Wednesday, September 1, 2010


There are those who can utter words in truth so that the words shine that shines of itself. And there are those whose words are only like a window that has no light of its own, but only shines forth out of the light that it admits.
The Bratslaver

By 5:00 A.M. I was so restless that I got up and sat in the chair next to bed and watched Adam sleep. He lay there with the sheets coiled around his waist and twisted through his legs like a rope climber.

As a child I would lie in my bed with my knees pulled up to my chest. At night there was something reassuring about the street sounds of the city. The radio next to my bed played softly and outside my window the cabs, cars, and couples all stirred. If I left my bed, went into the kitchen and stood there in the doorway, my grandmother wouldn't notice me until I said, "I'm going back to bed now." Later, my grandmother would be in the kitchen smoking a cigarette, waving the smoke away from her face.

We played this game. At eight o'clock I went to bed with a glass of milk, a glass of water, and four cookies. Then, after about an hour, my grandmother would say that I could sneak out of my room for a quick snack as long as the landlord didn't catch me. The landlord became an omnipotent figure in our household. He knew every move we made, and had a rule about children being out of bed, eating snacks, after eight o'clock. My grandmother said that if we were caught doing this, we risked eviction and the loss of all our possessions. Then we would have to go on the subway to a stop that she pronounced with contempt. Outsmarting the landlord gave me my first sense of power.

Up and down the street it used to be, "Nu, Meta what can I do for you. Oh you look so beautiful—you could even shorten that skirt a bit." There were the neighborhood men with names like Max, Isador, Abe, Herschel. Their sons named Marvin, Barry, and Sammy. I never really understood why our neighbors on the block sometimes felt a shy need to explain my grandmother. More than once someone pulled me aside and said things like: "We understand, and accept. I mean who knows what we would do. All I have to say, is 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"

At the fruit stand Meta stuck her thumb through the top of a melon. "Nu, look at this, half-rotted and he wants full price," she would say loud enough for all the other shoppers to hear. "Hey Herschel what about giving a widow and orphan a few pennies off on your rotten melon." The response was always the same. "Take the melon, take two."

In restaurants she poured all the sugar, salt, and pepper into small paper bags hidden inside her large bag. She took all bread, den, and some utensils from the table. Still they always gave free bowls of soup and extra large helpings of rice or noodle pudding. Sometimes she said under her breath, "See, even they know who I am."

Once, when my grandmother was out on a shopping expedition down Canal Street, I brought Sheila Katz home with ma I showed her all the secrets of the apartment. The closets stuffed with canned food and toilet paper, the crated boxes of soap, the Flow Blue China-the music clock with tiny figurines going around on the top every hour. I explained how rare and valuable they were, and as Sheila looked in awe I again felt a warm sense of control. Later that winter, I began to take my friends on tours through the apartment. I told them the building was built by J.P. Morgan. After his indictment, and her death, I was forced to admit that it was built by Grosso Construction. It was about that time that I swore I would not marry Barry, Sammy, or Marvin.

When she visited, my grandmother sat in my kitchen fingering a brown construction paper caterpillar I made for our classroom bulletin board. I was laying out colored chalk that I would use to introduce a new science unit called "The Insect World." Her attention was focused on a small fourth page UPI filler article "Mass Grave Uncovered in Russia."

"See, they come back like unopened mail," she said.

I imagined them as the people dug out of the ruins of Pompeii, or the fens of Northern Europe, caught in the attitudes of daily life—arms outstretched, or the palm of one hand resting under one cheek as they lay on their sides, girls asleep with their hands between their legs. Perfectly preserved young men with beards of soft stubble, the contents of their last meal still full in their stomachs. Their skin tanned bronze from the effects of the peat bog. The women's breasts flattened. And somehow I could not connect my grandmother with the dead. Even though I sat with the body until it was buried. I watched as each finger was wrapped in white gauze, and there and then it was just a lifeless corpse—as if a shadow had passed over and stopped. Now it seemed the shadow dispersed like thin trails of smoke. She died the first winter I went away from home. All through her illness a cousin of hers had called me in the college dorm. I remember holding the receiver of the black pay phone a little away from my ear and watching from the window as Amherst filled with snow.

"Enough, already. Please come home. Do you know what you're doing?" she said. I did not know.

When the sewer workers uncovered that pit, all of those people's shadows were lifted—and suddenly they were free to rejoin the life they left—finish their noon meal, lovemaking, letter writing. But they preferred to remain lying out in the open air with their eyes fixed on the sun overhead. And to say, See, here we are all rare hybrids. Flowers that open once in fifty years for only a few hours. I never went home, even though the cousin phoned at least once a day.

“Do you know what you've done?" the cousin asked when she died.

I kept bits and pieces of my grandmother's things. I have copies of Huckleberry Finn in Yiddish, the Flow Blue China, a few bars of old yellowed soap.

I’m not sure why I hurt her like that.

AT THE MECHANIC'S three pit bulls pester their mother to nurse. When she snaps at the most aggressive brown one, the white and black one jumps. Afterward, on the way home, I'm sure the car hasn't been fixed. When I pull up alongside Adam at the traffic light he is drumming the dashboard with one hand, and through the half-open window I can hear him singing My Baby Does The Hanky Panky."

That night in bed I expected Adam to turn to me. As I sat in the chair next to the bed I concocted brief scenarios for Hannibal: he has gained admission to the training school for seeing eye dogs; he graduates in the top of his class and spends the rest of his days leading people through life; he's been taken in by a family with children; he is fiercely protective of them; he joins with a pack of wild dogs; he is the leader; they run deer for sport and food—run them until their fine-boned, elegant legs give way and crumble beneath them—they fall in heaps in a dark forest. I've thought a lot about that story my grandmother used to tell. I wonder what happened when somebody noticed they lost a train.

© 1990-present
This story originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review

[Please check in tomorrow for the conclusion!]


  1. It really is most fascinating : like reading a long narrative poem written by a surrealist.

  2. Hi Alan: Thanks again! Your interest in BN's story is very much appreciated.


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