Interlopers

It is the end of December. Snow is at the curbs and on the sidewalks. It is cold. Mike Zwilling is sweating. He has loaded eleven cardboard cartons filled with dishes, silverware, books, scarfs, mittens, two computers, chargers, notebooks, pens, shirts, pants, earmuffs, overcoats, his bicycle, and snowshoes, into a rented E-Z-load U-Haul rollup rear-door van, double-parked on Thirteenth street, just below the park. Prospect Park. Park Slope. Brooklyn.

Thirteenth is a narrow, one-way street heading west, straight downhill toward the harbor. Toward the Statue of Liberty. New Jersey. Mike, too, is determined to head west. That’s the plan.

“Mike?” Angela, his wife of thirty-five years, wrapped tightly in a wool coat, arms across her chest, asks. “What, you think they don’t have pots and pans in Wyoming? Believe me, they do. Maybe even Cuisinarts. You don’t have to pack everything you own. This isn’t a Wagon Train episode. They might even have water, buckwheat, and flannel shirts. Carhartt’s.”

The Mike Zwilling is the fourth person from his block to leave the Slope for Laramie. The thirty-fourth if you count along Thirteenth, from Prospect Park West down to the Gowanus Canal.

He had told her, back in the spring, well over a year ago. “Get ready, Angie, if we lose the house in the mid-terms in 2022, we’re selling. We’re moving. We’re going to Wyoming.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The world is changing, Angie. The country is falling apart. It’s time we stop complaining and do something. Someone has to do something.  Guns. Climate. War. Abortion. Vaccines. The filibuster. Gerrymandering. Crypto. The Court. The country is splitting apart under us like we’re all standing spread-legged with one foot on either side of the San Andreas fault, looking around like we’re next on line at the bakery.”

“So? So that means we have to move?”

“So, we just have to stop talking about everything like it’s a Netflix mini-series. As if, ‘things are going to shit and so let’s just call it the new normal.’ We’ve got to take it seriously.”

“I am serious, but how does that have anything to do with Wyoming? Where’d you get that idea?

“Melanson.”

“Melanson?”

“I was talking to him. He figured it out. If we lose the House, that’s bad, but then we absolutely can’t lose the senate. If we do, it’s all over.”

“And… Wyoming?”

“Wyoming is the key, Angie. It’s simple math. Listen, Ange, do you know which is the least populated and, coincidently, the most solidly red state in the nation?

“Let me guess… Wyoming.”

“Right. Wyoming!” And, Angie, do you know how many people live in Brooklyn? I’ll tell you. Two-point-five-seven-seven million.”

“And, let me guess, Wyoming has…?”

“Bingo. Wyoming has precisely five hundred seventy-eight thousand, eight hundred and three. Total. The whole entire state. And seventy percent voted for Trump. That’s four hundred and six thousand, seven hundred and fifty-two and he won the state. And, how many senators does Wyoming have? And how many does New York have?”

“Two. I get it, Mike, two. The same.”

“So, Melanson says, New York doesn’t need us to vote. Park Slope definitely doesn’t need us. And Massachusetts. California. Vermont, Illinois, or New Jersey. They’re all in good shape. And so, if we can just get eighty-seven thousand people to move from Brooklyn to Laramie, we can flip the state. Eighty-seven thousand and we flip the whole state and we’re up two senators and they’re down two. Angie, we can be the one flapping seagull whose wings divert the tornado, the leaf falling from a tree in the forest that troubles the distant star. We can do that. It makes the greatest sense.”

“No, Mike. It may make sense to you and Melanson, but not to me. It may make sense to someone who maybe wants to see what life in Wyoming is like. But that’s not me. I can’t do that. I can’t leave here. My work. Our friends. Our apartment. This is our home. Our city. We’re here and not in Laramie for a reason. A lot of good reasons.”

“You can, Angie. Please. Think about it. We rent the apartment for few years. You can work anywhere. Write. Do your translations. Whatever. Anywhere. Work is portable now.”

“You know that’s not true. I can’t do my work just anywhere. I need people. Vibrancy. Face-to-face with the soul of a live, changing, self-critical, city. The dogs and babies in the park. The baby bok choy in market. The steam on the windows of Essa Bagel. Real pizza. The commotion. The variety. Excess. Access. The thread of a song someone is humming in the bank. All of that. No. I can’t go. I won’t go. I can’t live any place else.”

“Come. Please. You can’t know what your one part will play. The change we might make for everyone, everywhere. Maybe even ourselves.”

That was Mike then. In early spring. 2021.

In mid-November they talked again. Prices were rising. Ukraine was lost. Congress had been lost too. Despite any of the hope that had survived the primaries.

People were indeed leaving. Inflation. Selling their homes to developers. Getting priced out of anything they might have afforded a year before. Gentrification, like flowers in a desert after a rain, was blooming in every neighborhood.

“We have work to do in Brooklyn,” she told Mike. “Brooklyn politics, all politics, always flows with the money. If you leave, the big money flows in, and we get washed away. They own the politics and make the policies. There’s real and honest work we need to do here. On our very own street. I’m staying. We need to organize right here,” she told him.

Mike is sweating and shivering. The boxes are in the truck. Limo drivers are squeezing by, giving him the finger, honking, trying to get by without scraping their cars against the U-Haul.

And there stands Mike. Keys in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

“You two new riders of the purple sage head on west and write me when you get there,” she tells him.

She kisses him goodbye.

The engine clicks on.

“Wait, Mike, wait. One more thing. We don’t live here by accident. We didn’t choose to live in Wyoming or anywhere else.”

“Angie.”

She climbs up on the running board of the van. Her shoes are soaked through. She grabs onto his arm and the wide mirror.

“This scheme of yours is totally dishonest. It’s false and illegitimate. A manipulation you’d be enraged at if someone did it to you. Just like what’s happening here to us. You’d be nothing more than rustlers there. And someone is going to get hurt. My god, all I can think of is Matthew Shepard. What do you think they’ll do when they get wind of what you’re up to? Let Melanson and his kid go if they want to. Get out.”

She tugs on his arm.

“Unload the truck. Please. I don’t want you to go. I can’t let you go.”

When We Were Mallards

When we first met, my husband, Mycola, told me that he thought we were like two ducks. Two mallards in a vast lake in a country far away. Like mallards, he said we were.

We were walking then, in our long overcoats, on a busy street in the city where we both lived. There were people and families all around us going into and out of shops and restaurants and sitting in the sun on benches in the park. Children running underfoot. Cars. Buses.

“Petra,” he said, as that was the name my mother called me by, “like we live in a mile-wide and ten-mile long lake with tall firs growing close to the very edge of the rocky shore, and plenty of places for us to build a nest and hide our ducklings in the reeds, whenever we would be fortunate enough to have them. And when the last of them grows up and flies away, we will swim side-by-side and stick our heads down deep below the surface and pull up bits of grass and noodle around for tiny crustaceans in the muck. And, we always be together and always be beautiful.

Sounds good, I told him.

And he said, “qwakk, qwakk.” And I loved him. You silly goose, I thought.

He is gone now and I live each day in great and constant misery. I live in a place of icy dark and metallic fear.

This is my life now, and for how much longer it will be I don’t know. This is not how it had been. When we were mallards. But that matters little now. Now, I cry and my body shakes so hard it is hard to take a breath. I wish for death but I only vomit.

I have no place to go. I have no home. No clothes apart from those I have on.

Two weeks ago, while we were sleeping, the door to our house was being battered and we could hear it beginning to buckle and break. Mycola and I woke my mother and our little girl and we ran out through the side door. We knew they were coming but none of us knew when that would be. We had heard the trucks but we thought they had passed through on their way to someplace else.

We ran in the rubble of the streets. My mother stumbled. She could no longer run. She fell and we tried to pick her up. She screamed in pain. She could not stand. Or she refused to get up. I don’t know.

Our entire world has been changed. We mean no harm to anyone. We hurt no one. Not once in my life have I hurt anyone.

I should say we meant no harm to anyone. Now, I have lost all my balance. My forgiveness.

When your mother has fallen and you cannot pick her up. When your child is running and trips on bricks and glass from the walls of the apartments your friends lived in on the fourth floor of the building you pass, and you can see their now-empty rooms and their broken, blackened, walls, and you see the face your daughter as she sees them too.

When you hear the crack and see the flashes and feel the air itself beat like a bully against your chest so hard it crushes you and a moment later it sucks the breath from your lungs, and you lose your grip on your bag and you cry out in the pain you have not yet felt.

And you cry out in a voice so loud it it hurts your throat, to a god you have believed in all your life, in a voice you never used before and to a god you do not know and who no longer can hear you.

And you think of Isaiah 2:4, “And he shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” You had read those words and you had once believed them.

And now you know that the world itself is a sword lifted up and thrust toward your throat. And your hands are tied behind your back like your husband’s were when he was beaten and dragged away and another man who lies dead on the ground beside you.

When nothing else has any meaning. This god or that god, or the rules of war.

What kind of people make rules of war like rules of grammar or poker? How do we need rules about who to kill, and when it is permissible and when it is not? Words without meaning which are ignored. Humanitarian is another of those words.

And then you see the last bus pull away without you. And there is no water and no food and no toilets.

When there is no hope, and the days of the hopeless hope you once had have passed, when you are crowded in amongst the dead and the starving and the dying, in the cold and dark, you will see, only then, what you could not ever have imagined when the world was big and the sun was bright and the air was clear, and war was only a word for a place where others lived and died, and conflicts which were given names and had dates of when they began and when they ended, and numbers of dead and wounded were counted, and crosses were hammered into the thawing ground with the rounded iron backs of shovels that had dug the shallow graves by men too old to fight.

And you will know how it was that men had done this because you saw the grim and vacant disregard in their faces, inches from your own. And know that they they had planned and considered this one option and that other option, and each one had only one intent and that was to kill this many nobodies here and that many nobodies over there as they could. And the greatest sinfulness that we have known and written down in all the holy history books and agreed to since the beginning of time, held no sway with them. That men with no souls had done this. And they did it with hot white hatred.

I know that now, and I know that this war, this new war without an historical name yet, and with no end date to write in books, will have no end for me. I will die in the midst of it.

And I hope for death to come. I need to live and I want to die.

A Walk in the Park

Between the end of his first and the beginning of his second marriage, Arnold Bregman lived alone and he soon came to believe that he had been involved in a murder. He became certain that he had plotted, planned, and killed a man. A man he did not know. A man with whom he had no relationship. A man whose disappearance would never be attributed to Bregman. A murder with no motive, no means, no opportunity.

This certainty, no matter how implausible, would not loosen its grip on his mind. It came and went, but while in its hold, he had no reason to disbelieve it.

Distraught, and with no one he felt he could talk to, he consulted a psychiatrist referred by a friend. After a few sessions, the psychiatrist said Bregman showed no signs of psychosis and exhibited none of the signs of an aggressive, psychopathic, sociopathic, or dangerously disturbed personality.

But why then, Bregman asked, would I have such thoughts in the first place, and why can I not get these thoughts out of my mind?

Bregman was not an unintelligent man. He should have been prepared for the response, being familiar with what was said about psychiatrists and how they worked, but he was nevertheless surprised when the psychiatrist said, with his legs neatly crossed, and with a face as straight as the crease in his trousers, something like, “so tell me, why do you think that is so?”

Bregman replied that he did not know and that he had hoped that the psychiatrist who had an array of framed, embossed, and signed diplomas from what appeared to be distinguished universities on the wall behind his desk, would be able to tell him.

“I see,” said the psychiatrist, which is another tactic Bregman should have expected from a Park Avenue psychiatrist, who, in his grey blazer and opened collared shirt, shifted in his seat on the chair opposite to Bregman, recrossed his legs in such a way as to align one leg over the other at the knee with no space whatsoever between his two legs and with the heel of his well-polished black oxford on his left foot only inches above the shoe on his right foot, and he looked at Bregman.

Bregman, following these appointments, often found himself attempting to replicate the same move while seated on the subway downtown but was never able to and he wondered if there was something unusual about the bones and ligaments of the man’s leg, or the width of the man’s hips, or if, perhaps, he was using this move to distract him enough from his troubles that he would begin to get to the bottom of things.

Nevertheless, over several weeks, Bregman increasingly doubted the value of continuing with therapy. He’d seen the psychiatrist, whose name was Ostrove, nodding off frequently during possibly pertinent parts of their consultations, which annoyed him to no end, though he had never been able to bring it up to the psychiatrist. This left Bregman feeling somehow unworthy of the man’s attention and that he must be a terribly boring person, despite the fact that this was the man’s job and he was being paid a great deal of money, which Bregman could ill afford.

Bregman recalled that his father had a low regard for psychiatry or psychotherapy of any kind. People, he said, should not wash their laundry in someone else’s sink. The only time he ever said that was after Bregman’s mother’s failed attempt at suicide.

Sometimes, Bregman thought that the psychiatrist was actually quite shrewd. He was merely playing at nodding off just to test Bregman. To see how far he could push Bregman to react to being treated so badly. To see if Bregman would not tolerate being so blatantly disrespected and that then his true, basic, typical male, belligerent self would emerge explosively, and his true violent and aggressive nature would be revealed. As if it lay silently deep inside him like a cat, crouched, taut, and ready to strike.

Ostrove’s office was in an expensive apartment building in the upper East Side of New York, near the park and a small French patisserie and bookstore that sold high-end travel books. Bregman was browsing there, having arrived early for his appointment, and the thought came to him that maybe Ostrove was just not as good as he had been told. But, rather than confront him about his dissatisfaction, Bregman decided that he would stop seeing this man and stop therapy altogether.

Bregman never considered himself a violent person. He avoided conflict. Neither of his parents were violent in any way, though Bregman’s mother always seemed to act as if his father had the sensitivity of a spring-loaded mousetrap. This was Bregman’s feeling, not necessarily hers.

Bregman planned to tell Ostrove that he was going to stop coming to therapy because he felt they were getting nowhere but, before he got up the courage to speak up, Ostrove suggested that Bregman might agree to hypnosis as a possible and more productive approach to therapy and they agreed that the at next session Bregman would submit to what Ostrove described as light hypnosis.

The night before the hypnosis was to take place, Bregman lay in bed and saw himself as clear as day with three men in the basement of someone’s home. It was not Bregman’s home, but it might have been.

The room was dark and cold. The brown walls appeared a deep ferrous red in the light cast by a lamp in the hallway. The room had a dirt floor and below the only window was a cast iron manhole cover from a city street which Bregman knew covered the hole which held the remains of a man still clothed but cut up into pieces and packed tightly into the cramped wet space whose sides were rough with protruding stones which glistened with what Bregman knew was the blood of the man having seeped out of his cut and mangled flesh and brutally broken bones.

The men had met because they had gotten word that an informant had told the police they would find a body at that address. They planned to move the body.

Bregman had no doubt that it was a setup, and police were coming and were at that very moment at the front door and would soon find him and the body, and he knew that he would be arrested and tried and convicted of murder, facing certain death himself.

The one way out of the basement other than the stairs was down a narrow hall with several turns, twisting one way and then another, that Bregman had never been down but of which he had detailed knowledge. They made their way out into an alley down the street. They were filthy with grime from the basement. Blood on their hands. They stood in the light rain that was falling. Bregman felt no relief. There was no doubt that he would be caught. They traded schemes of escape, or to blame someone else, or to kill one of their own and make a getaway.

Bregman was unable to dispel the reality of the experience. He got out of bed, still living in its solid grip. He could not allow himself to be hypnotized by this Ostrove character. He would not go to the appointment. If he did, he feared he would reveal his true nature. He no longer knew what had actually happened or what was a fiction. Ostrove would turn him in. But then, what if he didn’t show up for the appointment, what would Ostrove do? Track Bregman down? Report him to the police? Was the lure of hypnosis merely a trap?

Bregman stood outside of Ostrove’s office. He was tempted to leave and find a seat in the French café next door. He did not. He was innocent, was he not? Of course, he would go to the appointment. Ostrove would hypnotize him, and it would all be cleared up. There would be a plausible, credible explanation. Some unresolved Oedipal feelings they would work on together. He would be freed of this terrible belief of being a horrible murderer.

Bregman reasoned that he, like others at the very cusp of making such a momentous revelation, and uncovering the singular, life-changing solution, which would loosen the grip of his anxiety, was simply resistant to discovering the truth.

As he stood outside of the office, the woman who regularly had the appointment before Bregman, came out of the door. She nodded at Bregman and went on her way. The faint smell of her cologne, though, reminded him of a woman he once knew, and of the relationship they had, which ended unhappily. She had called him after they split and told him he had treated her badly and that she loved him and he did not love her back and that he, by his insensitivity, like all the other men she had ever known, and perhaps all men, had killed a part of her and she told him he would have to live with that thought for the rest of his life.

He followed the woman down the stairs, but she was not on the street.

He stopped himself. What was he doing? This is absurd, he said. What am I doing here? I am standing on a New York City street. The street is clean. The sun is shining. I am well-clothed. I have enough to eat and clean water to drink. I am safe here. I want for nothing. I have bad dreams. Who doesn’t? I am one of the very few fortunate people in the entire world. You want some advice, he said, do what matters most. Don’t dwell on the unchangeable. Stop at the used book stalls along the park. Find a good book. And by the way, did you ever check Ostrove’s repair record? Look, do you think if you ever really killed anyone you’d be standing here on Park Avenue, worrying about it?

Bregman walked downtown along the low stone wall of the park, crossed through the Sheep Meadow to the west side at 65th Street, and caught the Broadway local train at 59th Street and Columbus Avenue. He stopped for a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese at Murray’s in Chelsea and sat by the window, watching the people walking by, carrying their backpacks, their worries, and the few evening’s groceries with which they would make dinner.

Home Fries

“Miriam, how about scrambled eggs and home fries for dinner. Sound okay?”

“Sure. That’s good.”

“Or would you rather something else? Like pancakes or oatmeal.”

“No, no. That’s really good. Yes, Eggs. Eggs and home fries. Good. Or pancakes … either one would be fine. Thanks for cooking. I’ll make some coffee. Okay?”

“Yes. Regular?”

“Regular. But not too strong, right? It’s almost ten. But, maybe pancakes instead of eggs.”

“Pancakes, good! I saw Kenn at the food pantry yesterday. First time since COVID started. Over two years ago. Hard to believe it’s been so long. He looks the same. He asked about you and the kids. Maybe make decaf, instead.

“Masks? How’s he doing? Could you use the gluten-free flour?”

“Yes. Gluten-free. Nobody was wearing masks and we had to sign in with a vaccination card. He’s doing fine. He looks great. Still working. Same Kenn. Same laugh. Same smile.”

“That’s good. He’s a good guy.”

“Miriam, just thinking, when the time comes, will you let Kenn know of my passing?”

“What? Sure, your passing? But can I wait to call until after we finish dinner?”

“Miriam…”

“…No, no, you’re right, until after your passing would be best. Whenever that might be, of course. Sort of timelier, to wait, you know, more conventional. More expected. More routine.”

“Miriam…”

“Why are you asking me this, anyway? Should I be worried? Are you feeling okay?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what? Yes, I should be worried? Yes, you have chest pain. Or yes, no. No palpitations? No shortness of breath.”

“Nope. None of the above.”

“Then what made you think of it?”

“I don’t know. I just was thinking about how when you don’t see people for a long time and then you see them, like I saw Kenn yesterday, and it’s a good feeling and then I thought how there are other people you don’t see for some time and you wonder what happened to them and you might want to know that they died so you can give yourself a chance to pause and think of them. Almost like a moment of grieving for them. Almost even as if in that moment they are present to you. Almost like how you would feel if you saw them on the street. That feeling of reacquaintance, of renewing the friendship, and then when they walk away you recall how you had missed seeing them without even knowing that you were missing them. You didn’t actually see them, because they’re gone, but it feelsclose to that feeling. Like they were actually there in front of the bookstore looking in the window where you used to see them. And then they’d come in and say hello. But it’s all in your mind.”

“Or in your heart. Coffee’s done. Should I pour it?”

“In your heart, yes. And the pancakes are ready.”

“That’s a good feeling, right? Oh, god … I have to make another pot of coffee. I can’t drink this. It’s terrible. I was watching you cook, and we were talking, and I started think about dying, you and me, or passing, or whatever, and I must have lost count of the scoops I was putting in.”

“I know. It’s way too strong. Even if it’s decaf.”

“It’s not decaf. I forgot. I used the regular. Maybe I’ll just have tea. But, what brought on this change? In saying ‘passing’ I mean, now? You never liked people saying ‘passing’ before. You thought it was false.”

“I know. I’ll have some tea instead too. I was just thinking it just seems to me that saying ‘passing’ is gentler, more like saying ‘leave-taking’ to me now than it did before.”

“I like it too. I like how it sounds. The sound of ‘leave taking’ too in saying ‘passing.’ It has the feel of temporalness. Maybe I mean temporariness, if that’s the right word. Even though we know it’s not temporary. I remember, though, when you used to say that people who said ‘passing’ were only skirting the issue. Like they were taking the long way around, or the safer way around the subject. ‘They’re afraid to face up to reality of death,’ you would tell me.”

“Now I feel that there’s a kindness about saying, “She passed, or he passed.” I think we can understand what we are saying without including all the heavy, insensitive bluntness. Tempering our language is just out of a consideration for the circumstances.”

“And, certainly, if someone told you that their mother passed, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, you mean she died?‘ Right?”

“Yes. Right. Of course not. The kitchen smells so good. Doesn’t it? The browned potatoes and onions. The warm pancakes.”

“Maybe when you preferred saying ‘dying’ you were really avoiding feeling about it yourself. Making it seem removed from you, objective, just a fact, so it wouldn’t touch you.”

“Maybe. You’re probably right. Hopefully, as you say, it is more meaningful, and visceral, and emotional than just semantics and I’m learning from it, but nevertheless, at the same time, my fear of the inevitable remains undeterred.”

“Sometimes, I think it’s healthy to recognize reality and then you can ask it to step out of the room for a while. And today?”

“I don’t know. Today? Ukraine. Ted Cruz. The collapse of the East Antarctic Ice shelf. Madeline Albright. The Milky Way expanding. I don’t know. Sometimes, I just think about it all and I feel sad. Sad is tolerable. And then other times, like today, it seems to climb into my lap, with its foul breath, and looks me in the eye and won’t look away.”

“I know, Will. I know. Look at me… Let’s eat.”

While You Were Playing Wordle this Morning

While you were playing Wordle this morning, I made a fresh pot of coffee.

While you were at the kitchen table playing Wordle this morning my sister said she’s having a mammogram and a bone density test in the city today and then she’s going to an exhibit at the Whitney later with her friend Sybil who had the double mastectomy and the chemo and then the reconstruction four years ago, and how, after I had mine, I refused the chemo because we wanted so much to get pregnant.

While you were scribbling letters on the edges of the newspaper, playing Wordle this morning, I made oatmeal for breakfast. The steel cut oats you like. Though I don’t feel I can eat anything at all today.

While you were saying words out loud, playing Wordle this morning, I filled our pill boxes for the week and called in the prescriptions for your mother. She also needs more Depends and Metamucil. The apple spice kind, not the chocolate.

While you were playing Wordle this morning I worked out on the elliptical machine and emptied the dehumidifier into the bucket for watering the plants. And I thought about how much oil costs now and we need to turn down the thermostat again because we can’t afford another fill up before spring, and how we need to call your friend again about solar panels for the roof, though I don’t know how we can pay for it, much less for an electric car.

And, while you were playing Wordle this morning I wrote a check for Sudan and one for the Pine Street Inn. Twenty-five for each. And I thought about how Paul Farmer just died. And how he was such a good person. At least I think he was. He did good work. I’m sorry we lost him.

And then, while you were playing Wordle this morning I folded the laundry and poured the last of the coffee in your cup and you smiled at me with your “this is a hard one” frown-smile.

And your mother said your father went to say morning prayers with his friend whose mother, in Kharkiv, is now somewhere near the border with Poland. She said she is a refugee in her own country, and I thought that if we ever had another child, I would name her Oksana.

I imagined that since I was born, a billion stars had been formed in the universe, and a billion more had died, and it will take a million light years before anyone will know that they had come and gone, and I decided that I want to have a green burial. I don’t want a big expensive coffin. Don’t let anyone talk you into it. And I don’t want to be burned in an oven. And I don’t want whatever that fluid is they pump bodies with, and I don’t want someone putting makeup on me and combing my hair and I don’t want people all staring at me and telling you how peaceful I look, and I don’t want to be dressed in any of my clothes. And no bra or panties, and no shoes. Nothing. That is ridiculous. Just wrap me in muslin and put me in the ground.

While you were playing Wordle this morning, I ordered Cloud Cuckoo Land and the new Amor Towles book from the library. I’m eighty-eighth on the list for one and thirty-fourth on the other. I can wait, and by then half a billion pounds of Greenland ice will have melted. Maybe more.

And I started to think about me being a skeleton one day and that’s the only thing that gives me any peace about dying. Being a skeleton that someone in five hundred years or a thousand will dig up and brush the dirt off my bones and put them in a box like they are a gift, and they will know that I was a woman and I had two children and I broke my wrist when I was nine and I didn’t eat any meat or dairy. Thinking that makes me feel good.

And, while you were playing Wordle this morning, I brushed my teeth and when I rinsed my mouth out and saw my reflection in the mirror, I felt suddenly chilled to think of a million women like me with a million children like ours, leaving their homes and everything they own, running from vacuum bombs over streets like ours. And leaving behind them husbands and brothers and sons, and maybe their fathers, who will be holding rifles given to them even though they had never picked up a gun in their whole lives before, and then they will stand in the snow in the doorway of the bakery shop where only last week they had bought a loaf of bread, waiting to shoot at Russian tanks filled with boys and maybe some girls looking through view finders at them in the crosshairs and each of them ready to kill one another, dead, dead, dead.

And, while you were playing Wordle this morning, I gathered up recycling for the transfer station though I don’t believe for a minute that any of it really gets recycled. And even if I’m wrong, I wonder what good it will do if the steel mills and the crypto currency people don’t do recycling and Dow Chemical keeps pumping out plastic beach chairs.

While you were playing Wordle this morning, I thought about how sad I feel even though we have heat and food to eat and water to drink and I have never lost a child, and no one has shot at my son in his car, and no one has driven me from my home, or grabbed me from behind and pushed me to the ground and raped me, or bombed the street I lived on, or anything so horrific as that.

And, while I was watching you work on the Wordle puzzle this morning, I felt how much I love you and the children and how all of life is so precious to me and how fortunate we are, and how it seems that our life and the lives of so many others can mean so much but at the same time mean nothing more to some men than a handful of melting snow.

And so, while you were playing Wordle this morning, I sat on the toilet, and I cried for all of that, and for things I didn’t know I was crying about, and I cried and I cried, and I felt as though I would never ever stop crying.

Bird on a Wire

On the way to the F train stop by Prospect Park, Victor Maisel stopped for coffee at the Two Little Red Hens. A tiny bakery on 8th Avenue, between 11th and twelfth Streets. The morning was cold and there was a short line ahead of him. He scanned the pastries in the display case while waiting to order. 

He was unsure of what he might order or if, in fact, he would order anything other than the coffee. 

A woman wearing a long black broad shouldered cashmere coat was waiting in front of him, tapping her foot in a way Victor found annoying. She reminded him of the tall tightly wound actress in Just Shoot Me. 

He felt like saying to her, ‘There’s really nothing either of us can do to speed things up, so give yourself a break.’ But then he thought, ‘Isn’t it just as foolish of me to be annoyed with her for being annoyed?’ His mother would have told him he was just caught in the finger trap of one of his dark moods.

Just Shoot Me ordered a cinnamon bun and said, “Isn’t that one missing some icing?” “Can I have a different one?” 

“It’s the last one.”

Victor could see that. Surely she had when right in front of Victor’s eyes she had pointed to it, but perhaps, he thought, maybe not. 

“Do you want it or not?”

“Yes, but could you put a little more icing on it?”

She turned back to Victor. “They try make you think it’s the very last one so that you take it even though the reason it’s the last one there is because no one else wanted to take it. But, if it really is the last one, I want it and there’s no reason I can’t have it the way I want it, you know what I mean?”

Victor did know what she meant. One needed to watch out for oneself. No one else will. People take advantage. Treat you badly. Intentionally. Without cause or consideration. 

A middle-aged man in a newsboy hat and a gray gabardine overcoat was sitting at the window counter facing the avenue. He looked at Victor, casting his eyes upward in a theatrical ‘God help us!’ plea. Which Victor saw as recognition of the shared moment. 

Often, on passing by the shop on his way to work, Victor saw him sitting alone with a coffee cup on the bench in front of the pastry shop or at the window inside, as he was then. The man, Benjamin, would always lift two fingers and nod as Victor walked by. 

Victor enjoyed the casual familiarity of the gesture. 

The young girl behind the counter went to the back of the shop, holding the bun in one hand and the bag in the other.

One morning last spring, Victor brought his coffee out to the bench. Benjamin had moved his briefcase to make room for the two of them. 

Benjamin was wearing neatly pressed tweed trousers, a pale blue button-front shirt, open at the collar, a soft brown faux-leather jacket. Eyes lost in thought.

“Oh, hello,” Benjamin had said. “I’m sorry. I was just distracted. I didn’t mean to seem to ignore you.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Mind if I sit here?”

“No, no. Not at all.” Which he pronounced as ‘nota-tall.’

Before Victor could think of anything to say, Benjamin said, “What do you do?”

“I’m a medical writer.”

“A doctor?”

“Not a real doctor, as some would say. No. I used to be a college teacher and now I work for a Med Ed company.”

“So, you’re not really a doctor.”

“No, not in the way I think you might mean it. No.”

“I’m a film editor,” said Benjamin.

“That sounds like such a great job.”

“That’s what everybody says.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it sounds a lot better than it is. It’s not glamorous, like you might think. I don’t know any actors or anything like that.”

“Where do you work?”

“At home. All my equipment‘s there.”

“I’d love all that independence. It must be good.”

“It could be, I guess. But it’s, you know, kind of isolating. I mean it’s good in a way. I can work at any time of the day. Start whenever. No distractions. But it’s isolated. You know what I mean?”

“Yes. I can see that.”

“I mean, sometimes there’s no work, and then it’s all high pressure, getting the dailies back at night. I mean that kind of makes it feel less creative, you know. More like a plumber knee-deep in water…” 

“I’ve never worked like that. On my own time. Take the jobs you like. Get them done. Move on. Your own person. I have to be in the office by eight-thirty at the latest every day. They watch you come in. When you leave. You have a certain number of billable hours you have to work each week. Time sheets. Project numbers. The runners bring the job folders in. You sign for them. Then they come pick them up… and it’s not really Med Ed. It’s more like Med Ad.”

“I’d love that. The hustle and bustle. Meetings. Do you have meetings?”

“Yes…”

“… The exchange of ideas. The back and forth, riffing off one another. The vibe. It sounds great.”

“… but meetings are mostly a waste. They drag on and when you leave someone asks, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ Really. And even when I go back to my area. They call them areas now, open plan, no doors or windows. I find it difficult to write, even to think, in the midst of other people, working or not working. The physical pressure of people while I am working is oppressive.” 

“Don’t you find, though, that creativity is fed by other ideas, words, images?”

“Yes, but not often enough.”

In the bakery, with two more people lined up behind him, Victor began to feel dizzyingly warm. 

The girl came back out and showed Just Shoot Me that the baker had added extra icing.

She took the bag and left the shop.

Victor asked the girl if there were any more cinnamon buns. 

She looked at him. “No, that was the last one. There’s another batch in about an hour.”

“That’s ok. I’ll have a coffee, black with sugar, and… no, yes, no, that’s it. Just the coffee.” He brought the coffee over to the window where Benjamin sat. Cars hustled by toward the bridge. Victor tugged at his tie. Opened his top shirt button.

“Today’s my last day,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“They’re going to let me go today,” Victor said.

“How do you know that?”

“They let the medical director go yesterday. No notice. Right after five, they called her in. Just a one-on-one with HR. She called me to tell me that I’d probably be next. No reason, they told her, just pack your things, and when she came out of the meeting, all the office doors along the hall were closed. Like everybody knew it was coming and nobody wanted to be seen witnessing it. Like when the lights flicker at midnight when someone gets the electric chair.”

“Shit,” said Benjamin. “I’m sorry.” 

“Yeah, thanks. I don’t want to go in today. I’m thinking about calling in sick and let it just end like that. I’m not putting myself through that. I’ve never been fired before…”

“Neither have I.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do. I think I’ll just sit here for a while. I don’t want to go there. To go through that charade.”

The train rumbled and squealed underground on its way toward the city.

Breaking the Judy Blues Eyes Rule

Nathan M. flew from Logan to West Palm Beach. He had taken a few days off from work. His son, the oldest one, picked him up at the airport, and they talked, mostly about the weather in Boston, their jobs, and the Mets on the car ride up to St. Lucie. It was spring training season and it felt like late July in the Back Bay.

 Nathan asked his son if he could turn up the car radio. Billy Joel. Piano Man.

His son always had Billy Joel on whenever Nathan got in his truck. He wondered whether his son really liked Billy Joel or if he only played it because they used to listen to him, volume turned high, when the two of them lived together. That was in the years after his mother and Nathan had split and his son moved back home after college. Either way, it made him happy. He could feel his shoulders relax.

“He says, ‘Son can you play me a memory?

I’m not really sure how it goes

But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete

When I wore a younger man’s clothes.’”

His son had started calling Nathan pretty regularly after his mother had been diagnosed with ALS. This was after he’d finished grad school, gotten married to a young woman from Mississippi, and they moved to Florida to be near to his mother.

Nathan and Helen, the boy’s mother, had three children and all three had moved to Florida to be near her.

Nathan now had two young children with his new wife. They lived in Boston, close to where her family lived.

He’d flown down when his son called to say that Helen was dying, asking if he wanted to come see her for the last time.

Each of his children and their partners were there. They were all in her spare bedroom with the hospital bed and medical equipment. No one spoke when he walked in. They looked at him and smiled. He and Helen had had a troubled past.

Each of them took turns sitting briefly in a chair by Helen’s bed. The IV drip had been unplugged, though the line with the morphine pump was still clicking on and off. Nathan sat by the bed once, maybe twice, for a few minutes each time, hoping and not hoping she would open her eyes and see him there. A thin blanket covered her body. Her face was sharp and gaunt.

He and Helen had married in August of sixty-six. It was hot and he’d worn a suit he’d rented.

Nathan had kept one picture of her. The first one he’d ever taken of her. On one of the first days they’d spent together. The only one he had of her by herself—not with friends or in a crowd of tourists wearing plaid and untucked shirts in front of some famous monument or around a table with smiling people with raised glasses leaning in towards one another though they’d only just met one another.

In this photo she’s standing beside his car. In three-quarter profile, one skeptical eyebrow raised. Her hand shading the sun from her eyes. In a light-colored summer dress. The photo was from September ’65. A little less than a year before they were married.

After Nathan had been there for a while, the hospice nurse had said, “Sometimes, right near the end, you see, one or the other of you might consider leaving the room, to ease the passing.”

She’d said it to all of them, but he was the only one who then left.

He went out for a walk. Passing pastel condos like hers. Neat lawns. Palm trees. Swept driveways. Clean white cars with Michigan and new Sunshine State plates. Nobody to be seen in the yards. No sounds other than those of yelping poodles behind drawn curtains and trucks on the interstate.

He was not in the room when she died.

In the ten months before he and Helen were married, they had taken short, uncomplicated trips. Sampling large pizzas with garlic and onion in places they’d never been before, sharing a Coke with no ice. Eating the whole pie right there in the booth, wiping the grease off their chins and fingers, laughing, giving half-serious points for crust, chew, sauce, cheese, and its New York-style foldability, compared with the others they’d eaten. Tony and Tina’s on Arthur Avenue, Joe’s on Carmine Street, Pasty’s on 56th Street. The Famous and not so Famous Original Rays.

Driving around with the windows open playing the Zombies and Stones tapes. Cramming for organic chemistry exams together: The sequence of steps in the hydrohalogenation reaction of an asymmetric alkene. The Bischler-Napieralski reaction. He wanted badly to go to medical school. She wasn’t interested in any more school and wanted to get a job.

So, instead, they got married.

 Before that, in June or July, Nathan told his older brother that he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t go through with it. No way. He was twenty-one. Scared. Rushed. Not at all what he wanted. His brother said if that was a legit reason for not getting married, nobody would do it. “You need a better excuse than that,” he said. If that was his only reason, it wasn’t good enough.

It was during that part of the sixties that still wore the clothes of the fifties. Pre-Woodstock. Pre-sexual freedom. Pre-EST. Pre-consciousness-raising. The pre-let’s-think-about-this-and-see-the-world-for-a-while-before-we-just-rush-into-something-stupid part of the sixties.

His brother said their mother would throw a shit fit if he backed out. And so, he didn’t. They moved into an apartment together. Bought an Ethan Allen couch and a rocking chair. They nailed pictures up on the walls and kept their socks and underwear in separate dressers.

Neither of them knew anything about marriage, at least not good ones. They followed a hand-me-down script they were given, with nothing more than that to go on. Nothing that might help them avert twenty years of quiet unhappiness, depression, anxiety, resentment, isolation, loose and muddled affairs, and weariness. No real, deep, understanding of love to guide them.

Both wanting, expecting, to love and to be loved. And when they didn’t know how to make that happen and didn’t see a way out, they both kept stepping deeper into a muddy river which only got wider the further they got in.

They were little more than adolescents made up to look like adults, with three children and the old thin-at-the-elbows neuroses their parents had given to them. They were no good together, and each was too afraid to say it.

They split. They found they were so much better apart. Happier. It just took so long for that to happen.

She died that afternoon while he was out walking.

Then, as she lay, so recently alive, so recently herself, all of that past came welling up in him.

And so, he cried. For her. And for himself. For their shared and separate sadness before they split. For the joy they had missed when they were together.

On the flight back up to Logan, looking down at the blue, blue ocean, he listened to the circling lyrics of songs he once knew by heart and only now remembered as fragments on repeat in his brain. Words and melodies worn deeply into the grooves of his synapses.

Only then, belatedly, did he see that he had broken the Judy Blue Eye’s Rule.

He had stood by her bed. Taken his turn in the chair beside her. And, even then, at that moment, when she had so little time left, he had not seen her as who she was. Only who she had been … and only in relation to himself. As he had done in the past, seeing her only through his too-young-to-see-clearly eyes.

Even then as she was near to breathing her last human breath, his vision of her was still clouded by the remnants of who she had seemed to be in the past. Not the woman she was. The one who she always had been, and he could not see. CSN. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.

“Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now

I am not dreaming

I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are…”

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 Time of Wild Violets

I ran into that man again. Logan. The one who was telling me about the wild violets. Back before COVID. The one at North Station. God, two years ago. You believe it? Two years. It’s like an entire year vanished. That’s crazy, right? Like the year disappeared and the days are now laid bare like rocks at low tide. How we got that Noro virus in that Mexican place Franco took us to when everyone was washing their hands except in Florida and we started throwing up during the night and we thought we were coming down with COVID because it was March and we had just heard about it and it was before we started wearing masks and not touching our faces. And when Fauci said don’t touch your face and the minute he said that I couldn’t stop touching my face. But that was after we got back home and before I had that diverticulitis. And the last day I played tennis. With Zeno, the guy from in next door. Where the old woman lived and then went into the nursing home in February and died in a week and her son put the house on the market and it sold right away because people were moving out of the city. That must have been in April when they closed the courts and playgrounds and everyone who went to the beach was wearing masks and walking eighty-seven feet away from everyone else and I remember thinking, ‘that’s a little much of an over-reaction isn’t it’, but that’s what was happening then. We’d pass someone at the beach, before they closed the beaches too, and people wouldn’t even look at you, as if they could get infected just by making eye contact. And then Nadia died of it. Anyway, he, I mean Logan, was wearing the same black suit with the wide lapels and the red bow tie he was wearing that first time. That was late May or maybe early June. That’s important, I think, but nothing is really so important about him or the story. It’s just that I met him again and he said the same things in the same way he did that first time. That slow, lower-case way he has of speaking like an e e cummings poem. And we fell into the same conversation we had that first time and I was tempted to point that out to him but decided against it because that would be rude. As if suggesting that his memory might be failing, though he was not that old, or that he had been drinking though I smelled no alcohol on his breath and he was not slurring his words or anything. Anyway, what’s so weird about him, I mean seeing him again last night, is that we were sitting in North Station like we were the first time but some people were wearing masks and all, though most were not, which by the way, he was not, but he said nothing about COVID. Nothing at all. Not a single word. I mean that is incredible, isn’t it? You meet somebody now or you Zoom and right away they’re into vaccines and variants, like it used to be the weather or basically only the weather. It’s like ‘how are you?’ and they start telling you about who they know who got COVID or their cousin who says the whole thing is totally bogus, that they’re overcounting cases and it’s not as bad as everyone is saying, and she’s a nurse so she must know, or someone else is saying three people in their family died from COVID in like in the same week, but mostly it’s like how this whole year has been crazy, right? Like after 9/11. So it was only after he waved goodbye to me as I was walking through the doors to the train that I realized that I had spent the last twenty minutes talking to someone I barely know and we didn’t talk about COVID or George Floyd, or Trump, though not that many people are talking about George Floyd or Trump anymore, at least people I know, which is probably more a sign of the total moral junkyard people around here are living in, that like George Floyd was murdered in front of our eyes almost exactly one year ago and it’s like, ‘okay, that’s over!’ Not that I want to talk about COVID or George Floyd all the time with everybody but, you have to recognize that these terrible things happened within the last year, January 6, and Kyle Rittenhouse, and all those mass shootings, like one just the other day in San Jose, but tomorrow that will fade in memory and conversation just like COVID and George Floyd, and Columbine and Las Vegas, and Emmett Till, and Amadou Diallo, and Sandra Bland. Anyway, just like the last time, he sits down next to me on the bench by that crowded sports bar and he puts down his two black instrument cases, an alto sax in one and a bass clarinet in the other, and he asks me what instrument I play and I tell him I don’t and he says, ‘you look like a cello man to me,’ like he knows my secret dream is to play a cello, then he says ‘let me guess your age’ and looks me over like I’m a salami and he gets it right on the nose again but now I’m two years older so I know he’s not just throwing out a number and then he says, ‘I can tell it in your shoulders,’ and I pick up my bag of Bova’s pastries to go to the train and he tells me that a man my age should do some shoulder rolls each night before bed and that I should look for the wild violets coming out this week and how the purple of the flowers and the green of the leaves vibrate in your brain together because they’re complimentary colors, and how he knows my heart will sigh when I see them still damp in the morning, and that it would do me good listen to some Gershwin sometime, Porgy and Bess, even though he said he can tell by looking at me that I don’t like woodwinds much, I should listen for how the woodwinds sway like dune grass in a sweet-smelling breeze blowing soft off the ocean through the streets of Catfish Row on a Charleston summer evening, just like he said that last time before the COVID and all.  

The Woman in Purple Velvet Coat at the Edge of the Surging Sea

On the eve of my seventieth birthday, I dreamed I was a woman in a hooded purple velvet coat.

She-Me, standing on the jagged, angular, geometric rocks at the edge of the surging, curling sea.

It was evening, and the wind blew hard as it does when the moon is full and high and the heat of the day fades and the ozone-lavender lithium light rises off of the water and becomes the sky.

It was in the crepuscular hour. The time between the exhaustion of the waking day and the wonders of the unknown night. The hour when you could imagine yourself to be of one mind and also of another in unison. In a settled, common, unison. When yes and no are equal to the task of living and breathing and waking and sleeping and lifting and falling.

And the wind blew from the east and the wind blew from the west. And yet my coat was unruffled. It hung down from my shoulders to the toes of my shoes.

My black shoes which reflected the moonlight. The shoes I danced in as a girl. The shoes that I wore at my baptism in the faith and on the first day of school and on the day my mother died.

The shoes my father taught me to lace. The shoes so soft and snug and sturdy they filled my body with strength and soulfulness.

I held the moon in my hand and the waves curled under it. The waves of blue and white. The waves I felt I could walk away on. Walk to the moon on.

I was a girl-woman. I was a woman-girl. I was my mother’s-child. My child’s-mother. The slow admix of young and old. Of constancy and change in the moment. Of the years I had lived and the years I have not yet lived. The years before I was birthed and the years beyond the end.

Text Box:  My mother had worn a purple coat. The color of sadness and mourning set against the midnight black of her hair.

I stood at the edge of the sea. In the crepuscular light. In the coat my mother wore. In the coat my child will wear. In the moonlight in which my mother bathed and at which she wondered. The light that reveals and shadows, both. The softest light. The silent light.

I stood, a woman-mother-child, at the edge of the surging, curling, sea in the lavender air and entrusted myself to the mysteries I did not know, could not know, and the wonders I know I would never know.

And I stood with all of that. In the edge of the day and the night, and the dark and the light, and the light and the dark, in my hooded purple velvet coat that my mother had once worn before me.

Painting by Karen Maley. 2021.

Used with permission.           

The Comforter of Sudden Silent Souls

Harold Mandelbaum is a shomer. A watcher. A guardian of the dead.A comforter of sudden silent souls.

He is sitting on a thin cushion on a straight-backed wooden chair. The only chair in the room. A table lamp is lit in the corner. It provides only enough light so that he can read and to allow him to dimly make out his surroundings.

The walls of the room are painted in an accepting shade of gray. A gray with a tint of brown that emanates solace. A gray that seems to him like a pair of soft brown eyes. A gray that absorbs sorrow.

There is no sound in the room beyond that of his own breathing, an occasional sigh or cough, and the creak of the chair as he shifts his body against it.  There is no window in the room. Only a door. And the door is shut.

He is not entirely alone.

In the center of the room is a table and on the table is the body of a man. Milton Hershkovitz is the man’s name. A man of about seventy. A man unknown to Mandelbaum until he entered the room.

Mandelbaum, himself, is a man of seventy-three years.

It is three o’clock in the morning. A Monday in May. An open book lays across Mandelbaum’s knees. And from it he reads. He reads quietly to the man and to the man’s soul.

He came into the room and sat in the chair by the table with the body of Milton Hershkovitz on it at a few minutes after midnight. He had relieved, Seidman, the shomer who came before him. Seidman nodded to him when he left. This is sacred work.

Mr. Hershkovitz had died in the late afternoon. His body had been washed and wrapped in a linen shroud. Kaplan had been the first watcher. Then Konigsberg. Then Seidman. Now Mandelbaum.

From the open book Mandelbaum reads the Shema, “Shema yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echod.”

After death, it is said, that a person’s soul must not be left alone. The shomer comes to sit with the body and to lend comfort to the soul.

Mandelbaum feels a presence in the room. A stirring. A stirring in his mind.

What binds a soul to the body? What then releases the soul?

Mandelbaum believes that Hershkovitz’ soul is hovering over the man’s body. It is unsettled. Seeking peace. It will remain with the body until the body is buried. And then the soul is free.

Hours ago, the soul in the room had been bound to Hershkovitz. “Was the soul not, in fact,” Mandelbaum thinks, “the man called Hershkovitz? Was it not the soul which suffered when Hershkovitz suffered? Which rejoiced when Hershkovitz rejoiced? Loved when Hershkovitz loved. Felt terror when Hershkovitz felt terror? What was Hershkovitz if not his soul? What or who could Hershkovitz be without his soul?”

“What am I then,” thinks Mandelbaum?

“What more can I offer Hershkovitz now than to be in this room, at this time, with his soul? To sit with it. To ease the pain of separation. To mourn its loss. The loss it must feel.”

“Where will the soul go? Is it unsure? Does it not know how to leave or where to go? Is that the stirring I feel? Or is it my disquieted soul I feel? Is it my soul who is the teacher, or is it the learner? Is it seeking guidance or must the soul remain here until it has safely passed along to another one a message?

Mandelbaum listens. He hears nothing. And so, he reads once more from the book of King David’s Psalms.

“…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”

He covers his eyes, sitting in the silence and the semi-darkness. His feet find a more comfortable position.

And then he reads from the Book of Job. In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. 

He reads a story of anguish, of suffering, of sin and redemption, of transgression and forgiveness, of praise.

Still, he hears nothing.

“There is nothing to hear,” he thinks. “Who is to speak in this room but me? Who is to listen?”

“It is not for me that I read these psalms and verses. Is it not for the one here who listens without ears with which to hear,” he thinks?

“It is for the peace of the soul who resided within Hershkovitz and which is now released,” he says to himself.

His eyes tire. He rests. “This is allowed,” he says to himself. His eyes flutter and close. This is allowed.

He is awakened by a stirring. A shiver. He opens his eyes, expecting Silverman to be at the door.

But it is not time yet for Silverman to come.

He thought he heard a voice.

“Listen, Mandelbaum, don’t kid yourself. You are reading to yourself. No one else is here. You are doing a good thing. A mitzvah. This is true. But listen to the words carefully because is it not, in truth, to me, your own soul, you are speaking?”

And after Job had prayed for his friends, and the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him…

And then Mandelbaum rested again and when he heard a knock on the door, he opened it and let Silverman come in.

And, as he left, as the two men passed one another in the doorway, each looked into the eyes of the other, and Mandelbaum nodded and then he went home.

They will call him again, he knows. Another man, another night, another sudden, silent, soul, and he will go and it will be a mitzvah.

Waiting in Line at the Church of the Transfiguration

Morriah held a place in line for Max. The sidewalk in front of the church was dry and grey and the late December wind banked around the corner from Fifth Avenue and west along E. 29th Street. It was all she could do to keep her balance against the wind, what with one hand atop her head to keep her fur Bergman-like pillbox firmly in place and with the other holding her grey overcoat gripped tight around her, and to hold the nosegay of three red tea roses and some frilled greens close to her chest.

The hat cost more than she could afford. The nosegay was unnecessary but her mother had paid for it. Reluctantly. Grumblingly.

Morriah touched her chin. She had covered a small raised pimple with cosmetic her mother had given her. She looked at the other couples in the queue. The way they were dressed. How tall they were. What shoes they wore.

She politely excused herself, changing her place in line twice, three times, moving to the end of the line, as couples, arms entwined, entered the church ahead of her, an apologetic look on her face.

Max had come. But he had left the license on the dresser in his bedroom at his parents’ apartment on Broadway and had to take two buses uptown, retrieve it, and meet her before the rector closed the doors at noon.

Her mother, if she knew what had happened would have said, “Don’t hold your breath waiting for him, Morriah. But, no worries, if he doesn’t show, I can return the flowers to Adler’s if they still have some signs of life in them.”

There was a rush to marry.

The war had started it. Pearl Harbor. The Nazi’s. The Italians. The Japanese. Roosevelt made it imperative, not so much the rush to marry, but the sense of existential threat. Everyone felt it.

The country was attacked and that demanded an immediate response. The need to martial resources, to rally to fight, to sacrifice, do what the country needed of you. Get your hands dirty. Offer up your life for it if that’s what it took.

Urgency grew up from the soil, filled the air with its pungency, flowed in the insistent streams of voices, radio, news hawkers on the streets, clutches of neighbors in the lobby. It was unavoidable and insatiable.

Morriah felt the threat to the well-ordered life she’d imagined, she’d invested in. Planned on. Hoped for. A marriage. A wedding. A home. Children. A happy life. All of it was threatened by a world she had no control over. If she could get a job, she would. What would she do though? Steno? War work of some sort. Not at all what she had planned on.

There was all that and then there was Max. Brown hair and soft brown eyes. An off-center smile.

They’d danced. Fast and slow. In the rushed rhythm of the moment. In the basement of the church.

Max had signed up. To fight. Do what he was expected to do. He asked her to wait for him though he had no idea what that actually meant. How that feeling would translate into something real in his life. It actually had no translation that entered his mind beyond the heroism of it. Of the sound of the words he said to her, “I have to go. Will you wait for me?” Words that seemed to flow out of him without thought. Without anything but the desire to go, to fight, to have meaning in life, to earn it, what ever it was. And to be wanted, admired, needed, waited for.

Of course, she would wait for him. Though she too had no of idea what that meant, waiting for him. Of course, she would wait until he came back. They’d marry. She would write him letters he would open in his barracks or in a trench somewhere with gunfire and aircraft overhead and thunder in the distance. There was magic in it all.

They both felt the magic. Life had become magical. You would do what you were called to do. It was your duty.

And for both of them. The magic erased the unknown. The war became the known. And the known was the urgency.

“Marry me,” she said.

She’d worn her hair up like Olivia De Haviland. A dark blue suit. The small bouquet. There was no time to plan for more than that.

In January, he rode the bus to Fort Worth. A green foot locker. Half-full.

Morriah lived with her mother until a month or two before the baby was due and then she would take the train to be with him, to have the baby there, in Texas. And they would be happy.

And all would be well. She would keep the house and care for the baby. He would see her when he could until his orders would come. And then she would wait again for him.

And she did. She made the meals, cleaned the spills, washed the diapers and the dishes and the floors, and called the landlord when the sink or the toilet backed up. She endured the heat and the Texas humidity, and paid the bills, called the doctor, held the baby, the crying baby, the baby boy she had named for her father. There was always something in the oven or bubbling over on the stove and the wash in the machine in the hall. She read popular novels. All, a measure of happiness because she was waiting.

And in August, in her housecoat and her hair undone, and she’d not seen Max in a month, she was not happy. “When we move to San Diego it will be better,” she told her mother.

“Don’t hold your breath.”

And then it was to San Antonio, and Eagle Pass, and Brownsville.

And on a hot December afternoon, on their tenth anniversary, when the boy was nine and the girl was seven, Morriah waited in the still air and shade of the front porch for the delivery of the dryer they’d bought.

She’d have to tell the delivery man she couldn’t accept it. They were moving again. She didn’t know where.

She’d called her mother; told her that Max got new orders. Korea. And ask if she could come back to New York and stay with her and wait until he came back.

“Of course, dear,” her mother said. “Of course.”

The Truth According to Miriam

Miriam had never been one to live in the moment. In fact, she knew few among her small group of friends and no one among her shrinking family who could do that.

How could anyone, she thought, having survived beyond the age of three or four, not look forward to a better future or resist the pull of the past, searching through the rubble on the side of the road for mistakes, missed opportunities, pitfalls, and pleasures, few as those were.

Now, looking back as she so often did, she felt that she had learned all of the important, essential, existential, lessons that life had to teach her, and had accepted the mysteries for what they were. To know the past hurdles so as to avoid the next ones, or to take them in stride, or to be readied for the fall if and when it might come.

One needed to do that. Did that not make sense? Are people not just deluding themselves if they pretended not to? Did they not regard the past as the wisest of teachers?

But for Miriam what often came with the backward look was sad-eyed self-recrimination. A rebuke of sorts directed at herself twice fold for some long-ago, ill-considered act, some insensitive remark, or some impolite transgression. A rule ignored; a confidence broken; a friend let down. Paying a price once back then and once again in the present.

It was this that she wanted most to change in her life. To say to herself, as her mother might have if she were still alive, “Lighten up, Miriam, cut yourself some slack. No one but you gives a fat flying rat’s ass about it. Drop it. Let it go. What’s done is done. No one cares.”

Her mother had been the kind one and her father was, if not quite kind, not always threatening, though there were the times when she felt less than comfortable in his presence, when he would ask her a question. A simple question it would seem. But her father asked no simple questions. Oh, they seemed simple enough. “Did you leave the water running in the sink?’ “Where have you been?” “Did you finish your homework?” “Did you eat all the pickled herring in the jar and leave only the onions behind?” “Are you telling me the truth?”

Ah, but that was really the issue between Miriam and her father, wasn’t it? That was the real and underlying issue she had with him. His emphasis. No, it was more than an emphasis. His expectation. No, it was more than an expectation. His demand. Yes, it was his demand, always his demand, for the truth. “Are you telling me truth?”

But Miriam felt that his demand for the truth was met with distrust. An abiding mistrust. And she, only a child, a young girl.

It was actually, in fact, his core belief that she was not telling him the truth. That in fact, she was going to lie to him. That she’d lie to him about the littlest things. About medium sized things. About the big things. And it was not just with Miriam. It was with her mother. With his own brother. With the world. The world was lying to him, had lied to him, and was going to lie to him again.

What was his obsession with the truth? What, looking back, she thought, was he hiding? Was he truthful? What was his measure of truth? Was there only one truth? One absolute truth? And if there were two truths, a his and hers, was one truer than another?

As a young woman in her twenties, and this is the part of the past that nagged most at her, that she regretted most… she found herself, for a time, wearing the very same coat of deceit that her father had wrapped around her. She lied to men, to women. She lied about the most meaningless things. She hid behind a mask of honesty. Verity. Railing against dishonesty. How easy it seemed to be duplicitous, to dissemble with disregard. How intoxicating. And how sad a person she’d come to be.

She had become her father. She hated herself.

It was this road that she looked back on now. This road of rubble she walked. This road she had crawled on until she was able to stand and walk. The road that was steep and dark. The road that was the past. The road that she’d left behind.

At the funeral for her father. Actually, before the funeral, she was asked if she would say a few words. Perhaps tell a little story. Perhaps a fond memory, an anecdote or two, not more than five minutes. Something that those gathering would like to hear. Something personal, heartfelt. A reminiscence, maybe.

She had declined. The heavy-lidded rabbi with the mournful eyes and black fedora nodded his head.  

And then, at the graveside, for there was no actual funeral with songs and bible sayings, and organ music, and it was only just the family, those who could make it on a Tuesday morning in March, those who were still alive, though not her mother who had died several years before, those who had thought to come, when no one else spoke up for him, they all looked to Miriam.

And so, Miriam picked up the shovel that had lain beside the open grave and she scooped up a half-shovel-full of the mouse-gray earth and tossed it down onto the wooden box and said, “To be honest, we never really got along all that well, not really, my father and I. But he taught me everything I know. He was a man beholden to the truth. The truth as he saw it. As he wanted to see it. And in the end, isn’t that the only truth? Are not those stories which we tell ourselves, the sad and happy songs we sing in the shower, in the end, the only truth we will ever know?”

Reading the Book of Exodus by Candlelight in Scarsdale

Sally Leventhal turned away from the kitchen window. The first purple crocuses were pushing up through the last patches of crusted backyard snow.

It always starts with the crocuses.

Jesus Christ! she thought. “The damn crocuses,” she said.

Hennie, her husband of eleven years, heard her and said nothing. He knew what was coming.

A wave of dread seeped up like marsh gas from the pit of her stomach. Hennie saw it in her face, that underwater look. His heart sank.

She hated Passover. The preparation. The work. The house cleaning. The changes of the dishes. The food to be thrown out. The food she must prepare.

She was a smart woman. Patient, rational and reasonable. She was Jewish, but not that Jewish. She knew the story. Slavery. Oppression. The persecution. The killing. “I get it,” she would say. But in the end, she hated it in a way she could neither articulate nor explain.

Hennie, though, now felt that it was the right thing to do. His parents were not observant. They didn’t keep kosher. But he had been in the war. He had fought the Germans. Not in the actual fighting. But he would have if they had sent him over.

The war changed him. He’d seen the skeletal faces of the Jews. The piles of bones. Everyone had. The evil men could do and could abide. He needed a way to bear witness. He too found it hard to find the words for it all but the Passover seemed a foothold.

For ten years, more, it had been the same. Sally had her questions and complaints. And for each one Hennie had had an answer. “Please Hennie, just this one year can we simply wash the regular dishes in the dishwasher? The sterilize cycle? Twice?” she pleaded.

“Sally,” he said, “that is not what we were commanded to do, do you think they had dishwasher in Egypt?

“No, do you think they had two sets of dishes? Four, if you count the milchidik

 and fleyshik sets. Did they have Streit’s Matzohs, in three flavors and Easter colors?”

“Of course not. But we do. And we do this now because they couldn’t. And because of those who did it were killed for only that one reason.

“But Hennie, I don’t believe. You don’t either. This is your own crusade, not mine.”

“I am not asking you to believe. All I ask is that you do this for me, because I love you.”

“I know you do. But does that mean I have to turn this house upside down for two weeks? To show that you know that people have suffered? Been murdered? Have been enslaved? Spent forty years in the wilderness eating goats every night and manna every morning and drinking magic water? Where did that come from, anyway? And for what? So that we can eat cholent and drink Manishewitz, leaning on a pillow? There are other better ways… better ways to remember and to make a difference.

“We need to honor the suffering.”

“What? By making me suffer? I already know what that’s like.”

“Stop,” he said. “You’re sounding like your mother.”

“No, you stop. Don’t tell me about my mother. That’s your answer for everything. This is not about my mother. It is about me. Listen to me! I don’t want to do this. Not now. Not anymore. Why can’t you just hear that?”

Each year she gathered up the chametz, all the leavened food and whatever it might have touched. Cleaned the refrigerator, the freezer, the drawers, each room, each closet, the basement and the car and the donut crumbs, and the dog’s food, the cosmetics, burning it all in the trashcan on the porch.

And every year she stood at the bottom of the attic steps and Hennie handed down the cartons of green glass dishes with the fluted edges. And she soaked them clean and filled the cupboards she had scrubbed and lined with flowered shelf paper.

She shopped, chopped; made horseradish, roasted the egg and the chicken neck, and the brisket, the burnt offering it. “A burnt offering? Are you kidding?”

“Don’t walk away,” she said, because that was what he had started to do. “Stay with me. Here. Talk to me.”

He turned back to face her. “Can we do it just this one more year, and then no more?”

“No.”

“Why no?”

“Because that way is meaningless,” she told him.

“How can you say that?”

“Hennie. You mean well but you read from the Hagadah words you don’t understand while your father falls asleep and the dinner gets cold and your nieces fight over the afikomen for the dollar you will give them. And the next day we are no different from the day before. The symbols have become some self-congratulating abstraction. Do they ever make us feel better or change the state of the world?”

Her brown eyes were resolute. She had never talked to him like this before. He stood with his arms at his side.

“Pick one thing”, she said. “One thing that you can truly say means the most to you about Passover and I will pick one thing. But don’t pick the wine because that is what I want to pick. And that will be our Passover.

“Can I pick two?”

“Okay,” she said.

And on the first night of Passover, while his relatives gathered at aunt Ethel’s in Flatbush and hers went over to cousin Ida’s in Washington Heights, Sally and Hennie sat in their dark kitchen in the glow of two lit candles and ate matzohs that Sally baked from scratch and drank the wine that Hennie bought at the shop in town by the train station, and scooped up the warm charoses they made together.

And for the next seven evenings, by the light of two candles, they read the entire book of Exodus, a little bit each night, reading each and every line and every single one of the footnotes, and talked very, very late into the night.