the other, so to speak, and even that could be negated, obliterated, in an instant. I might imagine taking a step in one direction, say to locate the room in which I was staying, and immediately find myself in another, an entirely different space, a different realm, one totally untethered to that in which I had sought to extend my foot in that very same heartbeat. And, at that, I had no awareness that anything had been altered. I was simply in a new moment, a frame-shift, and for that moment it was all that existed.

I sensed, in some moments, a deep despair which I attributed to a lack of anything resembling intimacy with any others. While I might have imagined that others may have been present, I had no sense of human contact. I heard not a word, saw neither a glance nor a gesture. I felt that this privation was, like a vacuum: an absolute absence of materiality.

Without human contact, I felt unable to do anything either self-affirming or of any value in the world, as limited and ephemeral as it was. My world was seemingly without end and removed from the very substance of humanity.  

At the point to which I am referring, I began to experience a nascent level of introspection. I came to fear that a certain degree of psychopathology becomes not only possible but predominant when one sees oneself as separate from both meaningful experience and social interaction. Thievery, duplicity, misanthropy, delusion, and worse, seemed possible. I had enough cognition to know that that possibility was inherently immoral. I needed to find my way out. Without the restraint of the social contract, when we are deprived, for one reason or another, through some willful act of oppression or through happenstance, we are left without the righting forces of compassion and punishment. We become untethered, unmoored, and a danger.

Perhaps only through the force of will or a weakening of the forces that bound me, one evening I found myself, inexplicably, outside of the Hôtel. I was walking through one of a number of revolving doors at the exit and found myself outside of a modern office building in midtown New York, somewhere in the 50s, perhaps around Madison Avenue. It was a building I had once worked in, though I cannot recall either the organization or what exactly I had done there. It was in the fall and I was not dressed for the coolness of the evening. I had neither coat nor a briefcase nor any personal items. In that moment, I found myself thrust back into that situation. And in so doing I returned into the building and told the security guard that I worked upstairs and had left my ID card and my coat in my office and of course he recognized me and showed me up to the floor and a cubicle which I easily recognized by the state-issued utilitarian furniture, the rather non-descript appointments such as the fluorescent lighting and grayness of the walls and the disarray of papers I had left on my desk.

Standing beside it I was awash in a feeling of dread. Everyone had apparently left. Perhaps it was the weekend. I looked through my desk drawers to see if my belongings were there and they were. And under the file boxes I had kept under the desk, I found several thick business envelopes of cash that I had hidden there and, in that moment, I felt how distanced I was from the staff I worked with. Perhaps as the result of some slight or perceived injustice and, how, after they all had left at the end of the workday, which for some of them was quite late into the night, I would riffle through their drawers and personal belongs and take whatever cash I could find, amassing quite a sum, hundreds of dollars sometimes in one evening. I was convinced, simultaneously, that it had come to me by chance as if I had found it on an empty sidewalk and that I had committed a reprehensible act and that I would be severely punished if I were to be caught. Looking clearly, for the first time, since leaving the Hôtel, I had an awareness of the consequences of my own actions. This was, as one can imagine, both a blessing and a curse, an inkling of agency and culpability.

I stuffed my pockets with the cash. I was flushed with fear and ambiguous good fortune. My heart beat heavily.

In the lobby, the guard who had shown me up no longer recognized me and asked for the ID which I did not have. I broke toward the door making it through into the cold night at which point I stood looking up and down the cavernous avenue, a dark street in Brooklyn I was not familiar with, with no idea how I was to find my way home. To safety. And with no tangible knowledge, in fact, of what or where home might be. I was lost. My pockets were empty. My fingers could not dial the cell phone that appeared in my hand. I could not recall what number I might call for help. I was beset with a frantic sense of desolation. I felt myself being reclaimed by the dark pull of unbounded lunacy.

And there, standing in the darkening cold, the Hôtel was revealed to me to be a haven of sorts. I had no control there. No responsibility for my actions. There, I did not have to parse what was real from what was false. And in that, with no distinction between the two, an enticing degree of comfort could be found. 

The Visigoths at The Door

Gelber clicked on the email from Ancestry.com. He’d seen his wife’s 23 and Me results. They were captivating. In a way, like a biomolecular radio telescope peering into the origins of her own personal universe. Or like a Vermeer painting you could watch in reverse. Layer by layer of paint being removed by absorbent retrograde brushstrokes, seeing that the final perfect azure of the girl with the pearl earing’s turban had once been a rejected cerulean.

Gelber, the email told him, was an Ashkenazi Jew. That cost me 199 bucks? They should have just asked me, he thought. I could have told them that two weeks ago and they could have Venmoed me the $199.

His wife’s a Brit. Ireland. Scotland. England. Blonde and shimmery grey-blue-eyes. A gene for wet sticky earwax and one for bunions. Another for a rare Mediterranean fever of little consequence. Also, a gene from a warmhearted Neanderthal grandmother, for a tendency to hold on to things. Gelber calls them tchotchkes. Things like boxes of broken holiday lights, cracked tea cups, Hummel figurines, and single-spaced Christmas letters she receives each year from distant cousins living in condos in Naples, Florida. She’s a saver. It’s a genetic trait that Gelber believes, no doubt, has some hidden survival value. 

He watches Henry Louis Gates on PBS on Tuesday evenings while he sips a glass of hot tea and wonders if Gwyneth Paltrow will have a slaveholder or a slave in her past. Or maybe a Polish rabbi, which is more likely. What could Gates tell Jerry Seinfeld that he didn’t already know? “Well, now, what’s up with that,” Seinfeld might say in that measured sardonic way he has of being both the subject and the smirking, cynical, observer at the same time.

Gelber knows little of own his past. What’s to know? What would it change if he did?

He also avoids thinking in any detailed way about his future beyond his fear, at some point, in a not-too-distant future, of not being able to breathe and that a fulminant pneumonia will be his last conscious human experience in life. COVID scares the shit out of him. The thought wakes him at night and it cringes his genitals as proof, if one needed it, that thoughts of doom are physical phenomena.

Of what good is thinking of the past? What did it matter if it was the Mongols or the Visigoths or the Nazis that his great-great grandmothers had escaped from long enough to pay forward their good fortune? What matters now to Gelber is none of that.

What matters most now to Gelber is if he will be able to escape a painful, unprovoked, death at the hands of roving vigilante Proud Boys in helmets and camo pants or the Hawaiian-shirted Boogaloo dudes standing back and standing by now in their well-fortified split-level homes with American flags flying on their front porches and re-tweeting about George Soros eating Christian children who wander into pizza shops owned by Hillary Clinton. That was more concerning to him. Is there a gene for that?

The Jews have had a hard time. Is there an allele for that? If so, what can be done about it. Nothing, he thinks. He’s not a pessimist. He’s a practical prudent paranoiac. Maybe there’s a gene for that. He instinctively senses when he’s the unwanted turnip in the soup. Westport Connecticut, for example. He once had brunch in a well-lit crepe shop there. A line of men in yellow Lacoste shirts with upturned collars, Bently Platinum sunglasses tipped back on their clean-cut hair, and cashmere sweaters loped over their shoulders, waited outside for him to leave. They were not Visigoths, but still he felt the vibe.

It’s more than an imagined driving-while-Jewish feeling. There’s more to it than that. It’s his fully-warranted healthy paranoia in the time we live in. Like the time when his sentinel genitals coagulated like a fried egg in warning as a dark green van, with peeling Trump bumper stickers on it, barreled toward him with the driver looking straight at him and giving him the finger and yelling, “All Lives Matter, you queer,” gunning the engine and swerving away from hitting him head on at the last moment as Gelber knelt on one knee on a socially-distanced busy street corner holding a Black Lives Matter sign for George Floyd and wearing a surgical mask.

Gelber is certain that the guy in the van thought that since he was not Black, Gelber must be a radical-liberal-commie-homo-tree-hugging-faggot-veggie-AOC-loving-socialist Jew, whose life, therefore, does not matter. Gelber knows he is seen by some as ostensibly, and only provisionally, “living” on borrowed time. He’s not one of those true Americans on the perverted mental list of the All Lives Matter types of people who, by dint of some vaguely defined demented criteria, are truly worthy of living and breathing.

His mother would tell him to watch out. “You’re a Jew”, she had said to him. “You look like a Jew. You dress like a Jew. They can smell Jew on you. Don’t be a fool, too.” She’s dead now. She was a true paranoiac. What would she see now hiding around every street corner? Maybe she was right. Maybe she felt the full pull of the well-earned gene for self-protection more strongly that he does. Maybe she had two alleles for that trait and he has only the one.

Maybe he is a fool, although he thinks not. May he’s a fraud. It’s relatively easy to hold up a sign on a street corner in North Whitepeopleville. But, maybe, when the real test comes and the first window is shattered or when he hears the hard knocking at his kitchen door, his DNA will know what to do.

Maybe he’s just not smart enough to know what to do when the real Visigoths come. Maybe he is. There must be a gene for that.

Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen

[Soft Italian music plays. Masterclass title appears on screen, fades, Joyce Carol Oates comes into focus, behind a kitchen counter, her back turned to the camera, an oven and a rectangle of walnut-veneer cabinets behind her. Kitchen Aid French door refrigerator, stage left.]


(Blue hospital-type mask on, turns slowly to face the camera. Tight-curled black hair fringes her face. Simple, thin-framed glasses circle her sad, serious, wondering eyes)

As a famous writer and amateur chef, I know how the need to write and the need to cook are elemental and necessary to the creative human spirit, especially in these challenging times, and how much they have in common. One might say they both, quote, (show double “quote” finger gesture) “put food on the table”, as it were. Continue reading Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen

Good Bones

Good Bones

by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.


The Girl with a Topknot and Red Skechers on the Uptown A Train

A young girl, of no more than nine or ten, is sitting beside her mother on the uptown A train. It is a school day and they are going home. Her brown hair is rolled into a tight topknot, held in place with a pink elastic band. She is wearing a pair of red Skechers with pink laces.

A man gets on the train at Fulton Street. He is young and casually dressed in black: jeans, shoes, buttoned collared shirt. He begins to walk from one end of the car toward the other. It will take him thirty-one steps. He is favoring his right leg.

He speaks clearly and slowly. His left arm is held out, away from his side. “Please,” he says looking from one passenger’s face to another. “I am asking for a dollar, or fifty-cents, or a penny, or anything.”

A tumor, he says, is growing on his wrist. He says it is the size of a golf ball. There is a round swelling on his wrist. He shows it to anyone who will look. Some of the passengers glance at the wrist. Then they turn back to what they had been doing; what they had been looking at before he began to speak and their eyes had been drawn away to look at the tumor.

“My mother,” he says, “died three months ago. She was sixty-three. I am twenty-three. My mother’s name is on the apartment lease and the landlord tells me he won’t let me stay. He is renting it to someone else. Please help me,” he asks, “Please give me whatever you can.”

The train stops at Spring Street. Passengers get off. Others get on. Shoppers with trendy bags. The young man with the tumor on his wrist and the limp in his right leg begins to speak again. Halfway down the aisle, starting again from the beginning. “Please,” he says looking from one passenger to another. “I am asking for a dollar, or fifty-cents, or a penny…” He makes his way toward the end of the car and turns back.

No one has moved to give him anything.

“Thank you,” he says, “from the bottom of my heart. No matter what your color, no matter what religion, your nationality. Thank you.”

The A train is an express going north. At the next stop, Twenty-third Street, the doors open. He leaves the first car and enters the next one. Someone is playing a trumpet on the platform.

An older, weary-eyed man, steps into the car, holding a folded sign, cut from a light brown cardboard box, hand-printed in navy blue marker. He is wearing a Colorado Rockies cap. He does not speak. On the sign he has printed, Please Give Me $5. I Have No Money And I Need To Get Something To Eat. Bless You. He walks slowly, saying not a word, showing the sign and holding out his free hand, toughened, creased and unclean.

The girl with the topknot and the red Skechers has been watching. She reaches into her backpack and takes two quarters out of a zippered purse. Her mother tells her, “You put that money away.”

The young man with the golf ball-sized tumor on his wrist comes back into the car at the end where the girl is sitting with her mother and with the fifty cents in her fist. Her hand is in her lap. Once again, in the same voice, he begins, “Please, I am asking for a dollar, or fifty-cents, or…”

The weary-eyed man with the hand-lettered sign and the Colorado Rockies cap looks at the girl, and at the mother. The young girl in pink raises her hand. Her mother grabs for her arm, flinging and clattering the coins to the floor. They scatter and roll under the legs of the passengers across the aisle. She falls after them, on her hands and her bare skinny knees.

She reaches after the coins, under the seats, around long legs and behind their afternoon shoes. The tired uptown people bend their legs and pick up their feet. Move their bags. The quarters slide away on the slick floor when the car comes to a stop. The mother is fraught. She speaks the girl’s name. Everyone in the car is watching. The girl’s mother loses sight of her daughter. She stands and a woman with an infant takes her seat.

The doors open. It is Thirty-fourth Street. People push their way around the girl leaving the car, and more press their way in.

The weary-eyed man with the hand-lettered sign looks at the girl. He looks to the man in black. He stops.

The young man with a tumor steadies himself beside the girl with the topknot and red Skechers, on her knees, and the two silver coins in her hand. He reaches his hand out to her. She looks up and places the fifty cents in his palm.

He had been there first.

“God bless,” he says to her.






The Immortal Life of Avrum Shapiro


One hundred and fifty-two years after his accident, the one in which his wife Chava died, a young woman knocks on Avrum’s front door. From inside he asks, Are you a reporter? No. With the Board of Health? No. Are you selling Girls Scout Cookies? No. No Girl Scout cookies? No. Then what good are you? I have a pastrami sandwich I’ll share with you.

He opens the door a crack. He looks her up and down. She is wearing a long grey wool coat. Holding a bag in her hand and a small purse over her shoulder. Her hair is pinned back behind her ears. Come in, he says.

– My name is Miriam Osterman, she tells him.

– So?

– So, I am the great-great-grand-daughter of your brother Mischa.

– Mischa.

He leans toward her. Looks closely at her face, the slope of her shoulders, the set of her eyes. There is, in this young woman, a palimpsest of the lost soul of his beloved Mischa. He hugs her. Unreservedly. Tightly. She reacts with softness.

– Yes, Mischa. I’ve been searching for my ancestors in old postings on Finding My Mishpucha.com. That’s how I found you: Born: Milwaukee, 1931; Moved to New York: 1953. Marrige: 1961. No children. Wife, Chava (nee Singer) died in 2017. No record of your death. I am so sorry about your wife. I am. I don’t know what to say.

– Nothing to say.

– But what happened? How could you possibly still be alive? You should have died at least a hundred years ago.

– Well, is all he says, pointing her to the one chair in the room and he sits cross-legged on the floor, watches as she unwraps the thick sandwich. Did you bring any mustard?

She passes him a small container. He spreads the mustard on his half of the sandwich. Licks his finger.

– What happened? I don’t know what happened. My poor Chava is gone and I am still here. I miss her like a loon misses the moon on a thousand, thousand, moonless nights. They say it was something genetic, in my telomeres, my chromosomes. My telomeres will keep lengthening forever, whatever that means.

– Forever? My god, people would do anything to be you.

– I don’t think so, Miriam. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Believe me. Alle ziben glicken. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Day after day.

– But, Uncle Avrum, what if it really is forever? I wish I could. I’d want to.”

– Do you have any idea what you are saying? It is pure fantasy. It is because we all live in fear of the ten foot black mamba of mortality. Instead of living the best in number of days you are given.

– But, just what if…?

– Yes, young Ms. Osterman. You tell me what if… What if you’d have lived so long that you outlived anyone who could remember you? What if you outlived your children and your children’s childrens’ children? Is that a good life? Is that a life to look forward to? Is that even life? Is that what God intended?

– I don’t know, she said. Would your brother not have wished for that?

– Would anyone really wish to outlive the trees and the salamanders? To outlive Methuselah? To outlast the rocks and the rivers and the sky? A life of saying Kaddish for everyone who you’d ever known? A life with no one left to say it for you? No one to be there to put a stone on your grave?

And then there are the little things. My dentist’s office keeps sending me postcards about a checkup. They think I still have teeth. I get the L.L. Bean catalogues. I haven’t bought anything from them in 87 years. I lost my license fifty years ago. I was too old, they said. Like that was my fauIt. I walk a lot. I pick up trash along the roads. I make things out of it and I leave them for other people. I make do. What have I got to complain about? I take care of myself. But now I know what a real life sentence is.

– Do you need money?

– Nah, money I got. I heard that they were closing up the social security but I keep getting the checks. The fakakta government. The city comes to check the house. They want to evict me but I’m staying. They shut off the electricity and the gas. You think I care? I got a wood stove. I cook on it, when I cook. I pay the water bill. I pay my taxes.

– You eating okay?

– I eat… I don’t eat. Makes no difference. I eat berries. There are no birds anymore. You’ve probably seen pictures of birds. Insects too. Gone. Soon the deer, between the heat and the coyotes and the shooters. They come near the house. They bring kids with them.

I keep the doors locked. I read a lot. The library is boarded but there are all those books in there. I get in, I get out. Nobody minds. You read books?

– I do, she says. Sometimes.

– I write. Nobody reads it. Who would? Why should they? I think a lot. Chava used to buy batteries in those big packs, candles, toilet paper. She saved shampoo and soap from hotels. Matchbooks. You never know, she would say. I use the toilet, you should pardon the expression, and I think of her. I think about her a lot. I cry myself dry.

– I’m sorry, Avrum. Would you like to finish the rest of my sandwich?

– It wouldn’t hurt.

– Could I come back sometime?

– Please, he says. I’ll be here, god-willing. Maybe a slice of pizza next time?



Dialogue at Simkowitz’s Sunnyside

A man and a woman, well-dressed, both who look to be in their late forties are seated beside one another at table at Renee Fiddleman’s oldest daughter’s wedding reception.

They have not yet been introduced or, if they have, neither one remembers the other’s name. They have already finished the arugula with sliced pears, kosher proscuitto, blue cheese, and candied pecans. Though she did not eat the prosciutto, being a vegetarian and he left the pecans on the edge of his plate, allergic to tree nuts.

Their table is far from where the bride and groom are seated, or who were seated, since they are now both dancing with relatives and friends who have been invited to the dance floor by the emcee, who sounds like he is calling the eighth race race at Pimlico.

“Is that your wife?” the woman asks.

“I’m sorry, who?”

“The woman who was sitting across the table from us who has a body like Anita Ekberg and who is now dancing with my husband.”

“That guy is your husband?”

“Yes. Well he was my husband, no, let me start over again. He is my husband but we are separated and getting a divorce if we can agree on who gets the house, and the kids, and the succulents.”

“The succulents? What succulents?”

“We both had a greenhouse collection. Before we got married. That’s how we met. We are botanists. Or, we were both botanists. I still am, but Shep was blackballed from the BSA for crossing an echeveria elegans with a hawworthia cooperi which is, as you can imagine, a genealogical total no-no.”

“The BSA? The Boys Scouts?”

“No. Where are you from, Cleveland? The Botanical Society of America.



“But, no.”

“No what?”

“No, she’s not my wife.”

“Well you kept looking at her with that ‘husband’ look on your face.”

“I’m not her husband. I’m a dentist and I can tell she has an impacted wisdom tooth from the way she was chewing on just one side. And, what is the ‘husband look?’”

“Like how they look at us as if everything we do or say is stupid and then they make some sarcastic remark like, ‘You know if, you just packed a little more sensibly you might be able to get everything into one carry-on instead of three…’ Asshole! He would never think of just helping me with the suitcases and not parking in the cheap lot, a mile from the terminal to save fifty cents or five bucks on a skycap. But he buys a case of vodka he checks because he can’t just drink regular vodka and not Solszhenitsyn or whatever.


“Oh my God. You’re an asshole just like him. I should have known. You must be the creep orthodonitist.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Sylvia.”

“Schwartzman? Sylvia Schwartzman? The Slippery Sylvia Schwartzman ”

“Oh god, where did you hear that? And yes, I’m Renee’s bridge partner. I can’t believe she would put us together.”

“I used to date Renee before she married Frank, and she didn’t.”

“She didn’t? What are you talking about, she didn’t? You’re sitting here next to me. What do they call that in New Jersey?”

“I meant she didn’t put us together. I switched the place cards so I wouldn’t have to sit with the mortician.”


“I got stuck next to him at the other daughter’s wedding and he kept a running commentary on the Dodger’s game from a transistor radio earplug, and he ordered the prime rib which he never should have done with the lousy dentures he wears and he kept clicking and spitting the chewed up meat into a napkin in his lap. And he keeps looking over here like he’s about to come over any second.”

“He might. And why don’t you just get up and just go brush you teeth or floss or something. Murray is a darling and you have big polished brass balls to talk about him like that.”

“Look, Sylvia, the guy is a mortician. What kind of a guy does that for a living?”

“Don’t ‘look Sylvia’ me. What kind of a guy sticks his fingers in people’s mouths and gropes them while they’re under the gas for a living?”

“Hey, Sylvia, I’m going to make believe you never said that.”

“Why don’t you just make believe you forgot to leave your split level in Mah Wah or Moon River or wherever you keep the Playboys in your underwear drawer, and say ‘goodnight Gracie’?’”

“Sylvia, you’re right, I am sure I am all you think of me and more. I get it. I had the good sense to never get married. Maybe I’m a misogynist, maybe not. I’m not a groper. I’m a good dentist. I like making money. I like where I live. I don’t mean to hurt anybody and I appreciate criticism but you know what? You don’t know me. You don’t want to know me. It’s easier to put me in the same box with your soon-to-be ex and the other men you think of as cancelled checks. But, if you ever need a cleaning we have half-price Thursdays for botanists with overbites.”

“Shep said he liked my overbite.”

“Ok. And with that I think I will give us both a break and take my place card and go sit by Murray. He might have the ballgame on and I can watch while he masticates his mashed potatoes and sirloin tips.”



All About Eve

After the movie they walked to Huntley’s for ice cream. Not far, but on the other side of town, since it was nearer to her house. He’d paid for the tickets and ice cream for both of them though she had said several times she thought they should go Dutch. They ordered sundaes without looking at the menu.

This was Saturday, the day after he had the fight with his father. Pushing one another, back and forth like boys on a vacant lot, banging their heads up against the walls in the hallway and then falling against the door and into the bathroom onto the cold tile floor. His mother had watched them and told them to stop. Cried for them to stop. Nobody had bled and no one talked about it afterward. Continue reading All About Eve

Another Man’s Shoes

Another Man’s Shoes

Petersen had been married to Marie Claire for twenty-two years when, one summer evening, over a quiet dinner, he told her he was leaving her to live with another woman. Beck, he said, was her name and from what he could figure she was some ten years older than him.

Marie Claire put her fork down, took a deep breath and she asked him if he would be finishing up the rest of the asparagus with braised tofu and slivered almonds before he left. Continue reading Another Man’s Shoes