I was in my fifties and David had touched sixty when we met for lunch on a cool fall day in a Pan-Asian restaurant in the heart of Chelsea. Our on-line correspondence had escalated to animated phone conversations and, finally, to a face-to-face encounter. I liked his workmanlike gloves, his orange parka, and the half-smile on his face, suggesting his enjoyment of the moment. His handshake was firm and jovial. We ate delicately scented tempeh and talked the way acquaintances do about biographies and aspirations. He had married and divorced twice, had two sons and a granddaughter, traveled on a windjammer to Tahiti, Lisbon and Gibraltar; he had a passion for Impressionist art and got a kick out of the Marx Brothers. His taste in literature ran to good science fiction, and long novels about dystopias, which pointed out social inequities with ironic brilliance. He was a chemical engineer who had lived and worked in many different states, including Georgia and Alabama, where he helped design a plant for the manufacture of the world’s largest selling sweetener. He loved constructing model trains and miniature working steam engines, finding the process of drilling, shaping, joining, and welding a kind of meditation. He loved taking stuff apart and seeing interactions and components. He fixed his hazel eyes on me with warmth and interest…
Good Mother Bad Mother
I watch my mother glide across the speckled floor of my room in a long blue skirt. Her peasant blouse falls over her shoulders. There are flecks of red in her long, auburn hair. How could anyone be more beautiful? My mother comes over to me and enfolds me in her arms. I smell tobacco on her fingertips and perfume on her wrists. My body takes on her scent and texture. My head finds the pillow of her stomach. “You’re a part of me,” she says. “I won’t let Daddy yell at you anymore.”
That night my mother comes into my room and snuggles up next to me. I tangle my short stubby legs with her longer ones, knitting us together. We sing lullabies in Yiddish and in English. My mother’s voice, which sounds more like talking than singing, is sort of loud and off key; mine is soft and sweet. “You’re my beautiful, wonderful, smart little girl,” she says when we finish. I fall into a fuzzy kind of sleep, rocked by her presence and the darkness.
The sun sends down a hot mean shine as I climb the ladder of my lookout tower. My father has constructed the tower out of metal ladders, which converge on a solid wood base surrounded by a railing. Standing on top, I love looking over the hedges far into the distance. Today, I look at the sky and the trees. I hear a robin’s nest whisper. My mother, who is standing on the ground, calls up to me, “Hold on, for God’s sake. You’ll fall on your face. Stupid, ugly girl.” My legs turn to liquid. I grip the bars tightly to steady myself. The sky becomes an underwater painting through my tears.
When I wolf down Cheerios and milk from my Alice in Wonderland bowl, so I can see the white rabbit at the bottom, she sneers at me. “You’re a little pig, aren’t you?” Tears that burn like soot well up in my eyes; my chest is hot and tight. Since she won’t go away, I crawl into my invisible turtle shell where it is soft and moist and dark and nobody can see in, but I can see out. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see what my mother sees. I want to hide that fat, stupid, ugly little girl away from everyone.
The Ghost of Papa Max
Max is here. Joseph is almost sure of it. His father has been dead for a year, yet his energy fills the air. In his bedroom in Newark, Joseph thinks he can hear a whistle, or is it only the sound of the wind moving the curtains?
His wife Sonia lies next to him. Her body is soft and pliable. A street light outside their window shines on them both, and Joseph imagines caressing his wife the way the light does, touching her shoulder, her left breast, and the curve of her hip. He will take the hairpins out of her bun and let her dark hair fall across his pillow.
An ancient cold slides over the bed. “God damn you!” he says to his father in his heart. “What do you want?”
The air around him is becoming clearer, and he thinks he sees points of light in the darkness. Fingertips are touching his temples. As a cold hand finds the small of his back and lingers there, Joseph can feel his wife’s warm touch over his heart. Her gentle breath calms him as she whispers, “Be hospitable, Joseph; your father is paying us a visit.”