Boston Review
CURRENT ISSUE
table of contents
FEATURES
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
poetry
fiction
film
archives
ABOUT US
masthead
mission
rave reviews
contests
writers’ guidelines
internships
advertising
SERVICES
bookstore locator
literary links
subscribe

 

Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind


Site Web



 

The Orphan

Maxine Rodburg

 

"Cremated? What the hell was Beaver thinking?" My father lies on stiff white sheets, his legs straight out, the bed's top half cranked sharply at an angle. He is gripping the obituary pages of The Suburban Jewish News, which publishes from Livingston, New Jersey, but was born, like all of us, years ago in Newark.

"Jews don't get cremated," he reminds me, stressing the middle syllable to emphasize his contempt for the way his oldest brother ended. "Not voluntarily, they don't. Plus: both of my parents were orthodox. The orthodox have to be buried. In a plain pine box. Everybody knows that."

"I didn't even know that your parents were religious," I tell him.

"In Israel they forget the box, and just stick with the shroud. Oh, sure," he says. "You kidding? That whole generation."

My paternal grandfather died when my father was a boy, and so I never met him, or my paternal grandmother, either. She died a few years later, orphaning my father when he was only ten. I did meet both of his older brothers. For a while, when I was a child, we lived in the same building as his middle brother, Harry, and his family. Then my father began to make a success of himself, and we moved to a better part of Newark. Eventually, we moved out to Short Hills. We saw his side of the family less and less.

Now, several decades later, his oldest brother, Beaver, has pulled his final disappearing act.

"Gone up in smoke without a trace," my father says.

His head stays angled downward, his eyes still focused on those paragraphs of printed and unchanging fact. I move over to his side, in the space between the bed and night stand. I try to imagine learning of my sister's death by opening a newspaper from a place we used to live.

"I'm sorry, Pop," I tell him.

Without looking up, he pats the hem of the sun dress I changed into at the airport. "I just hope that you and Marlene never pull a stunt like cremation on me," he warns. "Don't even think about it. If the real Messiah finally shows up, He'll bring you back to life. That's the deal." Then he takes a manicure scissors from the night stand and carefully cuts out Beaver's obituary. He eases his legs to the carpeted floor, slips his feet into a pair of paper slippers, and shuffles to the hospital robe hanging on a hook behind the door. "P.S.," he adds as he shimmies into the robe. "And He'll need the bones to do it. Even a Messiah can't do much with ashes." With the side of one palm, he slides a small dune of loose change on the dresser into his other palm. He tilts his filled palm; the weight sags the frayed robe by several inches as the coins slant to the pocket. He tucks Beaver's obituary in the other pocket, spits at both palms, and rubs them over his temples. His wispy hair won't settle. Even in the Sixties, when men his age wore leisure suits and let their hair grow free, he stayed loyal to his faintly iridescent suits and still slicked down his hair.

"I need my Vitalis," he says.

His voice is plaintive and unfathoming, a child's. He must hear it, too, because after a moment, he turns back to me, recovers himself and becomes again my father.

"We'll go upstairs and get you something to eat," he says. "It's dog food, but at least it'll fill your stomach." Finally, as if the two of them will be there waiting in the cafeteria, he adds, "You remember your uncles, don't you, Sweetheart?"

His expression is so yearning that I want to lie and reassure him that I do, that I still can see every feature on their faces, every bone and muscle. But it's really smoke and ashes I recall. Next month, my father will turn seventy. When he last saw his brothers, he was younger than I am now; and I was just a girl. After so much time, Beaver is a blur to me.

What I remember of the middle brother, Harry, is more clearly focused: the world's longest legs bending to a squat; two powerful arms that sailed me toward a ceiling somewhere over burning Newark; the lips that brushed my cheek as I rose above the others. This childish view of heaven--being, for a blissful moment, taller than my sister--is what survives in memory of a man I never really knew. He and Beaver and my father were smoking Macanados, creating one large cumulus of bluish smoke that shrouded their three faces, the white ash falling fine as ocean spray from the tips of their cigars. Mid-air, I spied a squadron of Manischewitz bottles on a rented table, its scarred surface camouflaged by a blue and white paper cloth meant to look like Israel's flag. This must have been a holiday, a rare Passover. We spent all the other holidays, and most seders, with my mother's side.

On Passover, Jews are enjoined to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, to remember all of history--but now, I can only see my uncles masked by that cigar smoke. Still, I always loved the thought of them. I loved to think my orphaned father hadn't been entirely alone.

"Can I see the obituary?" I ask.

My father takes it from his pocket and unfolds it. "Do you think the picture's any good?" He is leaning over my shoulder as I read. "Seems to me he's put on weight. Don't you think he looks more like Harry here than me? And see how he smiles that half-smile, won't fully open his mouth? That's because Beaver always hated his teeth."

My father's teeth are a source of pride to him. Only one is false. He lost that tooth after his mother died, when he spent his nights squatting in a steel cage above the gleaming pins at Newark's Golden Bowling. One night, the kid in the next cage took too long to lean out and reset; the exploding pins broke both his legs. My father turned to look, and lost his tooth. Then he went back to work in his cage. Eventually, he saved enough for dentistry, and a tavern in the Central Ward. "Top of the line," he still says about that tooth. And it's true that only an expert could tell which one it is.

"Beaver thought his lousy teeth ruined his whole kisser. 'Get them fixed,' I used to say to him. 'You're a high roller, a guntsa-knocker.' Once, I dragged him to my guy, a combo ortho-periodontist, a real pro. But when Beaver found out what the guy charged, that was the end of that. So that's what you get when you're tight with the dollar. At the end, you can't open your mouth. Come on, let's go upstairs. You must be starving."

It's far too warm in here; cardiac patients cannot tolerate air-conditioning. I'm sweating in my sleeveless dress, but my father is trembling in his hospital robe. I can almost hear his own teeth chattering.

"I think you should check with the nurses first," I tell him.

"This is a hospital, not a prison. And you're still the daughter, not the parent. Let's go. My treat."

"Go tell someone, or else I will."

"I know that tone. The big-shot lawyer. Picking on your poor old father."

"You're seventy. Not even. Come on, Pop. Please."

He makes a show of sighing, then wanders off to get permission for our expedition. I walk over to the wall of window, where the light is brighter. Outside, on the corner, a minyan of old men in short-sleeved shirts and Bermuda shorts is gathering beneath the bus stop's corrugated roof. On days like this, so far from home, the burning sun could kill them.

I turn and squint at the obituary. Yes, Harry is alive. And he still lives in Jersey, in fact still is "of Union," an unpretentious town just down Morris Avenue from Short Hills, the fancy one my family moved to after Newark burned in 1967. If I call the newspaper and explain, perhaps they'll help me find a way to him. The brothers haven't talked in years, but seeing Harry might rejuvenate my father.

"No dice," he says a second later. "We can't go upstairs."

He's back in the doorway, clutching at his robe. He jabs a nicotine-stained thumb, relic of the time when he could freely smoke his Macanados, towards the nurse who stands beside him.

"I guess you'll have to starve to death," he tells me. "According to Eva Braun here, I'm not busting out. Not even two flights up."

But I can tell he likes her, and she knows it, from the way she rolls her eyes and wags a finger back at him.

"This is coronary care," the nurse reminds him. "Not a resort, Mr. Tarlow. Not a casino. We don't go in for gambling. We don't like the odds." She turns to me and smiles brightly. "You must be his younger daughter. He talks a lot about you and your sister. If you'd like, we can go and talk, and I can fill you in on the facts."

Now I'm forced to look down at the huge chart she is holding.

"He's still very much at risk," she adds, tapping a manicured finger at its sturdy plastic cover. "He needs to rest. You and I can talk, and you can come back later for another visit."

She seems a perfectly fine person, a professional who is trying. But I don't want to hear the facts. They never add up to what's supposed to happen, anyway. Then I know I must go, for my father's sake.

"Besides, you need to move your bowels," she tells him.

What is there to say, what words of comfort can be offered to a man who must be thus instructed by a woman who is less than half his age? My father doesn't utter anything, not a syllable of rebellion. So I take him in my arms and press my lips against the smooth skin of his cheek, just below his temple. The ambulance came straight here when he collapsed, so he has no Old Spice with him. But all those years of application have eased into his flesh, like a relic oiled through the centuries. I hold him close and whisper that, tonight, I'll find a way to get the girls in. They're with Michael, at my mother's condominium complex, swimming in the pool beside the ocean.

"How will I find him?" my father mumbles in my ear. "How will I find his grave if there's only ashes?"

But before I can respond, or even fully realize he means Beaver, my father has stepped away. He is belting out instructions to me for the nurse's benefit.

"When you come back, bring a decent robe and slippers, and some Vitalis," he says. "The bottle's on the bathroom sink. And bring my toothpaste, and my floss. Don't forget the toothpaste. The stuff they give you in this joint tastes like poison. I wouldn't give it to my worst enemy, let alone put it in my mouth. When they nabbed me, those shmendricks must have dropped my keys. But talk to Marvin Glickman, he's the owner of the Bay Brook. He's a goniff, a real thief, but he'll let you in." I'll buy everything he needs at the hotel; I won't go near that bungalow court. Two months ago, after his first heart attack, Marlene was the one who flew down here. She went to the bungalow court to get a few of my father's things, and warned me to avoid it.

The nurse, whose name is Susan, leads me to a half-walled cubicle just a few yards from my father's room and I take a seat across from her at a small, polished metal table. This hospital is part of a for-profit chain, and I didn't want him here. But the center where he kills the time by playing poker with some guys from Jersey is wired to this place--probably every place in Dade or Broward County is wired to some hospital or other--and he arrived in less than seven minutes. That's what the profit motive does, said my father proudly when I called from Boston.

All the patient rooms on this floor, Cardiac Care, are arranged in a semi-circle. Susan and I are sitting near the epicenter, one slice of a pie-shaped bank of gleaming stainless desks, a kind of high-tech cockpit. Radiating outward is a crew of sharp-eyed technicians, their suntanned poker faces all turned up. Above, suspended by steel rods, a universe of devices is blinking every color in the spectrum, monitoring those patients still worth an investment.

Medical people often treat lawyers with a palpable chilliness, but I must admit that Susan is thorough and compassionate. With what clearly is genuine feeling, she gives me my father's prognosis, which is terrible. His heart's too damaged now for intervention. But if I wait just a while--would I like some herbal tea or flavored decaf coffee?--she'll page someone from my father's team of cardiologists to tell me more.

"Maybe later, when my husband comes," I somehow manage to express to her as we shake hands good-bye.

Outside, in the hospital's vast parking lot, the humidity is murderous. I have to wade across a boiling sea of cars that will never know a spot of rust before I find the one we rented. Thank God it's air-conditioned. Thank God it's a Buick, progeny of General Motors. We had to rent GM, because I knew my father would be checking. He never has forgiven Henry Ford for his raging anti-Semitism.

Sure enough, my father is standing at his wall of window when I squint up and finally spot him. I wave and point towards the Buick; he gives me the thumbs-up sign. I try to motion that he ought to step away now, lie down on the bed and rest, but he won't budge. He's still standing at the window when I pull out in the Buick, flick on the air conditioning and drive slowly past the old men huddled at the bus stop--who, I realize as I near them, look very much like the photograph of Beaver, and not unlike my father. All these men could be related.

I take the obituary from my pocket and place it on the seat beside me. If The Suburban Jewish News can't give me Harry's whereabouts, maybe I can get his number from north Jersey information.

By the time I have driven from the hospital back to the hotel, Michael and the girls have returned from my mother's. Everyone has showered and changed into dry clothes. Shyly, the girls offer me bits of shells and driftwood that they found along the beach beside the pool; they don't know what words to give me. Michael has ordered a few appetizers from room service, but when I tell him I can't eat a thing, the girls insist that they're not hungry, either--another offering that pains me. So I say that I am starving for some real food, not just snacks, and we go down to the patio restaurant on the ocean, where the liveliness of the suntanned diners lets the girls begin to chatter and eat guiltlessly.

Their dessert has just arrived when my mother shows up. I push away a plate of food I haven't touched and spot her speaking to the maitre d', who points in our direction. Michael and the girls must also know the reason that she's here, or else they read it in my eyes. Suddenly, they're absolutely silent, the girls' laden spoons of ice cream frozen in mid-air. My mother nods her thanks and slowly starts to make her way to us; I slide back my chair and stand.

Ever since my father's first heart attack, I have been unable to talk to my mother. Before then, I didn't take sides. That their retirement was hell for both my parents, I found wholly credible. My father had worked so much when my sister and I were growing up that my mother must have completed her grieving and deluded herself into thinking she already was, de facto, a widow. By the time my father retired, the Newark that had sustained him was long dead. Now he was resurrected as a man of leisure without a single interest in the world that had replaced the one that he had known.

My parents' first separation lasted precisely seven days, but the second went on for more than a month. This one was heading into a trimester. Listening on the phone from wintry Boston, first to one side and then the other, I had told myself that the intervals between their getting back together were like inverted labor pains, and thus made a kind of sense: my parents were destroying, not creating. Which evidently took longer than might be imagined.

An eternal moment somehow passes. Lissa's spoon clatters to the patio. In slow motion, I watch Jemma hand hers over and slip an arm around her younger sister's shoulders. My mother keeps walking toward us. She looks older than the last time that I saw her. After my father's first heart attack, I made Michael take her calls. Occasionally I mailed a note, and once, I wrote a letter, but then I ripped it up. In the letter, I tried to explain that I couldn't bear the thought of my father's being alone again. He had been so alone as a child.

In another few seconds, my mother will tell me that the hospital just called to say he had another heart attack. She won't have to say the rest. Of course my father is a goner. Three strikes and you're out, as he would have noted.

I was afraid to go over to the condo. I had planned to stay in Florida until he was released, then return to Boston without even stopping by.

But amazingly, the only hand I lay on my mother when she finally reaches our table does not lash out, does not banish, but pulls her closer toward me.

The Bay Brook Bungalow Colony isn't near the Biscayne Bay or any brook, and it doesn't offer bungalows. It's a land-locked barracks on the sandy highway, a single slab of concrete painted bile-green and bounded by a strip of artificial grass. That my father--"formerly of Short Hills," as Beaver's obituary put it--ended his time here almost keeps me paralyzed in the air-conditioned Buick the next morning. But when Michael turns off the ignition, I tell him I'm okay, and walk toward the little office. The air smells of heat and foulness from the dumpster.

Inside, a small girl in a frilly nightgown is coloring at a table in the corner, her crayons strewn around her on the tiled floor. On a wicker chair nearby, an elderly woman in a faded floral dress is reading a brochure with a picture of a racing horse on front. The man who must be Marvin Glickman stands behind the counter. Its surface is nearly obscured by a collection of chipped ceramic mermaids. He is talking to an elderly man--the woman's husband. They're trying to figure out how to get by bus to the track at Hialeah.

Everyone stops what they're doing to stare at me when I open the screen door and walk in. I try to smile at the little girl, but she just stares at me.

After a few seconds, Marvin Glickman breaks the silence. "You must be Vic's daughter," he says. "We heard about what happened."

The little girl starts to inch her way to a swinging half-door that lets her get behind the counter. With what appears to be some difficulty, the elderly woman eases herself from the wicker chair and walks over to her husband. They must both be in their eighties, pushing ninety. From her husband's side, the woman says, "You're the lawyer. We met your sister last time. Your father often talked about you. He was very proud."

"Thank you. I'm here to get his things," I say.

"It's such a terrible shame," says her husband.

I start to thank him too, but then Marvin Glickman says, "The way he lived. Alone and all. Your father liked to call me goniff, every day, right to my face. But even I felt sorry for him."

"Such a young man," says the woman. "Such a shame."

I should have come much sooner, come the first time, forced my father out of here. On the phone two months ago, I did ask him to live with us in Boston. I should have begged. I should have flown down here and kidnapped him.

"This is only temporary," I say. "He's just here for a short while."

The four of them stare back at me. The overhead fan is whirling, but that's the only sound. The little girl plugs her thumb into her mouth and sidles closer to her father. I feel my face flush when I realize what I said, which tense I'm still using: present. But it's far too soon for past, for permanent. Let the obituary say it.

Marvin Glickman lifts a duplicate key to my father's room from a pegboard and sets it on the counter. "The whole state of Florida is temporary," he says. "But look. I hate to have to tell you this. I really do. Vic owed his last week's rent. And just to set the record straight, I've got a heart. I'm not billing for the days that he was in the hospital. Those days are on me." He lifts his daughter to his hip, eases her thumb from her lips, and folds his fingers over her whole hand. "You'll ruin your teeth," he tells her. And I see that he is just a family man, struggling to survive.

So I open my wallet and pay my father's debt. Michael's outside, waiting in an oasis of shade. Our girls are with my mother. My father's so-called "bungalow" is #23. It's at the far end of the concrete barracks, after twenty-two identical others, and just before the dumpster. The door sticks when I get the key in. Since my father last was here, the heat must have swelled it.

There's no rational reason for this. There's still some money left.

The unmade bed. The sand, and dust, and the forbidden Macanado's ashes shrouding the surface of the nightstand. The old fedora hanging on a wooden hook. The nomad's opened suitcase, still unpacked. The slatted chair beside the telephone, where he waited for my mother's call. And through the opened bathroom door, the Old Spice and Vitalis on the chipped sink.

But it's the travel-sized tube of the toothpaste my father always swore by that makes me say to Michael, "I can't go in there."

From a distance, Florida looks heavenly. On the flight down from Boston, Michael had to set his watch alarm to signal on the hour, so the girls could rotate at the window seat; this time, heading back up north, they both urged me to take it. From here, I finally can see the Biscayne Bay and the palms along the ocean shoreline, sailboats heading into port, the thin dark ribbon of the Intracoastal winding to its end. Everything is going back to where it ought. The moon is waiting for its cue in a dusky orange sky.

Once, when my sister was Jemma's age, and I was roughly Larissa's, we came down here on spring vacation with my parents. I'm sure we stayed with my maternal grandparents, who, late in life, spent six months of the year in a stucco house on Pine Tree Lane. But it seems to me we met up once with Harry and his family. Could that possibly have been? Might that smoky seder have included salt air and several members of my mother's family? I could lean across the aisle and find out. But my mother will wonder why I ask about an ancient celebration of the trek from Egypt, after all these years. I told Michael about Beaver's death, but I haven't told my mother, or that Harry still survives. She probably thinks that only her side will appear at my father's funeral.

Miami devolves into a shapeless green and blueness, then vanishes entirely. The carts start wheeling down the aisle. Drinks are poured, peanuts proffered. A little later, my mother and the girls get their tiny trays of dinner. Michael accepts the two the steward offers us. I try a bite of the entree, then turn to the darkening window and ease the bit of chicken into the paper napkin I have lifted to my mouth. But Michael sees.

"Honey, please," he says.

"I'm really not hungry."

He takes a bite. "It's not half-bad. You ought to try." He finishes his portion, eats the lettuce salad, sips his coffee. He sets the cup on the tray and drums his fingers on the arm rest. I take his hand and stroke his palm, fiddle with his plain gold wedding band. My mother's wedding band is platinum, set with several diamonds. As girls, my sister and I wore birthstone rings, hers a tiny emerald chip, mine sapphire. Or I wore the red and gold paper rings that my father slid from his cigars and gave me. He never wore a wedding band, or any kind of ring.

"I can't eat that dog food," I tell Michael.

He sighs, and we sit in silence for a while. Then he slides his tray on top of mine, eases from his seat and heads for the steward, who is further up the aisle. They exchange a few words and the steward glances toward the First Class cabin, then turns back and nods. Michael thanks him and returns to me.

"There's a seat open in First Class," he says. "You go and take it. You'll have more room, you'll be more comfortable. The food is better up there."

"I shouldn't leave the girls. We all should be together."

"They'll be fine here. And the movie's starting soon."

He's right, the lights inside the cabin have already dimmed, the screens have just been lowered. Michael could use a break from me, and besides, I've never flown First Class before.

The seat is something like a leather sofa. The arm rests are wide enough for thighs. Beside me, a woman about my age is wearing earphones, eyes closed, comfortably transported. Across the aisle, one seat up, a young man in a business suit is working at a laptop, responding to his e-mail. He reads a message, nods, then eagerly types an answer. I watch him for a while: the fingers dancing on the keys, the lines of print filling up the screen importantly. All those words. He pounds them in and then scrolls down, scans the remainder of the message he received--and his fingers freeze. He can't go on. Some new truth has appeared. He hits a key that vanishes his version, and all those words are gone.

The steward brings me dinner: real steak, on real china, with real linen. I take a bite of the pink meat, which goes down fine. Tucked beneath the plate is a gilt-edged card listing various services available in First Class. This morning, when the sun rose and I came in from the balcony, I called in the obituary to The Suburban Jewish News, and my father got his first lucky break of late. He just made the deadline for tomorrow's, Tuesday's, paper. In north Jersey, the trucks already are delivering. That's sufficient time, if Harry still subscribes. Jews must bury right away--embalming, like cremation, is forbidden--but the funeral cannot happen until Wednesday, when the coffin gets to Newark Airport. Evidently, a limited number of slots are available for coffins on each flight. Given that this is southern Florida, those slots fill up quickly.

When the steward reappears with coffee and peach melba, I ask him for a cell phone.

"Certainly," he says. "Whatever we can do."

Half of Jemma's friends have cell phones, and the other half have beepers so they can call their parents when they have gotten where they're going, so their parents can call when they'll be late. But Michael and I decided not to go that route. Those parents don't worry any less than we do, despite the high-tech gadgets that they think can stop disaster. But it does seem a kind of miracle to be miles above the spinning earth and hear a human voice still grounded on it. I have dialed northern Jersey information. The young man that I spoke with when I called The Suburban Jewish News knew even less than I do about my father's brothers. He had written the obituary, but he didn't have Harry's phone or address, and he didn't know Beaver's actual name. He was so new at the job that his curiosity still ruled him. "I can sense that there's a story there," he told me eagerly.

The computerized information system has failed to find the listing for my surviving uncle. "Harry Tarlow, Union," I tell the human operator who comes on then. She tries all the local towns--Springfield, Livingston, Westfield, Millburn--but Harry isn't listed. I hang up, disappointed but unsurprised: my father wouldn't ever list our number, either.

Yesterday, before I let him go, I whispered in my father's ear that I did remember Harry, clearly.

Of course he's no Messiah, but surely I will know him when I finally see him.

My uncle Harry was in the army, fighting Hitler, when my paternal grandmother died. So my father couldn't live with him. For a long time, growing up, I wondered why he didn't live with Beaver--why, instead, he had to live out of a cardboard suitcase, grubbing lunches from his teachers, staying with near-strangers here and there, sometimes on the streets or in a dank back room at Newark's Golden Bowling.

Decades later, when I helped my own parents pack up for their exile to Florida, I found a rusted metal box in the basement of the Short Hills house. Inside were fading photographs, documents and letters. I held the pictures to the light, read between the letters' lines, and learned a thing or two. Beaver's oddball appellation came from pulling off the trickiest heists: nickel-&-dime stuff while my impoverished grandmother was alive, then floating craps games after she died too; eventually, racks of furs off a hijacked truck along the Jersey Turnpike in the middle of a record-breaking blizzard. The second getaway car got stuck in a snow bank. Stranded in the freezing cold, my father's older brother eschewed rabbit, mink and sable to await a tow in floor-length beaver.

The postmark on the letters came from Lewisburg, in Pennsylvania, where he did tony time in the company of men called Sharpy, Shorty, Donut, who dubbed my uncle for the fur that put him there and made my father's childhood a misery, a history that enslaved him even after he, somehow, had trekked through to adulthood. When his brothers returned to Newark, one from the beaches of Normandy and the other from prison, it was only a question of time until their tribal ties frayed and finally vanished like a mirage. What my mother had to do, what she was doomed to fail to do because no human could have, was to make my father forget the howling, needful past, the scourge of abiding loneliness--despite her presence, despite Marlene's and mine.

And so my father worked and he worked and he worked, and it was never enough to make him remember that his life was different now; and over the years, my mother grew further and further away, until she was as distant from him as he had been from his brothers, as an orphaned boy.

In Miami, when I dialed E. J. Teitelbaum & Sons, I signed on for a plain pine box and white shroud with black stripes. None of us ever practiced orthodoxy, but my father said it was the only way to go. "More bang for the buck," he told me in the hospital, as if this, like all eternal truths, was handed down by Moses.

At the funeral home, I am glad to see the rabbi's flowing beard and black yarmulke when he shakes our hands and offers his condolences, then produces a small scissors and assists us as we snip gashes in the lapels of our black jackets. My father would say it was crazy to ruin brand-new outfits, but I think secretly he'd wish that we had torn them, as was done in ancient times. And he'd be disappointed by the lack of payes curling past the rabbi's temples. But this is well-heeled suburbia, and the only orthodox rabbi that Teitelbaum could get.

My mother, my sister and I are standing at a distance from the opened coffin. We're holding hands, we three surviving women. In a moment, we will view the body before the lid is closed, as per orthodox ritual, and the Hebrew service starts. Years ago, when this mortuary still was located in Newark, we used it for the funerals of my maternal grandparents, so the place seems vaguely familiar: the polished pews; the lamp emitting buttery light beside the coffin; the single, stained glass window. My mother's relatives waiting in the anteroom. The clot of men in black over in the shadowed corner, standing with clasped hands and poker faces.

The rabbi gestures at the opened coffin, and my mother lets go of our hands. She breathes in and takes the first step, then another, toward my father. Marlene and I move into the shadows, so she can be alone with him. I badly want to watch this, but cannot bear to see it, and turn my face away. A moment passes, then another; briefly, I feel almost happy at the length of time she's spending.

Then the cold sun shafts through the stained glass, and I see Harry's face. He's radiant in the corner, among the pale men lingering there. It's him. He has come, as I prayed he would. He is here to be with his brother.

His colleagues move aside, exchanging glances when I step forward. Marlene takes my elbow and leans close to me.

"Those guys washed and stayed with Pop last night," she whispers. "It's what the orthodox do. They sit with him throughout the night, so he won't be alone."

She's right, of course. The man who looked like Harry isn't him at all. He's a total stranger. A mirage.

But this most definitely is not: the absolutely real, uncompromising image of our father wrapped in his white shroud, its silky edges arranged in a sort of fan around his face, the only part of him now visible to humans. I have taken my first step toward the coffin. Then the second. I have nearly reached his side.

He can't stand to see a woman crying. Never could. So I press both hands to my mouth, as if the tears would come from there, and stop one step away from him.

His color still is decent, rather than the awful gray that I expected. His closed eyes, his nose, his slightly open mouth: during the last forty-eight hours, these landmarks have not sunk or shifted. But in his unadorned pine box, my father looks less like a seventy-year-old man who died two days ago in southern Florida than one who perished on a distant desert near Mt. Sinai. An old, old Jew, an orphan laid to rest, his years of wandering finally at an end.

One last step delivers me to his side.

I'm here.

I reach out and press my damp hand to my father's slightly parted mouth. With the tips of my fingers I can feel his teeth beneath the dry flesh of his lips, the one tooth false but all the others his, enduring. No one goes without a trace, I want to tell him. Bones or ashes, there's no difference, where memory is concerned.

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |