Considering Salvation at the Corner of Ninth and Seventh

Eric Winsome was stuck. At a veritable standstill. Physically, stopped in traffic behind a late model blue Toyota Camry on 7th Avenue at the corner of 9th Street, and existentially, locked in a self-imposed worry-worn straitjacket of self-absorbed spiritual stagnation.

The light at the corner was green but a crammed B67 bus, lights flashing, kneeled, angling into the intersection in front of Smiling Pizza, picking up a line of passengers: Men in work boots with lunch buckets, women with shopping carts, drooling infants, juuling teenagers, and homeless souls with sacks of clattering bottles and cans bound for redemption.

Louise Little, the driver in the Toyota, her NicoDerm patch running on empty, held a cigarette in her taut quivering lips and a Zippo in her right fist tapping on the steering wheel to the Deep Purple Smoke on the Water guitar riff, which she had not gotten out of her head since she woke up this morning. In nine seconds, tops, she would either light up the god-damn Newport or run the yellow light the instant the lousy bus gave her a chance.

Eric’s fog-like crisis of faith was, simply, his unwavering acceptance of the Calvinist sublapsarian belief in predestination and in the decree made by God before the Fall that he would choose from among the living, those to be saved, and those not. Eric was thirty-four and he could not know within which group he’d be counted. How could anyone know? he thought. Worry and doubt consumed his every waking moment. Not the least of his worries, though, was whether Wendy, the woman he loved, and to whom he had plighted his troth just shy of seven years ago, would be in the same state of candidacy for eternal salvation as he hoped he was. He had his reasonable doubts.

“Seven years,” she had told him, “is one hell of a long time for a woman to wait for you to make a decision. I can’t wait for ever. My mother keeps asking me, will he, or won’t he?” Just this morning, waiting to brush her teeth in his apartment while he took his time in the bathroom she said, “Eric, shit or get off the pot, I have to get to work, goddamnit.”

On the corner opposite Louise and Eric, stood Lois and Irv Rothstein, an elderly couple waiting for the light to change so they could cross the avenue and make their bus for the early-bird special at Juniors on Flatbush. Though they were resigned to the possibility of missing it, they retained the hope that, God-willing, the light would change before the bus righted itself and they could flag down the driver and make it across the street before it left the corner.

Irv watched the light. Louise watched the light. Lois watched the light. Eric watched the photo of Wendy he kept on taped to the dashboard in front of him, The B67 began its slow rise. The light changed. Louise lit her Newport. Irv and Lois began their walk across the avenue, waving and calling to the driver.

As she walked, Lois’s upper body swayed slightly from side to side. It was the thickening, stiffening, of the arthritis in her hips.

Her shoulders rocked first one way and then the other. It slowed her down, and Irv, a spare man, a few inches shorter than his wife, held tightly to the sleeve of her jacket, trying to keep her moving and on an even keel. He held on to the brim of his hat with his other hand.

The walk sign flashed, nearing the end of its orange digital countdown. 14…13… 12…

“Hold your horses,” said Lois to the young woman talking on her cellphone in the car behind the bus, her grim lips holding a cigarette in the driver’s side window, but it was only loud enough for Irv to hear.

“Come along, dear,” he said to her, with concern and considerable affection.

As the countdown reached three, they had made it safely to the opposite curb and then at the precise moment that the zero flashed, Lois turned to Irv, “I dropped my glove,” she said, and she lurched stiffly up onto the curb. Irv looked back.

The glove, in a shade of green that matched her jacket, which she had been holding in her free hand, and which Irv had bought for her on sale at the Conways in Manhattan for her birthday, lay half-way across the roadway. Irv let go of her arm, stepped back into the street, holding his hand up to the path of the traffic. Lois teetered.

Louise hit the gas at the green light and, when she saw the man, only a few feet or so from his outstretched arm, she slammed on the brake pedal and twisted the steering wheel to the right to avoid hitting him.

At that moment a car horn from behind Eric blew, startling him. He stepped on the gas, rear-ending Louise’s Toyota, inflating both of their airbags and pushing her car up onto the sidewalk hitting Lois squarely in her stiff hips and crushing her against the back of the B67.

Irv’s heart exploded with the impact of grief, and he fell to the pavement.

Louise was later saved by the ‘jaws of life.’

And Eric? He sustained, with vertebrae-cracking suddenness, multiple spinal cord ruptures causing his surgical team to place him in a medically induced coma until they would be able to assess the best course of action, if any existed, leaving him with only a 50-50 chance of survival and plenty of time to ruminate, in his solitude, on his chances of salvation.

Notes on the Celebration in Honor of The Essayist on his Ninetieth Birthday

The celebration in honor of a well-known essayist’s ninetieth birthday was held on the Saturday following his birthdate. A Saturday amidst the blistering heat of a northeastern July, an uptick in Covid-19 infections, fires in the west and in Europe, reports of a monkeypox outbreak among gay men, and news of the Pope’s visit to Canada to apologize for the church’s treatment of indigenous children.

Lily, the essayist’s wife, planned the celebration, addressed, stamped, and mailed the invitations, using names she gathered from the essayists address book.

Full vaccination required. No gifts. Regrets only. The invitation said and was signed simply in a firm hand, Lily.

At four, the room had filled with guests. The invitation had said, ‘four ‘til seven.’ Anyone who knew the essayist for any length of time had surely known that he was punctual and expected punctuality. He always made his expectations clear. He was a Marine.

He often told me, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” I took him figuratively though he meant it quite literally. “How does that work?” I’d ask him. “It just does,” he’d say.

No one spoke about the heat, or the pandemic, or the hearings on television, wearing masks, abortion, inflation, gasoline prices, Ukraine, or the media. All of that, they knew, was the essayists bailiwick. They found other things to talk about.

Prosecco in stemware and small hors d’oeuvres were passed on silver trays by young men and women wearing collared white shirts and black pants. The music from the speakers in the dining area set aside for the gathering was loud and conversation became difficult. Names were hard to hear.

“Guernsey?” I repeated, not really believing that could be the woman’s last name.

“No, it’s Gert Seavey,” she said.

I nodded.

I sat in a seat beside Lily. The essayist sat next to her at the head of the table. His three sons were there, sitting at another table. He looked over at them often.

After the dinner plates were removed, Lily stood and nodded to her three boys. The first one, the oldest, the one who had come in late, was the first to stand and speak.

““I just flew in from Paris, and the plane was late.”

“We all can see that,” said his father.

“I’m happy to be here, Dad,” said his son. “I have only one word to say to all of you that epitomizes my father best. Forgiveness.” Then he sat down. There was applause.

“Thank you,” said his father, so softly that only those of us closest to him could hear.

The second son spoke anecdotally, and then the essayist’s granddaughter raised her hand. “I love you, Boppa,” she said, “you are the smartest, funniest, and greatest man ever in the world.”

Her grandfather bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said to her.

Lily looked to the third son. He shook his head and didn’t get up, and so she walked to the end of the room, where it was the quietest. She asked the waiter to stop pouring wine.

She stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, and, because the curtains had not been drawn, she appeared briefly in silhouette surrounded in a halo of white light and seemed like a dark apparition in a dream or an afterimage following the sudden appearance of the Madonna.

She asked for quiet in a voice as soft as a dove and she turned to her husband, whose smile we all could see. From a pocket in her light-colored flowered dress, she read from notes she had written. She recounted how they had met and all of her husband’s many accomplishments in life and then she asked the essayist to come forward, and she kissed him on the cheek as they passed and returned to her seat at the table.

“That’s my first wife,” he said. “I always say that.”

The room quieted.

“You all know I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded.”

“Nooohhh, Dad,” his sons said in unison.

“Please put your phones down and pay attention,” he said to us all.

He spoke without notes.

“There’s a line from Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, with an “E”, it goes something like ‘we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire–a brain, a heart, a spirit.’”

“I dreamt last night that there are two paths forward for humans on earth. This earth, where we were born, where we live, and where we will die. The two paths are not mutually exclusive. And neither path is one that does our species credit.

“The vast majority of us are on a path we have no control over. Nine-nine percent of us, are on a path headed back in time to life at its most basic. Sweating in toil, planting the crops that will grow in the narrowing bit of land suitable for them, hunting what animals survive, and gathering the little water we need to live.

“Our disregard for water will be our undoing. Drought and flood and fires have already begun. You see it all around you. While corporations and governments husband our most essential natural resource for whatever profit they can make and power they can wield. We are watching the demise of most of what is human existence. We have set a rapidly degenerative system in motion by our lack of regard for the needs of society. One another. We have lost our social conscience.

“We had long survived as a species because we evolved as social animals. We need one another. But what we have done in the last two hundred years, as a result of our self-centered greed and avarice and our disregard for one another, has set us on a downward spiral which will consume us. Through starvation, drowning, unbearable temperature extremes, and the wars that will erupt and eliminate the rest of us, along with almost every other living species.

“We have brought this upon ourselves because we have not paid attention. We saw what was happening and we said that was somebody else’s problem and we kept on making plastic and burning oil and coal. How brutally ironic is it, is it not, that the lives of past plants and animals that inhabited this earth for millions of years before us, their very carbon souls, are what we are burning, and which will bury us and crush us under intense heat and unimaginable pressure back into carbon chains again, and that is all that will be left of us.

“It did not have to be this way. We have willfully disregarded the wisdom of the past generations who lived in concert with the land and the water and who were swept away by our greed and our guns and the rape of our natural resources. We laughed at their ignorant simplicity. Their traditions. We failed to learn from them and their respect for the mysterious power of nature.

“On the second, more narrow path, some few will survive. They will be the ones who had the privilege and resources unavailable to the rest. They may survive in small enclaves into a temporary future, perhaps using advanced AI computing and multidimensional printers to engineer some semblance of artificial nutrition and a livable environment.

But, surely, around them both, the earth and nature will heal itself, perhaps creating a natural re-arrangement of our DNA with the DNA and RNA from which we all came, and life on earth will go on. The Anthropocene epoch will end and surely, with it, other species will fill the gap.

“As Wolfe once said, you can’t go home again, and we cannot. Not when you have burned your home to embers and released the fumes into the atmosphere to smother you.

“So, pay attention. Love your family. Love one another. Love the life you have while you have it. Heal the earth in any way you can. Return to the simple life on the earth that created us in any way you can. Honor it. Eschew the false and artificial and disingenuous.

“That’s all there is and that’s all I have to say. Thank you for coming.”

And then the cake was plated and served. Coffee was poured. The essayist sat beside his wife and drank a glass of milk and then we said our goodbyes and went to our cars and drove back to our homes.

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.”

Alice in Chains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harran, don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

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

“What do you think I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you’re going back, then?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

“Please don’t say that.”

“Say what?”

“Fucking.”

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

“Alice.” 

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

“Don’t go. Where are you going?”

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

“Why did you even come back?”

“What?”

“Why did you come back?”

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

“Could you let me out?” he said.

“What?”

“Let me out. Please, I have to go.”

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

“Hi, are you Carmella?”

“Yes. Miriam?”

“Yes. I’m so glad you came.”

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

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

“I don’t know what I want yet.”

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

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

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

“Let’s eat.”

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And, if they don’t?”

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

“Now you’re sounding like Vonnegut.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great. At ten again?”

“Ten, again!”

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

 “What?”

“Read, and thus shall ye be enlightened.”

Hold Close Your Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If?”

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

We drove home. The two of us.

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

A Sudden Change in the Weather at Weeping Rock

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

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

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

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

They both knew it was over between them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He followed in her steps as best he could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One crack of thunder. Rain began.

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

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

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

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

“Up? Why up?” he said.

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

“Where?”

“Up there,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now,” she said. “Let’s go down now.”

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

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

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

Malachi and His Mother: The Aftermath of the Altshul Incident

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

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

“What did he say to you?”

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

“I saw the pictures.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frighten me?”

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

“I’m so sorry.”

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry.”

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

They look at one another. Eye to eye.

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

“Critical Race Theory?”

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

Malachi and His Mother at the Altshul on Garfield Place

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

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

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

“Why didn’t dad come with you?”

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

“COVID?”

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

“That’s Bukowski.”

“What?”

“Charles Bukowski, the poet, said that.”

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

“It looks like the rabbi wants to start.”

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

“I have to get up.”

“Ma, wait. It’s starting.”

“I have to leave.”

“I’ll go with you.”

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

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

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

“I have to. You can’t stop me.”

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

“Malachi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone is watching us, Ma.”

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

“Shhh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long moment of silence passes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two officers step behind the doors again.

“See, Ma?”

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

“Please sit down,”

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

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

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

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