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