Things I Did Not Say When I Was Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prologue: Being and Nothingness

Jean-Paul had no classes to teach on Thursdays. On those days he had coffee in the late morning at one or another of the cafés he frequented. He’d then read and write all afternoon, meeting with Simone and others in the evening for dinner. On that one November Thursday morning, the eighth, the café on Rue de Bretagne, as did all of Paris, had a thickened, ominous, atmosphere of imminent war. It was empty. Save for himself and the proprietor. Continue reading Prologue: Being and Nothingness

Fishman the Fool

Marvin Fishman and Darlene Meriwether broke up.  She called him a fool. A loser. A leech.

Actually she said, “You’re a forty-two year old loser, with no job, no money, no prospects, living in Malvern, Long Island, in a four-bedroom center hall colonial with his mother and a cat that lives in the basement and pees in her plants. What kind of a person does that? A loser fool.” Continue reading Fishman the Fool

Little Men

On the evening of March 2, Youseff Ahmadi, in his nineteenth year on earth, and his second month in the United States, the fourth child and only son of Zaid and Hala Ahmadi, was struck in the back of the head with a baseball bat.

He lay bleeding from his wound, a severely fractured skull, on the gritty blacktop in the parking lot at the rear of Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, his bloodied black hair matted in the deep rent in his skull and in his being. Continue reading Little Men

Boxing Day, New York, 1947

A young mother holds her son in her arms, snug against her hip. He’s in pajamas. It is snowing and her husband has his high-buckled, black snow boots on. His pea-green army overcoat buttoned around his chest and narrow waist, standing at the door.

“I don’t think you should chance it,” she tells him.

His back is already turned to her. It is winter-morning dark. He snaps down the brim of his hat. Continue reading Boxing Day, New York, 1947

The Pompitous of Love

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

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

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

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

“Why do you think that is?” he says.

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

“So why do we rake them?”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

I don’t know what to tell him.

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

“You mean is it good for the grass?”

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

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

“Aesthetics, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robbie’s Roadside Drive-in Movie Theater

Marvin Blitzstein accepted the probate decision with a sense of equanimity.

Millie, his wife of twenty-two years, clutching a copy of Dickens’ Bleak House, saw this as just one more infuriating example of his intolerable passivity. His lassitude. His complete and consummate complaisance.

“Marvin,” she said as they had left earshot of the lawyers suite, “your brother, Melvin, who you don’t like and who you haven’t even talked to for the last eleven years, and who has unfailingly and unflinchingly screwed you out of everything you ever wanted in life, the long list of which I need not remind you of, walks away from yet another chance to make things right by you and he leaves you holding the bag of do-do once again, and you say what?” Continue reading Robbie’s Roadside Drive-in Movie Theater

The Golem on the X38 Bus

Simon Appelfeld was a good boy. He went to school each day. He obeyed the Sabbath. He did his homework. He brushed his teeth. He loved his parents and they loved him. He did not know how unusual he was.

One day on his way to school he saw that someone had left a book on the empty seat beside him on the bus. Continue reading The Golem on the X38 Bus

Most Mornings

Most mornings, but not all, after I heat the kettle to make coffee with the French press we picked up in Marshall’s for half the cost of a bodum in a store like Macy’s, where I’d sometimes shop but haven’t been in one in many years and I still have the wool duffel coat with a hood I bought there about thirty years ago and it’s still is in great condition except for the thin leather loops that hold the toggles in place and which I fix with a needle and thread from time to time, I steep the coffee for exactly four minutes and pour a cup for myself and one for my wife and we sit in bed for a while, maybe ten or fifteen minutes tops, before she has to get ready for work at the college, and I take the morning pills I need for blood pressure and cholesterol, and my prostate and then I shave, except in the winter when I let my beard grow but even then I shave around the edges so that it all looks neat, and it saves on the cost of new razors though now there are those cheaper plastic ones that work okay and last for maybe a month or so before they get a little rough on my skin and I need to take out a new one and feel bad because never really know if I should put the old one in the trash or in the recycling bin which I usually do but then I wonder if the people (if there are actual people) who go through the bottles and cans and clamshell boxes that the day-old doughnuts and blueberries they call bleuets come in, might cut their fingers on if they pick them off the conveyor belt the wrong way and that’s why I don’t put the tops of the baked bean or dogfood cans in the recycling anymore but I think a lot of people still do, which of course reminds me that there are lot’s of folks who don’t recycle anything and they just throw paper plates and cans and light bulbs and batteries, some of which you can recycle and some not (and I never can remember which) and leftover or moldy food in the same plastic bags and have them carted away or dropped off at the transfer station and I think that maybe they might not care about recycling so much or maybe they don’t know what should be recycled anyway or maybe they just think that recycling is a waste of time because it’s really the huge pig farms and cars and trucks on the highways and the deforestation of the Amazon and whatever goes on in China that we don’t know about that causes all of the air pollution with fossil fuels and greenhouse gases and so I can’t really blame them for the way they feel but then you see Greta Thunberg on TV and you know that you should really be doing more about the environment like turning down the thermostat in the winter same as I do but then it gets so cold in the house and it costs so much to have the old windows replaced and I keep telling the Pella window people who call me twice a year and ask me if I want to have them come out and give me an estimate on new windows and I tell them each time that I really can’t afford how much it costs for new windows and if I had all the windows in the house replaced it would cost as much as a used hybrid car, which I need more anyway, and if you don’t replace all of the windows at the same time the cold air just comes in through the ones you didn’t replace and if you try to put that plastic they sell in boxes in the hardware store which you tape up around the windows and then use a hairdryer to make the plastic sheets shrink up really tight and which works pretty good unless the window frame was not clean enough and the tape peels away and the cold air finds its way through anyway and makes the plastic flutter or the cats start to climb up the plastic and rip it down anyway only an hour after you had cut it to the right size and fit it just right around the window and used all that electricity with the blow dryer to get them up, which I just read in the Reader’s Digest, still sucks up electricity even when it’s turned off but you still keep it plugged in the outlet like the phone charger and the TV even when you don’t have a phone attached to the wire, costing you more money that you never considered before and that no one tells you about unless you happen to come across the article in the magazine which will probably go out of business when people my age die off and everyone is using their devices for everything like getting the news, most of which you can’t tell is real or made up by someone or even a by computer, and you can even use to see who is at your front door and tell them to get the hell away from your house or you’ll call the cops, or even turn on your lights and TV before you get home so it will be on when you get there or record the program for you if you get stuck in traffic and get home late and maybe even defrost the chicken ala king for you, so then I rinse the coffee cups and take a shower and I look for a job on the SimplyHired website which someone who also got let go back in 2008, told me about at a job fair, and says people like me need to work but nobody wants to hire a man as old as me to do things I know how to do pretty good but no one needs done anymore anyway, even for fifteen dollars an hour, which I would probably do in a New York minute, unless it requires heavy lifting or two years of experience with the use of excel spreadsheets which they didn’t have back at my old job.

An Early Supper at Café Les Enfants Perdus

I sat at a table at Café Les Enfants Perdus in the 10th along the Rue des Récollets. Fonseca, the proprietor, with whom I was well acquainted, approached the table. He carried two glasses of Kir au Vin Blanc. He set one in front of me.

“May I sit,” he asked. I nodded.

He took the chair opposite me so that he retained a view of the kitchen. This allowed me an unhindered view of the window onto the street. He raised his glass. I did too.

There was a chill in the air. The Paris spring was slow in coming.

“Mr. Marchand”, he said. His voice was hoarse. Perhaps he had been at the races that afternoon but I had not seen him there. “Please forgive this intrusion. I have seen to it that your soup and fresh bread will be out in a moment.”

“Thank you,” I said. Fonseca was not an overly gregarious man.

“Are you comfortable? I can put up the heat if you wish.” I told him no. There was no need.

“Very well,” he said. “And your wife. She is well?

“Yes,” I said.

“She is a lovely woman. A woman of great taste and beauty. Will she be joining you this evening?”

“No. It is Wednesday. We have our meals apart on Wednesdays. She works late and then sees some friends of hers from the States. I have to get to work myself.

I write in the evenings. The room on the Rue de Seine is most quiet in the evening. I have found that I work best after an early supper. I work until I think I have reached a point where I understand what the story is about and I leave it to settle a bit in my thoughts before returning to it the next evening. It works well for me. I can hear the river and I will walk along it on my way to our apartment. Perhaps I will bring home a bottle of Sancerre. There is a shop near the Bataclan that stocks the finest wines in the city

“Can I bring you another Kir?”

“Yes. Have you the escarole this evening?”

“I am sorry. It did not look good to Franco. He purchased several bunches of Swiss chard instead. I hope it will be to your liking.”

Fonseca inherited the café from his brother Bernard, the oldest of the three. Bernard suffered a mortal wound in a skirmish in the Dardanelles. He told the young nurse who had cared for him that he wanted to leave all of his possessions to the younger Fonseca. Bernard carried the license to the café and the deed to the family home in a leather pouch under his tunic. He gave the pouch to the nurse and asked her to deliver it to his brother. She did this.

Being a beautiful woman, disgusted with the war, she found the younger Fonseca to be a man of integrity and some mirth. To his pleasure, she had learned to cook at her mother’s side and soon she became indispensable to Fonseca who had little facility in the kitchen. After a while they married, though the marriage did not last long.

The aperitif was working and I found myself growing hungry.

Fonseca got up from his seat. He had some difficulty. He complained of an arthritic hip. “Your hip,” I said.

“It is bothersome. I am old for this work.”

He returned from the kitchen with the soup and a piece of bread. “Bon Appetit,” he said.

I told him thank you and he returned to the kitchen.

The breeze off the river had picked up. It came in through the open windows facing the street. I thought I might go fishing in the morning.