Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I didn’t think I’d hear again from my grandmother’s second husband, Uncle Benny, and then he called one Wednesday afternoon, three years after my grandmother had left him. I was stacking money on my bed at the time — ones on the pillow, fives at the foot, and tens in the middle where I could see them easiest. The door had been locked to guard against the intrusion of my father, who might have suspected I was dealing in drugs. That wasn’t the case, but my own business wasn’t on the straight and narrow either.
I reached down to a pile on the floor for another dollar bill, twice pulling it taut by the ends, and then placing it with the others by my pillow. A photograph of my mother, in a silver picture frame across the room, caught my eye, and I went over to the bookcase where it stood and brought it down. My mother had died when I was three, and since my memories of her were almost nonexistent, I had often played a game with this photograph, or maybe a ritual, to see how well I could fix her image. I studied her features, then turned away from the picture and tried to retrieve them in my mind. This had been going on for many years, and usually I couldn’t recall much of anything. So I’d repeat the sequence, angry at myself for being so compulsive but incapable of shaking the habit, until finally I tore myself away, hoping my effort was enough to bring me good luck.
I crouched back down by my bed, and with a deep breath that cleared my mind, I picked up the only twenty from the pile and remembered with pleasure its path to my room. Billy Taylor, the student-body president, had come running to me in a panic before lunch. He needed a Civil War paper by two o’clock.
“Well, Bill, I don’t know. Two o’clock’s kind of rough.”
“Jake, just do me a goddamn favor this one time. I’ll pay you back. You want a date with Samantha? Anything, just get me the paper. It’s my last fucking one for the year.”
Now, I desperately wanted a date with Samantha Lemme, though I’d never said a word to her and couldn’t imagine what I’d say. But she went out with older guys, so Billy didn’t have the inside track anyway. Besides, there was nothing more amusing than watching a hypocrite forced to stare at his own hypocrisy.
“Bill, the payment isn’t the issue. It’s the time. How can I find a paper on Abe Lincoln or some other dead fuck, and get back here by two? You want a paper, come see me earlier.”
“Don’t make me beg, you asshole, just find me the paper. You got the sources.”
“Can’t do it. Sorry.”
“Jake, goddamn it, c’mon.” His face turned sour. I thought I saw a tear well up in his eye.
I smiled and winked to let him know the paper was his so long as the price was right, and I put my arm around his slumping shoulders. I said, “Walk with me, Billy boy,” and we headed out the door to the park.
“Bill, the one thing you should know is that a man in a desperate position has no authority and shouldn’t act like you do. Don’t call me an asshole and tell me I got the sources when of course I do. Just shut up and act humble. Understand?” He nodded.
“Good. Now give me thirty bucks and meet me at this corner in an hour and a half.” He handed me a crisp ten and then a twenty, and I was off to the Palmer School on the West Side, where Steph Klepisch kept a library of American history papers in her locker. She gave me the paper for a ten-dollar fee, and I headed back across the park to hand President Billy Taylor his paper, which turned out to be on Abe Lincoln. He called me an asshole under his breath as we were walking inside the building.
I chuckled to myself now, admiring the neatly stacked bills. They came to $224, a drop in the bucket next to my father’s stash, and yet mine was charmed money, made with wit, daring, and craft; what was his but the mundane result of years and years of monotony? He was the owner and head of sales of an office-furniture dealership. With the city’s recent office boom, he’d amassed a small fortune. But to me, his money was all luck, no ingenuity. Pushing oak desks and metal file cabinets to Wall Street types didn’t take much skill, and it didn’t intrigue me either. He had begun talking about bringing me into the business, giving me a summer job so I could learn it and take over someday. He might have had some kind of tribal need to pass the business on to the next generation. But more than that, I’d say he was anxious about my future. As far as he could tell, I showed few signs of talent and no ambition in any of the established social arenas, so security resided between the arms of a family-owned swivel chair.
What he needed, I thought as I slid a rubber band around a stack of bills, was the guts of that bandit my grandmother had told us about at the Passover Seder a few years ago. Schinderhannes, that was his name, the bandit of the Black Forest, who’d come upon my grandmother’s own father when he and a group of townspeople were traveling through the forest. Schinderhannes made them take off their shoes, and then he blindfolded them, collected their jewelry, and scrambled the shoes, throwing one behind a tree and another by a brook, until all the shoes were gone. The blindfolds were removed and Schinderhannes, bent over laughing, said the last to reclaim a pair would hang from the nearest tree. They ran to find their shoes in a panic, as if their heads had been chopped off. Soon everyone had claimed two shoes, everyone but Mr. Forshlumpert, who walked slowly along the brook, one shoe in hand, looking down into his reflection for the matching second. Schinderhannes tapped him on the shoulder with the missing shoe, and the trembling man turned, resigned to his fate, but the bandit burst out laughing, gave him his shoe, and told the gullible crowd to go home.
When she had finished that one, my grandmother drifted into another story. My aunt, who sat across from me, was chewing with her mouth open, she listened so intently. My father was slouched in his chair in a languorous rapture, his cheeks flushed, eyes squinting, his hands inside his belt buckle. My two cousins, the twin girls, were giggling at a German phrase my grandmother had used.
Later that night, my grandmother and I sat together in the living room. “Jacobschen,” she said, “don’t get any ideas from that Schinderhannes. I know how you boys are.”
“No, I won’t, Grandma. I promise.”
“Ja,” she said in an ironic voice. I caught the hint of a grin in the corner of her scolding face.
“Shame on you, naughty boy. You should concentrate more on school.”
I was wondering if she’d approve of my present enterprise when the sound of my father’s voice startled me. “Jacob, there’s an older man on the phone who wants to speak to you.” Uncle Benny must have disguised his German accent enough to fool my father, and he caught me off guard, too. My grandmother had left the old lout three years before, after he’d squandered a few thousand betting on horses. She’d gone to Florida with a third husband, a retired broker named Blum, and for all I knew, Uncle Benny had exited my life permanently. But apparently not. He asked me to join him for a piece of cake and a cup of coffee at Lapchick’s, the only restaurant I knew of in my grandmother’s old neighborhood. At a loss for a good excuse, I agreed.
So I cursed myself for three days, and on the fourth, caught the E train from Fifty-first Street and headed out to Queens. It was an especially warm spring day, and I was bobbing along on a residential street in a T-shirt, jeans, and red Converse high-tops, with the rays of the sun trickling across the back of my neck and out onto my shoulders. A wad of bills, thick as a book, bulged from my pocket, and as I reached down to feel its contours, I scanned the neighborhood, taking note of my sophistication. There were older people in beat-up chairs outside their two-family houses, and a young girl listening to the car radio in her driveway, and the sound of horns, motors, and yelling. All this reeked of the outdated. Here I was, a true representative of the bustling wit of Manhattan, going to meet Benny, the epitome of life in a small-time residential neighborhood.
I turned the corner, crossed the street, and saw Benny in the window of Lapchick’s, with the old felt hat on his head, depressed at the top and limp around the edges. I could just make him out, studying a tabloid and scribbling in the margins. Playing the horses. Some things never change. I had asked him once why he worked so hard at it, since picking them was just luck. You got it all wrong, he answered. You look at the track condition, the recent record of the horses, and if you’re there, you look at the size of the crap in the paddock. If it’s big, the horse is light for the race. Then that’s your horse.
He didn’t look up when I opened the door to Lapchick’s, so in a tone you might use to wake a child, I said, “Uncle Benny, there’s a visitor here for you.” He straightened his back, tucked the paper between the vinyl cushions on the booth, and smoothed the dark gray strips of hair still left on the top of his head. Like melting wax, his skin sagged from his eyes and cheeks. He had on a short-sleeved shirt with big lapels, and a pair of brown slacks that might have fit him twenty years before. The zipper of his pants seemed to struggle against the paunch below his belt buckle. Stubby fingers, the nails black with grime, rested on the table.
I sat and he started in with a few general questions I couldn’t answer with any sincerity, questions like, “Are there any plans for the future?” I looked closely at his face when he asked this one. His bumpy nose turned in one direction, and when he spoke, the opposite corner of his mouth — the one the nose pointed away from — curled up in the other, as if his face, two times twisted, had engaged itself in a struggle.
“No, no plans,” I answered.
We went on for a few minutes with a kind of start-and-stop conversation. The waitress wore black pants, a white shirt, and a black vest. She moved from table to table, never changing her jaded stride, and rarely looking at the customers. She made her tips, I could tell, by establishing a distance, keeping her good favor always slightly out of reach, so that regular clients wanted to please her rather than the other way around. I felt a bond with this estimable moneymaker.
“What can I get for ya, Mr. Frankel?” she asked, looking down at her pad as if it alone were worthy of her attention.
“Is the apple cake fresh, Shelly?”
“Baked it this mawning.” She was writing and speaking simultaneously. “OK, two pieces of apple cake. How ’bout some coffee?”
Benny looked at me and I shrugged.
“Two cups is fine, Shelly.”
And quick as a thief she’d swiped the menus and disappeared behind the counter. “That’s Shelly,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow. “Never asks how you’re doing, but a good waitress anyway. Never once gave me a bad cup of coffee. Cake, it’s a different story, but she can’t control that, so you have to excuse. . . .”
“Uncle Benny,” I said (he was gazing out the window), “I hate to be rude, but could you give me an idea why you called me out here?” He must have been grateful for the question because he started right in.
“I don’t know how much your grandmother told you about why she left me.” The twisted pocket of his mouth seemed to freeze as he waited for my response.
“Not much,” I said. “She didn’t seem eager to talk about it.”
“Your grandmother’s a good woman. She didn’t want your father thinking worse of me than he already does.
“Anyway, it’s difficult to throw a lot of years down the drain. That’s probably why she never left me before. And I tell you the truth, I never expected it to happen. But I came home one night and there she was at the small table in the kitchen with a box of our pictures and letters, dividing them into two piles. So I sat across from her and asked her what she was doing. ‘Benny,’ she said, ‘there’s no life for me here. You can go to the racetrack all you want now. I’m leaving.’ She was wearing this gold pendant I’d given her just after we were married and I said, ‘Thirty-three years you’ve had that pendant around your neck and you want to tell me it’s all for nothing. Where are you going? To your family? They don’t have room for you there.’ ‘I’m going with Mr. Blum to Florida,’ she said. ‘Mr. Blum?’ I said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Blum was a sick old man, with a cane, and hard of hearing.” Benny leaned forward and tugged once on his ear lobe to convey Mr. Blum’s deficiency. The coffee and cake arrived.
“Anyway,” he continued, “she told me that ever since Blum’s wife had died two years before, they’d been going to the movies together during the day. Then he had asked her to come along with him to Florida. Since we — meaning her and me — had no relationship to speak of, she’d made her decision. Her eyes were red from crying, and I knew she had some pain making that decision, but she was determined. I looked down at those two piles of pictures and letters. I had to do something. It wasn’t good enough to sit there and let her leave. She had to feel my anger, remember it forever. So I got up and stood behind her and put my hands around the base of her neck. I slid my fingers under the chain of that pendant and unhooked the clasp. She gasped. Then she brought her hands up and felt her bare neck. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’ We didn’t say much to each other for the next week, and then she left.
“Jacob, I need you to give this back to her.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a round gold piece with a chain attached. Memories came rolling back to me. She had worn it all the time. There was a photograph of me, when I was small, touching that pendant around her neck, twisting it slightly on the chain. Now I let it rest on Benny’s palm, until finally he put it on the table. “I’ll give it to you when we’re through speaking. I need her address also, if you could. I’d like to write her a few words.”
I couldn’t help feeling that the old fool had changed on me. He had this unfamiliar confidence, as if things had come together all of a sudden and he knew what really mattered. It couldn’t last, I thought. Maybe he just wanted something back from her now, a useless thing like a lamp or an ugly painting. Or maybe he needed a loan.
“Benny,” I said, “don’t you think it’s a little late to bury the hatchet?”
“Not for me. I can’t speak for her.” He smiled.
“What made you pick me to do this?”
“Who else?” he said. He was all answers.
I might have said goodbye without a fuss, if the waitress hadn’t filled our cups again. As she put the check on the table, Benny looked up with a pleased expression. “He’s a good boy, Shelly. They aren’t all willing to help out older people.” She bunched her face into a sarcastic grin and then winked at me, a quick, mocking gesture.
“Uncle Benny.” A wry smile was taking hold of my face. “I’ll give the pendant to her, but what makes you think she’ll want it? If she hadn’t been so kind, she would have ditched you long before she did. God knows she cursed your name enough.”
He turned red and then slammed his fist down hard enough to spill my coffee into the saucer.
“You little bastard. I don’t need to hear that from you.”
The nostrils of his hooked nose flared. With his lips pressed tightly together, he was sucking in air through that crooked corner of his mouth. The sense of his own futility seemed funny to me, but I didn’t laugh. He had trusted me, not only with the pendant, but with the episode he’d recounted. But what did I possibly owe Benny? Five years ago, the man would have chosen horses over my grandmother, and now he wants forgiveness, good feeling. Too late. I swiped the pendant from the table.
“Well, I’ll be seeing ya, Uncle Benny.”
“Don’t forget to give her that,” he said softly.
Three weeks later, my grandmother came to New York for the wedding of a distant relative. Blum stayed behind with an attendant hired to look after him.
My grandmother insisted one night on making dinner for the family — my divorced aunt and her two twins included. She shuffled through the kitchen that night with a steaming pot of tomato soup, yelling in mock anger at my father to stop reading the paper, and then ladling out three bowls for the twins and me. There was an upbeat ruckus of pots clanging, papers rustling, bodies moving, and voices overlapping. I thought it might be a good time to whisk the pendant out of my life and back into hers, so I excused myself and returned with the pendant dangling from my index finger. She looked up, saw the plain-looking piece, and poured a ladle of soup intended for my father’s bowl onto the tablecloth. A mass of red spread like a sickness over the white lace, and my aunt was up in a flash, taking things off the table, tossing the old cloth into the kitchen, and spreading out a new one. “No harm done,” she said.
My grandmother stared at the pendant.
“Hey,” my father said, moving his head from person to person. “Can someone tell me what’s going on here?”
“According to Uncle Benny,” I said, “who I recently visited, this belongs to Grandma. He wanted me to give it back.” I placed it on the table in front of her. She picked it up and shook her head.
“I can’t understand.” She was staring at the pendant. “He does more strange things than anyone I ever knew. I’m the one who leaves him and now he wants to give me this piece of gold he’s had his whole life. It’s his, not mine. I wish the crazy old fool would keep it, for crying out loud.” Her face got redder and redder as she spoke. I thought perhaps I should control my questions about the pendant, but not knowing was unbearable. There was more to be heard, more to the pendant than its flat gold face. But my father shot a look across the table that buttoned my lips in a hurry. “If you care for your grandmother,” his eyes said, “then you’d better keep quiet.” I felt as if a door had been slammed in my face.
I sat with her the next day before I went to school. “Grandma,” I said, “what’s the big thing about Benny and the pendant?”
“Jacobschen, honey, don’t ask me that now. I tell you another time.”
“But why?” I said. “I don’t understand.”
“Some other time, honey.”
But it stayed with me. A few days after her departure, I took out the old shoe box of family photos. I found two copies of that picture I remembered. It showed my grandmother seated on our old couch with her head tilted toward me, and me, about three feet tall, leaning against her thigh, completely absorbed in the pendant. I looked like a young explorer assuming my right to the territory, and she, her eyes on the camera, glowed with adoration. I remembered the first time I had seen the picture, when my father had brought it out on my grandmother’s first trip back north from Florida. My aunt had been there, and she had commented on my “sweetness,” and a few tears had welled up in my grandmother’s eyes, embarrassing me. But alone with the picture now, I felt moved.
For the next few days, I had a hard time focusing on the outside world. Someone would approach me about a paper, and in the midst of a standard discussion concerning a desired grade (taking the student’s past performance into account, of course), my mind would open the curtains on the gnarled face of Uncle Benny, or on the serpentine pendant in his hand, or on the photograph, and I’d concentrate just enough to make it through the conversation, and then forget what I’d agreed to.
It crossed my mind that Benny knew more about the pendant than anyone else. The following Saturday, I boarded the E train again. There was a welcome mat at the entrance to Benny’s house and a bulky gold knocker in place of a doorbell. I remembered the harsh echo of the knocker and banged it lightly. When there was no answer, I banged harder, and the door moved. I pushed it open gingerly and walked inside.
The apartment hadn’t changed much in three years, and I was surprised at how familiar it all seemed. It had a living room next to the entrance, followed by the kitchen and then a bathroom and bedroom off to the right. Along the perimeter of the front room were a long mahogany cabinet with Benny’s hat resting on top, a matching mahogany display case, a rocking chair, and the sofa with a green-and-yellow floral design, where Benny was sprawled out, his gaping mouth taking in long, slow, scratchy breaths.
I sat in the rocking chair, flipped through the pages of a racing form lying on the couch, and waited until he opened his eyes. “Jacob,” he said, “what are you doing here?” He helped himself with the arm of the sofa to an upright position.
I pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “You wanted my grandmother’s address.”
“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I didn’t expect it.” He put on his glasses and muttered the address aloud as he read. “I appreciate your coming. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No. I have a few questions to ask, but I can leave if it’s a problem.”
“No. Stay, stay.” He seemed flattered by my return. “Go ahead, say what’s on your mind.”
I looked toward the kitchen, then back at him. “I want to know about the pendant.”
“What makes you so curious?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.” I was playing it casual. “Grandma got kind of upset when I gave it to her and. . . .”
“What would you like to know?”
“Well, for one, how you got it.”
“I stole it,” he said.
“You stole a pendant?”
“I stole it when I was ten.” He was rubbing his whiskers, speaking softly out of the side of his mouth. “There was an old woman in my town, Frau Stein. Her husband died of pneumonia, and many people were at her house for the shiva. While she was in the welcoming room, shaking hands and thanking people for coming, I walked up the stairs in this tremendous house — that’s the way I remember it — and opened the door to the bedroom. The wind from the open window blew it shut, and I jumped because I wasn’t supposed to be there. My heart was beating fast. There was a portrait of that very serious couple, both looking right down on me. I went into a closet to hide from that picture. On the floor in the back corner of the closet, I noticed a small chest, which I opened. On a bed of jewelry, staring me in the eye, was that pendant.”
He paused and looked up at me, probably to gauge my interest and decide whether or not to continue. “Keep going,” I said.
“Well, that pendant was too pretty for Frau Stein. She didn’t deserve something so pretty, even if her husband was dead. I wanted badly to give it to my mother. It would be our secret. She couldn’t show Frau Stein’s old pendant, but even better, she could tuck it inside her dress so only I would know it was there. So I slipped the pendant inside my coat and walked downstairs like nothing had happened.”
He talked on with a raspy voice, an accent, and eyes that seemed to go blind. I felt myself falling into that old German world my grandmother told about.
“I should have felt bad,” he continued. “It could have been the last gift the dead man gave to the lady. But I was doing something dangerous — something forbidden — for my mother. That was the important thing.
“That night, I waited in bed for my mother to come and kiss me good night. She came every night. If my father was asleep or not paying attention, she would stay longer to talk or read to me.”
“What was the problem with your father?” I asked.
“A possessive man. Didn’t like my mother and me spending too much time.”
I bit the inside of my cheek at his cursory answer, and he continued. “When I heard my mother’s footsteps that night, I was holding the pendant under the covers. I had imagined the scene during the day, but the moment, I was sure, would be even better. She knelt next to my bed, with her elbows on my pillow, and I gave her the pendant. She hugged me and said, ‘Benjamin, this is very beautiful but I cannot accept it. It belongs to someone else. Now you have to return it.’ I don’t need to say that wasn’t what I had imagined. I tried to restrain myself but the tears were past my control. Real tears are like that, you know. They don’t wait for your approval. ‘OK,’ she said, ‘we make a deal. I wear it for the next three days, and after that you give it back.’ I agreed but I was still crying.
“The next thing I remember were the voices I heard in my sleep. They were soft at first, but they rose until I thought my head would split. I opened my eyes and sat up, but they didn’t stop. I followed them down the stairs, toward the kitchen. It was my father yelling, my mother crying. ‘Who gave it to you? Who gave it to you?’ he kept saying. I looked into the room. He had one hand to her throat, the other raised above his head. ‘Papa,’ I said, and he turned to me with a confused look. ‘I gave it to her.’ The noise quieted for a second and then it started again, but now he was yelling at me. ‘You thief, you little thief!’ I got down on the floor into a ball, with my knees against my chest and my hands over my ears, but he pulled me by the hair and dragged me toward the barn behind the house, with my mother on his back most of the way. She was screaming and biting his fingers. When we got to the barn, he took off his belt. I saw the buckle flash in the moonlight, and then he lashed me on my back. That’s all I can remember.
“The next morning I could barely move. The pendant was by my bed with a note from my mother, which said to return it that day. But I had earned the right to keep it. If I couldn’t give it to my mother, I would hold on to it myself. So I hid it beneath a plank in the floor of my room. Then I brought it to this country and gave it to your grandmother.” He paused and smiled faintly. “And now she has it again.”
He slapped his knee. “I give you a piece of cake for listening,” he said, and he wobbled off to the kitchen.
I got up and paced around the room. I had never really thought about it before, but Benny belonged to that old German world in my grandmother’s stories; he dealt in its objects and could tell about it, too. His story was sad and frightening — it had a similar feel to the ones my grandmother told, but not as safe, closer to home. Back in the rocking chair, I waited for what seemed like a long time.
Finally, Benny returned holding a plate with a marble cake in one hand and two knives in the other. He sat, placed the cake on the floor, and cut a huge chunk, which he then divided in two.
“I had these dreams that my mother would take me and leave my father,” he continued, “but she was too upright for that. So I changed my dreams. I wanted something bad to happen to him. I wanted him to get sick or disappear.”
Two groups of crumbs had collected on the floor. Benny leaned over and coaxed them with his hand into a single pile between us. He started in again slowly.
“Many nights I dreamed of these things. And then one morning I woke up and heard noises outside. I knew my mother wasn’t home because I didn’t hear her voice, so I got up to look out my window. There were four men dragging my father toward the barn. I crouched so they couldn’t see me, just a pair of eyes watching. I was scared they would come for me, too. My father had on his bathrobe and nothing underneath. They took it off, along with his slippers, and then they grabbed him, one on each arm and leg. He was struggling first, kicking and cursing, but then he stopped moving. His eyes were open, so he knew what was what. But he wasn’t moving.” Benny rubbed his hands a few times on his knees and took a deep, unsteady breath.
“They put him down, and one man stepped away like he was leaving, then he turned back and kicked my father in the face and the rest of them — those bastards — they laughed like something had been set loose inside them. They grabbed him again by the limbs and ‘ein, zwei, drei,’ they threw him onto the pile of manure next to the barn. He slid to the bottom of the pile and they took him again, ‘ein, zwei, drei, up, dirty Jew, you should feel at home now.’ I just sat there by the window, crying like a helpless fool. I thought I was to blame. I wanted it to happen, so I was to blame. And the damn sound of the laughter wouldn’t stop.”
Benny had his hands against his ears. I waited in silence, staring at the racing form on the couch, avoiding those glazed eyes that made me shiver. After what seemed like minutes, he cleared his throat.
“I stopped watching after a while. Just sat there and cried. Then after some time I heard my mother’s voice screaming for the men to leave. I looked up and saw her pulling my father into the house. He wasn’t too badly hurt and I wanted to tell him how sorry I was, for all those things I had wished on him. I was trying hard to get the courage, but a week later they sent me to Amsterdam to stay with relatives. I never spoke to them after that.”
I watched a single tear wind its way down his cheek toward that misshapen side of his mouth. It fit right in with the sadness I felt. I thought about Benny alone in this apartment, and alone underneath that window, and my grandmother in Florida with a man she barely knew. Benny had more to offer her than Blum, and she must have known it, too. She had wanted to teach him a lesson, put an end to his gambling. That hadn’t happened yet and probably never would. But how long could she last there with Blum? Her home was in Queens.
Benny and I talked a while longer. I told him he shouldn’t gamble as much as he did, and he compared himself to the high rollers of Atlantic City. “Next to them,” he said, “I’m betting for pennies.” Then he went on about a guy named Max who could count up to four decks of cards. It was peaceful sitting there, listening to the old lout and rocking myself back and forth in his chair. I lost track of the time, and when I finally looked at my watch it was after midnight. He insisted I stay the night and take his bed, and he’d sleep out on the couch. After protesting mildly, I accepted the offer and called my father to say I’d be away for the night.
Benny came in as I was getting into bed and told me to wake him up if I needed anything, and then he turned out the light and left the room. The door was still open, and in that semidarkness, I felt surrounded by his smells, his sheets, objects I wasn’t used to. A few minutes later, the lights in the kitchen and living room went out, and then it was pitch-black. I listened to his breathing get heavier, deeper, and more rhythmic. I grew accustomed to those sounds and smells and then I thought again about the two of them, one in Florida and one in Queens, separated by a thin, imagined wall that didn’t have to be there. If they couldn’t break it down themselves, I thought, I would do it for them. Benny wasn’t a problem; he would welcome her back. And though my grandmother might waver at first, she would give in soon. It was what she wanted. I spent that night writing her a letter in my mind, reminding her of that photograph of us, and how Benny, who had stolen that pendant in the first place, was really a part of the picture too, then justifying Benny’s mistakes with references to his difficult life, and pointing out what was clear to me, that they loved each other and belonged together. It was going to be a good letter.
It didn’t phase me much that Benny chuckled the next morning when I told him about the letter I planned to write. “You’re my good friend, Jacob,” he said, and he kissed me on the forehead. I said goodbye to him and wrote the letter the next day.
A week later I received her answer. “My dearest Jacobschen,” it began, “you are very kind and your intentions are all good. I am also glad that you are speaking to your Uncle Benny. He needs a little company, I think. Sometime you could tell me what he told you out there, probably more than he ever told me. But you have to understand, my bones are too old for his business. Some things can’t be worked out. . . .” I felt like ripping it up, tossing the pieces out the window, and watching them scatter over the street. But I folded it a few times and tucked it away inside an old math book.
After Benny died in his sleep three years later, they flew his body down to Florida and buried him in a cemetery a few miles from my grandmother’s house. It turns out the old guy had bought a plot of land there so she could visit his grave.
There were six of us at the funeral. My father, grandmother, and I sat together in the front pew. Scattered behind us were a cousin from Cleveland, who lavishly expressed her condolences to my grandmother — she must have thought they were still married — and two people from the neighborhood whom I didn’t recognize. The rabbi said a few words about Benny’s parents dying in the Holocaust and his persevering and making a life for himself in New York. Then they wheeled him out the door of the funeral parlor and into the hearse.
That afternoon I pulled out my grandmother’s letter, unread since the day it arrived. For a moment, I felt what I had before: the disappointment, and the anger at my own foolishness. But I paused this time at a sentence I had previously ignored: “Sometime you could tell me what he told you there, probably more than he ever told me.” I folded the letter, knelt by my bed, and pondered her wish to hear more about Benny. I couldn’t bring the two of them together, not now and not then, but maybe I could bring them closer. That would be truly something, me telling stories to her, straight from Benny’s mouth. I pictured the two of us in flimsy old beach chairs outside that house in Queens, an old woman and a young man exchanging tales from another time and place. It was a funny image, and it made me laugh. Then I picked up a pen.