Neither Meyer Rothstein nor Moishe Feingold were going to the Thanksgiving dinner at Sheila’s this year. Continue reading Two Outlaws Having Thanksgiving Dinner Together
How long could I continue to endure the trapped isolation and constant disorienting uncertainty at the Hôtel? Or the apprehension that my perception of what was real and what was not was distorted. That what I took for my own identity was fragile and figmentary? That my thoughts, my very substance and existence was a nightmarish fiction. Worse still, that the Hôtel itself was insubstantial, discarnate, incorporeal. That the space it occupied, and myself within it, did not exist beyond the workings of my own mind.
And so, at some point, while immersed in this all-encompassing interiority, I began to question my sanity. I could not, though, determine when or how long it may have taken me to arrive at this point. For, at the Hôtel, time, like space, had no value, it had no presence in my life, no meaning. Time did not exist for me. There was no chronology to events. There was no before or after. There was, therefore, no sense of cause and effect. No such thing as, if A, then B.
Whatever sense of personal agency I felt I had, it was both false and limited solely to my intention to put one foot in front of the other, so to speak, and even that could be negated, obliterated, in an instant. I might imagine taking a step in one direction, say to locate the room in which I was staying, and immediately find myself in another, an entirely different space, a different realm, one totally untethered to that in which I had sought to extend my foot in that very same heartbeat. And, at that, I had no awareness that anything had been altered. I was simply in a new moment, a frame-shift, and for that moment it was all that existed.
I sensed, in some moments, a deep despair which I attributed to a lack of anything resembling intimacy with any others. While I might have imagined that others may have been present, I had no sense of human contact. I heard not a word, saw neither a glance nor a gesture. I felt that this privation was, like a vacuum: an absolute absence of materiality.
Without human contact, I felt unable to do anything either self-affirming or of any value in the world, as limited and ephemeral as it was. My world was seemingly without end and removed from the very substance of humanity.
At the point to which I am referring, I began to experience a nascent level of introspection. I came to fear that a certain degree of psychopathology becomes not only possible but predominant when one sees oneself as separate from both meaningful experience and social interaction. Thievery, duplicity, misanthropy, delusion, and worse, seemed possible. I had enough cognition to know that that possibility was inherently immoral. I needed to find my way out. Without the restraint of the social contract, when we are deprived, for one reason or another, through some willful act of oppression or through happenstance, we are left without the righting forces of compassion and punishment. We become untethered, unmoored, and a danger.
Perhaps only through the force of will or a weakening of the forces that bound me, one evening I found myself, inexplicably, outside of the Hôtel. I was walking through one of a number of revolving doors at the exit and found myself outside of a modern office building in midtown New York, somewhere in the 50s, perhaps around Madison Avenue. It was a building I had once worked in, though I cannot recall either the organization or what exactly I had done there. It was in the fall and I was not dressed for the coolness of the evening. I had neither coat nor a briefcase nor any personal items. In that moment, I found myself thrust back into that situation. And in so doing I returned into the building and told the security guard that I worked upstairs and had left my ID card and my coat in my office and of course he recognized me and showed me up to the floor and a cubicle which I easily recognized by the state-issued utilitarian furniture, the rather non-descript appointments such as the fluorescent lighting and grayness of the walls and the disarray of papers I had left on my desk.
Standing beside it I was awash in a feeling of dread. Everyone had apparently left. Perhaps it was the weekend. I looked through my desk drawers to see if my belongings were there and they were. And under the file boxes I had kept under the desk, I found several thick business envelopes of cash that I had hidden there and, in that moment, I felt how distanced I was from the staff I worked with. Perhaps as the result of some slight or perceived injustice and, how, after they all had left at the end of the workday, which for some of them was quite late into the night, I would riffle through their drawers and personal belongs and take whatever cash I could find, amassing quite a sum, hundreds of dollars sometimes in one evening. I was convinced, simultaneously, that it had come to me by chance as if I had found it on an empty sidewalk and that I had committed a reprehensible act and that I would be severely punished if I were to be caught. Looking clearly, for the first time, since leaving the Hôtel, I had an awareness of the consequences of my own actions. This was, as one can imagine, both a blessing and a curse, an inkling of agency and culpability.
I stuffed my pockets with the cash. I was flushed with fear and ambiguous good fortune. My heart beat heavily.
In the lobby, the guard who had shown me up no longer recognized me and asked for the ID which I did not have. I broke toward the door making it through into the cold night at which point I stood looking up and down the cavernous avenue, a dark street in Brooklyn I was not familiar with, with no idea how I was to find my way home. To safety. And with no tangible knowledge, in fact, of what or where home might be. I was lost. My pockets were empty. My fingers could not dial the cell phone that appeared in my hand. I could not recall what number I might call for help. I was beset with a frantic sense of desolation. I felt myself being reclaimed by the dark pull of unbounded lunacy.
And there, standing in the darkening cold, the Hôtel was revealed to me to be a haven of sorts. I had no control there. No responsibility for my actions. There, I did not have to parse what was real from what was false. And in that, with no distinction between the two, an enticing degree of comfort could be found.
Gelber clicked on the email from Ancestry.com. He’d seen his wife’s 23 and Me results. They were captivating. In a way, like a biomolecular radio telescope peering into the origins of her own personal universe. Or like a Vermeer painting you could watch in reverse. Layer by layer of paint being removed by absorbent retrograde brushstrokes, seeing that the final perfect azure of the girl with the pearl earing’s turban had once been a rejected cerulean.
Gelber, the email told him, was an Ashkenazi Jew. That cost me 199 bucks? They should have just asked me, he thought. I could have told them that two weeks ago and they could have Venmoed me the $199.
His wife’s a Brit. Ireland. Scotland. England. Blonde and shimmery grey-blue-eyes. A gene for wet sticky earwax and one for bunions. Another for a rare Mediterranean fever of little consequence. Also, a gene from a warmhearted Neanderthal grandmother, for a tendency to hold on to things. Gelber calls them tchotchkes. Things like boxes of broken holiday lights, cracked tea cups, Hummel figurines, and single-spaced Christmas letters she receives each year from distant cousins living in condos in Naples, Florida. She’s a saver. It’s a genetic trait that Gelber believes, no doubt, has some hidden survival value.
He watches Henry Louis Gates on PBS on Tuesday evenings while he sips a glass of hot tea and wonders if Gwyneth Paltrow will have a slaveholder or a slave in her past. Or maybe a Polish rabbi, which is more likely. What could Gates tell Jerry Seinfeld that he didn’t already know? “Well, now, what’s up with that,” Seinfeld might say in that measured sardonic way he has of being both the subject and the smirking, cynical, observer at the same time.
Gelber knows little of own his past. What’s to know? What would it change if he did?
He also avoids thinking in any detailed way about his future beyond his fear, at some point, in a not-too-distant future, of not being able to breathe and that a fulminant pneumonia will be his last conscious human experience in life. COVID scares the shit out of him. The thought wakes him at night and it cringes his genitals as proof, if one needed it, that thoughts of doom are physical phenomena.
Of what good is thinking of the past? What did it matter if it was the Mongols or the Visigoths or the Nazis that his great-great grandmothers had escaped from long enough to pay forward their good fortune? What matters now to Gelber is none of that.
What matters most now to Gelber is if he will be able to escape a painful, unprovoked, death at the hands of roving vigilante Proud Boys in helmets and camo pants or the Hawaiian-shirted Boogaloo dudes standing back and standing by now in their well-fortified split-level homes with American flags flying on their front porches and re-tweeting about George Soros eating Christian children who wander into pizza shops owned by Hillary Clinton. That was more concerning to him. Is there a gene for that?
The Jews have had a hard time. Is there an allele for that? If so, what can be done about it. Nothing, he thinks. He’s not a pessimist. He’s a practical prudent paranoiac. Maybe there’s a gene for that. He instinctively senses when he’s the unwanted turnip in the soup. Westport Connecticut, for example. He once had brunch in a well-lit crepe shop there. A line of men in yellow Lacoste shirts with upturned collars, Bently Platinum sunglasses tipped back on their clean-cut hair, and cashmere sweaters loped over their shoulders, waited outside for him to leave. They were not Visigoths, but still he felt the vibe.
It’s more than an imagined driving-while-Jewish feeling. There’s more to it than that. It’s his fully-warranted healthy paranoia in the time we live in. Like the time when his sentinel genitals coagulated like a fried egg in warning as a dark green van, with peeling Trump bumper stickers on it, barreled toward him with the driver looking straight at him and giving him the finger and yelling, “All Lives Matter, you queer,” gunning the engine and swerving away from hitting him head on at the last moment as Gelber knelt on one knee on a socially-distanced busy street corner holding a Black Lives Matter sign for George Floyd and wearing a surgical mask.
Gelber is certain that the guy in the van thought that since he was not Black, Gelber must be a radical-liberal-commie-homo-tree-hugging-faggot-veggie-AOC-loving-socialist Jew, whose life, therefore, does not matter. Gelber knows he is seen by some as ostensibly, and only provisionally, “living” on borrowed time. He’s not one of those true Americans on the perverted mental list of the All Lives Matter types of people who, by dint of some vaguely defined demented criteria, are truly worthy of living and breathing.
His mother would tell him to watch out. “You’re a Jew”, she had said to him. “You look like a Jew. You dress like a Jew. They can smell Jew on you. Don’t be a fool, too.” She’s dead now. She was a true paranoiac. What would she see now hiding around every street corner? Maybe she was right. Maybe she felt the full pull of the well-earned gene for self-protection more strongly that he does. Maybe she had two alleles for that trait and he has only the one.
Maybe he is a fool, although he thinks not. May he’s a fraud. It’s relatively easy to hold up a sign on a street corner in North Whitepeopleville. But, maybe, when the real test comes and the first window is shattered or when he hears the hard knocking at his kitchen door, his DNA will know what to do.
Maybe he’s just not smart enough to know what to do when the real Visigoths come. Maybe he is. There must be a gene for that.
Her name was Sloane. Her hair was deep brown. Her legs were a mile and half long. She leaned her head back against the doorway of her small kitchen and extended her arms toward him. Continue reading Her Name Was Sloane
K was awakened shortly after dawn. He had not slept well. A machine or what sounded to him like a machine thrummed off and on during the night. He resisted arising, choosing to remain motionless on his pallet, eyes closed to the light through the window sweeping across the room, transversing his face as it passed from one wall to another. Continue reading K.
My mother was born into troubled times. She seemed to have absorbed the troubles as a window sash in a house by the shore might absorb the salt air making it forever hard to open or close.
She spoke little to me about those times. She made no judgments about them. Though what she did say, the words she’d chosen with care, the pauses in her telling, in which her eyes wandered over my shoulder and settled on whispered thoughts, words and names she repeated, soft as a heartbeat, and people and places which resonate with me still.
It was Tilda, she said, who told her about the world. Tilda was the only person who spoke to her about the troubles. It was Tilda’s voice she heard as her eyes wandered.
My mother was born in the summer of 1919. July 21. There was record heat. The flu pandemic, after raging for many months, had waned. Only to begin again in the fall. Unemployed men, black and white, young and old, soldiers having returned from Europe and the war, looked for work and found little or none, competing for the few jobs that could be found.
White workers struck for higher wages. They opposed the hiring of blacks. Black soldiers had seen a different, more accepting, life in France. Expecting that their country would have changed when they came back home. It had not. Unions kept them out and were, in turn, busted by the companies and the police.
Politicians claimed the Bolsheviks, the Reds, the unions, and the Blacks were behind it all. Wilson, in his second term, did not disagree.
The economy had slowed. The country was divided. Boundaries had been set, solidified, and fiercely defended. They rubbed up against one another like flint and steel.
Cities were riven. The Blacks and the socialists were hunted down and beaten. Blacks marched for civil justice. Union workers went on strike. White supremacists patrolled the hot white streets. White terrorists mobbed and burned Black communities. Set fire to homes and shops. Courthouses. Jails. Churches.
Black men and women were pulled from their homes, hung from tree limbs. Roped and burned in parks and town squares. Large white crowds gathered to watch. Black and white photos appeared in the newspapers. The soil on the ground beneath the dead men ran red with blood, appearing in the newsprint as a benign shade of black. White men and boys in slouch hats looked to the camera. Stood with shotguns and shovels. Living and breathing, though lacking the light of humanity in their eyes.
Seventy-six men and one woman were lynched that summer. Their deaths, their names, ignored or diminished in the press.
Tennessee burned in January. The first. The burning spread as pogroms spread. Like the rush toward war. Like seeds strewn in a breeze. Or like contagion in a pandemic. The infection builds momentum and moves along social fault lines. Detroit. Omaha. Elaine, Arkansas. Washington. Wilmington. Jenkins County. Charleston. All followed.
Twenty-six cities succumbed. Mobs and masses roved unchecked. Men in uniforms, complicit, standing by or instigating or pitching in.
On the July day before she was born, two men, one black and one white, argued about something: the war, politics, jobs, or a woman, on the corner on 127th Street and 2nd Avenue in Harlem. A short distance from her parent’s home. The men, shoulders back, goading. Pushing and shoving. Some boundary had been crossed. A white line. People sat and watched from high granite stoops in the heat. A gun was pulled from a pocket. Shots fired. A woman was hit and lay bleeding.
In minutes, the length of 127th Street from 3rd to 2nd Avenue was filled with men and women. Black men and women who, now ready and resistant, who had seen and heard of the killings in Omaha and Knoxville. Who had known people who knew people there. Men and women who could take no more violence in silence. People who Tilda knew.
Police came. Shots were fired. Blood ran along the side of the street into the sewers.
It was the American Red Summer.
Tilda, the name my mother would whisper, I learned, was the young black woman from Southern Pines, in Moore County, North Carolina, who lived with the family for many years. She cooked and cleaned the apartment for them. Cared for my mother. She cut out articles and photos each day from the newspapers my grandfather read in the evening and then left for her. She saved them in a drawer in her bedroom in a thick manila envelope. A chronicle of the troubled times.
One article told of a day, July 27, when my mother was only six days old. On the hottest day of the year in Chicago, 17-year old Eugene Williams, escaping the heat, drifted in the cool water into the “whites only” area of the 29th Street beach on Lake Michigan. He was soon surrounded by white men and stoned and he drowned to death. No one was charged. The Red Summer had spread from 127th Street in New York to the South Side of Chicago.
On that day, when my mother had opened her eyes and first saw her own mother, the American Red Summer was only less than half over.
When my mother was ten, and her family lost everything at the start of the depression, Tilda returned to her home in Carolina. She left the clippings in her dresser drawer with my mother’s name written on the envelope and, inside, a note to her in which she asked that they be kept safely for her until she could return one day for them.
The house lights dim. The screen behind the stage fades from black to a cerulean blue. A white “C” in the center. A spotlight is on Coronado walking to center stage. He looks like a swimmer on his eighteenth birthday but he’s got to be fifty, at least.
“I got one question. Who’d he have to blow to get this job?” This is Phil, the guy sitting next to me. Sometimes he can be a severely negative dickhead. Continue reading Seven Cities of Gold
Henry loaned me a book he’d just finished reading. A paperback. We talk books when we see one another. We read a lot. We play tennis together. On the change-overs between games we talk. Mostly about books.
We wore masks for a while, standing apart, on our side yards for a few weeks, back when the days were still cool and the grass was just greening up. When masks were recommended. Then, as time went on, and they opened the tennis courts, we agreed to stop wearing them when we got together. Continue reading All Men Are Mortal
Sophia is dressed in her best black sheath. Her hair, fastened by a tortoise shell clip, falls like Niagara over her shoulders. “You are not dressed to go yet,” she says.
Petrus turns the radio off. “I cannot go,” he says. Continue reading Opening Day
The Hôtel de la Mer, was similar in some respects to the hotels that had been popular in the Catskill mountains during the mid-twentieth century. Those hotels were in what was known as the Borscht Belt. Jewish families, like my own, escaped the heat of the city for a week or two there and entertainments were provided: stand-up comedians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman and others performed there as were, occasionally, plays on their way to Broadway. From all of these I was naturally excluded and left to stay alone in our room because of my young age. Continue reading A Further Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel
A thunderstorm passed over the island last night. Out of habit, we counted the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder, as if that would have any effect on us. How fast the storm was moving mattered none. We were going nowhere. We closed all the windows though we could have only closed those on the northeast side of the house. The wind was stiff and strong. We didn’t lose power.
The next morning, Peter is in the spare room cleaning the cat’s litter box. “Would you like some coffee?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
We sit and have coffee together. We do this most mornings now, talking about what we have to do today. We have our lists. He writes his on small index cards; sometimes on slips of paper. He carries them in his pocket along with a pen. He writes notes to himself. Notes about what he sees or hears or reads. Things he’ll look up. Ideas for the stories he writes. The last time we were in the city I bought him a box of the pens. I think they cost about a dollar fifty each. A box lasts him a couple years.
The last trip to the city was before the COVID. We haven’t been back there since before March. He says we probably won’t get there again for maybe a year or two.
“A year or two?” I say.
“At least. Maybe three.”
We wear masks when we walk into town. When we pick up groceries. He doesn’t come into the store. He waits outside. I carry a hand sanitizer in my purse and use the wipes they have there and I give him one when I come out. He listens to the radio while he waits for me. Or he reads.
We know a woman who died of the virus. A bright, talkative woman, about his age, in her seventies. She dyed her hair magenta. When we heard she was on a ventilator, we thought she was not going to make it. Three weeks it took. I see her and hear her voice and her laugh and it makes me sad. Both of us. I tell him I might dye my har magenta. Then there was Terrence McNally, and John Prine. He plays his Prine’s sad ‘Sam Stone’ on repeat some evenings, by the open window in the living room with a book in his lap.
He reads four or five books at a time. He’s reading Les Misérables he tells me. Halfway through it, reading four or five pages before he falls asleep at night. He says he has six hundred forty-two pages left.
“I’m in no hurry. I don’t feel the pressure I used to feel to finish books anymore,” he says, “like before, I’d rush to finish one so I could add it to my Goodreads list.”
“We need mulch for the front garden,” I tell him. “And a light bulb for over the sink.”
“Ok,” he says and writes those down on his list, along with the bills we have to pay.
We do a lot of gardening, planting bulbs and perennials, mostly. We walk and sit on the beach in the late afternoons, when the sun is still strong, the people are few, and the light burnishes our arms and faces.
I am seeing my students remotely and he has spent the morning mowing the lawn and writing. In the afternoon he brings me coffee and a sandwich for lunch.
“I have come to realize,” he tells me, “that this is the way it’s going to be for a very long time. The house, the yard, ourselves, is all we have.”
“I’m concerned about the virus too,” I say. “Getting sick and dying in pain, alone.”
“That’s not it,” he tells me. “It is good. It’s freeing. A freedom I’ve never felt before.”
“What on earth do you mean? This is freedom? What kind of freedom is being confined to home? To this town? Marking the days like Xs on a cell wall? It will get old pretty soon, don’t you think? What’s the point of doing all of the reading, exercising, weeding? To what end?”
“That’s it,” he says. “It’s an end in itself. Doing what I love.
“You have children, grandchildren. Don’t you want to see them? The museums? Restaurants? Protests. The elections? You are giving up on that? Don’t Black lives matter anymore? Climate change?”
“Yes, they do. They all matter. It’s just that the past few months, here with you, have been good. Our time together. The quiet. In the end, it all comes down to how you spend the time you have.”
“I am not disagreeing,” I say to him. “It’s just, you always say to me that life is a journey, not a destination. And now you’re making a destination out of this place in this terrible time?
“Can’t it be? Just ‘til there is a vaccine?”
“And what if there is no vaccine? What if there’s another virus? Then what?” I tell him, my voice raised in a way I don’t like. “Yes, let’s enjoy our time together, but don’t imagine that reading, or looking through old pictures and snipping daisies counts as a journey. Not in the world we live in. Not in the world I want to live in. We can wear masks and assess our risks and make wise choices and we can do that together. But believing in the good and working toward it is the journey I want. Flourishing, growing, learning, helping, making things better, bringing creativity into the world? I know you believe in all of that too.”
“I do,” he says, “but is a plasticized, commodified, self-centered, constantly-comparative life, driven by the need for a new-and-improved mouthwash and an addiction to a politicized news cycle the journey you want?”
“Mina,” he says, “I feel like we are buffeted by an unrelenting brutal storm, like the other night. All of us, this country, not just by the virus, but by those we have reason to expect to work on our behalf, a government we have elected to serve, not to rule by whim and envy and personal animus. Every day we count the seconds between the tweeted lightning bursts and the thunder of events, not knowing when they will hit us.”
We don’t talk for the rest of the day.
In the morning, he comes in with the last of the rhubarb stalks in his hand. He leaves his shoes at the door.
“Steve Inskeep,” I tell him, “says that Arizona, has the highest per capita number of new cases in the world. Bahrain was fourth, and Nick Cordero died.”
I can see by his face I have said the wrong thing.
He lays the rhubarb on the counter and leaves me alone. I don’t like how I feel. I don’t want to see the sadness in his eyes. I follow him into the bedroom and sit next to him on our bed.
“Peter, I have no problem with the way we are living now,” I tell him. “We are doing what is necessary and prudent. I love the time we have together. I love the beach and the garden. The Zoom friends. The time to read and think. I love what we have learned we can live without, but also what I truly cherish and want to have restored. I like going to a baseball game, working out in the gym with my friends, going to the city and having dinner in Wo Hop after a movie at the Angelica. I want all of that again.”
He turns his eyes to me. “Wo Hop?” he says.
I had been staying with a group of friends in a small room in a rather large hotel in a warm climate, during the year following the death of my father. The room was on the second floor of the hotel though sometimes it was on the fifth floor. In either case it was in an older section of the hotel which had not yet undergone the elaborate renovations that were made in the finer and more lavish sections. Continue reading Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel
Your last letter was so sweet. I even showed it to my mother. You know she has had her doubts about you and me and about how young we are and what will you ever do for work when you come back home and also about your parents and that dreadful little sister of yours and her carousing and her smoking and how she never sends anyone thank you notes even for that wonderful tea set my mother sent her for her sixteenth birthday. The one with the tiny pink roses on the inside edges of the cups and saucers which cost my mother a fortune in her ration stamps. Continue reading The Yanks Are Coming
Gus is a tall man. He has the stooped shoulders of a scholar. His white hair is cut short. His hands are at his sides. He is wearing a white open-collared shirt and grey pants with cuffs. His shoes are scuffed brown lace-ups. He is holding a pair of pruning shears in one hand and several thick green beans in the other.
He looks at the boy beside him. His nephew. His sister’s son. Sees a bit of himself in the boy’s intense close-set brown eyes. Continue reading The Father of the Year
It has begun to rain. Starting lightly. Gathering intensity as the sky darkens with the confluence, if that is an accurate or even applicable term, of the setting sun and the thickening of the low cloud cover. The red poppies in the front yard are being pelted with heavy drops as thick as rubber bullets. This seems to happen every spring a day or so after Memorial Day. Continue reading Malaise
Forest Pike parked his car behind the Senior Center at the south end of Main Street. Across from the house being renovated. Continue reading Waiting for Change
During a protracted period of convalescence following a rather routine, though nevertheless unfortunate, surgery which resulted in a quite unpredictable and unexpected series of complications, more serious by far than the condition for which the surgery had been performed, I fell into a time of deep despair for which I could assign no reasonable cause and out of which I saw no apparent avenue of egress, though, I must admit, due only to an ill-considered intransigence on my part, I sought neither professionally-qualified help nor the possible mitigation that might have been afforded by the use of widely available and efficacious prescription medications, or the less-costly advice of friends and the array of psychoactive formulations from which they routinely found relief from their own feelings of despair or disquietude, nor, as a last resort, the advice of my parents, only one of whom, my father, was still alive and in less than full control of his faculties, and with whom I had little contact and with whom I had a strained and awkward relationship, and who, as circumstance would have it, if I remember correctly, resolutely, for only the reason that he distrusted doctors and others in society who professed to have knowledge or skills he lacked, had refused to have the same surgery I had undergone, despite having sustained a similar injury during a weekend game of doubles with three men of his approximate age and social status, all being solidly hard-working men living then in the relative comfort of a new suburban development, hastily created outside of the bustling city in which they had been raised, and for which they had deep affection and allegiance, and from which they left, with no little reluctance but with great insistence from their wives, as their financial circumstances improved, resulting, in no small degree, from the relative economic prosperity that devolved in the post-war period and spread, as tantalizingly as might the aroma of a cooling apple pie left on an open windowsill, during the rise of the Eisenhower middle-class, and in a time when that sort of outward population diffusion, fueled by the rapid expansion of the network of interstate highways and interchanges, as well as the general perception among some groups, that that was what was being done and what seemed to be expected of modern young families, what with modern appliances, wives who did not work and children who, according to the advice of well-respected clinical experts of the likes of Dr Spock and others, were being encouraged to spend their time at home playing out-of-doors being free, even though, contrarily, in their own minds, that is, in the minds of the men themselves, the time they had spent playing stickball, skelly, or handball in the city streets dodging sedans or riding subway cars far afield from their own neighborhoods seeking fortune and adventure, was the freest and best time of their lives, and from which the memories that most sustained them in times of their own malaise and self-doubt were made, and which bore little or no resemblance to the fey, childish pursuits of their own children, which, again in the minds of the men themselves, were of little benefit and which provided little of the toughening of body and spirit which the men felt was the object of the short time spent in youth and which would undoubtedly lead to a generation of coddled complaining namby-pamby soft-skinned man-children in ill-fitting and unsubstantial suits, tight underwear, and thin-soled shoes from foreign countries, who would be wholly and woefully ill-prepared for the challenges that life would set before them, and from which they would learn nothing and which would send them crying back to their mothers for succor and protection, from whom they would undoubtedly receive the unflagging confirmation of the belief that the world, in fact, neither understood nor fully appreciated them and from which they should be parentally shielded, rather than forcibly separated from the unquestioning, commodious, and all-too-welcoming maternal bosom, and from whom, it was inevitable, the type of relief sought by the wet-behind-the-ear men-children could not be obtained because it was from these very same eternally capacious bosoms from which they had been weaned so incompletely and so belated, and so well-beyond the time at which a clean break could have afforded both mother and child the distancing needed for the mental health of both of them and which would prepare them both for the harsh but inevitable exigencies of life in an exotic but unforgiving world full of both wonder and woe, opportunity and opposition, and, to be sure, the inescapable reality of death, regardless of the good intentions of one’s heart or the resolution of their beliefs, and the contribution, evil or beneficent, they had made in their lives to the commonweal, and so, casting aside any hope of receptivity from my father, I sought to find some refuge and relief in a perusal of the books I accumulated on my shelves over the years in the times I was flush with some expendable cash and relying upon the recommendations of the New York Times Book Review as well as books I had seen being read by strangers on trains, selecting particularly those books that the engrossed reader had been more than halfway through and which had that ineffable qualities associated with the dimensions of the book as well as the thickness of the pages, their rag content, and the presence or absence of the deckling of the edges, more often favoring the deckled edge for reasons I cannot well explain, and oftentimes finding an attraction in the way that the book might lay in the hand with the spine firmly held in the center and pages falling softly left and right over the palm as might a book of psalms or a bible in the hands of a Southern Baptist preacher as he commands the hearts of the faithful holding the book aloft as if it were a loosely-swaddled babe in his hands with the strength of both his fingers and of his convictions, and which he then cradles, the pages against his chest, as his voice falls in gentle cadences, his point having been made, and I, hoping to find such a book, running my fingers across their spines and sensing, what I could, by mere contact, what lay within the bound pages, as if the community of words contained within were communicated to me by an ineluctable and welcome force, that it came to be, through no volitional act on my part, that my fingers came to rest upon a used copy of Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recall purchasing on an afternoon in a long-ago September at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and which I had never read, as I was not familiar with either Bellow or his writing, and it was within the pages of this this book that I sought, with great hope, to find the solace I so sorely desired and could no longer find in the welcoming arms of my departed mother.
Elsa Einstein stands on her front porch. It is a morning in mid-September and the oaks down the hill along the lake are beginning to redden.A cool breeze stirs the folds of her skirt. She fills her lungs deeply with it and she watches it darken the liquid surface of the gray-blue Templiner See as it flows from Caputh northward toward Potsdam. Continue reading The Last days of Elsa and Albert at the Caputh Summer House
[Soft Italian music plays. Masterclass title appears on screen, fades, Joyce Carol Oates comes into focus, behind a kitchen counter, her back turned to the camera, an oven and a rectangle of walnut-veneer cabinets behind her. Kitchen Aid French door refrigerator, stage left.]
(Blue hospital-type mask on, turns slowly to face the camera. Tight-curled black hair fringes her face. Simple, thin-framed glasses circle her sad, serious, wondering eyes)
As a famous writer and amateur chef, I know how the need to write and the need to cook are elemental and necessary to the creative human spirit, especially in these challenging times, and how much they have in common. One might say they both, quote, (show double “quote” finger gesture) “put food on the table”, as it were. Continue reading Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen
There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Or just didn’t know how to say.
Maybe if I’d said them before it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.
We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. Some nights, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I’d wake up. It was your mother. She’d cry for hours at night. Stand by your crib. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t.
What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. I felt so bad that I wished I could cry myself.
I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were hard people. They didn’t laugh much. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays. Rye bread. Pickled herring or whitefish. Potatoes with cucumber. Sour cream. A glass of tea with a cube of sugar.
They were Shnayders, tailors. Neighbors brought them suits to be let out or taken in. Patches to be sewn with hidden stitches. My mother’s machine by the window in the bedroom. My father at the table in the living room under the ceiling light. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing, humming and smoking while he worked.
They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. Smelling the pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Faces gray with creased foreheads.
My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions then. Babies like me dying. But I lived. As you did, when we thought you wouldn’t.
You were always small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. School, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home.
I would shiver too. I would sit in the bathroom, my head in my hands like I was lost in a forest in the darkest of nights. The wind in the trees was ghostly. Clouds covered the moon. There was no path out.
I saw that same feeling in you too and I didn’t say anything. I looked at you and I felt how alone you seemed to be. I saw me in your tight rumpled brow. Not a glimmer of happiness in your eyes. I should have said something. Stood beside you.
For this, I grieve.
One day, when she was at her worst, when you were a little older, I said leave the kid alone already, to her. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. In the middle of the night, I heard her. She was in the kitchen, where the phone was, calling her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said Stop it and I hung it up.
My father never once raised his voice to me or anyone. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. I was angry at her. I was angry at you, too.
For that, I am sorry.
And from then on things were different between us.
I didn’t know what to say to you. How to make words that would make it different. And it just stayed like that.
I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. I know it sounds like it, though. I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.
For that, I am in pain.
I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know then how to say it.
And then, when I could no longer speak, and you came with your family to see me, in your hospital masks and gowns, I could feel that sad, malign, knot in my chest loosen. The sad knot for what had been lost. For the happiness I could have shared and for the things I never said.
“No time to be homeless, is it?”
“Not a good time at all. There’s good times and good places, but not here and not now.”
“Nice to meet you, Jack.”
“You too, Richard.”
“You got it? A lot of people do, you know. You gotta watch out. Be careful as shit.” Continue reading Two Men on a Bench by the Water Looking East
Dear Malachi, Forgive me, I don’t want to bother you. I know you are very busy with schoolwork. I don’t mean to be such a nudge, but I am a mother. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time. You know, children have to keep in touch with their parents. Cuomo said that.
Hi, Mom. I’m doing fine. I texted you just this morning. Are you and Dad okay? Continue reading Texting While Kvetching
Like my father, most able-bodied men of his generation, at least those lean, white men who stayed out of trouble with the law and the union, and who wanted to work, had work to do for as long as they wanted, sometimes staying with the same company and moving up through the ranks, much as they had done in the army.
They did not complain. They did not talk much about things in general and never about what they did when they were away from home in the service or about what other folks, like their children, thought were the actually important stuff of life, like for example, what they were thinking or feeling or why they never went to the doctor or wanted to go on vacation or why they chose to keep all of that stuff corked up inside like a shaken bottle of Moxie that had been sitting too long in the sun. Continue reading Traveling Light
“Ma, where’s Dad?
“I sent him to the market.”
“It’s ten o’clock. He shouldn’t be out this late. I would have gone for you. What did you need so late?”
There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Others I just didn’t know how to say. Things I want to say now.
Maybe if I’d said them before, maybe if I had acted differently, it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.
We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. I don’t think we were ready for you. Some people are. We weren’t. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. Ours. We all paid a price for it.
Some nights, when you were real little, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. It was your mother. She worried me. She’d cry for hours at night. You know how people get when they don’t get enough sleep. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t. Neither of us were.
What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Or she would say she didn’t know. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. That made me feel so bad that I wished I could cry myself.
I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were strict people. They didn’t laugh much, or at all. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays. Rye or Challah with pickled herring or whitefish chubs. Potatoes with cucumber. And tea. Tea in the morning and with dinner. In a glass with a cube of sugar.
They worked hard. Shnayders, tailors. In our apartment. Neighbors brought them suits to repair. To let out or take in. Seams to sew. Hidden stitches. My mother had her sewing machine by the bedroom window. My father worked on the table in the living room under the ceiling light. At six, the clothes came off the table to set it for dinner. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing. He hummed and smoked while he ironed.
They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. The smell of pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Gray faces with creases in their foreheads.
My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions of people. Babies like me dying in hospitals and at home. But I lived.
You were a year old. Small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. And school, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home. She wasn’t like that before you were born. And she would cry in the night. I didn’t know why. She would go to your crib and stand there. Come back to bed, I would tell her. There was nothing I could do.
Maybe we shouldn’t have had a kid. Maybe we should have waited. Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe we were too young. Everyone was getting married then. That was it. That was what you did.
I think you felt the same way. I saw that and I didn’t say anything to you. You were what, twenty when you got married? Too young. I looked at you and I thought, this kid should wait. I should have said something. You wouldn’t have listened to me. Would you?
Maybe you would have. I thought if said something, your mother would kill me. I looked at you and I saw no happiness in your face. When I got married, your mother and I were all over one another. But you? Nothing. Blank. Like you two had taken a ticket and were waiting on a line to buy a pound of flounder.
Your mother and I had something, once. I thought we always would. But things changed. I think a lot of it was my fault. I remember being so tired I felt nauseous all the time. I can’t remember what I said to her once, maybe, leave the kid alone already. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. She went into the kitchen, where the phone was, and she called her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and she called her mother and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said stop it and I hung it up.
My father never once raised his voice. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. But from then on things were different between us. I felt like I was in a box. I worked. We went out sometimes and had a good time, but it wouldn’t stay that way.
I don’t know where it went wrong with you. As a kid you seemed distant. Even more when you got older. I didn’t know what to say to you. How to start a conversation. And it just stayed like that. You were more like your mother. You weren’t like me. And so…
I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. It was just hard.
I did not want to put that on you. But then, I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know how to say it.
I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.
Never once in my whole life did I ever feel like your mother so often did, with her heart so filled with either happiness or sorrow. So much that she felt it could just burst open and have it all pour out.
If only once I could have felt that, maybe then I could have been able to say the things I should have said when I was alive.