The American Red Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the American Red Summer.

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

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

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

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

 

On Considering Quotidian Days

A thunderstorm passed over the island last night. Out of habit, we counted the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder, as if that would have any effect on us. How fast the storm was moving mattered none. We were going nowhere. We closed all the windows though we could have only closed those on the northeast side of the house. The wind was stiff and strong. We didn’t lose power.

The next morning, Peter is in the spare room cleaning the cat’s litter box. “Would you like some coffee?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

We sit and have coffee together. We do this most mornings now, talking about what we have to do today. We have our lists. He writes his on small index cards; sometimes on slips of paper. He carries them in his pocket along with a pen. He writes notes to himself. Notes about what he sees or hears or reads. Things he’ll look up. Ideas for the stories he writes. The last time we were in the city I bought him a box of the pens. I think they cost about a dollar fifty each. A box lasts him a couple years.

The last trip to the city was before the COVID. We haven’t been back there since before March. He says we probably won’t get there again for maybe a year or two.

“A year or two?” I say.

“At least. Maybe three.”

We wear masks when we walk into town. When we pick up groceries. He doesn’t come into the store. He waits outside. I carry a hand sanitizer in my purse and use the wipes they have there and I give him one when I come out. He listens to the radio while he waits for me. Or he reads.

We know a woman who died of the virus. A bright, talkative woman, about his age, in her seventies. She dyed her hair magenta. When we heard she was on a ventilator, we thought she was not going to make it. Three weeks it took. I see her and hear her voice and her laugh and it makes me sad. Both of us. I tell him I might dye my har magenta. Then there was Terrence McNally, and John Prine. He plays his Prine’s sad ‘Sam Stone’ on repeat some evenings, by the open window in the living room with a book in his lap.

He reads four or five books at a time. He’s reading Les Misérables he tells me. Halfway through it, reading four or five pages before he falls asleep at night. He says he has six hundred forty-two pages left.

“I’m in no hurry. I don’t feel the pressure I used to feel to finish books anymore,” he says, “like before, I’d rush to finish one so I could add it to my Goodreads list.”

“We need mulch for the front garden,” I tell him. “And a light bulb for over the sink.”

“Ok,” he says and writes those down on his list, along with the bills we have to pay.

We do a lot of gardening, planting bulbs and perennials, mostly. We walk and sit on the beach in the late afternoons, when the sun is still strong, the people are few, and the light burnishes our arms and faces.

I am seeing my students remotely and he has spent the morning mowing the lawn and writing. In the afternoon he brings me coffee and a sandwich for lunch.

“I have come to realize,” he tells me, “that this is the way it’s going to be for a very long time. The house, the yard, ourselves, is all we have.”

“I’m concerned about the virus too,” I say. “Getting sick and dying in pain, alone.”

“That’s not it,” he tells me. “It is good. It’s freeing. A freedom I’ve never felt before.”

“What on earth do you mean? This is freedom? What kind of freedom is being confined to home? To this town? Marking the days like Xs on a cell wall? It will get old pretty soon, don’t you think? What’s the point of doing all of the reading, exercising, weeding? To what end?”

“That’s it,” he says. “It’s an end in itself. Doing what I love.

“You have children, grandchildren. Don’t you want to see them? The museums? Restaurants? Protests. The elections? You are giving up on that? Don’t Black lives matter anymore? Climate change?”

“Yes, they do. They all matter. It’s just that the past few months, here with you, have been good. Our time together. The quiet. In the end, it all comes down to how you spend the time you have.”

“I am not disagreeing,” I say to him. “It’s just, you always say to me that life is a journey, not a destination. And now you’re making a destination out of this place in this terrible time?

“Can’t it be? Just ‘til there is a vaccine?”

“And what if there is no vaccine? What if there’s another virus? Then what?” I tell him, my voice raised in a way I don’t like. “Yes, let’s enjoy our time together, but don’t imagine that reading, or looking through old pictures and snipping daisies counts as a journey. Not in the world we live in. Not in the world I want to live in. We can wear masks and assess our risks and make wise choices and we can do that together. But believing in the good and working toward it is the journey I want. Flourishing, growing, learning, helping, making things better, bringing creativity into the world? I know you believe in all of that too.”

“I do,” he says, “but is a plasticized, commodified, self-centered, constantly-comparative life, driven by the need for a new-and-improved mouthwash and an addiction to a politicized news cycle the journey you want?”

“Mina,” he says, “I feel like we are buffeted by an unrelenting brutal storm, like the other night. All of us, this country, not just by the virus, but by those we have reason to expect to work on our behalf, a government we have elected to serve, not to rule by whim and envy and personal animus. Every day we count the seconds between the tweeted lightning bursts and the thunder of events, not knowing when they will hit us.”

We don’t talk for the rest of the day.

In the morning, he comes in with the last of the rhubarb stalks in his hand. He leaves his shoes at the door.

“Steve Inskeep,” I tell him, “says that Arizona, has the highest per capita number of new cases in the world. Bahrain was fourth, and Nick Cordero died.”

I can see by his face I have said the wrong thing.

He lays the rhubarb on the counter and leaves me alone. I don’t like how I feel. I don’t want to see the sadness in his eyes. I follow him into the bedroom and sit next to him on our bed.

“Peter, I have no problem with the way we are living now,” I tell him. “We are doing what is necessary and prudent. I love the time we have together. I love the beach and the garden. The Zoom friends. The time to read and think. I love what we have learned we can live without, but also what I truly cherish and want to have restored. I like going to a baseball game, working out in the gym with my friends, going to the city and having dinner in Wo Hop after a movie at the Angelica. I want all of that again.”

He turns his eyes to me. “Wo Hop?” he says.

The Yanks Are Coming

Dear Michael,

Your last letter was so sweet. I even showed it to my mother. You know she has had her doubts about you and me and about how young we are and what will you ever do for work when you come back home and also about your parents and that dreadful little sister of yours and her carousing and her smoking and how she never sends anyone thank you notes even for that wonderful tea set my mother sent her for her sixteenth birthday. The one with the tiny pink roses on the inside edges of the cups and saucers which cost my mother a fortune in her ration stamps. Continue reading The Yanks Are Coming

Seize the Day

During a protracted period of convalescence following a rather routine, though nevertheless unfortunate, surgery which resulted in a quite unpredictable and unexpected series of complications, more serious by far than the condition for which the surgery had been performed, I fell into a time of deep despair for which I could assign no reasonable cause and out of which I saw no apparent avenue of egress, though, I must admit, due only to an ill-considered intransigence on my part, I sought neither professionally-qualified help nor the possible mitigation that might have been afforded by the use of widely available and efficacious prescription medications, or the less-costly advice of friends and the array of psychoactive formulations from which they routinely found relief from their own feelings of despair or disquietude, nor, as a last resort, the advice of my parents, only one of whom, my father, was still alive and in less than full control of his faculties, and with whom I had little contact and with whom I had a strained and awkward relationship,  and who, as circumstance would have it, if I remember correctly, resolutely, for only the reason that he distrusted doctors and others in society who professed to have knowledge or skills he lacked, had refused to have the same surgery I had undergone, despite having sustained a similar injury during a weekend game of doubles with three men of his approximate age and social status, all being solidly hard-working men living then in the relative comfort of a new suburban development, hastily created outside of the bustling city in which they had been raised, and for which they had deep affection and allegiance, and from which they left, with no little reluctance but with great insistence from their wives, as their financial circumstances improved, resulting, in no small degree, from the relative economic prosperity that devolved in the post-war period and spread, as tantalizingly as might the aroma of a cooling apple pie left on an open windowsill, during the rise of the Eisenhower middle-class, and in a time when that sort of outward population diffusion, fueled by the rapid expansion of the network of interstate highways and interchanges, as well as the general perception among some groups, that that was what was being done and what seemed to be expected of modern young families, what with modern appliances, wives who did not work and children who, according to the advice of well-respected clinical experts of the likes of Dr Spock and others, were being encouraged to spend their time at home playing out-of-doors being free, even though, contrarily, in their own minds, that is, in the minds of the men themselves, the time they had spent playing stickball, skelly, or handball in the city streets dodging sedans or riding subway cars far afield from their own neighborhoods seeking fortune and adventure, was the freest and best time of their lives, and from which the memories that most sustained them in times of their own malaise and self-doubt were made, and which bore little or no resemblance to the fey, childish pursuits of their own children, which, again in the minds of the men themselves, were of little benefit and which provided little of the toughening of body and spirit which the men felt was the object of the short time spent in youth and which would undoubtedly lead to a generation of coddled complaining namby-pamby soft-skinned man-children in ill-fitting and unsubstantial suits, tight underwear, and thin-soled shoes from foreign countries, who would be wholly and woefully ill-prepared for the challenges that life would set before them, and from which they would learn nothing and which would send them crying back to their mothers for succor and protection, from whom they would undoubtedly receive the unflagging confirmation of the belief that the world, in fact, neither understood nor fully appreciated them and from which they should be parentally shielded, rather than forcibly separated from the unquestioning, commodious, and all-too-welcoming maternal bosom, and from whom, it was inevitable, the type of relief sought by the wet-behind-the-ear men-children could not be obtained because it was from these very same eternally capacious bosoms from which they had been weaned so incompletely and so belated, and so well-beyond the time at which a clean break could have afforded both mother and child the distancing needed for the mental health of both of them and which would prepare them both for the harsh but inevitable exigencies of life in an exotic but unforgiving world full of both wonder and woe, opportunity and opposition, and, to be sure, the inescapable reality of death, regardless of the good intentions of one’s heart or the resolution of their beliefs, and the contribution, evil or beneficent, they had made in their lives to the commonweal, and so, casting aside any hope of receptivity from my father, I sought to find some refuge and relief in a perusal of the books I accumulated on my shelves over the years in the times I was flush with some expendable cash and relying upon the recommendations of the New York Times Book Review as well as books I had seen being read by strangers on trains, selecting particularly those books that the engrossed reader had been more than halfway through and which had that ineffable qualities associated with the dimensions of the book as well as the thickness of the pages, their rag content, and the presence or absence of the deckling of the edges, more often favoring the deckled edge for reasons I cannot well explain, and oftentimes finding an attraction in the way that the book might lay in the hand with the spine firmly held in the center and pages falling softly left and right over the palm as might a book of psalms or a bible in the hands of a Southern Baptist preacher as he commands the hearts of the faithful holding the book aloft as if it were a loosely-swaddled babe in his hands with the strength of both his fingers and of his convictions, and which he then cradles, the pages against his chest, as his voice falls in gentle cadences, his point having been made, and I, hoping to find such a book, running my fingers across their spines and sensing, what I could, by mere contact, what lay within the bound pages, as if the community of words contained within were communicated to me by an ineluctable and welcome force, that it came to be, through no volitional act on my part, that my fingers came to rest upon a used copy of Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recall purchasing on an afternoon in a long-ago September at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and which I had never read, as I was not familiar with either Bellow or his writing, and it was within the pages of this this book that I sought, with great hope, to find the solace I so sorely desired and could no longer find in the welcoming arms of my departed mother.

The End of the Roll

Bessie Levin waited to see the manager.

“How may I help you Ma’am,” he said. He was well-groomed, polite, and had Bernard Sopotnick stitched on the pocket of his red Costco vest.

There are nine Costco stores within a one-hundred-mile radius of Bessie’s apartment in Bensonhurst. She has spoken in-person, face-to-face, with the store manager of eight of them. She got nowhere with any of them. You name them: Sunset Park, Elmhurst, Staten Island, Bayonne. Nothing. Continue reading The End of the Roll

Things I Did Not Say When I Was Alive

There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Others I just didn’t know how to say. Things I want to say now.

Maybe if I’d said them before, maybe if I had acted differently, it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.

We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. I don’t think we were ready for you. Some people are. We weren’t. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. Ours. We all paid a price for it.

Some nights, when you were real little, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. It was your mother. She worried me. She’d cry for hours at night. You know how people get when they don’t get enough sleep. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t. Neither of us were.

What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Or she would say she didn’t know. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. That made me feel so bad that I wished I could cry myself.

I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were strict people. They didn’t laugh much, or at all. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays.  Rye or Challah with pickled herring or whitefish chubs. Potatoes with cucumber. And tea. Tea in the morning and with dinner. In a glass with a cube of sugar.

They worked hard. Shnayders, tailors. In our apartment. Neighbors brought them suits to repair. To let out or take in. Seams to sew. Hidden stitches. My mother had her sewing machine by the bedroom window. My father worked on the table in the living room under the ceiling light. At six, the clothes came off the table to set it for dinner. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing. He hummed and smoked while he ironed.

They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. The smell of pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Gray faces with creases in their foreheads.

My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions of people. Babies like me dying in hospitals and at home. But I lived.

You were a year old. Small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. And school, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home. She wasn’t like that before you were born. And she would cry in the night. I didn’t know why. She would go to your crib and stand there. Come back to bed, I would tell her. There was nothing I could do.

Maybe we shouldn’t have had a kid. Maybe we should have waited. Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe we were too young. Everyone was getting married then. That was it. That was what you did.

I think you felt the same way. I saw that and I didn’t say anything to you. You were what, twenty when you got married? Too young. I looked at you and I thought, this kid should wait. I should have said something. You wouldn’t have listened to me. Would you?

Maybe you would have. I thought if said something, your mother would kill me. I looked at you and I saw no happiness in your face. When I got married, your mother and I were all over one another. But you? Nothing. Blank. Like you two had taken a ticket and were waiting on a line to buy a pound of flounder.

Your mother and I had something, once. I thought we always would. But things changed. I think a lot of it was my fault. I remember being so tired I felt nauseous all the time. I can’t remember what I said to her once, maybe, leave the kid alone already. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. She went into the kitchen, where the phone was, and she called her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and she called her mother and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said stop it and I hung it up.

My father never once raised his voice. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. But from then on things were different between us. I felt like I was in a box. I worked. We went out sometimes and had a good time, but it wouldn’t stay that way.

I don’t know where it went wrong with you. As a kid you seemed distant. Even more when you got older.  I didn’t know what to say to you. How to start a conversation. And it just stayed like that. You were more like your mother. You weren’t like me. And so…

I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. It was just hard.

I did not want to put that on you. But then, I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know how to say it.

I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.

Never once in my whole life did I ever feel like your mother so often did, with her heart so filled with either happiness or sorrow. So much that she felt it could just burst open and have it all pour out.

If only once I could have felt that, maybe then I could have been able to say the things I should have said when I was alive.

The Pompitous of Love

I am out back raking leaves. Bagging them in the paper sacks we get at the hardware store. Much like the store where I worked in summers during college, selling tenpenny nails and ball-peen hammers.

I’m raking leaves with Ezra. My son. He’s home from school in DC for the winter break. Till he meets up with his girlfriend and they drive back down to school again. Together. I like her. I’m glad for him. He’s pretty crazy about her.

The Goodenoughs across the street have six kids. All moved away by now. They pronounce their name “Good-now’ and it’s just the two of them and the one cat they adopted from the shelter. They keep up with their house. The yard. Flowers that match the season.

It’s been wet for the last few weeks and the leaves are matted dark and pressed flat against the ground and when we rake them up the grass underneath is soft and tender green. Not dried up and thin like the faded color of rye bread on the other more exposed parts of the lawn.

“Why do you think that is?” he says.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s warmer under the leaves and dark and the grass grows and greens up a little like they do when they first sprout from the seeds underground,” I say.

“So why do we rake them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why don’t we just leave them covered up like that all winter? Like if we weren’t around?”

I like the way he thinks. I like the things his mind turns to.

I don’t know what to tell him.

He is looking down at the grass by his feet. “So why do you do it? What’s it good for?”

“You mean is it good for the grass?”

“Yes,” he says. “Or is it aesthetics?” His voice has deepened over the year since he’s been away. His cadence has slowed.

I look around. The Goodenoughs had their lawn raked and blown clean before the first snow. Before they brought the softening, carved, pumpkins to the transfer station.

“Aesthetics, I guess.”

We hear a car and both look to follow its sound.

When his mother pulls up to the curb his eyes widen and a small curve comes to the corners of his mouth. His cheeks round. He is a beautiful boy.

He loves his mother. He loves her in a way that I cannot, nor can I know. I loved her first. But that has nothing to do with love.

He loved her the moment he took his first breath. As he was settled against her tired chest, feeling the rise and fall of her breathing. The first touch of her skin. Its redolence will be with him until his last day. A guide. A touchstone to his life.

Between them is a calibration that occurred in that instant. A setting or resetting of their biological reference points. The first shared recognition of an unshakable, wordless, similitude.

I love her too. Perhaps in many of the same ways he does. And then in different ways. Ways he will too, but with someone else. Maybe someone who smiles like she does. Perhaps not. But there will be something.

For me though it was a slower walk to love her. Slow but constant. Gravitational, almost.

A willing recalibration for each of us: of reliable habits, of a sense of self, a plumbing of personal depths.

We measured and adjusted our side-by-sidedness. Narrowing of the distance. Until being next to her was my only true place. Sharing a border, like two states, for which the only thing that separates them is an invisible understanding that they are separate but inseparable.

There was a brief introduction, ours. Confirming the names we had been told by others. A beginning. A lingua franca of friendship emerging at the copy machine. A need to see one another up close. A slow and hesitant certainty growing. A quickening when either entered the room. A pleasing recognition when you notice a strand of her hair on your shoulder.

Not enough is said about how two people come to love one another. To care for the other more than for oneself. To come to reach out for one another in the dark. To watch them as they grow and change. To ache when they ache.

Do we need to know the biochemistry of love? What good would that do? I don’t want to know. The neural pathways in the cingulate gyrus, or oxytocin receptors, or dopamine titers in synaptic junctions tell us nothing we don’t already know or need to know.

We, the three of us, walk together into the house. My fingers are numbed from the cold and wet. Ezra walks a bit ahead with his mother. I bring the rakes up to the back door. I think I will let the leaves stay where they have fallen until they are dried up and dispersed by the warming breezes we get here in April.

There is a picture of her I keep on my desk. In this one my head is down. I am wearing my black suit and she is in her white dress. My hair is not yet gray and hers is light and a few strands of it have blown across her forehead. Her cheek. She’s walking beside me. Looking at me, and her eyes are as bright and as clear as the July-blue sky behind her.

 

Robbie’s Roadside Drive-in Movie Theater

Marvin Blitzstein accepted the probate decision with a sense of equanimity.

Millie, his wife of twenty-two years, clutching a copy of Dickens’ Bleak House, saw this as just one more infuriating example of his intolerable passivity. His lassitude. His complete and consummate complaisance.

“Marvin,” she said as they had left earshot of the lawyers suite, “your brother, Melvin, who you don’t like and who you haven’t even talked to for the last eleven years, and who has unfailingly and unflinchingly screwed you out of everything you ever wanted in life, the long list of which I need not remind you of, walks away from yet another chance to make things right by you and he leaves you holding the bag of do-do once again, and you say what?” Continue reading Robbie’s Roadside Drive-in Movie Theater

After Adelaide

Sedgwick sits alone on the soft sand. The tide is receding. The sun stretches long shadows down the beach from behind the condos along A1A. The low-rise two-bedroom models suited to the needs and savings of the less-than-wealthy and less-well-connected winter people who couldn’t afford the tall, balconied, places fronting the intra-coastal. Single people mostly, women mostly, who come south when it gets too cold and too quiet up north. People he knows. Women he knows.

Adelaide was one of those women. Continue reading After Adelaide

Chava Shapiro: The Fresh Air Interview

Welcome back. I’m Terry Gross and you are listening to Fresh Air. If you’re just joining us, we have been talking with the remarkable Chava Shapiro. She was recently featured in a series of short stories published on an online journal website. She is here to talk with us about those stories, writing, and being a lesser-known female author working on the edges of the publishing industry.

 For those of you unfamiliar with her most recent story, it is called The Good Life of Avrum and Chava.

Ms. Shapiro, let me ask you, in the story, the central character, Chava, is seen as sort of a ‘Good Wife.’ Why did you pick that kind of a character to write about and how close is it to your own life? And why do you call it the ‘good life?’ Continue reading Chava Shapiro: The Fresh Air Interview

My Dearest Malachi, This Is Me, Your Mother

My Dearest Malachi, This is me, your mother. This is a joke. Right? Your brother Myron has told me about your new, and you should pardon the expression, ferkakte, adventure. Why are you doing this to me? You think I don’t have enough to worry about? Why didn’t you tell us? Your father is a wreck. Me? Not so much. He is going to plotz. He’s sitting on the living room floor this very minute watching CNN for news about you and pulling his hair out. But you shouldn’t let that bother you. Continue reading My Dearest Malachi, This Is Me, Your Mother

Adelaide On the Beach

When Sedgwick saw the body on the beach, in the evening, he didn’t believe it was Adelaide, the woman he had been seeing for a few months, earlier, until they had wordlessly drifted away from one another, having never, he thought, made any sort of commitment to one another, save for the general assumption that they’d spend an evening or two together, sometimes during the week, when she was in town, Continue reading Adelaide On the Beach

Molly Jacobs and Sarah Phipps (aka Sally Jacobs)

Molly and Sarah, two girls who in their youth

“may have given their end of town a swinging

reputation,” Garland says, “but if they hastened its

decline, they at least broke the cheerlessness of it.” (p.63)

Grown up, grown old, they would while away

their time, playing cards. “Sarah would get mad

at Molly, and say: ‘I shan’t tell you where I hid

the kerds. I hid them behind the old chest,

but I shan’t tell you.’” (Mann, p.55)

 

Grown up, grown old, having played

the hand they were dealt—they lay together

(Molly and Sally Jacobs) in tattered rags

pulled up over their chins—they lay together

 

in their bed through the cold winter

days and nights—the snow fallen and

falling through what was once a roof—

lying there in each others’ arms—

 

barely moving, only slightly disturbing

the smooth white blanket

that covered them.

— James R. Scrimgeour

From Voices of Dogtown: Poems Arising Out of a Ghost Town Landscape, Loom Press, 2019

 

 

Watching Nadal on TV

Paul, a slim man, in his fifties, not much of a talker, is sitting in a chair beside a hospital bed in a cramped bedroom in a mid-priced condo on the east coast of Florida. The room seems dark to him. The chair is utilitarian and uncomfortable. Cold-chromed steel tubing with a flat fake-wood seat and a straight back. No place for a person’s arms to come to rest. Not a chair meant for sitting in for long.

His shoulders are slumped forward. He is looking at the bone-frail woman in the bed. Continue reading Watching Nadal on TV

Myra and Mose

Myra is sitting on the other side of the bed. The side closest to the window. The blinds are open. The thin morning light falls across her cotton nightdress in bands like an inmate’s prison garb. A few of Mose’s books are on the floor. Scattered, lying in disarray.

Her books are neatly stacked on her table, with her glasses, beside the reading lamp. The books, both of theirs, are overdue at the library. He had been reading The Confessions of Nat Turner. She hasn’t read any of hers in a while. She can’t remember when. The thought has ceased to cross her mind. Continue reading Myra and Mose

Is God Dead? No He’s Just Busy

God was late. He missed dinner.

“Marvin, where have you been, young man?” said his mother. “Dinner is cold, and your father couldn’t wait. He ate and He’s in his room working on The Book.”

Marvin has been auditing a class in Practical Applications of Advanced Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech. Three days a week with an afternoon lab on Saturdays. Continue reading Is God Dead? No He’s Just Busy

The Coffee Lover

Porter sits on the back porch steps. At Maureen’s. He is waiting for her. For her to come out. For her to bring the coffee she is making.

The air is cool, and a blanket of mist covers the tops of the white pines, blocking his view of the water, which lies down the steep sandy slope behind her house.

He brought pastries from home. It is Sunday morning. He has not read the Times yet. It lays folded on the stair next to him. They will read it together later. Maybe walk to the beach. Continue reading The Coffee Lover

The Death of A Good Man, All In All

The funeral service for the late Herman Kaminski was not well-attended. The Riverside Chapel in Mount Vernon was near enough to the Cross County Parkway for a quick on and off for mourners up from Manhattan or down from lower Westchester. It also offered an ample parking lot as well as a compassionate understanding of the religious traditions in a Jewish memorial service. For no extra charge, they provided the services of a Rabbi, one Arthur I. Shankman, who spoke with the bereaved family before the service. His fingers interlaced in front of him, he asked Kaminski’s two sons for any remembrances they wanted him to mention. They declined. Continue reading The Death of A Good Man, All In All

The Woman in the Silver-Grey Mercedes

The woman was driving a sleek, self-assured, silver-grey, late-model Mercedes convertible. James Connaught could not make out the model number as the car passed by in the HOV lane heading north on I-84 toward Boston or, more likely, Providence. But he could certainly see who the woman was. It was early afternoon on a warm Friday and he was in a seat by the window, mid-way back on the driver’s side of the Bolt-for-a-Buck bus on his way home from New York to Boston. He had travelled into the city for a business meeting.

He knew her. Had seen her last less than three hours earlier. She was still wearing an onyx-black silk blouse she was wearing then, and her hair, closely resembling the same luxurious material, was pinned back with a silver clip at the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless. She was Zumba-thin and had an aura of cold, practiced composure. As if she were meditating in a meat locker.

James put down the book he was holding. His pulse quickened. His breathing sped. She was taping her fingers on the steering wheel, her head nodding in time to the sound system that encircled her.

The rage he had felt earlier that afternoon swelled once again within him. Then, she had been sitting across the table from him, in a comfortable room with the door closed, a folder in front of her, which she did not open.

He had asked her, he remembered, “What is going on?” To which the Mercedes woman had said, “You know exactly what is going on. We are letting you go.” And, with not another word more spoken, she left the room, with only a nod to Monica or Musette, the HR person who was there to clean up the mess.

He looked at Ms. HR, his heart plummeting with unanticipated sadness, as if he had just witnessed the death of a loved one, or as if a verdict had been read to him in a dark, Kafkaesque courtroom on an undisclosed charge with an undisclosed sentence. As if they expected him to be silent and to somehow accept that what was happening had been of his own doing, and that they were blameless and without the power to undo it and make it any different, and that he should try to understand their unfortunate and innocently impotent predicament.

As if he would then walk out of the room and down the hall past all of the office doors that were closed tightly, the office doors that were once ‘always open.’ The doors that hid the maleficent conspirators from bearing witness to the trouble they had wrought and with which they bore only a distant and quotidian relationship, tapping their pencils on their desk blotters, waiting impatiently until their temporary but necessary ordeal would be over and they could once again be opened.

And he did as they had planned. He signed the papers that had been placed before him and he walked out of the room and down the hall, stifling an insistent urge to knock on those high-ranking doors and ask for an explanation or better yet, an apology.

He walked to his desk and found a box someone had put there and he filled it with his few belongings, sitting, knowing that everyone knew before he did what was to happen that day, and when they should go out for coffee and a smoke or, if they needed to be at their desks, when not to raise their heads or to glance away from their computer screens, or cough or make any sound at all that would draw his attention to them and risk having to speak to him.

These people, the very same ones who had sat with him in a meeting that morning and who ate cinnamon-raisin bagels with cream cheese and drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of paper cups with him, and had known full well what would transpire later that day and said not a word, nor had given a look of acknowledgement of what would come to pass nor of what bullet, at the end of the day, they will have been spared.

His access to the computer server had been denied. They had made sure, in their premeditated efficiency, that he could not retrieve any of his files. As though he no longer existed to them; as though he had no longer had any value, perhaps never had, except in the generation of billable hours.

He sat on the bus, alone. He felt the urge to vomit. Around him were crumpled Burger King wrappers and pizza-stained napkins on the floor; the grime on the window beside him, left by other men, other women, who had leaned against it leaving their greasy mark as the only evidence that they had once been there. Around him, the odor of the lavatory and the smell of his own acrid sweat like onion breath.

The Mercedes had flown by. James was left with the weight of the future on him and the inescapable, unfathomable, thought of what he would do now, a man just past sixty-two, with a mortgage and bills to pay, and a wife and child waiting at home for him.

The Good Life of Avrum and Chava

Avrum and Chava own a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home in North Ossining, not far from the maximum-security prison down by the river. They have 2.5 acres, iron gates, their own artesian well, and biodegradable, earth-friendly deer fencing protecting their garden.

Avrum is a retired lawyer and Chava is a former social worker for the department of corrections at Sing Sing, where they first met.

In their fifty years together, they have led cautious, well-organized lives. They are vegans, fermentationists, grow their own fruits and vegetables. They use no plastics. They stopped using aluminum pans and deodorants years ago. They have no cell phones or a microwave. Their home is rid of mold, lead, polyfluorocarbonate aromatics, errant asbestos fibers, and radon.

They look like two well-pressed Dickensian waifs from Bleak House. Each of them is thirty pounds under weight. They consume no more than 800 calories per day and walk eight miles each morning to remain in strict calorie balance.

Their yoga instructor finds them existentially intimidating.

When they turned fifty, each assessing their risks, Avrum had a prophylactic prostatectomy and she a precautionary hysterectomy and full bi-lateral mastectomies.

They are friendly and sociable, literate, kind, careful, and caring people.

One recent evening, they were heading north on the West Side Highway after attending the final performance of the entire Ring Cycle at Lincoln Center when they were sideswiped by a gypsy cab with its lights off and were sent careening into the guard rail. When their front and side airbags deployed, given their light weight and small size, they were instantly crumpled and suffocated.

At the moment of their death, they are surrounded by a halo of warm mauve light.

A reassuringly back-lit vision of a sixty-something woman with neatly trimmed hair, a string of pearls, and a tastefully tailored white pant suit, appears before them.

She speaks slowly in a vaguely mid-western accent, “Don’t be alarmed,” she tells them. “Just try to relax. You’ll be all right. I promise.”

They look at one another, unsure.

“You are not dying or dead. You have been granted a reprieve; a permanent stay of execution so to speak; a lifetime dispensation.”

“Why us?” Chava asks.

“To tell you the truth, we don’t offer this to everyone. You’ve both lived exemplary lives of service, chaste, positive thoughts, and quiet restraint: Model citizens. No felonies. Frankly, just what we are trying to encourage.”

Avrum asks, “Wait, we’re not dead? Isn’t this Heaven?”

“No,” she tells him, “We did away with the heaven idea eons ago. It just wasn’t giving us the kind of results we were looking for. I don’t have to tell you about the present state of affairs: debauchery, gluttony, sloth, tax-fraud, sexual harassment, drones.”

“What if we take this offer, what happens next?”

“Well, nothing changes. Everything stays the same. You just agree to maintain your lifestyle. You stay forever just as you were fifteen minutes ago before the crash. We need folks like you to set an example for other couples.

“Nothing changes? Our bank account?”

“The same.”

“Investments? Health insurance?”

“The same.”

“Same. My God, think of all the books, movies, bar mitzvahs, operas. No pressure to do anything you don’t want to for-ever. You just agree to let us use your names and testimonials in a little subtle internet advertising promoting The Good Life and the launch of our new product line.”

“Think of it. Your home will be free and clear after the mortgage expires. Of course, you’ll need to have the wiring upgraded and the appliances repaired, replace the boiler, the roof when needed, you know the usual maintenance every hundred years or so.”

Sensing their hesitation, she adds, “I know this will work for you. For you both. What do I have to do to make this deal happen?”

Silence.

“Look, not to rush you but if you just put your thumb prints right here, you are free to go. You’ll never see me again.”

Chava and Avrum look at one another. He reaches gently for her hand, “I’m in,” he says, “Let’s take it.”

“Congratulations, Avrum. This is so you!”

“Wait,” Chava says. “What if we decide not to take the offer? I mean, what happens if we say no?”

“Well, no one has ever actually said no before. I guess you just get the usual, you know, one last meal of your choosing and then, well, it’s lights out.”

“A last meal?”

“Yes.”

“Chava, what are you saying?” Avrum whispers.

“Shush! What could we have?”

“Anything!”

“Anything?” Chava, lowers her eyes. “Well,” she says quietly. “Could I have three eggs, scrambled, wet, homefries, and wheat toast, no wait, make that pumpernickle toast, with butter.

Arum looks at her. He is aghast. “Chava, don’t do this!” he implores.

“Is that all?” The woman asks, looking toward Avrum.

Avrum shakes his head, “ Nothing for me.”

“Can I have a side of bacon, too?” Chava says.

“Of course.”

“And a regular coffee, light and sweet?”

“Chava, bacon, yet? Please!”

“Oh, Avrum,” she tells him. “ I’m sorry. I love you. I do. We’ve had a good life. What more could I ask for?”

She looks into Avrum’s warm grey eyes, smoothens her hand against his rough cheek and turns to the woman in white.

 

 

 

An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Margaret Donnelly, the administrator at TenderNest Assisted Living, tells Hector that his mother has not eaten breakfast for going on three days.

Each Saturday morning, Hector makes the drive from Bozeman to Billings to see his mother. Two hours each way, less if the weather is clear; more if there’s snow on I-90. His job keeps him in Bozeman. He works lift maintenance year-round at Big Sky. He calls it ‘Big Money.’ Continue reading An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949