Easter Dinner at Heidi’s in SoHo

Some time ago, a college friend of Simone’s, Heidi, I recall, a tall, slender woman with near-black hair pinned back, covering just the tops of her ears, invited us to an Easter dinner at the new apartment in SoHo she bought with her partner, a man named Nathan or Natan, whose name I had forgotten and which I didn’t quite clearly hear when Heidi said it as we were coming in the door, and I was reluctant, perhaps out of simple misplaced courtesy, to ask her later to repeat it hoping she would say it again when he came into the living room, where we were seated, or perhaps, she might call his name to remind him that we had arrived, or to tell him to come in to greet us from the kitchen where he was feeding the dog.

We had not seen them since their wedding the previous spring, an affair with well over a hundred guests, at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. At that time, it was the only occasion we had been to there and we both very much enjoyed it. In particular, I recall the setting for the reception in an enclosed tent, with flickering, lambent, afternoon light shifting slowly across the white-clothed tables, as it sifted through the tall surround of oaks and maples which were especially lush that year after seven consecutive weekends of rain in the city, much to the chagrin and concern of the local business owners who depended heavily upon the foreign and domestic tourist trade, already depressed significantly by the  global financial crisis and bank bailout in 2008. It was also the year in which I had been let go from a job I’d had for over fifteen years. The weather was cool. We were seated at a table near the bar with other friends of the couple whom we did not know and with whom we exchanged pleasantries until they got up to dance, after which we never saw them again that afternoon or, in fact, ever again.

Simone said, as we got off the subway at Spring Street, “Maybe we’ll see someone from the wedding there today.”

Heidi, in a phone conversation she had with Simone the week before Easter, said that they were not traveling this year because they had recently acquired a dog, a rescue animal which Nathan, or Natan’s, sister Ailene had adopted from the Bideawee on 38th Street several months prior and for which, sadly, she was looking for a new home as she was leaving the country and could not possibly take the poor-dear dog with her to the Bordeaux University on a Fulbright scholarship, could she? No, of course not, said Natan (let’s just call him that) to her and they’d be thrilled to take care of the dog whose name was Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, though I can’t quite recall which, but I know he was named after one of the French existentialists of the mid twentieth century, who were the subject of Ailene’s doctoral dissertation.

Sartre, I think that was the dog’s name, after finishing its dinner, strained its way into the living room where Simone and I were sitting talking with Heidi. Natan was holding the dog on a very short, taut leash which he immediately let drop and let the dog rush forward toward the couch in which Heidi, Simone, and I had settled ourselves. It stopped abruptly and crouched directly in front of her, and consequently, between Simone and myself, its front paws spread wide apart, its haunches up, looking up at her with its pink-rimmed eyes and naked gums, ready, I thought, to move in any direction.

“He simply adores Heidi. He tolerates me well enough, but he loves Heidi,” Natan said.

The dog was a brindle. An American Staffordshire terrier who Heidi said was terribly affectionate. “Pit bulls are, you know,” she said, “but just saying that name gets such bad rap from most people. But you two are dog people, I think Simone said, so…”

“Simone is the dog person,” I said. “Not so much me but…”

“Oh, well,” Heidi said, “he’s just a baby,” she said, looking down at the dog and pursing her lips as you might in talking to an infant in a stroller. “He’s just getting used to us and his new surroundings, you know, trying to get the lay of the land, you know, figuring out who is the alpha person here and all…”

“… He’s adorable…,” Simone told her.

“But, I should tell you that you must not look him in the eye. He doesn’t handle that well. And so, I mean it’s no big deal, nothing horrible has ever happened, but just don’t look him in the eye. Just don’t.”

“Shouldn’t he be on the leash? I mean with one of you holding it?” I suggested.

“Well, no,” said Natan, “he’s better off leash, I mean, that’s pretty much what we’ve heard, that dogs on leashes get more aggressive. Right?”

And then he stood up. “I’ll make us up some plates and bring them in and we can eat and relax and talk in here. We kind of made a mistake by putting his food bowl by the table in the kitchen and now he doesn’t like it if anyone else eats in there.”

“They’re pretty territorial, I think,” said Simone, nodding her head, looking over at me.

Natan came back in with four dinner plates on a tray which he set down on a sideboard. Generous slices of spiral honey ham, mounded mashed sweet potatoes, and rows of roasted asparagus.

“Simone said you were vegetarians, I think, but this is Easter, right, and this ham is fabulous. Have you ever had it? Be vegetarian on Monday, right?”

He placed a plate on each of our laps and he took a seat in a softly upholstered chair opposite the couch and, just as quickly as he sat, he got up and carried his plate down the hall into their bedroom.

“He’ll be right back. He doesn’t feel comfortable eating, you know, meat, in front of the dog, but he’ll be back after he finishes,” said Heidi.

Turning first to Simone on her right and then to me close by on her left, she said, “I’m so glad to see you both. So much to talk about. Eat, eat. Before it gets cold.”

The Surest Thing

We heard that my father’s friend, Mel Metfessel, was buying Palestri’s market on the corner of Yonkers Avenue, across from the racetrack and next door to my grandfather’s hardware store, where my father worked as the assistant manager.

My grandfather owned the business and he said that made him the manager. From opening the store at nine until he locked the door at five, he sat beside the counter while my father stood behind it all day running the cash register.

Customers would walk all the way back to the counter, passing the washing machines, lawn mowers, hammers, screw drivers, nail barrels, and paint to talk to my grandfather, who they called Benny, sitting in the wooden fold-up chair with one leg crossed over the other, and ask him for what they wanted to buy.

“So, Benny, I’m looking for a fah.”

“What kind of fah?” my grandfather would say.

“A metal fah,” the man would say.

“Rasp or double cut?”

“I don’t know.”

“Whadaya mean you don’t know? Whadah you need it for?” my grandfather would ask him.

My grandfather would sit looking off at the wall on the opposite side of the store. He always did that when he was working. He never looked at the customers when he was talking to them, just at where the fahs or hammers might be, but not right at them.

“I gotta fah down the end of the spindle where it fits into the hole in the sta in Millie’s rocking chair,” said the man.

“Nahhhhh, you don’t need it!,” my grandfather would inevitably respond.

“Whadaya mean, I don’t need it. The spindle won’t fit the hole the way it is.”

“You don’t need a file for that,” my grandfather would tell him and then he’d turn to Dave, my father, and say, “Give him two sheets of thirty-six and two of the eighty sandpaper and charge him forty-nine cents, no tax, and put them in a bag.”

Benny never looked at my father either when he talked to him. Only after he’d say something and then only for a quick second and then he’d look away at something else again.

Metfessel, tall and beefy looking, missing one tooth, used to work for my grandfather. He made deliveries, unloaded inventory into the storeroom, and swept up before closing. He always covered his mouth with the back of his hand when he talked to you.

One day, Metfessel didn’t come to work. My grandfather said he’d got another job. “He don’t work here no more,” he said. That was all he said. That’s when we found out that Metfessel was going to work in Palestri’s grocery.

Palestri did a good business in dry goods, kitchen utensils, and grocery items. There was a Coca-Cola cooler across from the counter filled with ice. He taped a “No leaning” sign on the side by the crate for empties. Candy bars and cigarettes were on the shelves behind the counter. You had to ask Palestri for whatever you wanted, and he would reach behind him for it without taking his eyes off you and slap it down on the counter with a pack of matches on top, if you were buying cigarettes.

Every afternoon my mother sent me down for Chesterfields and told me to tell Palestri they were for her, not to forget the two cents change or matches and I could keep the two cents.

My father had gotten Metfessel a job working for Palestri as a stock clerk. He was working there for about two years when Palestri decided to sell the store to him and move to Florida. Metfessel told my father that he’d set Palestri up with a friend in Miami who’d get him a stake in the Dania jai alai fronton and maybe he might work his way into a piece of the greyhound action in Palm Beach. My father says that Metfessel knows all the right people.

My mother told my father, he shouldn’t get involved with Metfessel. “He’s a slick one,” she said.

“Slick?” my father said. He was smoking in the TV room.

“Turn the TV down,” my mother told him. “I can’t hear you.”

“Slick, I said.”

“No, Dave, you said, ‘slick?’ to me like a question. As if all of a sudden you didn’t know what slick means. And where does Metfessel get the kind money to buy a store in the first place?”

What kind money?

“What do you mean, Dave, ‘what kind of money?’ The kind of money you need to buy a store on the hottest real estate corner in the whole city.”

Hottest?”

“Dave. Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“That.”

“What’s that?”

“Dave, cut it out. I know what you’re doing.”

“What’s he doing, ma?” I said.

“Yeah, Shirl, what’s he doing?”

“Go to bed, Ruthie.”

“Why do I have to go to bed?”

“It’s late. There’s school tomorrow.”

School?” I said.

“Dave, tell her to go to bed.”

“Go to bed, Ruthie, and say goodnight to your mother.”

“Goodnight, mom.”

I lived upstairs, then. We all lived in apartments above the hardware store. My parents lived on the second floor. I lived with my grandparents and older brother up on the third floor. 

“David, did you have anything to do with this?”

“Which ‘this’?”

“Answer me, are you involved with Metfessel in this deal? Did you give Metfessel any money again? Did you ask my father for money? And don’t answer me with another question.”

“It’s a sure thing, Shirl. We could make an easy ten percent of the profits he makes over and above what he would owe us.”

“There is no sure thing, Dave. Here or anywhere. The hardware store was supposed to be a sure thing. The property in Florida was a sure thing. Look at us. We have nothing. Less than nothing. We live with my parents. I’m forty-seven years old. You’re fifty-six. We share a phone line with them. You work for my father. If he loses anything we lose everything, it’s over for us. All of us.

“Shirl.”

“Don’t ‘Shirl’ me. Did you ask my father for money? The truth. The absolute truthy, truthy, truth.”

“The truthy truth… no, not yet.

“Honest?”

“Honest truth. I swear to you on my mother’s soul, wherever she is.”

“Please don’t ask him. He hates Metfessel for selling Ralphie and Ernestine that pool for the roof over their garage. Dave, look at me. We have a kid in college. We own nothing. You know Metfessel would sell Ruthie and her dog for gas money if we ever took our eyes off them.”

“Ruthie, honey,” my mother called up to me, “I know you’re listening, I didn’t mean to say that about anyone selling you and Sinclair. I was kidding.”

“Shirl, baby.”

“Stop laughing and stop calling me Shirl baby, Dave. I hate that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“My mother calls you ‘The Prince.’ She reveres you. We eat Chinese at their dinner table every Sunday night. She’d cut up your vegetables and spoon your soup into your open mouth if you’d let her. And all that matters to my father is that you married his only daughter.

“I know.”


“David. What kind of store is Metfessel planning to open? … David?”

What kind of store?

“Christ, Dave, you do the right thing! Stay out of this. Metfessel is trouble in a tee shirt. We don’t need his kind of trouble. We have plenty of other kinds.

“He has a head for business.”

“Yes, he has a head for business, and he has contacts and friends, and one day he’ll end up either in Sing Sing or in the river. Guaranteed. I need you, Dave. Please stay out of this.”

Metfessel got the store. But not with our money. Nobody ever heard from Palestri again. My grandparents moved to a condo in Lake Worth and gave both the store and the business to my mother. She told my father he should be the manager and she would do the bookkeeping. They changed the name to Dave’s Hardware and hired Ralphie to run the cash register.

The First Fruit Fly of July

“Will,” she says to him, “I see your July sadness taking hold.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Lin,” he says.

Will is standing by the lone window in the kitchen. One of the windows they’ve decided to have replaced. All of the windows need replacing. The cold air comes through them in the winter, and the heat in summer. The humidity in any season finds its way in. He is almost as old as the house is. He feels like his own heat is escaping. A coldness seeping in.

Linda is standing beside him.

“Do you remember that small two-bedroom we lived in, next to the big Congregational church in Brooklyn on Carroll Street that one winter?” he asks her.

“Of course. With the broken tile in the bathroom and the kitchen faucets that dripped, and wood floors that buckled and sloped toward the center, and how my mother came to stay with us to help with the twins.”

“And the windows that were cracked and broken and let the snow in?”

“And all five of us slept in the same bedroom at night to keep warm? Is it the windows that you’re worried about?”

“A little. I don’t know how we can pay for them. But, no, it’s not the windows. Not really.”

“Then what?”

“Everything.”

“Everything as in everything? Me everything?”

“Not you, Lin. The world. The country. So much is going on. All at once. I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. But you haven’t shaved since Friday. You’re looking forlorn. Lost, in lonely the way you get. I knew this was coming.”

“You’re acting as if it’s my problem, all of my own doing.”

“It is, though, isn’t it?”

“How can you say that.? Roe v Wade, the EPA, open carry, the separation of…”

“I know. I know. The world is too much with you. You need to take some of it off of your shoulders.”

“Us. Isn’t it ‘too much with us’?”

“Yes, us, you’re right. But I mean you and me. Not everyone worries like you.”

“My sister.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

“Yes, your sister does. And Wordsworth did.”

“And Sinclair Lewis.”

“Yes, Sinclair Lewis.”

“And you, too,” he tells her.

“Yes, me too. But I am more concerned about you, Will. When I see you get like this, I know what’s coming. It’s like when I see the first fruit fly in July. It comes in the door or hidden in a bunch of grapes, and then they’re all over everything. The bananas, the peaches, the lemons. And when, I see that the look in your eyes, the far away, sad, searching look, as is if you alone need to figure it all out, or the world will crash, I know what’s coming. You start to lose patience with people. What they say. How they say it. Question their meaning. Not always. Only when you get this way.”

“What do I or we do?”

“About which, she asked.”

“The fruit flies. Me.”

“The same for both. Clean up. Scrutinize and wash everything that comes in the house, put the bruised fruit in the refrigerator, eat or compost the rest. Maybe even buy only what you can use or read in a day. And, absolutely, stop reading It Can’t Happen Here. Now. Today.”

“But, I’m almost finished. I have only eighty-three pages to go.”

“No more pages. Fini. You don’t have to finish it. Listen, either he liberates everyone from the concentration camps and prisons and saves his family and the whole country in the end, or he doesn’t. Right?”

“I just want to see how it turns out.”

“How it turns out? Will, does that matter? It’s a book. It’s not your horoscope. Look at me. The ‘It’ in the book is happening right here. Right now, today. I see it. You see it. I know that. You know that. Anyone paying even the slightest sliver of attention knows it. But you seem to feed on it. Or it feeds on you. You read about it, talk about it, write about it, resent others for not talking about it. You drink it in. You can’t get enough of it. You need to stop.”

“I know, but it is all so horrible, so planned, so evil, so depressing.”

“Go get the book, Will. The book and the country are two different things. Similar, yes. But one you have some control over and the other, you don’t.”

He retrieves the book from his bedside table.

“Give it to me. I’ll put it in the refrigerator for you. It will be safe in there, and here, read this one.”

“The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing?”

“Yes. You’ll love it. You’ll laugh for a change. You’ll smile. You’ll nod your head. You’ll give yourself a break from the angst. Wordsworth is gone. Sinclair Lewis is gone. Rousseau is gone. Huxley and Orwell. Gone. We are here. Right now, and we will endure. I know others will not, and that saddens me. But we will endure.”

“Endure?”

Yes, is that not what we are together for? To be together here and now? To share the load? We need to have the windows replaced because we are too cold in the winter and spend too much to heat the house… we can’t expand the supreme court, or eliminate the filibuster, or save the eel grass and the Amazon rainforests all by ourselves. We can only do those things if we feel empowered, not downtrodden, defeated. Let’s give ourselves a break before we both feel like a broken, leaky, window letting in the heat and fruit flies. Can you do that with me?”

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.

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.”

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.”