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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting by Karen Maley. 2021.

Used with permission.           

The Comforter of Sudden Silent Souls

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

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

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

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

He is not entirely alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What am I then,” thinks Mandelbaum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, he hears nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not time yet for Silverman to come.

He thought he heard a voice.

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting in Line at the Church of the Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a rush to marry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marry me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t hold your breath.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth According to Miriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had become her father. She hated herself.

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Book of Exodus by Candlelight in Scarsdale

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

It always starts with the crocuses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to honor the suffering.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“Why no?”

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

“How can you say that?”

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

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

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

“Can I pick two?”

“Okay,” she said.

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

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

The Company

Fanny Perlstein is soft-spoken. Trim. Well-dressed. My brother’s wife. She wears belted skirts and medium-heel Cole Haan pumps. She must have several pairs of them. Or she likely purchases a new pair before the one she has been wearing looks worn. All of them are of a color called oxblood, if that name is still in use. They are always well-polished and all have leather soles and heels made of a material that is clearly not rubber.

The sound her shoes make as she walks is a click-tock. Authoritative. A sound that might make one turn and look. Though nothing else about her would draw any attention to herself. No ostentation of any sort. No indication that a risk of any order higher than crossing against the green would ever be undertaken. Certainly, no social risk. No political stance expressed that opposed a commonly agreed-upon norm.

She calls to mind a slim stalk of winter wheat. One stalk, indistinguishable from the hundreds of others in a field, waiting, green, near-dormant, throughout the cold months, awaiting a return to vitality and growth in the spring. Enduring a period of personal solitude amongst a crowd.

Her’s is not of the look of muted-heather and woolens. The look of old wealth. The look of comfortable socks, tweeds, and natural fabrics you might envision while reading the novels of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton. Her’s is more of the Architectural Digest or old issues of the Sunday New York Times Magazine ad look.

When we dine together on occasion, she might order the baked haddock or the pasta of the day, or more often, she’d order what my brother had just ordered. She has never ventured into sashimi, say, or unagi, kasha varnishkes, shawarma, kimchi, vindaloo, or baba ghanoush.

I have never seen her in any state other than unruffled. She is not prone to fits of passion or to indiscretion. I cannot envision her engaged in a flirtation, a dalliance, or a one-nighter in Baltimore, much less an actual affair. She apparently passed through mid-life without missing a step or looking up old high school boyfriends, or buying a new Volvo.

There is something, though. Something measured. Perhaps too measured. Too neatly folded and ironed.

I keep waiting for a revelation of some deep-hidden darkness. For a secret past to emerge in a slipped word or a creased and flattened note fallen accidentally from her wallet or a wry smile at a line in a movie as if she had once been in a similar situation, in a predicament that only a Nikita, an Amanda Peel, or a Dominika Egorova character might find herself caught in and which hinted of a hidden fissure in an otherwise well-concealed life.

She seems like someone kept in a witness-protection program since adolescence. Someone whose name had been changed, and who had learned to root for the Chicago Cubs instead of the Yankees. Someone trained to be unprovoked. Un-provocable. Implacable. Avoiding expressions of pity or sadness, ecstasy, consternation, confusion, empathy, condescension, suspicion. Any of these.

I have come to suspect, with little justification, that she had once been an agent of the CIA. Recruited, plucked out of Harvard or Yale as so many had been in the late sixties. Young men and women who studied hard. Got decent grades, who had been identified by a well-connected professor for some ineluctable qualities of rigor, or academicism, unquestioning patriotism, interiority, intensity, and detachment.

Had she ever poisoned someone, plotted the overthrow of a dictator or a communist leader? Could she snap a person’s neck with her bare hands?  Had she used code and encrypted messaging devices? Kept a cyanide tablet in her purse? Taken a lover in Paraguay? A woman who tried to turn her and whom she had in turn tried to recruit as an asset. A woman who was married to the defense minister who was plotting a military takeover of the government. Sex and spycraft seem inseparable.

From whence comes my suspicion?

There were the years she worked for the USAID. A mid-level position. Moving from place to place. Leaving my brother at home. The two children. A year in Paraguay. Another in Eritrea. Disbursing funds for development. Moving easily between Embassy offices and home government agencies, banks, NGOs, learning only enough of the language to seem harmless and friendly. Monitoring the Russians and the Chinese. And then the year in Nigeria. Years in which the USAID and the CIA were joined at the hip. How could she not have been involved? Could not have known what she was associated with? Was she merely an unknowing pawn doing good work for a bad, if not immoral, arm of the state?

We’re having dinner with her tonight. We have not seen them, Fanny and my brother, for over two years. They’ve been living in Miami. COVID restrictions and our own calculus of infection risk has kept us at home. Before that, we hadn’t the money.

We’ve all been vaccinated.

I expect that I will open our door and she will smile, standing a shade behind my brother, and I will smile back. Her smile is complicated. As if she is simultaneously smiling and thinking quickly of something to say to me. Something witty and provocative and to which she knows I will respond equally quickly and wittily. This is how we have come talk with one another. An argot that lends itself to friendly, diversionary, insubstantial, communication. A measure of casual, risk-averse, comradery.

My brother will hand me a bottle of wine, perhaps a pleasant, slightly sweet, rosé from a small vineyard outside of Rome, NY, which we will open and share, with a mild cheddar and a basket of triscuits and wheat thins.

Looking at Fanny, then, taking her coat, I may begin to question my motivation, likely driven by my repressed jealousy and prurience, in having placed on the living room coffee table, along with the wine glasses, a used paperback copy of The Red Sparrow.

Somebody to Love

Our first long run was along Ocean Parkway. A flat, straight road. Running east, from Jones Beach toward Gilgo and Captree. The beach on our right. Hidden behind high mid-day dunes.

Larry set the pace. Hard and tight. Like a driving Tom Tom: quarter notes in 4/4 time.

The two of us.

I was Jack Bruce on bass to his Ginger Baker on drums. My Keith Richards to his Charlie Watts. Jack Casady to Spencer Dryden running the bass line on Somebody to Love.

The parking lot at the Oak Beach Inn was packed full. All the beach lots were. Cars held in check by park rangers, waiting for spots to open. Lines of cars stopped between the beach entrances.

Girls standing beside pink-painted VWs, or leaning back, elbows bent, against wide, black, Ford F-150 tailgates, legs crossed, in cutoff jeans. White pocket flaps peeking out below the finger-like fringes high up at the top of their Bambi-colored thighs. Waving Coronas. Smiling like peaches in the sun. Radios set to BLS.

Larry looked at them without breaking stride. He always looked at the women. He loved looking at the women. His eyes were drawn to them like a robber baron’s eyes are drawn to a 16-ounce rib roast.

Doing eight-minute miles, we did the first twenty in a little over two-and-a-half. If we kept up, we’d do the 26.2 to Captree in three-forty-nine.

He was screwing a woman at work.

No doubt, she’d told him her husband didn’t understand her. He probably had said the same thing to her about Meredith. He probably told her he loved her. He probably thought it was true.

He never said a word about it to me. We never talked about that kind of thing. I knew, though, for a fact, that his wife did understand him. She totally and completely understood him. Without any doubt, she understood him fifty times better than he understood himself. She’s the one who told me.

“He’s thirty-nine,” she’d said, “and he has a dick.” What else do you expect? He can’t get over the fact that in ‘69 he had a kid, an 8.5% mortgage, and a bald spot. The river of free love, drugs, and rock and roll was flowing swiftly past him and that river flowed in only one direction. The only really free love he could have had then was the only one he didn’t want,” she told me.

We hit Captree in just under four. Took off our shoes and walked down to the water. He pulled off his shirt.

“Great run,” I said. He nodded.

The water is clear and green. The waves are high and loud. He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the water. We dove through the waves.

When we came out, I turned away from him, out toward the water.

I love running with him. He paces me. Pushes me. Past what I ever thought I could do. Running beside him, step for step, breathing easily, it feels like I could run forever.

“Let’s get a drink,” I said, my back to him, peeling away my soaked, clinging shirt from my body.  When I turned back toward him, he was looking at me.

At my tits.

“Okay, tiger, enough!” I said.

“I wasn’t looking. Besides, there isn’t that much to see,” he said, in that thickened, fourteen-year-old, gonadal, hard-on-induced, voice he gets as if his salivary glands, in sympathy with his testicles, have swollen his airway half closed.

“You were too,” I said. “You had that Daytona Beach spring weekend look on your face.”

“It was only a quick glance.”

“It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t a glance. It was a full, two-handed, lingering, eye-grope. You thought I couldn’t see you looking.”

I leaned over the water fountain. He was a little behind me. I could see him rearranging himself in his running shorts. I’m thinking what it would be like if I turned around while he was doing it. “Just a quick glance, Tarzan,” I‘d say. But I didn’t.

His wife knows all about him. “The new one,” she says, “teaches English. She graduated two years ago from Barnard. You’d think she’d know better. God knows, he doesn’t. She has a flat stomach, a tight ass, and legs like steel.”

“How do you know that?” I asked her.

“How do I know that? He’s never uttered the word ‘Barnard’ before in his life. And now he’s said it two dozen times in the last month. I’m there slicing eggplant and he’s like, ‘hey, you think we could afford to send Lydia to Barnard when she’s ready for college?’ Or, ‘didn’t Chuck’s sister go to Barnard?’ I’m not saying he’s an idiot, but he could play a convincing one on TV. Lydia is four-and-a-half.”

“No. I mean, the ‘legs like steel thing,’” I recall saying.

“The woman who works in the principal’s office at the high school where he works, knows my friend Eileen, and she plays mah jong with us when one of us can’t make it. And so, she filled in for me the week I had my wisdom tooth out and she told Eileen she sees them sneak out for 45-minute lunch breaks together, and she swore Eileen to total secrecy. That’s how I know.”

We’d parked my car in the Captree lot and drove back to the lot at Jones Beach, Field One, where his car was.

In the car, he talked about running New York together.

“New York has hills, big ones,” he said. “It’s not like this. Don’t expect to finish in sub-four.”

“We should run hills,” I said. “Maybe in two weeks. Molly is away that weekend. We could run out to Sag Harbor.”

He never asks me about Molly. We’ve been together for almost as long as he’s been with Meredith. We sometimes have dinner with him and Meredith. Molly and I make like we don’t know what’s going on with them. He acts like Molly is my roommate. Even when she twirls her fettucine alfredo around the tines of her fork and guides it into my mouth, her palm just below my chin.

I know he’s a dick. With his desperately permed hair he thinks covers his bald spot. I don’t have to like him. I just love running with him.

All Four Sisters

There were four of us in our family. Four Sisters. I was the youngest. I still am. Obviously. The point being, though, is that there were four of us, with fourteen years, depending upon of the time of the year you think about it, between the oldest one of us and the youngest one of us, and that we all were loved most dearly by our parents, who loved one another most dearly too. That point being that never once, never at any time or for any reason, was that love ever in question, and never once was it far from our minds.

In the summers, we’d all, all four sisters and my parents, stay at a small cottage on the Cape where the land is so narrow that from the cottage you could almost see the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. Some days all my sisters and I would walk up the beach to Provincetown, with my oldest sister watching over us. She still does. Watch over us.

We were like four boats tethered together in a slow-moving current. Not just when we walked along the shore to P-town, but always, in everything, in everything we did. Even when one got married and moved away to Maine and another married and moved to New Hampshire, and another who moved all over the world, and me who moved to New York. My sisters would call each other and we’d talk so we knew what was going on for the others. My oldest sister called most often, when she was in the states, and then more often than that when we all had cellphones.

My mother, herself, had six sisters and two brothers. My father had no sisters and no brothers, so maybe instead of being overwhelmed, as he might have been, he was swathed, sort of, by all of us. And when he became ill, we were all with him and all the time, to his last day, we were there, encircling him. Caring for him. Loving him. Not even approaching a comprehension, then, of how achingly we would miss him.

We were all fair-haired with light-colored eyes. We all had our mother’s quick smile. One of my sisters had hair most like my father. A muted shade of red. Ginger. A bit more like a warm honey. And as softly-waved as his was.

It was never all smiling and all laughter to be sure, lest you think I am making up a story detached from reality. And there were times, a good many of them, heavy with sadness, or raw with unkindness, emotions as if unleashed, and hurtful words, some meant and others perhaps not, but none of these were long lasting, none festering as they can be, and none, not one thing, said or done, that untethered us. That pulled us so far apart that the ropes broke and we drifted away.

We were tested, though, after my father died. It seemed then as if one thing after another came tumbling at us, divorce (more than one of those), and the heartbreaking, sudden, loss of my nephew (though I will say no more about that), money troubles, more serious money troubles, and then illness, and more serious illness.

We each had a degree of optimism— surely from my mother. A determined optimism, it was. One born out of the tempering heat of hardship she’d had as a girl, along with a stern sense of survival, a reverence for work, and for family above all, no doubt from a long line of Scots.

And so, one day, sister number three, the one with the bright, flame-like spirit that could flash with happiness or burn with a deep, unknown torment; the one who tested the bonds most, tested all of us, told us she had late-stage cancer. It’s hard for me to say that word or hear or even think of it, without thinking of her. It was my mother’s optimism, though, that gave us a shield against the inevitability we knew was to come. It was an optimism that buoyed us. Kept us afloat.

And so, when she needed chemo and radiation (two words that, still, are so horribly clinical and so harsh— because they are so clinical and so harsh—and so raw that I feel they could draw blood), she came to live in my mother’s home, and to lie in a bed in a spare bedroom, and where we came to help care for her.

By then, though, my mother too, needed us.

Was it, I could not help thinking then, or even now, that the sadness of my sister’s illness had taken residence in my mother’s heart? Flared her lupus and her kidneys, caused her edema?

And so, it was two of them, in the same home at the same time, who needed us and who, more than that, we needed. We sat by them and helped them walk, took them to appointments, bathed and cleaned them, absorbed their pain, bound their wounds, and breathed in the foul  air of hopelessness.

We bore the unbearable with them. With each other. And, a few Novembers later, they died. One week apart. My sister first. My mother then followed, having resisted her own passing, for the sake of my sister… and for us. We grieved together, my sisters and I, and alone.

It has been a little more than a year since their passing. The house in which they died has been closed. The house in which we sat with them, in the too-warm rooms, and with ourselves. Where we said our goodbyes. Twice over.

I don’t cry so much anymore. I see them both. Pictures of them. Indelible Images. Sometimes there’s a knock on the door, with no one there, or a shifting curtain in a still and quiet living room, or those purple Scottish bluebells that sprung up anew in the spring and kept their blooms all summer and deep into fall.

The ache I feel almost daily is not always the hurting kind.

I know that they are gone. I feel that they are gone. I know they’re gone. And then, I cannot believe they are gone.

And still, I know, without a moment’s uncertainty, that we are all together. All four sisters. And I don’t cry so much anymore. Not so much.

The Millie and Mike Moskowitz’ COVID-Bubble Pre-Game Show

Mike: Boy, the Packers really bit the big Aaron Rogers-apple, didn’t they, Millie?

Millie: Yeah, it was a real Red Zone zombie-zone-out.

Mike: A god-awful goal-line goof-up.

Millie: A big Brady bad boy benefit bonanza boondoggle. But look, Mike, now It’s almost game time!

“Yeah. Ok. So, quick, Mom, did you ever suspect you had a half-brother, I mean before now?”

“Can we just not talk about it? Can we just sit quietly and watch the TV?”

“Aren’t you happy about it?”

“Happy? Are you meshuggeneh? The whole thing is ridiculous.”

“Cousin Shirley said this guy emailed her and he wants to meet you.”

“I should meet him, yet? No way. I’m not interested. I’m 68. I lived my whole life without a brother. And that’s the way I want to keep it,” Millie said.

“But you knew this Skip guy, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know. Vaguely. Maybe. A name like Skip, though, I should remember. A Shlomo?, maybe not, but a Skippy, yes. And who names a kid Skippy, anyway?

“So, you maybe knew him?”

“No. I didn’t say that. The 1960s were still the 1950s. No kid knew who was who then. Nobody told us anything.”

“He told Shirley he went places with you…”

“He said that?!”

“I think…”

“Michael. If this is who she’s talking about, there were friends of my parents with a kid. I saw them once in my whole life. Once. We went to Washington. To the Library of Congress. Us and this other family. To see the book my grandfather wrote. It was there in the library. My mother always talked about how he was a lawyer and he wrote law books. Like on the lawyer shows. With the kind of beige and red spines. And we sat at a table in this huge room with tables and lamps and someone brought us the book with my grandfather’s name on it. I never saw my mother so proud and happy. That’s all I remember. But these people had nothing to do with us. We never saw them again.”

“But this Skip guy, told Shirley your father came to their house with presents for his mother and all. Not just on holidays but once a month.”

“What? Once a month? That’s nuts.”

“Yes, and your father would give his mother money for groceries and the rent.”

“That’s crazy. He’s making this up. Or Shirley is. She never liked my father. Why, I don’t know. He was a good man. He loved my mother and me. More than anything in the whole world. He would never do anything like that. We lived in New York for god sake. He had a job. It has to be some other guy.”

“But Ancestry said there were DNA matches, she said.”

“Ancestry, Shmancestry. They just say that so you’ll click on it pay them more money. Look, I know about DNA from Finding Your Roots. You know there are matches from ten generations ago. But this Skip person saying it comes from my father is farkakteh (BS).

“He could be family.”

“Family he’s not. Family is caring, suffering, joy. Day after day. Missing them when they’re away, leaving a hole in your heart when they’re gone. Family is not DNA. We’re all DNA. That doesn’t make us all family. Somebody shows up willy-nilly and she wants right away to make them family?

“Listen to me, Michael. People like making something out of nothing. For fun. There was this TV show called This Is Your Life.” Some famous person would be tricked to come on and the host would say, ‘This is your life, Chaim Pupik’, or whatever his name was and then the person’s third grade teacher would tell some cute little story about how the guy once pulled a girl’s ponytail in class, and they’d hug and then the host, Ralph Edwards, would say, ‘and now here’s Mary Lou Lefkowitz’, or whatever, and a fifty-something with a pony tail comes out and everyone would clap and go ‘aaaahhh.’ Enough to make you sick. Who’s to say Lefkowitz was who she said she was? Look, people want schmaltz. Real or not real. TV gives them schmaltz. Life is not schmaltz.

“The past is past, Michael. Some things need to be left alone. What if this Skip guy was someone like my uncle, who lived with us for two years? He was a sleaze. When I was twelve, when he thought no one was looking, he’d touch me, brush his fingers across my chest, and say, ‘Millie, what a nice dress you’re wearing.’ Imagine how I’d feel if that low-life pervert ever tried to come back into my life saying ‘hey, let’s get in touch’ like nothing ever happened. How horrible that would be. For all I know this Skip person might be my sleaze-ball uncle calling himself Skip? Put yourself in my shoes.”

“I don’t think it’s anything like that. Mom, it’s only the genome. People are finding one another all over the place.”

“So, which is it, Michael? Family or the no-big-deal genome? Either way, I’m done. Would you please put the god-damned Superbowl game on and pass me a toothpick and the Swedish meatballs?”

“Okay.” He shrugs, reaching for the remote. “Let’s forget it.”

Then, Millie says, quietly, “I think it’s a scam.”

“What?”

“Look,” she says, “There are three possibilities: Number one, if it’s a real match, regardless of how many generations ago, I want nothing to do with it. Number two, it’s a total trivial non-story, so forget about it. And, Number three, it’s some kind of a scam. And, I’m going with number three. I watch The Impostors on Netflix. I know from this stuff. The guy’s pulling a fast one, and I’ll bet you fifteen bucks on it, and another twenty-five, two-to-one, on KC and my man Mahomes by ten points. You in?

“I’m in.”

Millie: And, now, welcome everyone to the 2021 LV Superbowl!

Mike: In the beautiful new Louis Vuitton Stadium

Millie: In the heart of downtown of Las Vegas

Mike: Brought to you by the makers of the limited edition, high performance, Lamborghini Veneno

Millie: And now for the National Anthem sung by the great Luther Vandross

Mike: With Lindsey Vonn doing the play-by-play

Millie: Me? I got nothing. I’m done.

Mike: Okay, I’ve got one, and our color commentator Lawrence Vickers, fullback for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys.

Millie: Wait, wait, I have one more. And stay tuned for the Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon Verbena hand cream half-time show.

Hobbes’ Good Intentions

Hobbes had come to stay, to live, or perhaps more pointedly, to die, on the island. The island itself was dying. And again, more to the point, the island was being killed. Inundated. Drowned.

Drowned by the sea. The Pacific. The same Pacific that had brought the fish and coral reefs. The warm winds and the rainwater. The coconut, the palm trees, and breadfruit, mangroves, bananas, and taro.

Hobbes had come to the island when the tipping point had been reached. When the Doomsday Clock had read sixty-odd seconds before midnight. After the world had been warned and climate commissions had made their predictions and treaties had been signed and money had been promised and deadlines had been missed, and wars had been fought and children had died and people fled their homelands and many were left to die in refugee camps or in life rafts.

Hobbes had come to the island when the world’s will to change never equaled the need for change.

He had come when there was still talk of the slight sliver of hope that the global warming could still be stopped. That Bill Gates would stop it. Or the UN. Or someone, somehow. A sliver of hope, no matter how small, that was still seen as large enough to be used as an excuse to not actually take action.

It was Hobbes’ hope that when he came to the island, when he had declared that he would remain there until the waters rose so high that he would be swept away to die, he would capture the world’s attention like a priest immolating himself on a street before an astonished crowd and cameras flashing, and that change would then come.

The people of the island stayed for a while and then they left in boats and planes to go to Fiji or other islands that would still take them. Hobbes remained as he said he would.

One day, a large motor boat came to the island.

Hobbes was surprised at his ambivalence at seeing the boat approach and at the three men who got off. One was the last islander to leave and another was the one from whom he bought the house and the outrigger. The third was a very old man.

The old man called Hobbes by name. He carried a message from the islanders who had left. It was that Hobbes could no longer stay on the island.

“Mr. Hobbes,” he said, “I thank you for wanting to bring attention of the world to our plight. However, now it is time for you to leave.”

Hobbes looks at the old man. Puts his rough hand to his forehead, rubs it across his eyes. “But, why,” he asks.

“Because,” said the man, “this our island. Our people have lived here for thousands of years and our ancestors’ spirits will always live here. If you stay, you will only appropriate our voice. Usurp our worth in the eyes of the world.

He continued, “The sea, having taken away our home, our food, our livelihood, our history, was not sufficient to bring change. You have come in good faith but if you stay and die you will be seen as the martyr. You will be the Christ on the cross. Your suffering and dying will be seen as more valuable, more horrific, than ours has been. Your sacrifice will count for more than ours.

“Mr. Hobbes. Please go home. Go back to your family. Give your interviews to the Guardian in your comfortable living room and leave this place to us.”

“Leave what place? There will be nothing left of this place for anyone.”

“It is our home. And when the seas recede, as they will, one day long after you have died and I have died and our children’s children have died, our people will return to this island. It is our island, not Gilbert’s Island or Hobbes’ island.

“Not the island of the man who once came to this place like a white savior when we, the indigenous people of this island, carefully considered our options and, as a people in charge of our own destiny and with dignity, chose to leave it, voluntarily, to leave it as it was when the sea had come to reclaim it for a while and to which we will certainly return one day.

“Not the island of the white saviors who came time and time again, taking minerals from our mountains and leaving behind slag heaps, the valley polluted, their roads and runways, and to sell to us plastic and T-shirts we have no use for and who brought their schools and guns and firing ranges and their atomic bombs.

“We are not ignorant. We did not bring upon ourselves the rising water and the storms, the acid that eats away the reef and kills the water plants, and drives away the fish, and the heat and drought that empties our wells.

“It is you who are ignorant. It is you and your brothers who have ignored what the earth has been telling you year after year. It is they who are destroying our home and the lives that have been lost through ignorance. The billions of animals and plants and fish and sea birds, insects and whole habitats that, by the arrogance of their ignorance, were destroyed, never ever to exist again. And do they mourn them? Do they cry for them? Does this make them resolve to stop the murder? It does not.

“All their words and promises are meaningless. They have been of no help. Their deeds and their religion of the bulls and bears they worship above all else have brought this upon us. The marketplace where they buy and sell lives, where they place their faith and devotion which motivates their every thought, their every action, and blinds them to all else.

“I have given up all I have,” Hobbes said. “I came here in the hope that people would respond and help. I am not like the others.”

“I believe you are not,” said the old man. “We mean no harm. We want the same as you do but for now we want to honor what is left to us.”

At that, Paolu, the man whose house Hobbes purchased, the last one standing on the island, stepped forward and offered Hobbes an envelope with payment for the house and outrigger.

“I can’t accept this,” said Hobbes.

“Please do,” said Paolu. “We have accepted our fate, Mr. Hobbes, you can do no more for us. If you want to help the earth, go to where the resisters and deniers live. Build your hut along the Thames, or Battery Park, or Melbourne. We did not ask for you to come here, but now we ask for you to leave with us and go speak to the power where it lives.”

These Uncertain Times

In recent days, I have been preparing to move from a large high-ceilinged loft in the West Village in which I’ve been living with a good friend I’d met in graduate school years ago and into a tiny one-bedroom space on Hester Street, across town on the Lower East Side.

Rune, my friend, had abruptly decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to his father given that Rune’s mother died suddenly of a COVID-related illness. She had, up until only a few days before her death, been a healthy and robust woman of short stature, high resilience, an indomitable spirit, and the steel-plated bearing of a person who, early in her life in Kyoto, had endured deep hardship and constant uncertainty. She’d been raised by her mother after her father died late in the war with the Allies, leaving them destitute, with no apparent means of support, and with only their desire to survive.

I could not afford to purchase the loft and Rune needed to sell it. Though it was a surprising turn of events, I understood and appreciated the circumstances and came to see the opportunity for a welcome change of environment.

In the midst of watching the Biden inauguration, I sorted through cardboard boxes stuffed with research notebooks, manuscript drafts, and reprints of journal articles I’ve accumulated over the years and which should have been tossed long ago, and I came across a scientific paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Agents and Artificial Intelligence in 2014, which Rune and I had attended together in the city of Angers in the west of France.  

Rune, being a member of the society, brought me along as a guest though I, a biologist, had only the most rudimentary understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of AI. The paper was titled ‘Quantum Probability and Operant Conditioning: Behavioral Uncertainty in Reinforcement Learning’ and I have no recollection of why I had felt the need to bring it back to the states and then to file it among my other papers, though it was likely a tangible reminder of our time together.  

I sat on the hardwood floor of the apartment. A warm mid-afternoon light streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows as I read through the paper.

For no reason I can identify, as I read the paper, I experienced a growing consciousness of a post-inaugural mental and emotional reset beginning to wash over me. It was akin to slowly immersing myself in a warm bath or to feeling the soothing, unexpected, touch of a long-lost lover. I had a growing sense of distancing myself from the ragged, rageful, and disorienting last four years of the Trump administration, though it had been only a matter of a few hours since I had watched the surprisingly peaceful transition to the new president’s administration.

The constant tension I had been gripped with during those years was dissipating. The reflexive need to check my email and the constantly breaking newsfeeds was no longer vexingly immediate. My ability to focus my attention on the details in the paper grew and I became caught up in a discourse on behavioral positive-negative basis vectors in quantum state space. The difficult concepts applicable to human and AI responses to uncertainty began to flow through my mind as easily as clear water in an unimpeded woodland stream at the start of a spring thaw.

Whether or not the former president and his witting and unwitting enablers, had planned the relentless perpetration of shape-shifting uncertainty and disruption we endured over the last four years, I saw clearly in this short theoretical paper a reasonable explanation of the social, economic, psychological, and political angst in which we had all been caught and perhaps also, a way forward.

In short, the authors presented a cogent argument, based solidly on the dynamics of  ψ wave function in quantum mechanics, for the way in which the behavior of systems as widely different as stock market movement, political opinion, and human behavior, operate when the degree of uncertainty increases beyond an experiential norm: namely, when the degree of randomness and unpredictability of a system feedback either strays or is pushed beyond the limits to which the system was designed to operate and for which there is neither an homeostatic nor a stochastic mechanism for the maintenance of a system stability.

We all expect a degree of randomness in our lives, a certain degree of unpredictability that we learn to live with and accept as normal. AI systems, too, accept and learn from unexpected responses and build them into their database. Algorithms are designed to incorporate a level of unpredictability. For example, a rat can adapt to being unsure of a reward or punishment for a while but when the unpredictability frequency goes beyond a certain expectation, it loses interest and no longer pays attention. It becomes unpredictable itself. Apathetic at one moment and violently aggressive at the slightest perceived provocation at another. It has lost its sense of control. It becomes berserk. Its life is disrupted. It becomes asocial. Sociopathic.

I set the paper aside and, in that moment, I was struck by the confluence of the many seemingly random and unpredictable events that had recently entered my life: the death of my dear friend’s mother, his impending move from the city, my need to move to a new and unfamiliar location and the possible risk of exposure to infection during the move, uncertainty of when, if ever, I would qualify for the COVID vaccine, the waxing and waning fear that the city would be beset by groups of rioters bent on disruption following the inauguration, the realization that my financial situation would change with an increase in my rent and the depressingly uncertain economy, along with the unexpected pleasant memory of a past time spent with Rune, brought to me by a scientific paper whose language I could only barely grasp but the meaning of which, I felt, in a way, had been transformational.

I saw that neither the system nor I had failed. That neither had exceeded the limits of its ability to recover, and that a young woman with a radiant mind had spoken with a wisdom we and the system had been aching to hear.

A Man’s Search for Meaning

Hello Malachi, it’s your mother. Don’t be worried.

I know it’s you Ma. My phone ringtone plays Ethel Merman singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses when you call. What should I not be worried about?

Oy! Your father is not doing well.

Not doing well? What do you mean?

I mean, I ask him, I say, Morris, what do you want for lunch? and he says, ‘lunch?’ Yes lunch. ‘I’m not hungry,’ he says. You want some herring? I say. ‘Herring, schmerring, whatever,’ he says. Come in, I tell him. And he comes and sits at the table like a cold noodle kugel. This is not like him, Malachi. First, he never used to miss a meal and second, he usually says ‘bring it in here’ so he can keep watching the television. He doesn’t watch any more. Only at night. I don’t know what to do. Morris, I say, what is wrong with you? ‘Nothing,’ he says. I tell him don’t tell me nothing. I know nothing when I see it and this is not nothing.

What do you want me to do?

Talk to him.

Ma, he doesn’t want to talk to me. I say, hi Dad, how are you doing? ‘How am I doing,’ he says to me. Yes, how are you doing? ‘How should I be doing?’ he says. I mean are you okay? ‘Okay? What is okay?’ he says. Then he says ‘I have to go, here talk to you mother’ and he hands you back the phone. That’s how our conversations go.

He used to yell at the TV. Scream, ‘Can you believe this crap?’ His face would get red. Turn it off I would say to him. ‘I can’t believe this is the country we are living in,’ he would say but he wouldn’t turn it off. Better you should have a stroke watching Wolf Blitzer? I told him. The Situation Room is not the situation room, Morris. You’re sitting in the Situation Room, I say, and you know what he says to me, ‘The situation sucks.’ My god, Malachi, I have never heard your father say that word in his entire life, not once, mind you. Not once.

Maybe he should see someone.

He should, but I don’t say anything about that. He wouldn’t do it. Men don’t go see someone, he says. They keep it in. They tough it out. He thinks he can take care of himself.

Ma, he must feel like he’s going through all of this alone. Living through every day in the same apartment. He doesn’t go out because he doesn’t want to get infected or infect you. He is losing his sense of connection with the city, his work, and his friends. He sees trouble in the streets, people being beaten, police beating others. When he was watching TV all day it was as if it would be him next being beaten, him next being gassed. Replay after replay of the same thing and seeing one man, night after night, calling for more of the same. He’s heard about this before. Hearing of his cousins, his grandparents, being rounded up and shot or shipped off in box cars to never come back. To be gassed and burned in an oven or kicked into a ditch. Viktor Frankl wrote, that when you live feeling that way, you’re shocked at first that this could be happening to you. You think it can’t continue, or it won’t be so bad, and then you wonder what will happen next and then you see that it keeps getting worse and that hoping for it to stop doesn’t make it stop. You scream at it. You’re powerless to make it stop.

Malachi, shouldn’t he be happy? We had an election. There’s an inauguration coming. There’s a vaccine. He’ll get it. He has underlying conditions.

We all have underlying conditions. Pelted each day with new miseries, new threats, new deaths, new things to fear. It wears you down. Nothing compared to what happened to his relatives, my relatives, but still, it wears you down. And what is going on now is not going to end anytime soon. It may even get worse.

I have never seen him so low.

With so many things to worry about, he’s apathetic. He’s past being shocked by what he sees and hears. The almost daily shocking atrocities have become for him, for most of us, the routine. So, you have to create a self-protective shell. You can watch police officers beat people protesting the killing of a black man for months, and bodies being piled in refrigerated trucks for more months, and then federal police get thrown down the capitol steps, hit with fire extinguishers and American flag poles, like a downward spiral that will last forever.

I know. It worries me in my heart. I want to help him.

Ma, please ask him if I can speak to him.

Hold on.

Hello.

Hello, Dad. Remember how you would always give me a book on my birthday and even on other days that were not my birthday and you’d say to me, ‘Malachi, this is a special book for a special boy on a special day.’

I do, Malachi.

Well, I am sending you a special book, because you are a special dad, and this is a special day. It will come in your email. It is an audiobook. It was written in the year you were born. And by a man whose name you might know, Viktor Frankl. I have listened to it and I thought of you all the way through, almost every line. Maybe you and Mom can listen to it together and maybe we can talk about it after. Will that be okay?

Of course, Malachi. Thank you. Here… your mother wants to talk to you. Bye.

Bye.

Bye, bye… here she is.

Like Love, Sort Of

Over the past few years you have been faithfully reading the stories I have written. Thank you. I hope there have been some you liked. And, surely, there were others which left you flat, or worse.

But, that’s all to be expected. As, I’m sure, there were moviegoers who liked, maybe even raved about, the movie Ishtar. There you go. As with liking a movie or not, liking a story or not is really only a part of what stories are about. I did not like Ishtar when I saw it. I am pretty sure I walked out before it ended, but you know what? I still remember it. It has become a piece of me. I even enjoy the not-liking of it.

A story, or a poem, a photograph or a painting, a sculpture, or a film, as a medium through which a relationship is established. It is through that, that a connection is made. And the connection can be a deep one, with several working parts.

The connection between a writer, say, and the reader, is a relationship forged through the medium of the story.

And too, there is a connection, a relationship, made through the story, between the person whose story is being told and the writer who tells it.

Why am I telling you this? Because I believe that the reader is owed, from the writer, both truthfulness and faithfulness. Truthfulness to the subject, to the story, and to you, the reader. And at the same time, there is a bond of faithfulness between the writer and the mystifying muse: that person or that force that is the source of inspiration for the story.

Let me explain.

I often find myself waiting for a story to come. For the words to come. I feel dry. Barren. I feel at loose ends. I try thinking in the shower. Not thinking in the shower. Thinking of nothing, as if that were possible for me.

I am only now coming to appreciate that worrying about waiting for the words to come, is fruitless. Stories are not about the words. Don’t get me wrong. One right word in the right place can make or break a story. The right word refines, clarifies, intonates, and conveys, the story. Finding the right word is both arduous and essential. It may take draft after draft after draft to find the right one. But… that is the work part of story writing. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.

I once wrote a story about an older man I’d known many years ago who lived across the street from us. He was a grocer and he mowed his lawn several times a week, like going to mass. In the spring, the heat of summer, and into the fall.

Late one afternoon, a year or so ago, I was in my own back yard mowing my lawn. The sun was lowering and the green of the grass could almost make one cry.  And, as I pushed the mower, that same man, Vito, who is long gone, was there with me, pushing his mower alongside me through the grass.

You may have read the story.

On that late-afternoon, when Vito came, I ran into the house and stood at my desk and typed the story he’d brought with him.

As I typed, I watched him roll the mower out of the garage and onto the lawn. I saw Angie waiting for him in the kitchen.

It was his story. The story he brought with him. I used his name because I felt it would disappear if I had called him Fred or something like that. His wife, Angie, too. I thought of her along with Vito. What she might be thinking. It was Vito whose voice I was translating, transposing, to the page. I was afraid that if I changed his name, I would be unfaithful and he would take his story away.

Sometimes, a name comes and brings a story with it. A person I may never have known but who, for a while, I come to know. Like the two men on a bench looking east out over Gloucester harbor during COVID, or Adelaide on the beach, or Sedge, Malachi and his mother, Sy Spiegelman, Camus, Sloane and Mona, or Meyer Rothstein and Moishe Feingold eating a Thanksgiving dinner together.

And then, sometimes, a story does leave. Picks up and goes. As if it had come looking for someone else.

Oftentimes, after a story has been told, it feels as if no story will ever come again. That I have told the last one. That there will be no more stories. That someone else will be the one to whom the stories will come.

Then I despair. My mood drops. I am sad. It affects my days. I feel lost.

I need them. I am sad to say that. To admit that. As if it is a shortcoming. A lack of faithfulness within me. That sounds so self-centered. It is, I know. Thinking like that. That makes me despair all the more.

The stories, their souls, come only when I don’t beg for them. Don’t try to conjure them.

They cannot be conjured. They won’t come. You can sit at your desk, me at my desk, and wait. You might as well take a walk. Make coffee. Call a friend. Speak with the cashier in the supermarket. Take a nap. Mow the lawn.

A story is like love. Love resists conjuring. Forcing. Love, I believe, comes when it comes. And when it does, it lives in you. And stories you connect with are like that. Like the people you love.

Like a train, when a story comes, you get on it and see where it goes or you don’t. It’s your train or it’s not. You have to be on the platform. You can’t make the train or a story come by wishing it into being. Like love, sort of. Or like waiting for the cat to come home. Cherish it when it does. And cherish the readers when they come, too.

Thanks to all.

Sy Spiegelman Reading Proust on the F Train

It was hot. The sun, slow-walking toward the deep end of July. And Seymore Spiegelman was on the F train to work. Changing to the C at West 4th, he squeezed into the last empty seat in the car. The riders on either side were damp and overheated. He couldn’t concentrate. Opening and closing the book in his hand. Swann’s Way. Proust. Wrapped in brown paper. He thought it’d seem pretentious standing in the subway holding a worn copy of Proust. He would surely think that, if it were someone else doing that.

Proust is hard going. He’d started reading it many times before, only to nod off a few pages in and set it aside for another time. Maybe he just wasn’t up to the task. Maybe a new copy, a new translation, might give him a fresh start.

An article he’d read touted the brilliance of Proust, whose 149th birthday just passed, on July 10. One line he’d read wouldn’t leave him alone. “Even the dead,” it said, “when we least expect it, come back to remind us of their love and of our guilt.”

Death and July birthdays. His mother’s and his oldest daughter’s birthdays. One is on the twenty-first and the other on the twenty-second. It was his mother who had died, in years past.

On his run, the day before, he tried to remember which birthday was on which day, but he gave up. His wife, Bernie, would know, he thought.

So, he asked her when he got back.

“Sy,” she said, “here’s how I remember them. Your mother was born first, so her’s is on the twenty-first.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“But Dierdre is my first daughter, see. So, maybe she comes first.”

“You’re dripping. What happened to your knee?”

“I tripped on the hill down to Fifth. Cracks in the sidewalk, and it’s steep.”

“And you weren’t looking. Let me see that. Why didn’t you come right back? Look, the blood ran down into your shoe.”

“A guy on a motorcycle stopped. Asked me if I needed a ride home, but I said no. He had that solicitous look on his face. Like someone helping an old woman cross the street, leaning over, taking little baby steps, even with the ‘Don’t Walk’ light blinking and the drivers rolling their eyes as if they’re purposely walking slowly just to piss them off.”

“And so?”

“And so, I felt fine. I didn’t need any help. I just wanted to keep running. It was no big deal. He was like twenty-five and he was treating me like I was some old guy who should be home drinking tea, watching re-runs of Bonanza.”

“You’re not old. And maybe he did think that. Maybe he didn’t.”

“He seemed nice.”

“Regardless, Sy, now, when he tells the story, he’ll say, ‘there was this guy who fell on the sidewalk, who I helped get up, and then he’s like ‘I don’t need any help’ even though blood was gushing out of his knee like a faucet and he’s like some Usain Bolt has-been.’ Maybe you should’ve just let him drive you home and then he’d say what a nice old guy he helped out. The solicitous part is in your own head, not his. And, even if it was, who cares?”

“Anyway, I ran down to the Jackie Gleason building and then back up the hill by the Green-Wood cemetery. That’s like seven miles.”

“You ran into Sunset Park and didn’t bring back tacos.”

“I was bleeding.”

“I’m just kidding.”

“Remind me again, is tomorrow my mother’s birthday or Diedre’s.”

“It’s your mother’s.”

“I had a little trouble running back up the hill. Not because of my knee. I think my shoes are too heavy. Maybe I should get a lighter pair.”

“Maybe you should go see a doctor. Your shoes don’t all of a sudden get heavy.”

“I noticed it first last week when I was pushing the stroller with the kids up Second Street to the park. I had to stop a couple of times.”

“And you think it’s because your shoes got too heavy?”

“That’s how it felt.”

“You should drink more water and make an appointment with Edelman. Maybe you should go tomorrow.”

“I just ran seven miles. I really think I’m ok.”

“Your mother is dead now, what, four years?”

“Yes, I think so. I can never remember that one either.”

“At least you should remember her birthday.”

“What? Now you think I’m losing it?”

“Or, maybe it’s just your shoes.”

“Funny.”

“No, it’s just that you have trouble remembering it, not because you’re losing it, but because you have some issues there with your mother.”

“I do. That’s a different thing.”

On the train, he felt he should go home. Call in sick. He’d rarely done that. But he was sweating, feeling anxious. Proust was so hard to read. The run around the cemetery was hard. Harder than he’d said. His shoes were too old, too heavy.

He was beginning to panic. “My god,” he thought, “I feel like I am going to die.” At the 50th Street stop, he got up, took his things, left the train, and walked quickly across town to Saint Clare’s. He told the ER nurse he had chest pain. She asked him how severe. “A ten,” he said.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, and he sat down in the chair next to her desk, she checked his pressure, listened to his heart.  She picked up the phone. Held it to her ear. Punched in few numbers.

“What are you reading?“ she asked him.

“Swann’s Way.”

“Nice,” she said.

And that was the last he remembered until he opened his eyes to see Bernie standing by the bed, beside the IV pole. “What happened?” he said.

“Well, for starters, you had a coronary right there in the ER and they rushed you up, or down, or wherever it is, to the Cath lab. They put a stent in and you’re good to go.”

“My god. That’s so frightening.”

“Yeah, tell me about it!”

So, I guess it wasn’t my shoes.”

“You didn’t really think it was, did you?”

“I think I did. A little. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Likewise, Sy. Likewise.”

“So, what do you say, next year, we just pick up a garlic and onion pizza at Totonno’s and light a candle on my mother’s birthday.”

Dear Malachi, Your Sister the Zen, Is Moving to Alabama

Dear Malachi, how are you? I am at my wit’s end. Your father says not to worry, I’ve been there before and I always find that I have a little bit more string on that line. But this time I think he’s wrong. It’s your sister, Felicia. She told me she is moving to Alabama. I have nothing against Alabama, mind you, but, Alabama? I mean, who goes from Seventy-second Street and Fifth with a view of the park to Tuscaloosa? What does she know from Tuscaloosa? What kind of mishugas is that? I don’t know what to do. I hear they don’t wear masks there.

Ma, I’m okay. Of course, they wear masks in Alabama. Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio. Why is she going to Alabama?

Dear Malachi, I didn’t hear that on the radio. Don’t be so smart. Freida has a cousin whose son went to Alabama, Mobile, and he never came back.

What happened to him?

Dear Malachi, nothing happened to him. He got a job. He’s a big-shot lawyer. She says he makes good money, a big house, nothing like you could get here for the money.

So?

Dear Malachi, so, he met a girl and got married and Frieda says she never sees him, and she thinks he never goes to shul anymore. Your father says he’s an atheist. How many atheists do you think are in Alabama? Four?

Ma, but why is Felicia going to Alabama? And, I’m sure there’s more than four. Who cares anyway?

Dear Malachi, Felicia, my Jewish daughter, is going with her sensei, who I think she has a crush on, to what, become a Zen person like him? Your father says at least that’s better than being an atheist. Or a socialist. I don’t know what to do.

Ma, there is nothing to do. She’s an adult. She’s looking for herself. Her path, whatever. Looking for the meaning of life.

Dear Malachi, what do you mean, the meaning of life? You think life has a meaning? Listen, to me, you get born, you die, and in the meantime, you make dinner.

That’s funny, ma.

Dear Malachi, I’m not being funny. If life had meaning, don’t you think we’d all know about it? Someone would tell someone. Word would get around. Some things have meaning. Like algebra has meaning. Life doesn’t. Everybody knows about algebra. We learn it in school. That’s because algebra has meaning. You have x, and you have y ,and you get z. Boom. That’s the meaning of algebra. No big mystery. Your father says God tells us the meaning of life. Who said so, I tell him. My grandmother knew more about what’s what than God. At least she knew a good man when she saw one and she knew how long it takes for bread to rise. And it didn’t take her 40 years wandering in the desert, walking in circles, eating matzoh, to figure that one out. And don’t tell me they ate manna. Where’d that come from? God? Why didn’t he send them kasha varnishkes and some directions?

Ma, don’t you really think that life has meaning? I mean love and things like that?

Dear Malachi, I am sorry to say this to you, but in the words of Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it? You should read your history. Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, Peloponnesia, Genghis Kahn, Stalin, Hitler. Nixon, Pol Pot, Boko haram. Mitch McConnell. How’s all that for love? As you would say, give me break!

Ma, you sound so cynical. I’m surprised.

Malachi, Cynical? You live as long as I have and things start to add up. This has not been a good year. Maybe you think it’s unusual. It’s not. What’s unusual is that we have to wear masks and keep away from everyone. Big deal. First of all, that’s so horrible? And second, you think we have it so bad? You tell me how good the Melians had it by the Athenians? Or the Canaanites and Amalekites, all massacred by the Israelites, or the Congolese, Sumerians, Armenians, Yemeni, Aztecs, Anasazi. The Rohingya. Shall I go on? Do we learn anything from the violence, foreign and domestic? No, we just shake our heads and keep walking. Nothing to see here folks. You think COVID is a plague? It’s no plague. It didn’t have to get like this. The plague is politics. Ego, money, and politics. That’s the world’s oldest plague.

I’m sorry.

Malachi, don’t be sorry. Look, life’s no party. Never has been. If life was such a big party how come we didn’t invite the all the folks in Mumbai or Bangladesh, Nairobi, or Karachi. You think all the fat cats in the world just forgot to let two billion people who live on a dollar and a quarter a day, if that much, know about the big doings going on?

Ma…

Don’t give me Ma. I’m sorry, Malachi, I have to say it. I just don’t think we all get it yet. Maybe we never will. The seas will rise, the crops’ll die, the forests will burn the…. You’d think we might just give a damn about someone else, give a person a hand, ease up on the gas a little and say something nice. This year should’ve taught us that all-for-me-and-the-hell-with-you doesn’t work. You don’t shit in the stream because you can. It all runs downhill and that’s where the corn grows.

Ma, I know you’re right. I love you.

Malachi, I know you do. I love you too. I’m sad that Felicia is moving away. It’s not the Zen thing. She’s probably right anyway, hitting reset, with all that’s going. Maybe it’s good for her as long as a crocodile doesn’t eat her. I miss her already.

Alligators. Alligators live in Alabama, not crocodiles.

Ok. If an alligator doesn’t eat her. What a horrible thought, anyway. Call me later. I hate this texting thing.

Mama?

Mama?

Yes, yes. I had to go pee. I’m just so sad, Malachi.

I know. She’ll be alright. And, we’ll…

It’s not just that…  it’s everything. All of it together. All at once. It’s all so hard to take.

Schneiderman’s Thoughts on Leaving the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

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. 

The Visigoths at The Door

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.

K.

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.

The American Red Summer

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.

 

Seven Cities of Gold

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

All Men Are Mortal

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

A Further Excerpt from Schneiderman at the Hôtel de la Mer et du Ciel

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