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.”

Victim/Victim

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.

“What?”

“Did you say something?”

“No.”

“I just thought I heard something.”

“…”

“Pissant.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

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.]

Oates:

(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.

“Jersey.”

“Figures.”

“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.

“Stolichnaya.”

“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.”

“Murray?”

“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

The Girl by the Pool at the White Sands Motel

Willie Lowenstein stretched his long legs out on the backseat of their grey DeSoto. His shoes were off. Eyes opened and closed off and on. His head rested on an army-issue green duffle. In the front, his parents were talking. His father was driving. His mother next to him, a paper sack on the front seat between them, holding three egg salad sandwiches on white, paper napkins, and a thermos of coffee. Continue reading The Girl by the Pool at the White Sands Motel

The Prom Queens

Helen Burnside left New York. She had watched the towers collapse. She felt the rumble of armored jets patrolling in belated formation through the still-rising columns of grey human smoke.

She despaired at the shattered illusion of invulnerability, quickly replaced by a constant see-something-say-something paranoiac vigilance. She sold her parents’ two-bedroom co-op in Brooklyn Heights, stored her furniture; packed a suitcase, a paint box, and a carton of books. Continue reading The Prom Queens

My Name is Jonah Gold

My name is Jonah Gold. Like the apples except my parents named me before we found out about the apples. But this has nothing to do with the rest of this story. I just like to get that out of the way in case it should come up by chance later on and you’d think I was holding back from telling you a better story.

Anyway, this story is about being Jewish and having a bar mitzvah. It is also about my family. I had a bar mitzvah at which I had a good time. I got $1,200 in gifts, which my parents kept to pay all the bills, and a leather briefcase, which I got to keep. I think I should have gotten to keep some of the cash. But, so what. Continue reading My Name is Jonah Gold

Dear Malachi

Dear Malachi, Thank you for coming home for Thanksgiving. It was so good to see you. Your father also said it was good to see you.

Mom- It was good to see you too. BTW, in texts you don’t have to write ‘Dear so-and-so’.

 Dear Malachi. I forgot to mention that I think your father is hurt that you did not tell him that you love him in the birthday card you sent him. And for next year’s card, remember his birthday is October 16, not November 16. Continue reading Dear Malachi

On the Third Day

On the Third Day God created the seas. And the seas covered the entire earth. And it was good. Not exactly one hundred percent good, but okay good.

It was all according to the design specs, but now seeing it in person, after having created the dark and then the light, and the firmament and the earth, and all, it was just… water. And so His shoulders dropped and a frown came over His thin, innocent, boyish face. Continue reading On the Third Day

The Sad Case of the Solipsistic Sublapsarian

Eric Singleton was stuck. At a standstill. Doubly so: physically, stopped in traffic behind a late model Toyota Camry on 7th Avenue at the corner of 9th Street in Park Slope; and existentially, locked in a self-imposed worry-worn straitjacket of self-absorbed spiritual stagnation. Continue reading The Sad Case of the Solipsistic Sublapsarian