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

Seize the Day

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

The Last days of Elsa and Albert at the Caputh Summer House

Elsa Einstein stands on her front porch. It is a morning in mid-September and the oaks down the hill along the lake are beginning to redden.A cool breeze stirs the folds of her skirt. She fills her lungs deeply with it and she watches it darken the liquid surface of the gray-blue Templiner See as it flows from Caputh northward toward Potsdam. Continue reading The Last days of Elsa and Albert at the Caputh Summer House

Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen

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

Oates:

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

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

The Things I Didn’t Say When I Was Alive

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

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

We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. Some nights, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I’d wake up. It was your mother. She’d cry for hours at night. Stand by your crib. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t.

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

I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were hard people. They didn’t laugh much. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays.  Rye bread. Pickled herring or whitefish. Potatoes with cucumber. Sour cream. A glass of tea with a cube of sugar.

They were Shnayders, tailors. Neighbors brought them suits to be let out or taken in. Patches to be sewn with hidden stitches. My mother’s machine by the window in the bedroom. My father at the table in the living room under the ceiling light. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing, humming and smoking while he worked.

They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. Smelling the pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Faces gray with creased foreheads.

My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions then. Babies like me dying. But I lived. As you did, when we thought you wouldn’t.

You were always small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. School, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home.

I would shiver too. I would sit in the bathroom, my head in my hands like I was lost in a forest in the darkest of nights. The wind in the trees was ghostly. Clouds covered the moon. There was no path out.

I saw that same feeling in you too and I didn’t say anything. I looked at you and I felt how alone you seemed to be. I saw me in your tight rumpled brow. Not a glimmer of happiness in your eyes. I should have said something. Stood beside you.

For this, I grieve.

One day, when she was at her worst, when you were a little older, I said leave the kid alone already, to her. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. In the middle of the night, I heard her. She was in the kitchen, where the phone was, calling her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said Stop it and I hung it up.

My father never once raised his voice to me or anyone. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. I was angry at her. I was angry at you, too.

For that, I am sorry.

And from then on things were different between us.

I didn’t know what to say to you. How to make words that would make it different. And it just stayed like that.

I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. I know it sounds like it, though. I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.

For that, I am in pain.

I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know then how to say it.

And then, when I could no longer speak, and you came with your family to see me, in your hospital masks and gowns, I could feel that sad, malign, knot in my chest loosen. The sad knot for what had been lost. For the happiness I could have shared and for the things I never said.

Two Men on a Bench by the Water Looking East

“No time to be homeless, is it?”

“No, sir.”

“Not a good time at all. There’s good times and good places, but not here and not now.”

“No sir.”

“Richard.”

“Jack.”

“Nice to meet you, Jack.”

“You too, Richard.”

“You got it? A lot of people do, you know. You gotta watch out. Be careful as shit.” Continue reading Two Men on a Bench by the Water Looking East

Texting While Kvetching

Dear Malachi, Forgive me, I don’t want to bother you. I know you are very busy with schoolwork. I don’t mean to be such a nudge, but I am a mother. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time. You know, children have to keep in touch with their parents. Cuomo said that.

Hi, Mom. I’m doing fine. I texted you just this morning. Are you and Dad okay? Continue reading Texting While Kvetching