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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

On Considering Quotidian Days

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

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

“Yes,” he says.

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

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

“A year or two?” I say.

“At least. Maybe three.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yanks Are Coming

Dear Michael,

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

Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen

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

Oates:

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

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

Things I Did Not Say When I Was Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pompitous of Love

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

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

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

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

“Why do you think that is?” he says.

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

“So why do we rake them?”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

I don’t know what to tell him.

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

“You mean is it good for the grass?”

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

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

“Aesthetics, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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