“Six million of us they got and him they missed?”
I think he was talking to himself. There was nobody else there but me, and me he didn’t talk to. We were standing in the hall. She was drugged and asleep in the room. The rabbi had just left.
Not Bubbe’s rabbi.
A real rabbi.
With a beard.
And a yarmulke.
The walls were pale green. The floor was some kind of off-white that might have once been white but now was dulled by years of dirt. It was only a couple of years before they tore Brooklyn Jewish down, after all, and I’m guessing it didn’t look all that good when it was new, either.
I’m pretty sure he hadn’t asked for the rabbi. That’s just not something he would ever do. I mean, once he turned on something, there was no going back. More, he always hated what he turned on. Forever. Like Walter O’Malley and the Dodgers.
There was no middle ground.
Love or hate.
And once loved turned hate, well, trust me.
I saw the rabbi pick up her chart before he went into the room. And he was out in just a minute.
“Did you talk to her?”
His eagerness was almost sweet.
The rabbi spoke so fiercely that his spittle spattered his own beard.
“It’s against the law. Forbidden. Asoor! A sin. That’s it.! Talk? Feh! What for? What do you want I should talk about? Disgusting.”
He waddled quickly down the hall leaving a trail of dandruff and garlic behind him.
That’s when he said it.
A passing nurse heard him and looked sharply.
On the dark maroon linoleum upholstered chair in the hall outside her room with the tear in the middle that tufts of some synthetic beige puffed out of.
He dropped his head in his hands.
And started sobbing.
Big, heaving, roiling sobs rolling up from somewhere under the chair, throbbing through his shuddering body, exiting his throat in choking silence.
I couldn’t move.
I wouldn’t dare.
It didn’t last long.
Like an earthquake the tremors stopped.
Slowly he pulled his head from his hands.
His terrified eyes looked at me.
I wanted to help.
I gazed at him.
“What do you want!?”
He slapped me so hard I hit the floor.
And stayed there.
Until he stood, reached down, grabbed my collar making sure to pinch some neck with it, and dragged me up.
* * *
This much I will give him.
When he hit, he hit.
No warnings, no threats – at least most of the time. I knew I was grateful for this from the couple of times he did warn. That was just terrifying. Because then you had time to think about it, think about what he might do and how it might hurt and whether he was going to hit you with words as well as hands. I couldn’t stand the waiting.
Just do it.
I once heard of a boy whose family used to live in the neighborhood. One morning the neighbors heard the father shout.
“I’m going to beat you with a belt when I get home like you’ve never been beaten in your life.”
The kid ran away as soon as the father left for work and the mother had gone to the laundry.
That was a kid who was never heard from again.
Just don’t talk.
So I guess the move to Long Island was off. But why did she have to be so dramatic about it?
Why not just tell him how she felt about it?
It’s a good thing for her that one of the movers smelled the gas and walked into the kitchen before closing up.
And what about me?
Nobody seems to remember that I had been in the apartment, too.
* * *
We got home late. A pot of cholent was in the oven and a pot of soup on the stove, and when he opened the refrigerator it infused the air with lox and herring. And on the table there was cake.
We still had some frozen from when Bubbe died.
A couple of neighbors had left notes of support on the counter.
He picked up each one, slowly crushed it with his fist into a ball, and tossed it into the garbage.
Aunt Rose was sitting at the chipped green linoleum kitchen table with aluminum combing around the edges, smoking cigarettes and holding a cup of coffee with both hands. Her face was streaked and her lipstick smeared. Aunt Rose’s lipstick was always smeared. I guess I should have appreciated that she liked to kiss me but I just kind of found it disgusting. She was Bubbe’s sister. And worshipped her. Uncle Jack and Uncle Irving had to hold her back at Bubbe’s funeral from collapsing into the grave, which she almost did because she was maybe just a bit demonstrative and Uncle Irving was pretty drunk and wasn’t all that much help to Uncle Jack. If he hadn’t stepped in at the last minute to help Uncle Jack she would have been sprayed with rocks and dirt and might even have gotten hurt from the fall although she was also pretty padded so she might have been ok but in the end it didn’t matter and I’m just telling you so you kind of understand something about Aunt Rose who was fine by the time we all stopped for lunch in Queens and an egg roll was set in front of her. Who was, at the end of the day (an expression I’ve always found kind of pretentious and meaningless but people use it so why not give it a try?) kind and very sweet and I was grateful that after Bubbe died she tried to fill in for her as best she could which she probably liked doing too because it was clear as day that it was going to be a very long time until Uncle Phil was going to have kids.
Do I really have to spell it out?
We didn’t need to talk about it back then.
We just loved him.
How did a five year old kid know such a thing? You’re kidding, right? How do you not know? You love somebody, you know him. In any event, whether I knew or didn’t know, it was obvious the women in the family and their friends had stopped trying to set him up on dates.
I miss Uncle Phil.
I was a complete mess when he got sick and died in just a month during the early Reagan administration.
Anyway, so, there was Aunt Rose.
He gave Aunt Rose a peck on the cheek. She stood up and threw her arms around him and pulled him down hard. He put his head on her chest and I saw his back rise and fall and rise and fall.
She held him.
Nobody saw me.
“It’s not your fault tatele. It’s not easy for her. She’s trying so hard.”
“She doesn’t know what to do with the boy.”
But maybe you could take her out once in a while? Like on a date?”
“And maybe you could learn to be a little more patient?
Maybe a bit less muffled.
“And take the boy out once in a while.”
“O.K. Aunt Rose.”
“But it’s not your fault.”
“Maybe you could learn to listen better? You know how much she looks up to you. “
I only dared to breathe when Uncle Jack swept sounds of The Jack Paar Show in with him from the living room.
Aunt Rose released him.
He left the apartment.
Slammed the door.
Without even looking at me.
. . . .
Aunt Rose sat down again.
“How’s the little pisher?” He pulled me up into his arms, kissed my cheek, and then pulled back to look at me.
“Quite a day, yes? A lot of excitement. You must be hungry.”
He went to the cupboard and pulled down a plate and a bowl. Nobody around here ever waited for an answer.
I was nauseous.
He put hot soup in the bowl with a couple of kreplach, which I loved and maybe could get down. And then some cholent on a plate with a piece of rye bread. He set down the salt and margarine.
“Here’s a special treat for being such a tough young guy today.”
A bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic.
It was already open. Fragrant.
I was going to puke.
I looked up weakly at him.
He didn’t mind that I was wasting food.
He took my hand. Pajamas. Tucked me in. Opened the window.