I should explain—if nothing else, explanation is my birthright. You’re reading the only prose of the only child of two nice, proud, broke college profs: Law (international), Philosophy (analytic), both at UC Berkeley. Though I could’ve gone to Berkeley for free, I applied only to Columbia, City College, even NYU, even the New School. I’d always worshipped New York—“the city” meant Manhattan, not San Francisco—thanks to Mom (Law, int’l), who was born and raised here and who’d always mock the Bay Area for being uncultured, or for being too calm, or complacent, or omphaloskeptic, but when Dad would wince not because he was born and raised there, rather because Mom would always get into this fit when mixing local wine and cheese with academic company—who’d brought the wine and cheese and who were very much consumed with “the local”—she’d suddenly stop and say, “except San Jose,” she’d rest her head against Dad’s, “San Jose’s been good to us.”
Dad’s Catholic in the same way Mom’s Jewish—absurdly, denyingly, not. Mom’s face is mine—the same dazed whitefish platter eyes, prune ears, and pickle beak—but so baffled and happy at being so tall atop Dad’s build that though I’m lean, I stoop, I slump, like the state of California. As for my own irreligion, it’s just the way I was raised—spared all that struggle Dad had to endure about how the Merlot turns to blood and the sustainably harvested spelt into flesh, or what Mom had to survive for feminism, radicalism, putting herself through City College, putting a positive spin on her name change.
My parents worried about conversion only as an electrical issue, whether their laptops would work on sabbaticals abroad.
All of which was why I was already nearly finished at Columbia (History, European), before ever meeting Mom’s family. It’s fitting that what brought us together was a funeral. Not a funeral, because Mom with her midterms couldn’t fly out, but a shiva. Her mother had died. Jewish funerals are always held immediately after death—Mom told me when I met her outside the Holiday Inn, Soho (she couldn’t, she wouldn’t, stay in my dorm)—immediately after, unless it’s Shabbos or “a yomtov.” My mother had never spoken to me like that. She clarified by pointing at her lobby, “a yomtov” meant “a holiday.”
The urgency of Jewish burial struck me not as honoring the dead by not leaving them exposed, but as dishonoring the living by inconveniencing their schedules.
In Manhattan, Mom and I paid our respects to her favorite bookstores—or to the sites of her favorite bookstores now closed—Café des Saints Sans-Abri was now a bank, Saigon Bistro was still greasing around, but none of its employees remembered any spicy honey pork thing ever on the menu.
So we went to this Turkish kebaberie nextdoor where Mom insisted we order extra meze only to spite, I’m sure, the quantities of food served at the shiva:
Piles of everything not vegetable or mineral. The only salads were egg and tuna, still in their tubs. Bloodless heaps of coldcuts in waxpaper. Ten commandment loaves of rye. Relatives. A sibling slew. Cousins bounced balls through puddles of diet sodas. The apartment was small, the furniture cheap, bargained me down into resenting my height. I was a skyscraper among children. My mother’s room had been turned into a hoarder’s closet, filthy with buckets and dustpans, comate mops and brooms. Plastic bags stuffed cracks. Even the halls—the peeling floors, the leakstained ceilings—were petty and rude. A new life, an oldie I’d never suspected, just a ride away—on a train I wasn’t familiar with yet, to a bus that Mom didn’t recognize.
In Dad’s family, relations disintegrated—they decomposed—between mournings. In Mom’s, everyone knew everyone—despite that family’s size, rather because of its size, which ensured a constancy of birthing and dying. Dad hardly knew the names of his cousins. Mom’s brothers, my uncles, were married to theirs. Except the eldest, a bachelor, the eldest of I’ve lost count. Sruly. Translation: Yisroel. Translation: Rabbi Israel Zevelsky—but no one called him that.
I registered him only as redfaced, redbearded, razorburned at neck. Ear hair, nose hair, hair. Cloth tie lolling from a crumpled hat. Then there was that other uncle and aunt, one of whom had contacted my mother. Which was the immediate relation, search me. The aunt, who refused to shake my hand, said, “your Bubbe,” the uncle, whose hand was rearranging his genitals, said, “she suffered.” They weren’t quite fluent in what I spoke, they halted, turned to ask Mom about something and she answered them something and then they tried to ask me: about my local shuls, about whether I’d ever met Rabbi—but as for the name they gave, search me. I was impressed by my mother’s Yiddish, by her insistence I keep my scalp uncovered. My grandfather, my Zeyde, had stayed by the same kitchen corner ever since coming to this country. Just before we left Mom went over and, because he was a photograph, he was the only other person to acknowledge her.
Mom flew back the next morning. Some time later the aunt and uncle called and had me over to a Shabbos dinner, which they insisted on evangelizing into a full Shabbos by having me spend the night and when I refused, went to the toilet and flipped a switch, they threw me to the curb. Rather one tossed me out, the other snuck outside and slipped me babka. I came back to the city, tossed it in a trashcan—who brings a babka on a date? but then, guilty, turned and went back and retrieved it—the decisive foil, the clincher.
“You brought dessert,” Sara said, “who are you?”
We split it, after taking home—to her luxe tenement, downtown—the jackpot in disco trivia.
I’d met Sara in the library stacks earlier that term—we’d both been studying late, but I’d been studying her. We had a lot in common—after graduation, we’d both be taking time not strictly off. She, who’d done English (American), would write poetry. I was pondering going to Kosovo, that next spring, as a research assistant to a professor friend and colleague of my parents (L.O. Shanker, author of Soviet countereconomies as models for future global catallaxy: markets white, black, & gray)—helping out with a survey he was conducting on the financial consequences of preservation v. reconstruction of the damage done by the Yugoslav Wars. I was supposed to file gradschool applications, for the following fall, before I left. Before I filed, I was supposed to decide between repeating history or econ.
As my parents had their own commencements to attend, Sara met them only toward the middle of summer, when they both came out for a conference. They took us to modern dance. We all got along so well that even the coffee or tea, postdance, was mutual.
Once we were seated I told my parents about my Shabbos with Yudy and Rivkah—omitting nothing of the experience, from briquette roast to stewy fruit, except the circumstances of my ouster and the dessert that was served alfresco—but Mom just got fidgety and said that when Yudy had called it was only to inquire about one of my grandmother’s brooches, which was missing. She’d yelled, she said, Dad’d had to pry the phone away from her.
I asked Mom if she’d stolen any jewels, but she was digging her bit cuticles into Dad, either because he’d given out my number or as a prod—to answer for her.
Dad, imperturbable, said, “your grandmother’s jewel is immaterial—Rivkah called to get in touch.”
The subject changed. I told them that regardless of changing subjects, I’d just moved in with Sara. I wouldn’t have time to audit Kosovo—I had a relationship to foster. Mom retreated to the bathroom, returned having already paid the check.
Sara and I lived downtown. I worked as a waiter, worked on my languages with the cooks. I was also contemplating opening, with a Panamanian chef I’d met, an ecohospitality consultancy. Sara wrote. Elegies, rondeaux. Just when my parents went back to school, a bent postcard arrived—“The Clock Tower, National Landmark, Pristina, Kosovo”—Shanker assuring me that it wasn’t too late (technically, it was). It’d been crushed in the mailbox between cumbersome folders, PhD. applications (none of which I’d requested).
One binder, though, was for Sara.
She’d won a poetry prize. A prize so significant that instead of cash, it offered a two week residency in Paris.
Sara was adamant about going alone, having time to devote to her manuscript. But a one month fellowship in Munich followed, which led to an ambiguous stipendium, Xmas in Berlin.
Meanwhile I served amuse gueules on Wall Street, slacked around the apartment. When I had off, I hardly left. But then the New Year came and went, without the subsidy from Great Neck. Her parents’ half of the rent—it was late, not yet received, not yet sent.
I emailed Sara my regular update and only at the close of it, after the requisite attempt to solicit jerkoff pics or even vids, asked about the money. She answered that she’d met a, or the, vicedirector of EU public relations. In Berlin. Though he came from Rome. He was Roman. She was writing, she wrote, from Trastevere, Piazza Santa Maria—the text linked to its location on a map. The email concluded with another link, to a blogpost about a reading she’d done—“un promettente poetessa ebrea”—no mention of the missing check.
I got depressed, stopped showing up for work, got fired, got roommates, got into fights with roommates and kicked them out, got into fights with my landlord over a postmark, the fee he charged for my bouncing a check, was kicked out myself and moved to Brooklyn.
To a single room spinning dizzily atop a sixfloor walkup, rented from the Jeffs—a home improvements cooperative couple, two gay guys too into experimenting with mallets.
Sara never responded to the letters I wrote, actual letters on actual paper she’d recognize from her notebooks left behind, pretentiously deckled, speckled with palm frond and nibs of reeds. I made sure to write on the envelopes—remnants of her bat mitzvah stationery—my new addy in scarring slashes. I’d taken all her clothes with me too, stuff she didn’t wear anymore, a totally serviceable hoody coat she considered too puffy for her curves, her ritzy Hebrew school varsity tracksuit. A box of incense sticks, our sex candle.
It was the end of winter. A thick quilt of snow bundled the asphalt. I’d just started tending the least fashionable bar in the neighborhood, O’Nan’s. Clean the taps, change the kegs, sprinkle sawdust so no one falls. Serve through to last call, which I called, alone, to the jukebox. It’d been a major blizzard. A whitewash. A tumult of whites. Drifts packed hard, inseparable, sooted. I hadn’t served a drink since midnight. The rest of the city had already been cleared, was thawing into motion. The gentrifiers still hadn’t been freed.
Just as I was about to shutter the morning, face the choice of weathering either the Jeffs—who’d just have woken to have sex or assemble shelving—or every assistant manager of every café who wouldn’t let me sleep between reloads of cocktail tutorials on my laptop, my pillow—the doors swung, a jacket unbuttoning. Black stumbled from blackness. He hitched his pants, drained cuffs.
It was always tough to tell who was a regular, who wasn’t. Not least because of the costumes, the disguises. The later the shift, the more likely they were to be there, and the more of them there were—a tribe camped out back atop the barrels, in any climate, but not to smoke, just not to be conspicuous. They always came in twos and nursed one drink between them—especially tequila, the only times I ever served tequila—and even if the patio was closed, and in this inclemency it was certainly closed, I wasn’t going to tell them.
But he was on his own—already drunk, curlstrangled, tails out and pleats agape. He was harried, not as drenched as I’d initially thought but sweating, drenched and sweating.
He asked, “do you mind I charge my phone?”
“It’s an honor,” I said, “my outlets are all yours,” and he cramped his bottom lip, toggled glasses, wasn’t recognizing anything.
His phone was older than I was, his pockets bulged with chargers. Some exotically plugged, some foreignly adapted, wires gunky, knotted, flayed.
He finally found one that fit, turned on the phone, leaned against the bar to study—wavering—his battery’s refreshment. I poured him a water. He ignored the water. I thought he might pass out.
I asked, “so how are Yudy and Rivkah?”
He flinched, froze, and stayed frozen even through his phone blustering with voicemail. The reclaimed jugs shook from their hooks above the benches. A plow roared by outside.
“That’s not my mother’s name.”
The plow had passed, the msg squall had passed and all was still again.
He just took his phone and turned, checked what he had at the maximum distance of the charge, as if straining at a leash.
I folded with the rags.
But then suddenly Sruly turned again and snuck a breath, “so what plans you have tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow”—six months ago now—Sruly wanted to come pick me up but since I didn’t want him to know where I lived, knowing how close we had to live, with only a freshly planted organic grocery or a block of warehouses/factories turned installationist studios/DJ rehearsal halls between us, I suggested Atlantic Avenue and he agreed—but only to its terminus, the permafrost gird, the onramps.
But when a beaten crummy magnetic gray Nissan hacked up, it was my turn not to recognize—a different Sruly was behind the wheel. He’d trimmed his beard— trimmed his chin into a gash—and he wasn’t wearing a suit but shivered, in baggy jeans each leg like an unfurled umbrella, and a plain white T whose short sleeves were long on him, no yarmulke but a black baseball cap for no team or even sport I recognized, the mascot this unidentifiable lycanthrope that might’ve been ferocious had its stitching been intact, counterfeit Nikes.
Two women were jammed in back—Russians.
In the mirrors their faces were opposites, reversals. The one he kept pressing into convo with me—“Jon, Nastya’s a massager,” “Nastya, Jon’s into finance”—was wreckingball demolished. His, the one he’d claimed as his, was booming.
I realized this only once we’d reached Long Island, dereclined our seats to check them out. They were a before and after photo come to life, his—the after—in icepick heels, a crowded highrise of augmentation, breasts and butt lifted, into tits and ass, face stretched back like a trowel spread of budget stucco, mine—before, Nastya—basically unremodeled, no balconies or even fire escapes sticking out of her, rather she was a fire escape, a 2×4. They weren’t even Russians but pretending. Sleep with a Russian, wake with a Central Asian. A Tatar. Mongoloidal. Sheepshawled beneath the heaters. Our banquet sprawled between neon sky, caged bay. Russian fare for Russian girls, nothing could’ve been crasser, the same menu they could’ve gotten at home but here so much better because more expensive and not prepared by their mothers, their grandmothers, the mottled dyejobs and artificial clawers they’d become. His, I suspected that even her makeup was tattooed. Nothing can shock a permanent blush. She had a snake writhed around her neck, or I guessed it was a snake because no hood had been inked yet and any rattle slithered only in her cleavage. Her nose was pierced with a metal femur. Nastya was only mildly retarded.
Sruly’s was a lingerie whisper: letting slip about a motorboat (an Atlantis), a plane (an Eclipse), a property he was considering purchasing, a three bed/two bath on Park with garage nursery down below, sports utility vehicles cloyed with booster seats and toys. When the bill came he shuffled his creditcards under the table, cut, slapped one down and when it came back declined, shrugged, settled the meal in cash. He turned to the Mongols, “let’s go back to my friend’s place” (which I was against, but he put a hand to my cheek, spoke Yiddish).
It was his mother’s place, my grandmother’s—the dead woman’s muumuus clumped like lipstick at the corners, her porcelain inventoried on the floor, strewn with manuals of poker lore, $$$$ for gold and silver brochures, a gasmask bong, digiscale.
Sruly slushed his lady down the hall. Nastya had learned enough English to ask which room was mine. Which room was Mom’s, her closet. I tried a door, cleared sponges off a divan—where she kinked herself and was immediately dreaming.
Once Sruly dropped by O’Nan’s and stayed through to closing only to take me to another bar, bars—go through one door, end up stranded out of town at a Pequot keno parlor, where he treated me even drunker only so as to offer a ride back home—only so he’d find out where home was. He was offended, he claimed, by my proximity. He got to know my shifts, knew when the owners came and went, he was unstoppable—showing up without warning to drop off some packages, or pick up others (for and from the only “frummers”—coreligionists, his—who ever came alone and ordered nothing), packages he’d always inspect as to whether I’d opened them and tampered.
Or to take a crap, shave in the sinks.
Once, when the Jeffs were away working some bespoke cabinetry job up the Hudson, I loaned him the apartment to meet a woman. Afro-Hispano but also, I don’t know, Egyptian. He told me to go to the movies. When I came back she was gone. Sruly sat on the futon demanding to know how to switch the function to regular TV. We ordered a veggie pizza, drank the Jeffs’ craft beer.
Just a hunch, but I checked. He’d had sex, or had abused her, in the Jeffs’ bed. Dry blood pilled the covers.
I huffed it to the laundromat up Bedford.
Another time he stopped in at O’Nan’s and asked me to forget a keg—I could but also couldn’t. Yet another time it was a case of liqs—“which case?” “a mix?” and I obliged him some bottles, clears and browns from the well.
The night after, he stopped by the bar to show his gratitude, but I’d been fired. The morning after that he buzzed me, the wallets had become condolences—a handful of vacuolated multipocketed pleathers not Gucci but Gussi, not Prada but Trada.
He said he had an appointment with some genius from the Technion by way of the Mir Yeshiva who’d come up with some technique, apparently, of building a better tire, so it devolved to me to meet this Greek, a new connection.
“Nothing more basic,” he claimed.
All I had to do was meet this Greek at the intersection of Broadway & Worth—“the Broadway in Manhattan.” He’d have a toothpick in his mouth. But he had a toothpick behind each ear and an unlit cigar in his mouth. An accent more than Grecian. He smirked. Either because the bag I’d traded him was for tallis and tefillin, or because the $600 was patched together from rumpled $10s.
I took the parcel home.
The internet translated provenance, function: “Hunan amphetamine for dieters and students.”
Sruly had been so insistent about meeting me directly after that I’d cancelled a counseling session with alumni affairs. He showed, though, only on what was, or what his excuse turned into, the second day of Purim—the night before I filed unemployment.
Sruly took the parcel, wouldn’t pay what he’d promised because I’d broken in and helped myself. But I hadn’t helped myself. Or I had by being curious, that’s all.
His fingers shook, he lost count, my own counting was distracted by his explaining his scheme to coordinate the homeless bundling recyclables: “even charities pay salaries.”
When I asked how it’d gone with the tires, he denied all knowledge—“pills destroy the mind”—left neurotic about a bet he’d placed on a hockey match he told me to get the score of, he couldn’t bear to face the paper. But when I called Sruly with 6-2/Rangers, it was like he was only humoring my interest.
He said, “from now on, you’ll deal with the Mizrahi”—the Mizrahi was the Greek, it figured—“just restrain yourself next time and you’ll get yours.”
He told me when and where—“I’d go myself but I’m mashgiach by a nursinghome in Whippany.”
As far as I understood it the Mizrahi didn’t sell just the ADHD meds that Sruly marked up for resale to religious families with plenty kids, without insurance, but also opiates, for the chronic pain of lifting kids, of living—tablets dissolving down from Sinai.
Also anything I wanted, especially ecstasy—“the best,” the Mizrahi said, “product of Israel.”
Uppers, downers, me—“let him work with who he think’s a goy,” Sruly said when I returned with the next parcel unopened, “so they don’t get the bad impression.”
Then he counted out my take, in milligrams, didn’t have the rest in cash so went for a machine or to borrow.
I waited—until I was too broke for even a Metrocard and so walked to my grandmother’s apartment, but every building stooped the same. Garbage had piled up. None of the buzzers were labeled so I pressed them all, couldn’t remember which floor, the only open door held a parkingmeter wearing tzitzit, tightywhities. Shalom? Didn’t speak a word. Ethiopian, why should he?
I crept downstairs, got lost in the lobby. I waited for a bus but the line was for a bakery, followed a rumble I was sure was the train. The line wasn’t for a bakery, but for a flatbed truck distributing free matzah—free for everyone but me.
A storm grew. I struck my last match, chainsmoked. Scaffolded posters advertised lectures. There was a Tiki-themed—Nouveau Tiki—establishment midblock. Masks dangled from the awning. A totem, chained to the grate, had been graffitied barbigerous with payos. A skittish trim Hasid pasted at the glass. A buff white bouncer yelled at him to stop. The Hasid yelled. Totems and masks. Paste oozed from the glass. Lectures or obituaries.
Clouds gathered, huddled, a wisp of gray hitched to a noxious smear—Sruly’s Nissan approached, incontinent with oil, towing a smutty trailer.
I crossed the street, knocked at his window—he was so shocked he clutched his neck—I said, “I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t worry,” letting go his choke, “you’ll get your money after this.”
He slogged upstairs, left the Nissan idling.
When he returned, his thumb was swollen with gauze. “I had a minor procedure to deal with.” I hadn’t noticed any bandage before. “You doubt that it’s a sign?”
He drove all the way, though I’m not clear where, it’s been four months since and foggy—Brighton Beach, the Rockaways, shorefront landfill down past where the BQE swerves to avoid a DUI, tightening the Belt Parkway. Sruly found a break in the boards, rattled our hitch straight onto sand. He shut the car down to moonlessness, only the red of the trailer’s reflector and stars, the weather and wake churned as one. Sruly got out, I followed, he got a shovel out of the backseat, handed it to me, scrolled up the trailer’s hatch to troughs, had me shovel sand to the troughs as the wind blew the sand back into my face, openmouthed. I stripped my jacket, sweated the rain, filled the flimsy blowing away in the wind tubs like juvie swimmingpools, as Sruly—staying dry in the driver’s seat—searched my jacket for my pack, lit my last cig with his lighter and smoked and drank from his styrofoam cup what could’ve been anything he spiked with shots from his flask, drank it all and extinguished the cig in the cup left in the holder so as not to leave any traces, had me replenish the deep grave of sand in the sand and turned the car around and had me level the tracks of the tires too and when I collapsed back into the car and he tugged the wheel to pull out and turn again toward the Parkway, reversing our route, he was steering just fine with the thumb and the bandage had unraveled.
But instead of taking the Expressway back we loopdelooped and took the bridge. Staten Island to Jersey was all one olamic span of bridge we rode, like we were hopscotching along the outer rim of a turning but stationary, always semisunken ferriswheel.
As we merged into Jersey, the wipers stabbed, and Sruly ranted: this party we’d be meeting would have more liqs for us at the ready—not whiskey, scotch—not vodka, gin—every shelf the topshelf, filled to the top with more cigs too, full cartons, a club with nonstop grinding, he diddled the radio, WFME FM, “Where Faith Means Everything,” we’d be put up at this inn, which supplied its own females, had a shvitz and Olympic pool, each room equipped with cable with all the premium channels, the basketballs and footballs, the pornos.
But the Hunan had worn off by the time we’d pulled into this damp moldsplotched fallapart motorlodge squeezed like a fart between a condemned multiplex and a Szechuan buffet/affordable bankruptcy stripmall and the party who was supposed to have received us had to be woken by both our phones and was cursing and meanly pissing in his own vacant lot even as he bargained for a fairer shake, “isn’t that what you people do?”
I unloaded the troughs as Sruly insisted, “I never agreed to installing nothing”—which meant I had to empty them too, shoveling their contents into the yawning sandboxes in the playground out back between the minigolf course bereft with only a bulbless lighthouse obstacle and a spalled tennis court without net. I bled for my percentage, while the lodge manager and Sruly himself, thumb totally unbandaged, unloaded the rest of the trailer, the uprooted minuscule trees packed in burlap and flower flats hastily spaded sprinkling enough soil toward the lobby to irk the manager into saying, “forget it”—his wife would deal with replantation whenever she woke up.
He handed a cashwad to Sruly who handed me just enough to cover his debt and though when I balked he gave me a taste of his cut too he grumbled in Yiddish throughout the drive back, stopping only in Middlesex County, once proposing to split the fuel (I refused), once again to ditch the trailer by a major transit hub from which he let me find my own way home (without expenses), “I have a noon horse situation by the Meadowlands,” “Pesach is tonight.”
Forbidden marriages (but Sruly specialized in divorces), supervising kashrut (the mashgiach gig), mikvah drainage (clogs), tourist excursions to local sites of Jewish interest (East Side Pastrami Pilgrimage/Financial District Twofer), sports betting in the Diamond District, ticket resale, wheelchair rehab, selling used children’s shoes, the hydrocodone, the speed, reblocking hats, recycling sheytls (sourcing “the finest Hindu hair”)—this was—all of it—Sruly’s “rabbinate.”
Rather that’s all of it I was aware of, until he rattled his way into my apartment (must’ve copied my key), sat down on the futon all fevered pale and skeletal. A tremor at his mouth. Rashy apple straining prominent at throat. This was Friday, middle of Friday.
The problem—but the least immediate of his problems—was the presence of my roomies. To Sruly they were just—how do you say “homos,” or worse, the worst, in Yiddish? Feygetz?
Sruly said, “I wish you spoke at least a bisel Yiddish.”
His lenses were greasy, the nosepiece, the earpieces, smeared with a preservative or something exuded, some unctuous crust of wax or thickened hardened sebum. He smelled of menthol, pesachovka, gas. His suit like the uniform issued by whatever city agency was tasked with promoting stains. His shirt still bleachy in patches, but the rest the color of the dead leaf hankying a pocket.
The Jeffs might as well have been naked. They sat on the floor, barelegged in short shorts, arms and chests venous pumped in clinging beaters, playing their WWII sniper game until the heaviness—Sruly so light and spiny, but also so fashionwise and existentially heavy—weighed, caused them to pause their progress and go to their room, shut the door, lock, which was when he said, “I’ll tell you the difference between Israel and the Arabs.”
Apparently Israel—the state, the country, not the biblical or just poetic conceptions—maintained this special squad, “not police, not military, not the paramedics either, just special,” Sruly said, though when I asked, he couldn’t recall what they were called, he couldn’t even tell me whether it was a unit you volunteered for or were assigned.
Anyway, whenever there was terrorism—“a suicidebombing,” a term I’ve always understood as pertaining to both the suicide of the bomber, and the suicide of the victims through the politics that provoked the incident that the victims themselves voted into place—anyway, whenever there was a bombing, they were there.
Not immediately. Their work didn’t deal in immediacy.
Only after the medics had rushed in and saved lives, only after they’d administered emergency care like cannulating the hemorrhages and performing tourniquet triage, after they’d picked up the larger chunks still discernible as human, the hunky arms and legs elevated reaches beyond the longest strongest limb of any species but still salvageable for reattachment, the gutparts that might be sewn back in too with just a bit of expert plumbing and electrical advice—“after they’d evacuated all the big things and had sucked like how a vacuum sucks up all the blood,” but before the military or police had finished checking that no strange second van was rigged to blow, before the scene had finally been cleared for the press—“it’s a miracle they come in like this and never once they’ve been caught in a second explosion”—only then did this unit go to work.
They searched. Archaeologists in full bodyarmor.
“They got on their knees and ladders” and with razors and whisks and gnarly old girlfriend’s toothbrushes, hairbrushes and combs—no crazier than what Sruly mentioned: totally classified, totally proprietary, Semitically engineered genetically sensitive technologies—scraped up all the scraps, every last shred of every body.
Even the smallest frag of thumbnail (Sruly demonstrated his thumb, touched it a breath away from forefinger), even the tiniest gnaw of nail or inconsequentially loosened tooth—“the hair from the upsherin,” “the orlah from the bris”—was gathered up, bagged and tagged for proper burial. There were prayers for each, not prayers but mysterium, sackcloth keens and lamentations. To Jews, it seems, each and every phalange is holy. Every chip of bone is sacred “to us”—Sruly said “to us”—and so must be covered over as repentance.
But as repentance for what? for having once been alive?
“According to our tradition,” Sruly said “our tradition.”
“Even before Israel, even in exile—we Jews have always buried everything,” and though he almost certainly meant only physical interments—not any mental or emotional or psychological interment of “our” phobias, “our” pathologies—his trembling betrayed him, made me feel as if I were the uncle, the headshrinker, the reb.
He couldn’t be still. Tapped his feet between the tickings of his watch, a digital that ticked. He picked up the only book on the trestle—Sara’s debut collection, scattered with ground speed—cracked it as if to read. Told me that even books—“not secular dreck like this, of course,” but the holier scribing, the sacred texts, all Torah scrolls and Talmud volumes, all papers, parchments, and shards of clay that contain God’s name—have to be buried too. The words themselves become humanized by the burial—revealed as mere vehicle, as vessel—wound up in just a sheet. “Commandments”: “Mitzvot.”
The belief was that everything so hallowed had to be covered by the earth, only so that in the next world—which was neither heaven nor hell but disappointingly just this world once redeemed by the messiah—it might be perfectly returned. Stitched together, glued. Salvation was conditional, but strictly anatomically. Resurrection would be a bummer if you had to be a quadriplegic, again, eternally, only because your limbs had been junked and not inhumed.
This belief was connected to why, among the orthodox, even plastics, elective surgeries, were verboten, “ditto goes for tattoos like Hitler gave us,” “ditto for piercings as the lesbos.”
The body must not be altered by anything but death. This preserves the separateness, the rarefaction, of death.
“Many in this community have circulation troubles.” The blood, moving around since its eviction from Eden, was exhausted.
“Many diabetics too.” A lot of old people, in communities charged with honoring their old, with gangrene from infections. From being homebound, bedbound—neglect.
It followed, then, that amputations were common.
When these more observant Jews went to a small congregation of less observant doctors and had themselves dissevered, Sruly got the severances, the extremities, the limbs. He was charged with their interment. This hadn’t happened often.
“Maybe a dozen times.” “Maybe twenty.”
Patients paid extra for this service. Medicare/Medicaid didn’t cover. It wasn’t even covered by a regular cemetery purchase of a regular cemetery plot for when the rest of them expired. Rather the cemeteries charged an extortionate $4K, with the contracting rabbi free to lay his fee atop, like a pebble atop a grave.
What made this “criminal,” according to Sruly, was that according to Jewish law—always practically impractical—these limbs, along with all the other biowaste rejectamenta, didn’t have to be buried in the same grave as their people would be, and, indeed, due to hassles both legal and logistic, cemeteries didn’t even offer that option. Instead they kept a separate area, traditionally far in the back by the hearse traverse and toolsheds—a mass mound of septic appendage, osteomyelitic rupture, malignant resections of colon and lung, splenetic deficiency, traumafrosted schnozz, glossectomies.
“At least maintenance keeps it raked.”
Sruly undercut the market, charging $2K, $2.5K if he suspected the out of pockets deep enough, and the doctors referred to him because unlike the competing rebbes who only kicked back 10 percent, Sruly kicked back half. The docs didn’t ask any questions, the patients asked the questions. Sruly thought the docs knew, but was sure the patients didn’t know, that the cemeteries never got their fees, because they never got the members. Sruly had never buried. He’d have sooner become a surgeon and sliced himself, sooner become the lawyer he’d have to retain—if he’d be spared—he’d just never had the time.
“That’s what business is—cutting out the middleman.”
The limbs were shrouded in the Post, shoved into trashbags weighted with gravel, dumped to the canal, the bottomless Gowanus.
“A huge guy, an enormous guy, we’re talking,” Surly was talking. “But I didn’t know this then. If I knew then who I wouldn’t have done it. A heartattack, this shtarker.
“Here I am thinking it’s like every other patient—guy can’t breathe, can’t walk or talk or shtup around, goes to the doctor like in the joke, but Levi’s not a laugher.
“So everything’s all set, the forms are signed, there’s cash in hand, but then just a breath before he’s gassed, the guy remembers he’s a frummer. A Chabadnik. But before, or at the same time, Breslov. He’s switched so much, I’d be surprised if even he kept track.
“With him yelling that his flab should be buried by the ritual, Levi leaves in charge the anesthesiologist—Aba he’s called who he’s Bangladesh, Abanindra, Abadindra, abracadabra, it only matters he’s no Arab but like the people who grow good hair—calls me can I help, tells me what I’m telling. Nothing more.
“Says it’s just routine, your average forty pound lipectomy. Not one session. Multiple sessions. Not outpatient. In.
“Says Maimonides, tomorrow. This was yesterday—which means today’s tomorrow.
“So this morning I drive down to Borough Park, don’t even get a word with Levi, no chance either to get the patient’s name, to say nothing of his father’s name, which is what you have to insert when you say a misheberach. I call the number Levi gave and a moment later Aba’s coming out the service door on Tenth with two of the big yellow silky bags that they have on them the biohazard warning, which I have him because of my back put them in the trunk.
“Heavy. Even they smell heavy.
“Aba says, ‘Dr. Levi requests you visit his office for the check anytime next week.’ Though I know, though Aba might not know, he meant come on Levi’s lunchbreak for the cash.
“So I figure if I’m in the neighborhood I’ll make my rounds, take orders—Shimmele’s shingles, Ruchele’s rheumatoid arthritis, parents tearing each other apart because their bocher plays too hyper and can’t study and when finally I get out of Borough Park, it stinks. It’s hot and reeks like only your poetry shikse can describe. I’m not sure if it’s because fat smells worse than any flesh I’ve done or because the large amount. Or because him. Let’s say him.
“But I’m supposed to be by Yudy and Rivkah’s for Shabbos and what’s worse is I realize even without Shabbos I’m not going to make it to when it’s dark enough tonight, let alone through it all to motzei when it’s emptiest out by Centre and Smith past the gravelyard from where I take between the aggregate and readymix to sink it.
“That’s how bad the stench.
“So I drive out to Marine Park that once I did with a crippled toe but it was too exposed and bright before trying out farther by the looparound to Fountain Ave where the sanitation facility’s been stalled but also all this Spanish partying with kites.
“Then I remember and make the call and take Nassau to the Van Wyck to 95, cutting across to the Thruway where I have backroads to take from there. Driving the speedlimit so as not to get caught with my pants down with all that glatt lard in the trunk.
“I do this beautiful maneuver turning from Route 6 to 208 but left at the first split, right at the second to Round Hill Road, where to park and find the creek, where the Hasidim keep their burner. An incinerator, but like a barrel, better not to wonder. To keep away the county, they torch their trash themselves, and bribe to stay approved. The Catskill Mountains, gorgeous, but I’m racing on the clock.
“When Satmars round, it’s always up, $42 to burn both bags, $1/lb., they’re sticklers. But since they didn’t care what burned, I didn’t ask no breaks. Bag goes down the chute, fat flares up, next bag follows, flares up too, just a whiff of sour scent, that’s it or I’m imagining.
“It’s back in the car I say the prayer. Even when it’s the Gowanus with Page 6, I always say a kaddish.
“I’m heading back and gaining time with the radio Rush Limbaugh when the phone rings and it’s a woman but in Yiddish, ‘excuse me but what time is the funeral?’
“I say, ‘excuse me, woman, you must have the wrong number,’ but she says, ‘but you are the rabbi of Dr. Levi?’ which is when, just when she says that, I hit traffic on 95.
“ ‘Such things are done in private,’ I say, though I’m beating myself now I didn’t say I buried him already.
“‘My husband has asked my witness to ensure it is appropriate,’ and what can I say but that I’ll call back with the details.
“My options I’m crawling through the Bronx, until at the toll to the Triborough my phone rings again another strange (718), which I don’t pick up. The voicemail again I’ll interpret, ‘this is Aharon Messer, calling hoping to transact with you directly—with you and not the doctor—for the funeral of my brother.’ ”
And it was then that Sruly sat bolt, close, tensed his face and said, “Aharon Messer, brother of Moshe.”
I stood to avoid his seethe, touched my body to make sure I still had it, said, “tell me, is there a special kaddish you say for weightloss just by exercise and diet?”
Sruly sneered, “who are you to judge? what can be the wisdom of California’s Greater Bay?”
“It’s a sin,” I said.
His speech became a rustle:
“There are some in the mortuary racket who they sell the same plot twice—without exhumation, with exhumation, you decide what’s worse—some even in the Persian parlors sell the organs of the dead for transplant—to their own, to Bukharans. Now to drown a limb’s illegal by Albany, but not by Jewish law forbidden. Not even by law, by custom, which says only the loss must be submerged. Surrounded. Not to be left exposed. It’s exposure that’s the sin.”
“That might be true, but still it’s fraud—you take advantage.”
But Sruly had gone glassy, windshield cracked, “no one’s ever asked to come along.”
“Most of the patients are too busy recovering, I’d think, and most families aren’t so crazy as to leave their loved one’s bedside to cry through a service in memory of fat.”
He flipped a quarter, forgot to catch, its rim stuck between the floorboards—“but this is Messer we’re talking.”
“Realestate, the flipper, two years for tax evasion, two years on a scam of Section 8, but consecutive. When Mosh got out he got his legs smashed in a fall, gained back double the weight he’d dropped in prison. The Sigheters who’d opened the window and nudged him no one’s heard from in a while—sound familiar?”
“It shouldn’t—Mosh doesn’t like drugs but for the shvartzers, which is why you deal with the Mizrahi.”
“So I’m supposed to believe this is my problem too—is that what you expect?”
Sruly struggled to stand, dug in his jacket and handed me, not my doorkey but his carkeys.
“I expect you to find some fat,” he shredded a page from Sara’s book, “I’ll go out and find some cemetery.”
He jotted until the pen gave out and then with a stubby pencil to keep score with.
“We’ll bury his stomach on Shabbos by the goyim.”
So I drove into the city to try all the Manhattan docs who though they’d have more volume would also have more scruples or just demand a higher price—though Sruly could spare only $40, rather I could spare only that once the machine at my deli swallowed his card but allowed me an advance. But none of the docs were in their offices on Fridays and no, no—I wouldn’t like to make an appointment.
So, making sense not geographically but in terms of likelihood, I moved on to the Long Islanders, none of whom would sell.
One, a Dr. Kahn, didn’t buy my college chemistry or biology experiment line, and threatened, if I didn’t leave his waitingroom immediately, to report me as a Nazi.
I’d been considering trying one last plastics clinic just off the Jericho Turnpike, when I checked the time and steered myself against the traffic, into Queens.
The last two docs in Queens—whose info Sruly had scrawled beneath a sonnet about marketing for produce at the Campo dei Fiori—weren’t in their offices and their services weren’t picking up either, or else they did haven’t any services better than what I was to Sruly and anyway their office signs, though appropriately suspect, weren’t as indicative of surgery (reconstructive/cosmetic), as much as of a general incompetence: pandering kooky kabbalistic permutations of MD, DO, DChiro, DipOsteo, DHomeo, DNat.
Nothing left but to turn for home—to Brooklyn.
Bellies hurried past. Stomachs, guts. Gastrointestinal paunchpouch tumms. Men whose nipples to knees had inflated into roundnesses, bigwheels rolling down Lee Street, Flushing, Union, Broadway, sparetires rolling down the middles of streets.
I steered the Nissan between their turnings, up Bedford and away from the rubbernecking grief that always greets late driving on a Friday—the welcoming of Shabbos.
Last Sruly checked in was just before the sun turned to red lights across the boroughs. The connection crapped loud with shrieks and honks, Aramaic static—Yudy and Rivkah’s zoned into a traffic island, tragic site of a ten child pileup.
“I’m shutting down,” he said, “we’ll talk again with stars.”
I burst into my apartment to find taped to my door a crossed out villanelle about a visit to Wannsee, beneath which the Jeffs had written they were giving up the lease.
I had until later than Sunday, but no later than September 1, which date was circled. It was circled twice.
By then they’d be settled just nextdoor. Or in the Adirondacks.
I snuffed some grains from the remains of Sara’s book. The back bio didn’t describe her, the name on the front wasn’t hers. Whitepink streaks across the covers, sepia snapshot of—Warsaw? the desiccated summer square of some bariatric Hungarian ghetto?
I checked my email. Didn’t know Sruly had my addy. He’d sent links to Daily News blurbs re: Messer. NYCHA sounded Slavo-Yiddish, meaning “nothing,” but also the New York City Housing Authority. Racial Tensions Rise, Elevators plummet. Exterminators were poisoning the corridors. Blessed are You, slumlord our God, King of the voting bloc, delivering new condos and district attorneys.
Lately the brothers Messer had been pimping to my demographic, or the demo I’d been bumped from. The hipsterim, the artistn. Those vitreous gymed monstrosities across Metropolitan were theirs. The management was South African, to be persnickety. Aharon had an interest, Moshe had the unions.
Shabbos was melting so I went for a window, searched “fat,” but all I found beyond no carbs and ab regimes was fetish—BBW plumper porn, double entry enteral feeding, ganghog immobilization—and the checkout of this company, Cell-u-tions™, which though they offered to sell me samples of human adipose tissue (“source: subcutaneous, female, storage: -20º C”), were licensed to sell only 10 grams max/customer, guaranteeing delivery in only two weeks to a month (restrictions apply), not that any of this mattered after I searched their reputation and found, no surprise, they’d fleeced a lab or two in Canada.
I went on to “how to make fat,” “synthesizing fat,” realizing—how do I put it? how Jewish it was? that something people wanted to get rid of, was something so difficult to get rid of, but also every bit as difficult for the people who needed it to get.
According to an f/x site, the propfat used in cinema “was predominantly vinyl plastic.” Unlimited wedges were available and though their purveyors were more legitimate, they were also more expensive than anything illegitimate, and not even overnight delivery would help—already it was morning. Onscreen, pixel cells a creepy mucus yellow. It was a famous director’s recommendation. Or the recommendation of a celebrated collaborator. So straightahead, a cinch. These were Jews with brains. I called up a clip of a scene in which they’d used it. The animal variety. Squirming vellum hue. Parchment trapped in sap becoming amber. Crashed.
I went out with Sara’s duffel—unreinforced, casterless, too destyled and yellow for Europe—twitched to where I’d left the car, with the intention of hitting every shop that retailed as unclean (though all were treyf if slaughtering on Shabbos). But every butcher gave the same—“not happening”—some getting nosey, others abusive, even after I explained it was for a special recipe stock that had to be simmering already at a soup kitchen for the troops—“you want forty pounds? you sure it’s pounds?” wiping their mouths—“fat don’t come like that,” “fat don’t cut like that,” then reciting all their discounts.
The farther out in Brooklyn, the more Italian, or Italianate, the butchers became, bulking swarths with bigger swaths of knife to better get across their gestures—men who took so much offense at my request that I was in danger of turning into an animal myself—a predator stalking out past the tinkle only to chime back in again not with a knife but with the biggest gun Sruly would be able to procure, to rob them of what they’d anyway trash out.
I smuggled the duffel across the border to Halalistan, where I sought refuge with this militantly formal but compassionate eunuchary baldy whose dignity kept me waiting while he finished his taslim. The door, plastered with calendars of Mecca, faced Mecca. He stood and rolled the rug, held it inadvertently crude between his legs to fix his hairnet. He was just expanding into lunches—stuffing me with menus, corporate accounts accepted, catering no minimum.
When I told him what I was after, he bowed behind the carwash flaps, returned with a napkin wrapping a lone indigestible cube like a supersized gambling die carved out of transparent marble.
“From a goat that is attending a wedding in Connecticut,” he said, “introductory offer is free.”
I couldn’t resist taking a water from the cooler, he broke my bank to $38, gave me change with firm salaams.
I stowed the fat lonely and lost at the tip of all that duffel drooped from the seatlip like a discarded prophylactic.
The sky sweltered under a messy pelt of smog. The streets narrowed, pinched, were blocked. They didn’t connect, or crossed themselves. The addy of the lamb wholesaler I’d found online and scribbled across my wrist turned out to be the addy of a craniofacial aesthetician I’d already visited, who hadn’t been around, whose nurse had worn a pin that encouraged, “ask me about vitiligo.”
I was still clicking for a turn I hadn’t taken since Flatbush, but it was only when a cab flashed its brights that I noticed the darkness. That and my phone had been ringing. Shabbos had ended. But I ignored Sruly’s call. When I rested wasn’t up to him or God.
I needed to shower, to shower my insides in bottledwater. I wondered what the Koreans would charge for a massage that would snap my bones, finish with a handjob.
A funk wafted up from the back. But if I’d crack the windows I’d leak too. The traffic slowed. An accident ahead. The sewers howled. Blood sloshed past the ribs of the gutters. Traffic stopped.
Sruly’s voicemail mentioned having spoken to a Yahaly who rented cranes, a Krank who served as gabbai, or a cranky guy named Gavi—whichever, any word from him was writ: Messer was in and out, touch and go, his cardio was weak.
As if it’d slipped his mind, Sruly said, “our interment’s at Montefiore, Queens, 128th Street, 6PM”—which was a rear gate just after the cemetery closed.
There wasn’t any accident, but a blackout—towers bricked in silence—and the workers had to close the road if this block that hadn’t wanted electricity just earlier would want anything later on that wasn’t stars. There must’ve been stars. The workers wore skulls on their heads, blue and white but lacking features. Their equipment—greedy pincers, iridescent urns leaching innards, lipidinous cabling and cords, municipal viscera—was expeditionary, invasive. Their flags waved claim to intersections, detoured me to Bedford.
A grating was raised. I wouldn’t have picked it out but for the candle.
A braid smoldered amid the display, its shine reflected by the plastic of a placard from the Department of Health, an “A” grade hung upsidedown.
I couldn’t find parking, the cars were dug in, drowsed. On the sixth day God found a space, stayed put through the seventh.
I doubleparked against a hydrant, hazards on, opened the glovebox, and all of Sruly’s yarmulkes, black holes, voids salted through with dandruff—plus a defroster/scraper, maps to Quebec, two phone batteries, and a syringe whose needle had been dulled wadded in bubblegum—spilled. I trepanned myself with a blackie, stumbled through the door.
The place was abandoned but for a bustle in the back.
I stayed by the candle, the toppled “A,” and mocked an accent, “can I have, please, just a moment of your time?”
A croak came back, “we’re shut.”
I broke the candle off the top of the register. Its flame roasted, broiled, blazed the way. Cholent drip across the registerbuttons, ragged gristlestrips across the slicers, flecks of flanken on the walls, kishka rinds on, or were, the linoleum.
Toward the rear, slopped suitcases, steeped in dampness, stacked alongside an even vaster case, a vatlike unhandled accessory capacious enough for an inconvenient lifetime of fleeing alimony, creditors and corpses, its lid propped by an overflow, an overload—a wobblingly gelatinous, but kosherly so, clear slurry.
“You have, please, a moment—it’s a mitzvah in an emergency?”
A dim clunk of frozen metal. A sigh. A krechts. A grindy cutlet spread out behind the counter.
The butcher, even sawed by the counter, was utter midsection. He was all middle and nothing but the middle, his eyes and mouth sunk into a navel, the beard around it continuous with brows. He could’ve fit a wife, crammed a pregnant wife, inside him. His hairy sausage hands held another suitcase, drained it in the sink.
It wasn’t fat. It was ice.
He was trying to salvage his meatlocker.
The navel bit itself, squinted, “I told you twice I don’t need no generator.”
I flickered toward the door.
“Or are you wanting to buy some tongue?”
He jiggled near.
“Or how about some steaks if you’re interested?”
There was just a flame between us.
“Nothing’s close to spoiling—just tell me how large your family and how large your freezer/fridge.”
Whatever I responded was lost in the blast—all of life fluoresced, the airconditioner rattled, spewed, the store flashed, gleamed with grime, the Health Department placard slipped from its tape to become the doormat behind me, the wick was ashy, snuffed.
The innie grinned to outtie, “I almost gave away the store.”
He turned, took a boiled soft and soiled apron off a hook, didn’t tie it on, only checked the pouch, came out with a lotto scratcher, scratched, “we all should have such luck.”
I laid the candle on the counter, said I’d come for fat.
I said all the fat he had.
But the navel picked a hair from his smile, “you didn’t have a Jewish education.”
I clapped my yarmulke, as if to nail myself to the floor.
“Tell me—maybe you weren’t raised by Jews? maybe you weren’t even born?”
My only reply was a gloss on what I’d once told Sara, “you can’t confuse my soul—I’m just trying to show respect.”
But the navel yawned, “I should care so much about a yarmulke?”
That bid had failed before.
Once, after Sara’s parents had treated us to a Broadway play, they’d asked, if Sara and I would marry, if we’d raise our children Jewish. Sara had snapped, I’d tried to smooth, “we’d impart the values, certainly, and as for us doing the holidays together, it’d be a pleasure”—but their feud lasted most of the stroll to the garage and even when Sara and I were left alone, the rage continued, redoubled.
“Wrong answer,” she yelled—she could never love a man who lacked “spiritual integrity.”
Only Europe could’ve ended that fight. She had the last word in her poems.
Sunday I put on my commencement suit, tugged yarmulke like a foreskin out of yesterday’s jeans, ground and snorted a couple of the Hunan ups on my sill—the trestle was gone, the futon about to follow.
I wended around it, two movers schmoozing Creole at the landing. I went to the Nissan, to where I was sure I’d left the Nissan—next block, rather around the block, wandering as if following a scent to where I’d been ticketed for screening a driveway despite the weekend (the weekend the only reason I hadn’t been towed).
The odor came off the car its color, or finish, a neverwashed rusty greengray sporeishness under peeling scales of guano, scuffed bumpersticker: “CLERGY.”
I held nose, closed mouth, downed the windows, dialed for air—Sunday was a scorcher.
A wet soapy rot foamed up from the back, the yellow duff with that fat Arab nug inside, beating, breathing.
I had the impulse to curb the bag, but didn’t, in the event the butcher didn’t provide an appropriate, or even any, receptacle.
But the butcher’s was closed.
Loadingonlying out front—leaving the door splayed, change oil flickering, the tank hungrier than I’d ever be again—I stomped the shadeless sidewalk trying to keep clear of the strollers.
They were larger than the car—strolls ten, even a dozen spastic brats across, being nudged ahead by women frizzywigged in the humidity, their skirts like patched prolapses draggling behind them, lame tails dusting at the crosswalks. Whenever they’d get tired of pushing, or their babies of being pushed, they’d switch.
I stationed myself just outside the shop, slammed.
I tried to call the number decaled on the door, its last two digits grated, obscured.
6985 was nothing, 6986 a language like Scandinavian.
My slamming called a man across the street, his waist the size of the street. I was hoping he was the alternate, a butcher substitute but tardy, though the store he’d squeezed out of was hardware and he was carrying what appeared to be a molten glowing surgical clamp—a bicycle pump, a car jack.
The Hasid shimmied toward me sideways like an obese and gouty crustacean. Pimplepocked and horned.
He didn’t even bother with the Yiddish, or with anything, just waved the jack above the wailing babies.
“Hold up,” I said, and he huffed on slower, gasped.
“That’s it,” I said, “let’s talk this out,” but the slowing was only ailing, heaving, and the women gave him berth, and the jack was blessingwise upraised.
I was back in the car and flubbing keys when he careened into the trunk, collapsing the trunk with that screwy fist, holding the jack by its crank and gashing repeatedly.
I could’ve backedover to dent his tasseled loafers. (I could’ve waited to give that butcher my $38.)
I snipped the corner, blew the light, turned again and spotted the alley.
A fence prevented access, its links furred in ersatz wilting green.
I reversed toward the driveway, sticking out, ajar. I went up to the fence, pressed my face against the chains. The same limply arboreal polyester pelage on the other side would screen. Beyond it, the hardware Hasid slurped and groped a knee, patrolled his pulse.
I went back to the car, got the duff, hurled it over the fence, clambered up behind it. Snared my cuffs, tore them. Jumped atop a dumpster, down. I tugged it open, hollow. Twisted lids off to a camouflage of flies. Tilted at the cans.
I went at them like a grafty pro, like I’d reassemble and animate their offal—the organs, glands, muscles, tendons, all the junk I couldn’t have recognized healthy and intact, sinews twining it together. Festered heads of I couldn’t say which poultry. Two hooves, or only one but cloven, the cleavage clogged with maggots.
It was both too much and not enough—the trash must’ve just been taken in or taken out. Or more was in the other dumpster, padlocked against strays, the looting cardboard box crowd.
The lower floors of the cans—the lowest layers, lymphy clotted strata—wouldn’t give. Slop was charsealed to the sides.
I used my hands and loosened. Vomited and scooped that too—donated my own vitals to the cause.
I hurled the duff, but it snagged on a prong, slit pitiful. I turned. The Hasid was gone. A siren scurried past.
I climbed behind the duff, jimmied it free, dropped it down and jumped away. Ripped a button, two. Wiped my hands on the rearview, streaked it with gore before wiping it clean. Wiped my hands on the “upholstery.” Wiped the “upholstery.”
The bagstench was hellacious, even doing 60, doing 80, passing to ventilate the lanes—the fume felling cyclists, withering the weeds.
I was already late stopping by my apartment—the duff had turned, bruised brown. Its slit, at belly, seeped raw along the seat seams. No Creole and no Jeffs. No soap in the bathroom. They’d taken the toiletpaper too. But they hadn’t touched my bed.
I stripped its only covering, a sheet. Its head still fitted, foot all thrashed. Unraveled, inelasticized, flat.
Anti-anti-trendy Ts, unflattering jeans that’d fitted too uncomfortably between ironic and not, notebooks marbled and spiralbound, boombox, watercolor set, heels and flats and flipflops—I ravished the closet for everything of Sara’s, all the skins she’d left behind as consolation. On the floor, drafted under the door, her book. I tucked that too. Even wrapped her missing pages.
Having hauled all that life across the river, to the middle verge of Brooklyn, already midway to the grave—Queens. That borough both everyone and no one can afford. The most diverse, that most peaceful democratic melter. The steamy grave of Queens.
I knotted the tips, dragged the sheetlump to the car, unzipped the duff and forced it to chew, gross bits of sheet stuck between the zipperteeth—a mouth engorging, swollen. I prayed for absorption. Prayed that the wound at bottom be stanched.
Sruly wasn’t waiting, as arranged, outside the foodstamp office off Broadway, but on Broadway itself, flailing at the taxis. He got in raving—until the olfactories turned both our moods to willed asphyxiation with Sruly even indicating the turns, onto Pennsylvania, onto Atlantic, with just a finger’s crook.
Thumb down, slow down. Take a Conduit, lash the trusty Belt to Springfield.
I’d forgotten how ugly it all was—Queens. Ugly in how it grew, matured but only to banality. Revealed the process, the progress. History. To the west, foreigners squatting in autobody scraps. To the east, their offspring lazing native in prefab loungers on autosprinklered lawns. Separating the two, only parkways and decay.
128th Drive, 128th Road, 128th Avenue, 128th Street. Four choices of access, consecutive.
Necropolitan derangement. But all ways led to death.
A gate. A Mexican stood sentry under the barbs. He was precolumbian. Immovable. He’d pried off the brim of his cap to simulate a yarmulke. Another yarmulke might’ve been under the cap.
Sruly went to greet him distracted from what I was schlepping out. A duff hopefully clumsy weighty enough to be convincing.
The flow had soaked the sheet, would soak the weft again. Even the handles were damp, or my hands were, but also they were burning. Surgeons use chalky gloves, would’ve advised me to use them. But still, from the flap, no drip.
A car, livery, slid to a stop to let a wall out, a veritable prewar brownstone, a blackstone, an indifferent immuration murmuring psalmish on the phone. Aharon.
He didn’t return our nods. He paced around the livery being spoken to and speaking.
Sruly came close, held prayerbook over mouth, “they can’t agree on what means critical—nothing is predictable, in general—he’s talking either about his brother or his stocks.”
A small short school van for the disabled poked into the drive and only one passenger stepped off. The brother mumbled, paced, took a kerchief from a pocket, polished himself in the chrome.
The wife spoke to no one, just stood imposingly still like she’d been starked out of rock to mount another religion’s tomb, a Virgin Mary idol, like was sold by the monument businesses as sideline.
A short small woman for such a husband if her husband resembled his brother. A tough one. She only listened, stared, but in the way of an evil pet. She didn’t acknowledge even Sruly, or pretend to be doing anything but hearing, glaring, clenched.
The van reversed, left.
Nobody but me would admit the fester, and the breeze didn’t even blow in our direction.
Sruly tucked the book into his pit, grabbed a handle, and nodded to the Mexican, who unclasped the gate, “veinte minutos.”
We went ahead together. A sepulcher takes two.
The family followed, but obliviously—ghostly floaters indisposed.
The phone was lost in the brother’s chin. His moustache alone was a roof of antennas.
The wife stayed on the pave.
The brother hovered, haunted between the plots, over the plots, always trying to get behind the wife, I guessed, but I didn’t want to turn around and the wife was always stopping, this ridiculously dramatic chapstick and breathspray stopping—I hadn’t wanted to turn around—Sruly’s face was pursed.
The Mexican, who’d closed the gate behind us, dashed past us toward the shovel as if in a rescue operation—as if it were about to fall from its shallow dig and he’d lose it forever and be illimitably miserable and fined.
The mound was round and rough, inconsequential soil. It’d been dug from out of a landscaping isle, scattered rainbow mulch, a hole between two hedges.
We lowered the duff, a godsized limb shrinking lighter and below us.
The brother hung back at the vale of tar, covering an ear and lisping furiously. The wife had installed herself at rear, turned her back on all of us. Kaddish was too rushed. But Sruly’s voice was decent. He shut the covers, swayed another though silent prayer I was fairly sure for what. The brother slunk over—rega, rega— palmed his phone, paid cash, and only then did the wife come up with the other half, which Sruly passed to the Mexican, who filled.
The wad bulged from his pocket like a replacement heart.
The family was waiting alone at the gate, though it wasn’t locked, for me to open it.
A tip would’ve been gratuitous.
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.