With All Due Respects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sol had lived alone. Since his wife died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked around the room.

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

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

Alice in Chains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harran, don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

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

“What do you think I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you’re going back, then?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

“Please don’t say that.”

“Say what?”

“Fucking.”

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

“Alice.” 

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

“Don’t go. Where are you going?”

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

“Why did you even come back?”

“What?”

“Why did you come back?”

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

“Could you let me out?” he said.

“What?”

“Let me out. Please, I have to go.”

Of Nietzsche, Vonnegut, and Pastrami at Katz’s Lower East Side

“Hi, are you Carmella?”

“Yes. Miriam?”

“Yes. I’m so glad you came.”

“Thanks for saving me a seat. It’s crazy in here. I can’t believe it’s so packed at ten o’clock at night.”

“Sit. Please. Give me your ticket and I’ll order for both of us.”

“I don’t know what I want yet.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get pastrami on rye with mustard and you’ll love it. I promise. I’ll be right back.”

On returning to their seats with their tray, Miriam said, “Sorry it took so long. It’s part of the schtick here. Look at this sandwich. I thought we’d share one?”

“Oh, my God, yes, it looks incredible!”

“Let’s eat.”

“Forgive me,” Carmella says, chewing, “I looked at the book on your chair. You’re reading Nietzsche. What do you think? The ‘eternal return’ idea. You think he had it right? Vonnegut wrote something about that too.”

“I’ve never read Vonnegut, but maybe I should. I think Nietzsche had it right, mostly. About what he called ‘the eternal recurrence.’ The cosmology. It’s much more complicated now. But philosophically, I’m not so sure where he stood.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, sometimes he seems certain, even challenging the reader about the idea. At others, he seems as if he’s challenging his own thinking. But the cosmological part, based on astrophysical calculations, was the right idea.”

“But he didn’t know any of the mathmatical stuff, did he?”

“No. Nor that the universe, the multiverse, is recursive and nonlinear in spacetime, without beginning or end. Eternal in that respect. Billions of years of expansion, loss of momentum, and then gravity and entropy drawing all matter and energy back to a single massive point of dense black energy. Only to explode outward with an equal dark energetic repulsion like it is now.

“But he believed that the universe was cyclic, as others had years before him. Did you get pickles?”

“Yes, half-sour. And yes, no physical confirmation of cycling, like we have now. An infinite-seeming series of cycling. A kind of Bang, Bang, Bang, rather than one Big Bang. But, of course, the whole issue of cosmology is well beyond the limits of human existence, if not the limits of human thought. I mean what Nietzsche and others were really concerned about was what is the nature of human existence and thought. Right?”

“And God.”

“Yes. And God. Philosophically, he has some cosmological support about the absence of God. We think that the entire energy content of the universe, as we see it, is a closed system. There are no leaks through which energy can either be added or lost. More mustard?”

“Sure. But how does that relate to God?”

“In a closed system, there are no external forces, or energy, outside that can enter or leave. So, no motive, creative force setting it all in motion. So, as Nietzsche proposed, no god that created the universe.”

“I’ve never tasted rye bread so good. But what if there was, or is, a god force, which set it in motion and walked away. Or better yet, one within the universe. And we can’t see it. Some unidentified, hidden, immeasurable force escaping calculation in the physical mathematical models we have.”

“Some unaccounted-for glitch in the theory or the measurements of energy in the universe?”

“Yes. Do you want some of mine? One cosmic-repulsive-attractive-cohesive energy with the potential to form matter?”

“No thanks. We just don’t know. In our tiny inconsequential moment of spacetime, no matter how many infinite iterations of the cycle, assuming that in each cycle both life and humans will be formed, we’ll never know.”  

“And, if they don’t?”

“You mean one and done? Then what he thinks matters only if it helps us understand anything more of what makes us human and what matters in our lives. But, anyway, why should what he thinks matter anymore than me or you?”

“Now you’re sounding like Vonnegut.”

“Why?”

“Because there are no absolutes. It’s all immaterial. It’s all just a story. And what we know is obviously only subjective and transitory. All we have is what we think and how we act.”

“Exactly. But isn’t that the central flaw in human thought and philosophy. That any one person’s thought can define what morality and happiness might be? The best we might get from Nietzsche or anyone, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned, is a thought that we might consider. And, if that thought helps you find happiness as part of a good life, then that thought may be good. No more than that.”

“I don’t know if Nietzsche was proposing a universal happiness force. He almost certainly was not proposing one derived from the energetic core of the universe.

“Surely not. As if there was, in a teleological sense, a purpose to life. A predetermined achievable eternal goal of life. A cycle of eternal personal human existence in which we live and die and live again, ensuring that time and again, like a great Mandala, humans, we personally, would experience a rebirth to follow at some time, in the eternity of time, to live again and, as some believe, a new life, following this one, in which we’ll be born into a happier, more fulfilled, more moral, being. You’ve got some schmutz on your chin. No, no. There. Yes, you got it”

“Thanks. That would mean that there’d be a progression of increasingly happier states. And each generation of human beings would consist of people born happier and more fulfilled. But, so many people alive today live lives of hardship and little or no hope for anything different, just as so many have, generation after generation. If the universe were to be so programmed, why are humans still born into a life of sadness or unendurable hardship, given the thousands and thousands of generations of people born since they first appeared on the earth?”

“So maybe Nietzsche really proposed the concept of eternal return, as analogous to a life in heaven as a repetition of the life we have lived on earth, but only the good parts.”

“Yes, and would that not simply satisfy the belief we all have that the good moments of our life are worth remembering and make life worth living? And for those who believe that there is a god and an afterlife, it would somehow make the present life worth living?”

“So why do we look to philosophers to make up theories that no one really pays any attention to?”

“Because philosophers are filled with their own issues they’re trying to work out. And they have this sense growing out of their privileged position in life. The sense that they have earned it. Earned a better life by their good works or their good education, their charity, or their fortunes, or their piety. The feeling, among some, that they are fundamentally better than others.”

“For those, Nietzsche’s claim that God does not exist has no relevance. Because they’re übermensches, supermen, who see themselves as transcendent. Who regale in the trappings of a good life because it is what they have earned, or bought. It’s a comforting and rewarding philosophy for them.”

“You can be an übermensch and not believe in an afterlife or in eternal return. Isn’t that really what Nietzsche was saying? That to strive for a moral life is a goal in itself. The definition, really of the good life? Is that not what Vonnegut was saying, too? Be the best, freest person you can be?”

“Yes. I think, in the end, that is what Nietzsche might have believed. That when he posited the concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ it was really a ploy, a way to question pre-determination, a way to understand the meaning of free will, and that in life we ought to live the one best life. That to believe in a life after this life, as a second and third and fourth chance at a good life, ad infinitum, was not metaphysically tenable. That’s why he wrote that recurring life would, contrary to some other philosophies of reincarnation, be repetitions of the same hard life over and over again and why he settled on the concept of the Übermensch, not as an inherently superior being, but as one person, male or female, who strives to live the best, and in his view, the most moral life.”

“Brava. These are the very same positions that Vonnegut makes in his Tralfamadorian conception of time, which echoes Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence precisely. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to read Nietzsche like you do. I think Vonnegut is enough of a philosophical story for me.”

“Oh, my God. Look at this. It’s almost eleven. They’re going to close. I haven’t eaten even half of my half sandwich.”

“Let’s ask for wrappers for them. This has been delicious and fantastic, Carmella. We have to do this again.”

“Next Thursday? Vonnegut? The Sirens of Titan? At Angelica’s up on 187th?”

“Great. At ten again?”

“Ten, again!”

Carmella raised her half-full glass of Dr. Brown’s Celray-tonic. “Here’s to Tralfamadore and the Chrono-synclastic Infundibulum!”

 “What?”

“Read, and thus shall ye be enlightened.”

Hold Close Your Family

Greer came home from Ithaca for Thanksgiving. We all had gathered at Celia and Dave’s on the Thursday. The aunts, uncles, cousins. Celia cooked. She cooked every year.

We have a large family. Complicated. Blended in a way different from the way we speak about some families nowadays. More complicated. Maybe not. Though cousins marrying cousins seems strange to some. Not in a good way, I think. Celia is my cousin. And she married Dave, my younger brother. Our grandparents were cousins. I think that’s an old country thing, from when families were large and communities were small and tight. Insular, protective, with good reason.

 “Hold close your family, Gert,” my mother always told me. “We do that. We women do that.”

I think of Celia and me. Our mothers. Our Aunts. Our daughters. “We are the stitching that holds the sweater together,” my mother would say.

Greer didn’t feel well. He didn’t look good, but we all told him he looked great. He had grown a beard at college. Dave said it was an affront to the flag, the country, the troops. It was 1969. We passed Dave the cranberry sauce.

Greer ate very little and took a nap before going out to see some friends. Celia made him see the doctor the next day. It was mono. Fatigue, swollen lymph glands, fever. He wasn’t hungry. Just tired. Pain in all his bones.

I will say this before I say any more, just to get it out. On the Mother’s Day after that Thanksgiving, just before dawn, my nephew, Greer, died. Or, he ‘passed’ as my older brother, Max, the writer, prefers to say. He believes died is too harsh a word. Too organic sounding, he says. He lives in Toronto. We hardly ever see him. He doesn’t do Thanksgivings.

Greer went back to school on the Monday after the vacation. The symptoms persisted, then worsened. He went to the infirmary. The doctor there ordered blood work and called Sloane Kettering where she had a colleague. Then she called home and spoke to Celia.

Celia was making dinner for Dave. When she heard the doctor’s voice, she sat down in the chair by the telephone table in the hall, next to the cabinet with the bottle of J&B and a shot glass Dave would drink from when he got home from work.

When she heard the doctor say she was from the college, she began to sob. She said, “No.” Kept saying no, listening to only some of what the woman was saying. She heard “Kettering,” though.

She called me, still crying, grasping for breath, as she told me. It sounded bad. I said maybe it wouldn’t be, that he’d get the best care there, whatever it is.

“Yes,” she agreed.

I sometimes imagined Celia and myself growing old and wrinkled together, living in a two-bedroom condo in Florida, on a cul-de-sac with palm trees, like our mothers did, with a broad screened-in veranda, and baby alligators in the lake we can see from our backyard.

Greer died before the sun came up. When only the blue-gray light from the east came in through the window in his room.

Kettering was a grim place. The walls were painted with grime and sadness. There was nothing there that looked anything like hopeful. If we saw hope one day, the next day it was quickly dashed against the walls, the windows, and the floors.

We bought him a radio for the table beside his bed. Friends sent letters and cards to him. Wished him well.

The treatment was experimental. Alkaloids made from plants. Periwinkles and crocuses. Colchicine and vincristine. There was nothing else. Experimental sounded promising. We trusted them. We needed to. We knew nothing. They knew everything.

He lay in a bed in a room paid for by a government grant. It had one window which looked out on First Avenue.

I read that Paul Ehrlich, in the early 1900’s, studied experimental treatments for cancer, using the alkylating agents. They say he had a sign over the door to his lab, “Give up all hope, oh ye who enter.”

The drugs killed his cells. Any cells that divided fast. The cancer cells, his bone marrow, skin, hair, mucous membranes. His body just stopped making new cells. Red and white blood cells, platelets. His body stopped growing, stopped healing itself.

He was nauseous all the time. They gave him peppermint drops for it. They gave him antibiotics and platelets to replace the ones that the drugs had killed. But the cancerous cells spread.

We stayed with him as much as we could. Taking turns sitting by his bed, going out for coffee or a cigarette. Standing by the window in his room looking out at the traffic. Watching the lights on the corner of Sixty-eighth. On nights when it rained, the lights spread out in streams on the dark, wet streets.

For weeks, Celia sat at the end of the hall by the radiator. Her arms folded across her chest or wrapped around herself. She looked weary. The hallway looked weary. She came to his room, several times during each hour, standing by the door, taking the measure of his condition. Taking the measure of what she could endure. She’d then turn away, back into the hall, or she’d come in and touch his hand or his cheek, feel his forehead, her own headed bowed.

“Would you like to sit in the chair?” Sometimes she did.

“Are you alright?” I asked her once. She looked at me. That was foolish of me to say.

Each night we drove home on the highway along the East River, crossing into the Bronx and up home, past the racetrack. We didn’t talk. I drove and she looked out the window on her side. We kept the radio off. There was so much to think about. Greer, of course. And other things, too. It seemed like everything was falling apart. Russia, missiles, Cuba, the bomb. Kennedy and his brother, King, Vietnam, riots in the streets. There was so little for us to hold on to. We felt powerless. We were powerless.

“Oh, Gert,” she’d say to me. Not looking at me. Speaking to the window. Watching the boats on the river.

There were no words to be said. Only grief. As when my own son, the year before, had been hit and killed by a driver as he knelt on the side of the road fixing a flat tire in the dark. She’d suffered with me in my own grief then. Too much to bear. Too much to bear alone.

We’d put our things down on kitchen counter and Dave would ask how he looked today, what did the doctors say, how was he feeling? I’d take Nico out for a walk and let the two of them talk. I don’t know what they said. I left them alone. Then I’d go home and to work in the morning and pick Celia up the next afternoon.

One evening, as we got ready to leave, the nurse, a woman in her fifties, I thought, told us that his fever was very high and that maybe we should stay. We watched as they fitted an ice pack as big as a mattress, under him, to bring the fever down.

She said, “If he makes it until dawn, he’ll be okay.”

“If?”

In the first gray light of day came through the window, when the nurse came in, she called out for the doctor, we woke in our chairs. He had not made it. It would never ever be okay. He had died there while we slept in chairs by his bed.

We drove home. The two of us.

And when she saw Dave standing, waiting for us in the kitchen, “We’ve lost our boy,” she said, and held on tight to him.

The Hungarian Deception

Erik slept in fitful bouts of disturbed sleep all night. Words, phrases, faces, as if pasted on to the rims of a perpetual motion machine, or better yet, a snake devouring its own tail, woke him, or at least, brought him to the thin subliminal edge of nearly-waking. In those moments in which he did awake, he looked over at the clock and out through the parted window blinds behind him.

His wife slept quietly in their bed. Bliss, their three-year old, lay in the space between her parents, curled against her mother’s back.

Snow began falling shortly before he woke. He knew it was coming. Expected it. Moving in from the northwest, off the lake, tracing the path of the highway south and eastward toward the city. By six o’clock there were already four inches of fat, wet flakes blowing in swirls around the streetlights, sticking to the road in front of his house and to the west-facing sides of the other homes in the neighborhood.

Feeling ragged when he got out of bed, he shaved and dressed silently in the bathroom. He’d set out his clothes for work the night before. His brown wool knit tie, grey flannel shirt, jeans.

He hurried.

“Hová mész?” his wife whispered, (Where are you going?) in Hungarian to him in the near-dark room.

“To work,” he said.

Verk? Te örült vagy? Egy tonnaszar hó esik teher!” (Are you crazy? It is snowing a shitload out there!”)

“If I leave early, I can come back early.”

“Coffee?” She pronounces it, kahvee.

“Nope. I’ll get it on the road.”

Dehogy?” (Nope?)

He told her to go back to sleep, he’d be fine, not to wake the baby and he went into the kitchen and sat down at the table, keys in his hand. He did feel crazy.Crazy and irresolute. Irresolutely trapped knee-deep in a mess of his own doing. He needed to leave. Right away. To not leave, to even think of not going, of letting Liesel go by herself, was more than crazy. Unforgiveable. He wanted to be with her. It was the right thing to do. He said he would. Given his word. That was a laugh, was it not. His word. He wanted, too, so very desperately to put an end to all the deceit. He would tell her that.

The snow was steadily deepening.

The few people left in the waiting room looked down at their cellphones or at the folded magazines in their laps. No one spoke. They shifted in their seats, making as little a disturbance as they possibly could. Crossing and uncrossing their legs at the ankles. Jittering bended knees. Wet footprints marked smudged lines across the carpet. A table lamp lit in the corner of the room.

Each of the women there shifted their eyes to the inner door when they sensed it opening, anticipating when the nurse would appear and read their name from a clipboard. The few men among them only looked up when the woman they’d come in with heard her name being called and then she’d get up quickly. And then the men would leave.

They had planned to meet at six-thirty in the parking lot at the commuter rail station. He’d often met Liesel there, leaving one of their cars at the uncrowded south end of the lot and then driving to some other place, in some other part of the city, to a park or to the back of a library, or to a café where they might not be seen by anyone who might know them. This had been going on for almost a year. They’d once met for an afternoon at the empty apartment of a friend of hers. Muzzy, a high school friend, he thought. He had never met her.

He stood to get up and leave the house and then he stopped and sat back down.

Leaving home in weather not fit for driving would only mean another lie he’d have to concoct. He could call Liesel’s house and pretend to be from the clinic saying they were not taking patients for the day, and she could call later to reschedule. But then what would rescheduling do? It would only put this off for another day. That would have solved nothing and how would she explain to her husband a call from anyone that early in the morning. But then, perhaps Muzzy would take her to the new appointment.

Liesel was punctual (always), obsessively well-organized, more of a person in control of things than he. She demanded punctuality. Of course she would certainly have called the clinic, checking to see that they were open and expecting her. She should have canceled when they knew about the storm. Maybe she had. But more likely, she’d already be waiting for him, parking lights on, engine running evenly, her hair still damp from the shower, and the lizard like tracks of her near-slick tires being eradicated by the freshly falling snow.

The procedure Liesel was having this morning was scheduled for eight o’clock, twenty miles in toward the city. A grey one-story clinic building by the highway, behind a tight hedgerow of cypress trees.

At six forty-five, Liesel turned off the engine, pounded her open palms against the steering wheel until they hurt. “Fuck,” she said. “Fuck him.” She got out of the car, her head and face wrapped in a thick woolen scarf against the wind. She scraped clear the windshield of encrusted snow and got back in and started it up the again. Turned the wipers on. And then saw, through the gauze of snowflakes, the lights of his car. You bastard!

When they called Liesel’s name, she rose, bent over, and whispered closely, and sharply, into his ear, Erik, lisen to me, menj el most, és gyere vissza értem két óra múlva.” (Leave now and come back for me in two hours.)

He turned his head to look at her, but she stopped him and grabbed his chin in her stiff, long fingers.

He nodded.

“End von more tink,” she said, in a voice just loud enough for the others to hear, “yu dirty peeze of cow sheet, tek of det Filadelfia Freedum beisbol het frum yur beeg bawld hed, end tek doze googly eye glesses frum of yur fayz, vitch yu tink meks yu look jus lik Elton John, becose you only lokk like a ful, end yu r embearazink me. End ven yu cum bek fur me, brink me a plen begel vit crem chees end a blek coffee. Du yu here me?”

He nodded.

Pliz belif me, Erik. ven I tel dis tu yu, És ha valaha is mesélsz errõl a húgomnak, meg fogsz halni!” (And, if you ever tell my sister about this, you will die!”), she said.

She then stood up, straightened her bek and left the room without looking bek at him.

He shrugged on his overcoat, left by the front door, and got into his car.

A Sudden Change in the Weather at Weeping Rock

Harris and Cortina ate pancakes with butter and syrup at a table near the door of the park’s visitor center, a short walk from the trailhead. It had rained. Their clothing was soaked through. Their boots were filled with mud. They were bedraggled. Shaken.

Men and women in expensive looking hiking gear and sleek backpacks came through the door. Their sunglasses set back atop their heads, they looked around, and smiled at the couple eating pancakes, in a way as if the two were unfamiliar guests at a wedding party who no one wanted to sit with.

Harris poured syrup over the cakes. It trickled down over the round edges.

Cortina did not look up from her plate. Her hair dripped.

They both knew it was over between them.

Harris poured himself second cup of coffee and lifted the pot toward her. She shook her head.

He put the pot down and she picked it up and poured a cup for herself.

They’d made love the night before, in Bullhead, in the back bedroom of her mother’s doublewide, and they’d slept late. They had to hurry, then, to start the drive up to Zion. Neither of them liked to feel pressured.

Cortina’s mother worked at a casino in Laughlin, on the Nevada side of the Colorado River.

The day before, she had taken them to the casino for breakfast in the employees’ cafeteria and then they swam in the river. The flood gates at Lake Mead were open and they floated down river a few miles in the swift, brown current and then walked back up along the road to Harrah’s and jumped back in again.

By the time they reached the Weeping Rock trail head, it was almost noon. It was three hours up over the East Rim into Hidden Canyon and another three down.

Cortina had taken the trail once before. It was narrow. Two yards wide at its widest. Switchbacks crisscrossed the steep face of the mountain.

Cortina led. Single file. She called back to Harris the names of every tree and rock formation they passed. Kaibab limestone. Fremont Cottonwoods. Quaking Aspen. Utah juniper. Bristlecone pine. Navajo sandstone.

He followed in her steps as best he could.

In the canyon above the rim, protected from the wind, they drank the last of the water she had packed.

Harris, his legs covered in fine red ancestral dust, saw himself as a free young man who’d once lived in the quiet sacredness of the canyons, on the plateaus, and down along the creeks in the valleys. He felt they begged to be worshipped.

When the sun traversed the rim, Cortina said they needed to head back down. The way they’d come up. He thought there must have been another, easier, trail down.  

They’d been together for about a year. They talked books. Shared pizzas and salads. They once took a weekend trip to Block Island, rode rented bikes, and bought rolls at a roadside bakery. They were both reading Blindness then. She liked Saramago’s writing more than Harris did.

She had two children. Teens. They lived with her and spoke badly about their father’s new wife and with whom they spent weekends before she became pregnant, after which they felt they were no longer welcome.

He found them hard to be around. Cortina knew that. She said he would get used to them over time. That they meant well, though Harris doubted that.

Down from the rim, they walked in shade. The rockface on one side, and nothingness on the other. Far below, cars were leaving the park.

Harris’s boots slipped on the downward slope a few times, and Cortina told him to keep a safer distance behind her.

There had been a magnetic rush between them when they’d met. An outsized hunger for each other.

She had a literary mind. She knew things he did not, making references to authors and books he’d not read. She hated Hemingway. He suspected it was the man’s matter-of-fact unfaithfulness, rather than his writing, that she disliked. She abhorred Roth. He sensed a peremptory rebuke which he took personally.

Further down, the wind picked up. An updraft. The trail was shadowed by tall darkening clouds.

Cortina unstrapped her backpack and removed a poncho which she put on. She had not packed one for him. He had not thought to bring one. It snapped in the wind.

One crack of thunder. Rain began.

Pebbles skipped down the mountain face from above them. They walked down a few yards, no more than ten or fifteen, looking for some shelter. There was none.

Larger stones fell with the sheeting rain and, in moments, rocks the size of coconuts tumbled down. Water sluiced around their feet. Harris felt he could not breathe.

She screamed at him. “Turn around, go back up!”

Boulders the size of steamer trunks clattered and bounced around them. He shuddered in horror as each one passed.

“Up? Why up?” he said.

“Just listen to me, damn it, we have to find some cover.”

“Where?”

“Up there,” she said.

She pointed to an outcropping of rock they had passed. He did as she said.

“Get down! Make room for me and don’t move!”

Whole sections of the rock wall split off and slid down the mountainside, tumbling out and hitting the side again lower down, some landing on the switchbacks and others bringing down trees and shattering at the foot of the mountain.

Harris’s breath came in short, panicked gulps. He forced himself back against the rock. The nearness of death, the reality and imminence of it. At any moment they could be swept out into the nothingness.

They waited only for the next moment to come and to pass.

When the rain finally stopped, the sky cleared and brightened, waterfalls broke out of crevices in the rockface.

“Now,” she said. “Let’s go down now.”

He flew home to New York alone. She drove the rental back to Kingman.

He saw her once again. A chance meeting on one of the avenues uptown near the Met.

She had let her hair grow out to a soft and appealing shade of gray. It was cold, and they spoke for only a few minutes before she turned and took the arm of the man she had been walking with.

An Early Supper at Le Gamin

I sat at a table in Le Gamin on 10th Ave and 17th St.

Marchant, the proprietor of the café, with whom I had become well acquainted, and with whom, on occasion, I attended the bicycle races, approached the table.

When I came in, he was leaning back against the half-wall separating the kitchen from the dining area. I was early.

Too early for New York people to have supper. Those who worked uptown and lived in one-bedroom walk-ups in Chelsea or the West Village near the river, south of 23rd where you could still occasionally find place for under two thousand a month.

And where, in the hours after dark, after the meat packers closed up, narrow-hipped women and men in high heels walked the streets or stood with long legs outstretched and smoked on shadowed corners under the elevated railroad tracks and bent to look in the rolled down windows of the cars slowing along the curb.

He carried two glasses and an open bottle of a St. Amour Beaujolais. He set the cork and bottle down and placed one glass in front of me.

“May I sit?” he asked. I nodded.

He took the chair opposite me so that he retained a view of the kitchen. I had an unhindered view of the street. I could see the park across the street. One of those vest-pocket parks created in small vacant lots during the Lindsay administration.

Marchant raised his glass to me.

In the years before Giuliani chained and locked the park gates shut to keep unsavory characters out, I would sit with friends and smoke and talk books and writing. The Park has a sign now that says, “No adults unless accompanied by a child under 7.” It’s hard to say whether that keeps away the unsavory characters.

“Mr. Birnbaum,” said Marchant. His voice was hoarse. Perhaps he had been at the bicycle races that afternoon, but I had not seen him there.

“I have seen to it that your soup and fresh bread will be out in a moment.”

“Thank you,” I said. Marchant was not a gregarious man. He seemed weary. Wearier than when I had seen him last.

The M11 stopped at the corner. In front of the laundromat. The bus kneeled and a woman with a Burberry scarf around her neck and a cat carrier stepped to the curb. Spring had been slow in coming.

“Are you comfortable? I can put up the heat if you wish.”

I told him no. There was no need. The sushing of the bus as it righted itself came through the window.

“Very well,” he said. “And your wife. She is well?

“Yes,” I said.

“She is a lovely woman. A woman of great taste and beauty. Will she be joining you this evening?”

“No. It is Wednesday. We have our meals apart on Wednesdays. She works late and then sees some friends of hers from Hoboken. I must get to work myself.”

I write in the evenings. The room I rent by the month on the West Street is most quiet in the evening. I have found that I work best after an early supper. I work until I think I have written a draft that is not terrible and then I leave it to sort itself out a bit before returning to it the next evening.

After I finish for the night, I walk along the river to our apartment in SoHo. I will bring home a bottle of Sancerre for Alize. There is a shop on Little West 12th that stays open late.

“May I pour you another glass?”

“Yes. Have you the escarole this evening?”

“I am sorry. It did not look good to Franco. He purchased several bunches of Swiss chard instead. He is cooking it now. I hope it will be to your liking.”

Marchant, some years ago, inherited the café from his brother, Bernard, the oldest of three boys. Bernard had suffered a mortal wound in a scuffle with a few young toughs outside a bar on Christopher Street.

He was brought to St Vincent’s. He told the nurse who had cared for him that if he did not survive, he wanted to leave all his possessions to the younger Marchant.

Bernard, a careful and somewhat fearful man, always carried a note to that effect, the license to the café, and the lease to the family’s rent-controlled apartment in a leather wallet sewed into his waistband. He asked the nurse to remove the wallet and begged her to deliver it that night to his brother, which she did, at the risk of losing her job, or worse.

She was a beautiful woman. Marchant found her quite attractive, and they began seeing one another. A short time later, disgusted with the blood and misery she saw each day in the hospital, and finding the younger Marchant to be a man of integrity and some kindness, asked if he would let her work with him in the café.

She had learned to cook at her mother’s side in Marseilles and, as Marchant had little facility in the kitchen, he agreed and she soon became indispensable. The business grew. After a while they married, though the marriage did not last long.

Long enough, though for them to have a son they named Franco.

I found myself growing quite hungry. I opened the napkin and placed it across my knees. Franco makes a good bouillabaisse.

Marchant got up from his seat. He had some difficulty. He complained of an arthritic hip. His pre-existing condition, he called it. Though one evening he shared with me that he had taken a fall in a six-day bike race which unfortunately ended his hopes for the kind of life he had wanted to live.

He returned from the kitchen with the soup, a thick slice piece of bread and small plate of chard. “Bon Appetit,” he said.

I told him thank you and he turned back toward the kitchen. He seemed to pause, as if thinking of something he had intended to say and either had forgotten or had decided at the end not to.

The breeze off the Hudson had picked up as it does in the evenings. It came in through the open windows facing the street. If we don’t have rain, I think I might go fishing in the morning and perhaps the bicycle races in the afternoon will be good.

Hannah and Murray Discuss the Future

“Ma, where’s Murray?”

“Out with Zeus.”

“He names a dog Zeus and he gets away with it? Isn’t that like sacrilegious, or illegal or something?”

“Hannah dear, it’s only sacrilegious if you first make a law against it. Like, ‘thou shalt not covet’ or ‘thou shalt not name a dog after a major- or minor-, or even half-god of the universe’, for example.”

“And could I do that?”

“Maybe, ask your father.”

“But what if I make a law like that and someone breaks it?”

“Well, Hannah, I guess it might depend upon several things like, who breaks it, or if only one breaks it, or if a whole lot of them break it, or if they break it by only thinking about it, or planning to do it, or doing it only once, or if they do it a lot while no one is watching, or if they do it and then apologize after but nobody believes their apology, or if…”

“Ok, ma, thanks, I’ll ask Dad.”

“That’s good dear. He’ll appreciate that since…”

“Dad, Ma said I should talk to you. It’s about Murray.”

“Have you spoken with Murray about the matter first?”

“Not exactly, sort of, but not in those exact same words.”

“Well, dear, it’s disrespectful if you go over your brother’s head without speaking with him first, and so I suggest that you give some thought to possibly…”

“My god, no wonder nothing ever gets done around here anymore.”

“What was that dear?”

“Nothing, Dad.”

“So, Murray, Dad said I should talk to you about something super really important.”

“Did you leave a note in my in-box?”

“I tried, but it was full and not accepting any more messages, not since the BCE changed to AD.

“Am I detecting a note of hostility and an incipient challenge to the established proto…”

“Cut the crap, Murray, I’m you your sister. I need you to get in touch with Moses.

“Unfortunately, Hadassah…”

“Hannah.”

“Unfortunately, Hannah, Moses passed on some time ago.”

“Too bad. He was your front man, your mouthpiece, your homey with the commonfolk. And then you just drop him off at the edge of the Jordan like a day-old knish? Who’d you get to replace him.”

“Ah, good question. I’m still interviewing. I’ve had so little time to… I wish I had made better use of his skills, sending him off into the desert was just a holding action until I…”

 “You’re shitting me, right?”

“I’ve had a few good prospects but, you know how it is with…”

“I cannot goddamn believe this. You’re telling me that you you’re okay with things down there with the floods and fires, polar ice melting, a million species of plants and animals you made yourself all those zillions of years ago, gone (and don’t tell me it was only six days because we both know that’s a crock because of the mutability of spacetime) and you do nothing? Nada?”

“Nada?”

“Murray, are you even paying any attention? It’s not like it was just an unpaid internship with Moses. He traipsed through the wilderness for forty years to find the promised land and when they got there you told him you’d changed your mind, and said ‘no dice folks’, go back down the mountain and walk around for another 38 years and then attack the Amorites and, no worries, you just massacre them and take their land. Are you kidding me? Then you did the same with the Reubinites, the Gadites, Manassites, the meteorites and stalactites and stalagmites, the Hittites and the Bagelbites, and the others.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“And you sent them off smiting and wandering, meanwhile saying don’t worship the stars and the moon and the earth and the water but the should obey you about what they should eat and how many prayers to say how many times a day, and don’t eat anything non-kosher. When soon there’ll be no more shrimp or pigs anyway, Murray. I hope you took pictures of all the mountains and valleys and islands, giraffes, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and Euterpe precatoria palms, because you can say ‘sayonara baby’ to it all unless you get off your skinny-ass butt and do something. Maybe you should have just let them go on worshiping the sky and the trees and the water in the first place.

“Look, bro, you signed up for ‘eternal.’ No one told you to say that. Moses kept calling you ‘the Eternal.’ He didn’t call you the ‘maybe-sometimes-guy’, or the ‘just-for-a-little-while-guy.’ They counted on you. People believed that shit. Have you looked at your firmament, by the way? Filled with satellites and pieces of satellites, used rocket parts, methane, microplastics, mylar balloons, and dead insects.

“You wanted a monopoly. ‘Have no gods before me.’ You said that. And with me and Myron here, and all the rest of us, Artemis, Aphrodite, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, Buddha, and Gaia, … sure, we had our problems but nothing like what’s going on now. At least we answered the phone. But with you, who does anyone get when they call customer service?

“Face it, Murray, Deuteronomy may really have been the last chapter for you.”

“Thank you, Hannah. I get it. I don’t need your help if that’s what this is supposed to be. I’m not interested. I just figured I’d get them started and then, you know, let free will take them the rest of the way, right? That was the whole point with the snake and the apple.”

“But Murray, look where that got them. I mean after they ate the apple and put clothes on, you could have dropped some hints about the black plague or Styrofoam, or anything with the word ‘atomic’ in it, or don’t build houses downhill from Vesuvius, or avoid anyone with Stalin as a last name, or don’t dig down further than say ten cubits, and stay away from gun powder, bat caves, and people who won’t wear a mask, for example.”

“So, what should I do now?”

“You need a new Moses type, Murray. One with creds. Experience. Charisma. I’ll set you up, man. Word! I can get you touch with this guy named LeBron.”

Malachi and His Mother: The Aftermath of the Altshul Incident

“Mel Rothstein called me this morning. He had such tight anger in his voice. Like he was trying to stuff it back down. Showing me how in-control he was.”

Malachi was sitting across from his mother at the kitchen table. She had spilled some sugar as she was adding more of it to her coffee. She pushed the crystals around on the slick tablecloth with her finger as she spoke.

“What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘How could you?’ He said I had fomented an insurrection. An armed insurrection. At the temple. The ‘temple’ he called it. He said I had ruined the reputation of the whole congregation that he had worked so hard to make and that tweets or posts or whatever they call them had been posted across the internet. Pictures of me. Rage on my face. Leading a mob of radical Jews against the police. Calling them Nazis. Threatening them.”

“I saw the pictures.”

“He said that he expected more from me, which I know is a lie because he has never expected anything from me or any other woman beyond dull, mute, subservience and a look of thankful awe.”

She presses her finger into the mound of sugar she had created and picks up what has stuck to the finger into her mouth. Her lips curl, her chin wrinkling. She begins to cry. Malachi reaches across the table to toward her.

“I feel so terrible,” she says “I’m glad your father wasn’t there. I don’t know what he would have done.”

“Ma, I feel so bad for you. I know you meant well. In the most genuine, human sense, you saw a danger and you wanted to save everyone. You weren’t crying wolf, or ‘fire’ in a theater. You thought those cops were terrorists intent on shooting everyone in the room. The whole congregation was sitting like obedient sheep waiting for the doors to open and the shooting to start.”

“That’s what Rothstein called me. A terrorist. Worse than a terrorist, he said. He said I should be ashamed of myself for risking everyone’s lives for my own neurotic mishegas. He said I needed to get help.”

“Rothstein, ran out himself. He ran out without looking back, without offering to help anyone. He burst through the side door. He knocked down the officer there. He ran out of the building the second he heard you scream ‘get out!’ It’s only now that he feels embarrassed. He shouldn’t feel embarrassed. He did the right thing. You did the right thing. They had guns. They were acting like real active shooters. They meant to scare the shit out of you. Out of everyone. And, I may be wrong, but I think they got some sort of charge out of scaring the shit out a bunch of cornered Jews.’’

“Rothstein. I never liked him. But that is totally separate, Malachi. For the first time in my life, I feared for my own mortality. Not in the philosophical sense. Not just in conversation over cocktails. Not in that casual, intellectual, sense of ‘let’s all talk about death’ in some abstract, manageable, way. But in the real gripping fear of death in that very moment. Certain that you’d be shot and killed. Ripped through with bullets, and that my body, me, my mind, my thoughts, my very self, would be lost. Gone. Lost to consciousness. Lost to all reality, to all eternity. It is a fear unlike any other human feeling. That instant awareness of imminent death.”

“I can only begin to imagine how you felt, ma. When I was twelve or thirteen, at night, in bed, if I would think of the vastness of the universe or infinity. The blankness. The unending black void. I could feel my body exploding with fear. The fear of nothingness.”

“I don’t remember that. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to. I’d get out of bed in the middle of the night like I needed to escape my thoughts as though they were a physical being. As if death and nothingness were physical beings. Even though the total lack of physicality of them are really what is the most incomprehensible and frightening of all. I needed to get out. Just like you did. I left my room and I went to your bedroom door. It was closed and I didn’t want to knock. I didn’t.”

“You should have, Malachi, that’s what parents are for.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to wake you. It’s that I didn’t want to frighten you.”

“Frighten me?”

“I thought talking to you about death with you older, closer to death, that it would bring up those morbid fears for you. So, I just sat there until I went back to bed.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“That’s when I started saying a prayer at night.”

“What kind of prayer? I never taught you prayers.”

“The one with, ‘Our father who art in heaven.’ The one with ‘give us our daily bread’ and ‘the valley of death’. ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ I didn’t know if it was a real prayer. It just made me feel better to say those things. And I’d say bless my mother and father and list of all the people who I wanted to protect, and say them in exactly the right order or I’d have to start all over again to say it right, no matter how many times. And then there was one night, when I was going to bed and I’d always say ‘good night’ and ‘see you in the morgen’ like ‘guten morgen’, but instead I said see you in the morgue.’ And my god, I apologized a hundred times and then I cried and cried and all I could think of was that what I said would really happen and that you’d die because I said that.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, ma. And don’t be sorry for doing what you thought was right and good, no matter how it turned out. And forget about Rothstein. He’s not thinking of you, only himself.”

They look at one another. Eye to eye.

“My coffee is cold and I spilled sugar all over the table. Sit, I’ll make us fresh. And let’s talk about something else.”

“Critical Race Theory?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. You should hear what your aunt Frieda has to say about that. Like she might know what it means.”

Malachi and His Mother at the Altshul on Garfield Place

Malachi helps his mother step into the side entrance of the shul. The tall mahogany front doors on 8th Avenue were closed. Locked tight. And so, the two of them walked around the corner and up Garfield and then up the stairs through the side entrance, down the hallway to the sanctuary.

They took seats in one of the rear pews, passing the Rothsteins, the Arbeiters, and the Edelmans seated in the front pews. The ones they paid good money for.

The room was near full. A mixed, arrhythmic, hum of voices. Air conditioners whirring. The smell of aftershave and leather shoes.

“Why didn’t dad come with you?”

“Your father? He says he doesn’t do gatherings anymore.”

“COVID?”

“No. C-R-A-B-B-Y. He says he likes people well enough but he likes them much better when he doesn’t have to be around them.”

“That’s Bukowski.”

“What?”

“Charles Bukowski, the poet, said that.”

“Don’t tell your father. He thinks he made it up.”

“It looks like the rabbi wants to start.”

“Welcome all, I am Rabbi Plosker. Let us begin. We are all aware of the alarming increase in hate crimes and mass shootings. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, the Chabad of Poway, the AME in Charleston. And while we work against violence of all kinds, visited upon people of all faiths, we must also protect ourselves with guards, and vigilance, and yes, with preparedness.”

“I have to get up.”

“Ma, wait. It’s starting.”

“I have to leave.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, you stay. I thought I could do this but I can’t. I have to go. I cannot be here for this.

She gets up and, clutching her purse, walks toward the side door. The way they’d come in. A police officer is now there. She turns and walks back up the center aisle toward the main entrance.

“Ma’am,” the officer there tells her, “I’m sorry, but you can’t leave.”

“I have to. You can’t stop me.”

“Ma’am,” the officer extends his arm, takes a step to obstruct her way. “Please, ma’am. We have a protocol we need to follow and I ask you to cooperate, for the benefit of all.” 

“Malachi!”

“I’m sorry ma’am you have to go back to your seat.” He touches her elbow and points her back down the aisle.

She sits down. She’s shaking. “Malachi, please say something. Look what is happening here.”

“Ma, it will be okay. Nothing’s happening. Trust me. Look, the rabbi wants to begin.”

“The rabbi? She wants to begin? She wants to begin with the Gestapo barring the doors?”

“What are you saying? The police do these trainings all over the city. In mosques, churches, synagogues. It’s for our own safety. We need to know what to do if, God forbid, something happens, and a someone with a gun comes in.”

“Let me tell you, Malachi, open your eyes. The someone’s are already here. There are two someone’s with guns here, and one is at the front door and the other is at the side door, and the Plosker herself, invited them in. She invited them in, yet. With guns, yet. Tell me, who comes into synagogue with a gun? I’ll tell you who. My dead grandmother knows the answer in her grave. The SS, that’s who.”

“Everyone is watching us, Ma.”

“Yes, they’re watching. With their goddamn eyes closed. They’re watching but not seeing. This is the most farshtunkene idea I have ever heard in my life and, you, my own son, brings me here.”

“Shhh!”

The officer at the back of the sanctuary is holding an air horn, a large orange klaxon. He’s wearing sunglasses, dark uniform, a peaked cap, epaulets, and a COVID mask. He nods. Touches his visor with two easy fingers.

“Sergeant Petersen here,” the rabbi says, “will lead us through a training in an active shooter drill. He will show us what to do, if it should ever happen, God forbid, in the very, very remote possibility of an active shooter coming into the sanctuary. If we are prepared, and we act quickly and with intention and preparation, we can save our lives and the lives of all of us.”

“That’s right,” says Petersen. “We are here to help keep you as safe as possible. I promise you, no one will be hurt. We ask you first to turn your phones off.” He waits. Everyone fumbles with their phones. “In a few moments, when you hear the sound of the horn…”

“Malachi, take me out of here. I can’t do this. I will have a heart attack. I can’t. I can’t… I will die in this room.”

“…and as soon as you hear it, I want you to immediately do whatever you would do if an active shooter came into the room.”

Sgt. Petersen steps back out of the sanctuary and closes the doors behind him. The officer at the side entrance does the same.

A long moment of silence passes.

The doors open. Both police officers, wearing COVID masks, both with the Klaxon horns pointed at the pews, step in.

Blam! Blam! Blam! The horns crack open the air. Again, and again and again. Like a pair of monstrous screaming jackhammers. 

A woman in the rear screams. Three men in the front row stand up and look to the back, then the front. Toward the blaring sounds. The rest stand, look around, and then duck under the pews, covering their heads and pulling the others down with them. Some grab for their phones. Malachi pulls at his mother’s skirt. “Mama, get down here.”

The cracking, blasting, sounds stop. There are cries from all sides.

Petersen, holding the Klaxon in his hand like a hand gun, walks down the aisle, pointing with it from one side to the other, pointing at each one of the half-hidden, half-crouching, cowering, people.

“You’re dead! You’re dead, you’re dead,” he says to each of them.

The one at the side door explains, “The worst thing you can do is to stand up and look at the shooter, giving him a target. The next worst thing is to crouch under the pews. You make yourself a stationary target. A dead one.”

“You’re all dead. Every one of you. Figuratively,” says Petersen. Now let’s try it one more time.”

The two officers step behind the doors again.

“See, Ma?”

“See what, they told us nothing about how we should react.” she says. She stands up. “This is their new trick,” she yells to everyone.

“Please sit down,”

“Yes, please sit down,” the rabbi calls out.

“That was a sham! One crazy kid bursting through the door like Dylan Roof or Gregory Bowers doesn’t kill enough of us. That was just old-school anger. This is the new and improved U.S. version of mass killing.”

“Someone, take her out of here,” says Rothstein.

“They’re not going to let me out of here. Not you either, Rothstein. Not peacefully. They have us where they want us. They have us all trapped, totally lulled into fearful, willing, trusting fools, placated, convinced they mean no harm. Like how they convinced my grandparents to wait in line for the boxcars, carrying their suitcases and children, and then in line at the showers, for godsakes. I know what’s coming. Everyone get out. Now. All of us all at once. Make run for it. Rush them. I swear, our only hope, is to take them by surprise. Because the next time those two doors two open they’ll have AR-15s and…”

And for the Clothes We’d Worn Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brother said my mother would throw a shit fit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, I cried.

For her. For her sadness before we split.

For me and the sadness I carried.

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

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

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

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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

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

I love him.

I don’t know where he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thought about me each day, he wrote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is,” he said.

We read Celie’s letters in The Color Purple.

“I’m only trying to help him.”

“Let his mother help him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you.”

“No, fuck you.”

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

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

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

Then my husband took the kids from me.

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

We did.

And then we didn’t.

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

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

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

The Company

Fanny Perlstein is soft-spoken. Trim. Well-dressed. My brother’s wife. She wears belted skirts and medium-heel Cole Haan pumps. She must have several pairs of them. Or she likely purchases a new pair before the one she has been wearing looks worn. All of them are of a color called oxblood, if that name is still in use. They are always well-polished and all have leather soles and heels made of a material that is clearly not rubber.

The sound her shoes make as she walks is a click-tock. Authoritative. A sound that might make one turn and look. Though nothing else about her would draw any attention to herself. No ostentation of any sort. No indication that a risk of any order higher than crossing against the green would ever be undertaken. Certainly, no social risk. No political stance expressed that opposed a commonly agreed-upon norm.

She calls to mind a slim stalk of winter wheat. One stalk, indistinguishable from the hundreds of others in a field, waiting, green, near-dormant, throughout the cold months, awaiting a return to vitality and growth in the spring. Enduring a period of personal solitude amongst a crowd.

Her’s is not of the look of muted-heather and woolens. The look of old wealth. The look of comfortable socks, tweeds, and natural fabrics you might envision while reading the novels of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton. Her’s is more of the Architectural Digest or old issues of the Sunday New York Times Magazine ad look.

When we dine together on occasion, she might order the baked haddock or the pasta of the day, or more often, she’d order what my brother had just ordered. She has never ventured into sashimi, say, or unagi, kasha varnishkes, shawarma, kimchi, vindaloo, or baba ghanoush.

I have never seen her in any state other than unruffled. She is not prone to fits of passion or to indiscretion. I cannot envision her engaged in a flirtation, a dalliance, or a one-nighter in Baltimore, much less an actual affair. She apparently passed through mid-life without missing a step or looking up old high school boyfriends, or buying a new Volvo.

There is something, though. Something measured. Perhaps too measured. Too neatly folded and ironed.

I keep waiting for a revelation of some deep-hidden darkness. For a secret past to emerge in a slipped word or a creased and flattened note fallen accidentally from her wallet or a wry smile at a line in a movie as if she had once been in a similar situation, in a predicament that only a Nikita, an Amanda Peel, or a Dominika Egorova character might find herself caught in and which hinted of a hidden fissure in an otherwise well-concealed life.

She seems like someone kept in a witness-protection program since adolescence. Someone whose name had been changed, and who had learned to root for the Chicago Cubs instead of the Yankees. Someone trained to be unprovoked. Un-provocable. Implacable. Avoiding expressions of pity or sadness, ecstasy, consternation, confusion, empathy, condescension, suspicion. Any of these.

I have come to suspect, with little justification, that she had once been an agent of the CIA. Recruited, plucked out of Harvard or Yale as so many had been in the late sixties. Young men and women who studied hard. Got decent grades, who had been identified by a well-connected professor for some ineluctable qualities of rigor, or academicism, unquestioning patriotism, interiority, intensity, and detachment.

Had she ever poisoned someone, plotted the overthrow of a dictator or a communist leader? Could she snap a person’s neck with her bare hands?  Had she used code and encrypted messaging devices? Kept a cyanide tablet in her purse? Taken a lover in Paraguay? A woman who tried to turn her and whom she had in turn tried to recruit as an asset. A woman who was married to the defense minister who was plotting a military takeover of the government. Sex and spycraft seem inseparable.

From whence comes my suspicion?

There were the years she worked for the USAID. A mid-level position. Moving from place to place. Leaving my brother at home. The two children. A year in Paraguay. Another in Eritrea. Disbursing funds for development. Moving easily between Embassy offices and home government agencies, banks, NGOs, learning only enough of the language to seem harmless and friendly. Monitoring the Russians and the Chinese. And then the year in Nigeria. Years in which the USAID and the CIA were joined at the hip. How could she not have been involved? Could not have known what she was associated with? Was she merely an unknowing pawn doing good work for a bad, if not immoral, arm of the state?

We’re having dinner with her tonight. We have not seen them, Fanny and my brother, for over two years. They’ve been living in Miami. COVID restrictions and our own calculus of infection risk has kept us at home. Before that, we hadn’t the money.

We’ve all been vaccinated.

I expect that I will open our door and she will smile, standing a shade behind my brother, and I will smile back. Her smile is complicated. As if she is simultaneously smiling and thinking quickly of something to say to me. Something witty and provocative and to which she knows I will respond equally quickly and wittily. This is how we have come talk with one another. An argot that lends itself to friendly, diversionary, insubstantial, communication. A measure of casual, risk-averse, comradery.

My brother will hand me a bottle of wine, perhaps a pleasant, slightly sweet, rosé from a small vineyard outside of Rome, NY, which we will open and share, with a mild cheddar and a basket of triscuits and wheat thins.

Looking at Fanny, then, taking her coat, I may begin to question my motivation, likely driven by my repressed jealousy and prurience, in having placed on the living room coffee table, along with the wine glasses, a used paperback copy of The Red Sparrow.

All Four Sisters

There were four of us in our family. Four Sisters. I was the youngest. I still am. Obviously. The point being, though, is that there were four of us, with fourteen years, depending upon of the time of the year you think about it, between the oldest one of us and the youngest one of us, and that we all were loved most dearly by our parents, who loved one another most dearly too. That point being that never once, never at any time or for any reason, was that love ever in question, and never once was it far from our minds.

In the summers, we’d all, all four sisters and my parents, stay at a small cottage on the Cape where the land is so narrow that from the cottage you could almost see the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. Some days all my sisters and I would walk up the beach to Provincetown, with my oldest sister watching over us. She still does. Watch over us.

We were like four boats tethered together in a slow-moving current. Not just when we walked along the shore to P-town, but always, in everything, in everything we did. Even when one got married and moved away to Maine and another married and moved to New Hampshire, and another who moved all over the world, and me who moved to New York. My sisters would call each other and we’d talk so we knew what was going on for the others. My oldest sister called most often, when she was in the states, and then more often than that when we all had cellphones.

My mother, herself, had six sisters and two brothers. My father had no sisters and no brothers, so maybe instead of being overwhelmed, as he might have been, he was swathed, sort of, by all of us. And when he became ill, we were all with him and all the time, to his last day, we were there, encircling him. Caring for him. Loving him. Not even approaching a comprehension, then, of how achingly we would miss him.

We were all fair-haired with light-colored eyes. We all had our mother’s quick smile. One of my sisters had hair most like my father. A muted shade of red. Ginger. A bit more like a warm honey. And as softly-waved as his was.

It was never all smiling and all laughter to be sure, lest you think I am making up a story detached from reality. And there were times, a good many of them, heavy with sadness, or raw with unkindness, emotions as if unleashed, and hurtful words, some meant and others perhaps not, but none of these were long lasting, none festering as they can be, and none, not one thing, said or done, that untethered us. That pulled us so far apart that the ropes broke and we drifted away.

We were tested, though, after my father died. It seemed then as if one thing after another came tumbling at us, divorce (more than one of those), and the heartbreaking, sudden, loss of my nephew (though I will say no more about that), money troubles, more serious money troubles, and then illness, and more serious illness.

We each had a degree of optimism— surely from my mother. A determined optimism, it was. One born out of the tempering heat of hardship she’d had as a girl, along with a stern sense of survival, a reverence for work, and for family above all, no doubt from a long line of Scots.

And so, one day, sister number three, the one with the bright, flame-like spirit that could flash with happiness or burn with a deep, unknown torment; the one who tested the bonds most, tested all of us, told us she had late-stage cancer. It’s hard for me to say that word or hear or even think of it, without thinking of her. It was my mother’s optimism, though, that gave us a shield against the inevitability we knew was to come. It was an optimism that buoyed us. Kept us afloat.

And so, when she needed chemo and radiation (two words that, still, are so horribly clinical and so harsh— because they are so clinical and so harsh—and so raw that I feel they could draw blood), she came to live in my mother’s home, and to lie in a bed in a spare bedroom, and where we came to help care for her.

By then, though, my mother too, needed us.

Was it, I could not help thinking then, or even now, that the sadness of my sister’s illness had taken residence in my mother’s heart? Flared her lupus and her kidneys, caused her edema?

And so, it was two of them, in the same home at the same time, who needed us and who, more than that, we needed. We sat by them and helped them walk, took them to appointments, bathed and cleaned them, absorbed their pain, bound their wounds, and breathed in the foul  air of hopelessness.

We bore the unbearable with them. With each other. And, a few Novembers later, they died. One week apart. My sister first. My mother then followed, having resisted her own passing, for the sake of my sister… and for us. We grieved together, my sisters and I, and alone.

It has been a little more than a year since their passing. The house in which they died has been closed. The house in which we sat with them, in the too-warm rooms, and with ourselves. Where we said our goodbyes. Twice over.

I don’t cry so much anymore. I see them both. Pictures of them. Indelible Images. Sometimes there’s a knock on the door, with no one there, or a shifting curtain in a still and quiet living room, or those purple Scottish bluebells that sprung up anew in the spring and kept their blooms all summer and deep into fall.

The ache I feel almost daily is not always the hurting kind.

I know that they are gone. I feel that they are gone. I know they’re gone. And then, I cannot believe they are gone.

And still, I know, without a moment’s uncertainty, that we are all together. All four sisters. And I don’t cry so much anymore. Not so much.

K.

K was awakened shortly after dawn. He had not slept well. A machine or what sounded to him like a machine thrummed off and on during the night. He resisted arising, choosing to remain motionless on his pallet, eyes closed to the light through the window sweeping across the room, transversing his face as it passed from one wall to another. Continue reading K.

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.

 

Seven Cities of Gold

The house lights dim. The screen behind the stage fades from black to a cerulean blue. A white “C” in the center. A spotlight is on Coronado walking to center stage. He looks like a swimmer on his eighteenth birthday but he’s got to be fifty, at least.

“I got one question. Who’d he have to blow to get this job?” This is Phil, the guy sitting next to me. Sometimes he can be a severely negative dickhead. Continue reading Seven Cities of Gold

All Men Are Mortal

Henry loaned me a book he’d just finished reading. A paperback. We talk books when we see one another. We read a lot. We play tennis together. On the change-overs between games we talk. Mostly about books.

We wore masks for a while, standing apart, on our side yards for a few weeks, back when the days were still cool and the grass was just greening up. When masks were recommended. Then, as time went on, and they opened the tennis courts, we agreed to stop wearing them when we got together. Continue reading All Men Are Mortal

A Further Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

The Hôtel de la Mer, was similar in some respects to the hotels that had been popular in the Catskill mountains during the mid-twentieth century. Those hotels were in what was known as the Borscht Belt. Jewish families, like my own, escaped the heat of the city for a week or two there and entertainments were provided: stand-up comedians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman and others performed there as were, occasionally, plays on their way to Broadway. From all of these I was naturally excluded and left to stay alone in our room because of my young age. Continue reading A Further Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

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.

Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

I had been staying with a group of friends in a small room in a rather large hotel in a warm climate, during the year following the death of my father. The room was on the second floor of the hotel though sometimes it was on the fifth floor. In either case it was in an older section of the hotel which had not yet undergone the elaborate renovations that were made in the finer and more lavish sections. Continue reading Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

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

Malaise

It has begun to rain. Starting lightly. Gathering intensity as the sky darkens with the confluence, if that is an accurate or even applicable term, of the setting sun and the thickening of the low cloud cover. The red poppies in the front yard are being pelted with heavy drops as thick as rubber bullets. This seems to happen every spring a day or so after Memorial Day. Continue reading Malaise