In the Jewish Cemetery

 

 

In the Jewish Cemetery

By Gerald Shapiro

 

 

As the only one of the three Tischler brothers still in Kansas City, Martin naturally saw much more of their mother than Lewis or Jack did, and so he heard more about her happiness, more about her dinners at the city’s trendiest restaurants, her frequent excursions to Europe and Hong Kong, to Chicago and San Francisco and New York, her memberships at the Nelson Art Gallery and the Missouri Rep and the Symphony Guild than he really wanted to. She was his mother, and he wanted her to be happy (he’d watched some women his mother’s age who became professional widows after their husbands died, sitting shiva the rest of their lives), but he would have preferred her to be a bit less noisy about it all. His mother had been a quiet woman when her boys were young, at least that’s how he remembered her; she’d given way to her opinionated husband and her clamorous sons in the conversation department; but now, as she flitted about through her widowed eighties, cruising toward ninety, she’d begun to chatter incessantly, had taken up talking the way some women her age took up jogging or yoga, and in the process had become a crashing bore. She talked desperately, it seemed to Martin, as though silence might be the equivalent of death–as if she might croak the minute she shut up. 
 
His younger brothers Lewis and Jack had fled Kansas City years ago, Lewis to New York to go to law school, Jack to Tucson, and from where they sat, each of them fifteen hundred miles away, their mother’s behavior was inexcusable. “What’s all this flying off to Europe business? Why can’t she knit booties for orphans in Somalia? Why can’t she wrap bandages for the Red Cross?” Lewis demanded in an irate call to Martin.
 
In a plaintive phone call from Arizona, Jack said, “I’ve seen those bumper stickers, I’m spending my children’s inheritance, but this is not a bumper sticker. She’s doing it! What the hell happened to helping out your kids when they need a few bucks?”
 
“You’re not a kid. You’re fifty-five years old,” Martin told him. Jack had been married and divorced three times, had never finished college, bounced from job to job, couldn’t find his footing. Unlike his brothers, who were tall and bald and slim, Jack was short and plump, with a full head of thick auburn hair. Martin and Lewis had matching domed egg-shaped heads that sat delicately, pale and distinguished, on their long, reedy necks. They were the same height, long in the arms and legs and short in the torso. Even their voices were eerily similar. They could have been twins, though Martin was sixteen months older.
 
And then there was Jack. A different gene pool altogether. He’d worked for four years for an outfit called InfoCard in Tucson, where his job, put simply, was to fire people. He told his brothers that he was known around the firm as “The Angel of Death.” A call to Jack Tischler’s office, you’d better bring your shit with you, because that was the last stop on your way out the door. “People hate me there. I’m afraid to walk across the parking lot. Somebody could shoot me.” he said. “I hate firing people. If InfoCard ever hired anybody, I’d be the one to do the hiring–but they never hire anybody. Ever. Once I’ve fired everybody they want me to fire, they’ll hire somebody to fire me.”
 
In another plaintive phone call from Tucson, he told Martin, “How can Mom be spending all this cash? Couldn’t she throw a few hundred in my direction now and then? I mean, I love her, she’s my mother, I don’t begrudge her a dime. But who ever knew there was this much money to spend? Dad never let on. I thought he’d have his pension, Social Security, that’s it.”
 
And in another phone call from Lewis: “Well, to hell with it. It’s her money. She should spend every last nickel.” Lewis could say this; he was a partner in a Wall Street law firm and his annual salary, Martin imagined, orbited the earth somewhere high above the stratosphere.
 
It was only after Howard Tischler’s death six years ago that his widow and children learned of his years of secretive financial wheeling and dealing, the thousand shares of this and five hundred shares of that, everything bought low and held onto for decades, the dividends re-invested, the many stock splits, the tax-exempt bonds, the real estate fund in Southern California. Jacoby, his benevolent employer, had been his stock broker. Jacoby said buy, Howard bought. And Jacoby had known what he was talking about. Howard had kept all of this from his family.
 
“Dad worked hard enough for it. All those years on his feet. He was a good provider,” Martin told his brothers. “When did we ever lack for anything?” Their father, Howard, a short, broad-beamed fellow, had come from nothing, having begun life in the fetid squalor of the old Jewish neighborhood, far north of Linwood Boulevard. His parents, Max and Sophie Tischler, were gone by the time Martin, Lewis and Jack were born, and since there were no pictures of the grandparents, not even a dog-eared Brownie snapshot, the boys were left to their own imagination, constructing mythic grandparents from scraps they’d been thrown. Max and Sophie Tischler, an eggcandler and a seamstress in a sweatshop. How they’d landed in Kansas City in the first place was anybody’s guess.    
 
In the aftermath of his death, Estelle had the chance to buy the modest duplex she and Howard had occupied for fifty years, the place where they’d raised their boys (like so many buildings of its kind in Kansas City, it was being converted to condos), but she opted instead to move, taking a sublet on a loft in a renovated hat factory downtown, now a revitalized area of jazz clubs and art galleries, fine restaurants, boutiques, rare book dealers, Italian shoe stores– places that Howard, her late beloved husband, her short, boxy, no-nonsense life-companion of nearly sixty years, wouldn’t have walked into on a bet. “Your father never would have moved,” she told her sons. “But he’s dead, may he rest in peace. He’s dead, and I’m not.”
 
At times it seemed to Martin, Lewis and Jack that their father’s death had ripped their mother’s heart out and replaced it with something heart-shaped but inert, like a Valentine’s Day cookie dusted with confectioner’s sugar. When she cleaned out the duplex in preparation for her big move, she threw away every one of the boys’ old report cards, every snapshot of snowball fights and birthday parties, every honor roll certificate, Boy Scout merit badges, Halloween costumes, boxes of party favors, bar mitzvah memorabilia, cap pistols, a shoebox full of baseball cards from the 1950s–every shred of evidence that they’d once been children. 
 
“They’re called keepsakes,” Martin had said to her, snapping the words off one at a time with his teeth as if cutting them from a length of twine. “The word ‘keep’ is in there. You’re supposed to keep them. Those baseball cards were worth a fortune.”
 
When Lewis called to complain, she told him, “I had no idea you would have wanted any of that old stuff,” in an airy voice. “You’re a grown man. What use would you have for any of it?” She decorated her new digs, the loft sublet high above a noisy downtown street, with a minimalist’s eye for restraint. There was no room for the past in this stark white-walled aerie. And besides, who had time for reminiscence? There was a Hopper Show at the Nelson she had to see, and a new Asian fusion bistro down the street where the noodles were reportedly superb. 
 
Now in October, the second weekend of the month, a time of turning leaves and balmy temperatures, Lewis and Jack came to Kansas City for their annual weekend of brotherly love, a ritual they’d stuck to for most of a decade, since before their father’s death. Martin picked them both up at the airport. The two flights, one from LaGuardia, the other from Tucson, arrived almost simultaneously. On the drive into town, he delivered the news in an apologetic voice. “Mom’s leaving tonight for Paris,” he told them. “She just told me two days ago. She knew you were coming, but she didn’t want to change her plans. She’d already made the reservations.”     
 
“Wait a second,” Jack said from the back seat. “I spoke to her last week, she said she’s taking us to the Brooklyn Deli for a late lunch today. Last Tuesday I talked to her.”
 
“She’s not leaving until this evening.”
 
“She was just in Paris in May,” said Lewis. “How many times a year do you have to go to Paris? And I thought you told me the Brooklyn Deli closed.”
 
“It did. Mouse turds in the store room–the Health Department came by twice in one week–but you know how things work. It was the Calabrese people. The Health Department’s in their back pocket. Gerstler, that idiot, owed them too much money. Him and his ponies.”
 
“You mean the Calabrese family?” Jack asked. “Those Calabreses?”
 
“They closed him down. Him and his partner, Gimpy Rabinowitz–they’re done. Kaput. Gerstler’s lucky he didn’t end up in the river. He’d been trying to sell the deli for years, him and Rabinowitz, but who’d buy it? It was a dying business, you could walk in the place and see that in two seconds. It’s a relic,” said Lewis. “I’m in New York, but I know what’s going on here. It doesn’t take a genius. What’s going on is that Jews in this town don’t care about deli food, and they don’t care about being Jews, either. Who needs homemade stuffed cabbage when you’re out in the suburbs drinking gin and playing golf with the goyim?”
 
“It’s not just the deli. You’re right,” Martin said. “They’re all goyim. There aren’t any Jews in Kansas City anymore. Kids get bar mitzvah’ed, you’d think it was the Queen’s Jubilee. Everybody shows up for Rosh Hashana to show off their piety, on Yom Kippur they beat their breasts while they’re thinking about going out for sushi after the service is over. This sounds cynical, I know, but I’m just telling the truth. I’ve known these people all my life. The only word of Yiddish they know is schmuck. Hitler didn’t get it done, but the suburbs did.”
 
Lewis nodded. “The day the Brooklyn Deli closed, they should have said kaddish for Kansas City Jews–for all of us, the whole community.”
 
“Mom was one of the last holdouts, loyal to the very end,” said Martin. “She’d take a cab there once a week to get her stale whitefish salad, her over-the-hill herring. The counter guy, Irving? Remember him? The guy who dyed his hair orange? He gave her free samples of all this dreck while he was staring at her breasts. She told me all of this, she thought it was cute.”
 
“But I liked that place,” Jack said. “I have a sentimental attachment.”
 
“The Brooklyn Deli was coasting for years,” said Lewis. “The last time I was in there, there was dust on the lox. Anyway, you want good deli, come to New York, where Jews are Jews. I’ll take you to Barney Greengrass, believe me, you’ll have real honest deli.”
 
Jack was silent a moment, then he couldn’t help himself. “Shit, I’d love to go to Paris. I’ve never been there.”
 
“You and Joanie could go,” Martin said. “You should think about that.”
 
“Joanie could be just about out of the picture,” Jack said. “I’ve had it up to here.”
 
“What’s her daughter’s name again?” asked Lewis.
 
“Chassity. C-H-A-S-S-I-T-Y,” Jack said wearily. “Why are you bringing this up? I didn’t name her. She’s not my kid. You just want to make me feel like shit, don’t you?”
 
“I was just asking a question,” Lewis protested, but a hint of a smile crept along his lips.
 
Jack leaned forward from the back seat as far as his seat belt would allow. “Couple years ago I saw a movie that was set in Paris. Those cafés! God, I’d love to sit at one of those tables.”
 
Martin asked, “So how’s Joanie’s stepmother? Bertha?”
 
“Beulah. Beulah’s just fine, thanks. The bitch is indestructible. She’ll never die. Eighty-eight years old, can’t walk, incontinent, end-stage heart failure. She eats like there’s no tomorrow. She’s put on ten pounds in that hospice place. They want to throw her out because she slapped a nurse. Joanie’s at the end of her rope. She says she’s going to go over there and kill the old bag, but I said, How? If you cut off her head, she’ll grow a new one. God, what a mess. All I had in mind was an occasional friendly fuck, you’ll pardon the expression, and now I find myself involved with this family full of maniacs. I don’t even want to get into Chassity’s father, who’s sort of still in the picture even though he’s in prison in Lompoc. He could have me killed with one phone call. Don’t laugh. You’re laughing because it’s not happening to you. Believe me, it’s not funny.”       
 
“No, you’re right, it’s not funny,” Martin said, but he couldn’t help himself–he started laughing as he said it. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m laughing at.” He blew out a long breath and settled down. “It’s nerves, I think. I’m just nervous.”
 
“What are you nervous about?” Lewis asked him.
 
“So Lewis,” Jack began. “How’s the great world of intellectual property law? Still raking in the dough?”
 
“I’m suing Albania,” Lewis said.
 
“Albania! The whole country? What did they do?”
 
“Actually I’m not suing them, my firm is. I’m just handling the case, flying to Tirana once a month, which is, believe me, not something you want to do on a regular basis. You ask what they did. They’ve been pirating Elvis Presley CDs and selling them to the Bulgarians by the dozen for two leks apiece. That’s about a buck-seventy-five in case you’re wondering. So the estate of Elvis Presley–”
 
“Wait a second,” said Jack. “I thought you specialized in intellectual property law.”
 
“I do. Legally speaking, ‘Love Me Tender’ is intellectual property.”
 
“Is that right.”
 
“Don’t give me any shit about this, Jack.” Lewis’s voice was cold and hard as glass. “I’m warning you. Don’t get started with me.”
 
“I was just asking a question!”      
 
“Boys?” said Martin. “Fellas? C’mon. Mom’s waiting for us. Lunch is on her.”
 
*
 
In a quiet, stylish trattoria on the Country Club Plaza, Estelle Tischler, a small-boned woman with a barely noticeable hump in her back, a white beehive hairdo and the beaked nose of a cigar store Indian, rose from her table to greet her sons. “Bonjour mes amis!” she cried, spreading her arms to hug all three of them at once.
 
“We’re not your friends. We’re your sons,” Lewis said.
 
Estelle punched Lewis in the arm–not a playful tap, a punch. “I’m so sorry my trip was already planned. I’d love to spend more time with you. My three sons. You remember that TV show? Fred MacMurray? You know who I loved on that show? William Frawley. You remember William Frawley? He reminded me so much of your dad. Always in a bad mood, always smoking a cigar. I used to say to Howard, ‘Howard, look, you’re on TV.’”
 
The waiter brought an antipasto platter to the table and placed it gently in front of Estelle. She pretended it wasn’t there.
 
“So when’s your flight?” Martin asked. “We’re lucky you have time to see us.” He couldn’t help it; there was an edge in his voice.
 
“It’s not until six o’clock. I’m already packed.” She sighed. “They make you pay so much to check your bags these days. But what can I do? If I don’t check them, I have to carry them through airports. They weigh more than I do.”
 
“What’s up in Paris?” asked Jack. “Is this a special occasion?”
 
Now she perked up again. “Well! Everyone in our group has already seen the Louvre, of course, the Musée D’Orsay, Pompidou, the Picasso, all of those. So this time we’re doing a week and a half of minor museums. The Jacquemart-André, then the Marmottan-Monet, the d’Art Moderne. There’s so many to pick from! The Brancusi, the Moreau, the Malliol. Oh, and listen to this! This is something. We’re going to visit the Closet of Erik Satie!”
 
“A closet?” Martin said.
 
“Well, it’s called a closet. I think he actually lived in it. It’s very small.”
 
“No kidding,” said Lewis. “You’re going to Paris to look at somebody’s closet.”
 
“He was poor,” she explained in a patient, plaintive voice. “He lived like a poor person, dear, but he wrote beautiful music, and Picasso painted his portrait. So now people go to visit his tiny apartment.” She shrugged. “Well, anyway. It’s so nice to see you together.” She sipped her water. “Where’s Bianca?” she asked. “She didn’t come with you?”           
 
Lewis leapt at the question. “She’s in New York,” he said. “Couldn’t get away. She sends her love. You know Bianca, though. Busy, busy, busy. Event planning is a seasonal business. Next year’s wedding season is upon us. Bar mitzvahs, you know. This and that.”
 
“She’s so busy she can’t come to Kansas City for a couple of days?”
 
Jack reached for the antipasto platter and loaded his plate with marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, sliced asiago cheese, assorted olives, and prosciutto. “I haven’t had a thing to eat today,” he explained as he began forking the appetizers into his mouth.
 
“Go ahead, everyone–please, eat,” Estelle said. “I’m not very hungry. I’m saving my appetite for the garlic sausage with potatoes Lyonnais they do in this little place in Paris. They make this garlic sausage, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s divine. And they serve it with these potatoes, they’re so rich with cream, you don’t even want to think about the calories.”
 
This was their mother? What had happened to the woman who kept pork products out of the house throughout their childhood, who avoided mixing meat and milk at the same meal, who claimed never to have tasted shellfish, the woman whose cooking adventures rarely ranged beyond brisket, noodle pudding and angel food cake? Garlic sausage? With potatoes Lyonnais? Who was this woman seated next to them at the table?
 
“Mom, I know you’ve got a lot on your mind, you’re leaving tonight,” Lewis said, “but I was wondering–we were wondering–do you have any idea where Dad’s parents are buried? I was thinking we could go out, visit the graves.”           
 
She stared at him; he might as well have asked her to stick a fork in her eye. “Oh, good grief. No,” she said. She considered the question for another minute, then shook her head and again said, “Your father’s parents? I have no idea. Why would you want to do such a thing?”      
 
“We just thought we could stop by the cemetery today, pay our respects,” Lewis said.
 
“Who’s ‘we’?” Jack asked. “Why would ‘we’ want to do that?”
 
“Yes! Why?” Estelle asked. She balled up her napkin and kneaded it in her palm.
 
“I guess I’m just curious,” said Lewis. “It’s way up north, isn’t it? Near the river? East of the City Market? In the old Jewish neighborhood? Where Dad was born? We’ve never been.”        
 
“So why would we want to go now?” Jack said. “We’re only here a day and a half.”
 
“I don’t understand why Bianca couldn’t come for the weekend,” Estelle said. “I haven’t seen her in ages. How is she? She’s feeling okay?”
 
“She’s fine, Mom.”
 
“You never even met them, your father’s parents,” said Estelle. “They were dead before you were born. What do you care where they’re buried?” She picked up her spoon and beat a light tattoo with it on the table. “Now if you wanted to visit my parents’ graves. . .”
 
“We’ve been there,” Lewis said. “We went to their funerals. Remember?”
 
“Mom,” said Martin. “We know all about your parents. You’ve told us.”
 
“My family had it all over your father’s family. I’m not criticizing your father, may he rest in peace. But his family! He rose above the rest of them, and they hated him all the more for it. He was a good husband, a good father.” This was a song Estelle had sung for her sons many, many times before. “He made a living, he provided for us, he made something of himself in this world. But there’s no getting around it–your father came from filth.” 
 
The Baskinds, her family, exemplified everything good in immigrant Jewish-American culture: they were clean and close-knit, honest, pious, patriotic; in good times they were generous, in adversity they were brave. Most of all, they were solvent. The Tischler side of the family, on the other hand, was a Who’s Who of dissolution, a swamp of dropouts, wannabes, and penny-ante grifters. Uncle Milton, who’d spent time in Joliet for kiting checks; Aunt Bessie, dead at fifty-three of hepatitis brought on by drink; Cousin Irwin, the teamster, good-hearted but hapless, dumb as a stump, married to a platinum blonde bimbo of dubious lineage who slept with shvartzes; litigious Cousin Stan, a failed bookkeeper and self-taught attorney, who at one time or another had attempted to sue almost everyone else in the family. The parade of failure went on, broken only by Howard, the hard-working jewelry salesman, the loyal husband of a good woman, the father of three decent boys, two of them with degrees from Ivy League schools.
 
Martin didn’t want to say anything unkind, but he couldn’t understand why Lewis was springing this idiotic idea on them: trying to find their paternal grandparents’ graves! Ridiculous! Nobody in their family cared about visiting graves. It simply wasn’t done. Martin hadn’t been to their father’s grave–their own beloved father’s grave–once since the funeral six years ago, and neither, as far as he knew, had their mother. The grave was in a cemetery less than two miles from Martin’s house; he could have stopped by any day of the week to sweep leaves off the gravesite, put a pebble on his father’s headstone. It would have taken all of five minutes. But who did that sort of thing? The same people who put up Christmas lights in November and didn’t take them down again until March, that’s who–the ones who hung Halloween decorations and Easter decorations and festooned their homes with red, white and blue bunting for the Fourth of July, who sent Hallmark cards, not the dry, irreverent funny ones but the scented ones that rhymed. Somebody had to go visit graves, after all, or the entire cemetery industry would have gone bankrupt by now. But the Tischler brothers? Not in a million years.
 
Surely Lewis wasn’t serious about this foolish enterprise. Martin suspected that it was all just a dodge, a way of keeping their mother from quizzing him about the state of his marriage. Lewis’s wife Bianca had asked him to move to the guest room; this was three months ago and there was still no sign of a thaw. All of Lewis’s skills as a litigator had done nothing to shake Bianca’s resolve. In fact the latest news on that front was that she’d hired a lawyer. Martin remembered the fuss his mother had put up over Jack’s three divorces. She’d loved Jack’s wives as if they’d been her own daughters. Each one in succession was the find of a lifetime, the wife to end all wives. First Francine, then Elinor, then Rosanna won her heart. Estelle wept, she beat her breast, she tore her clothing, the woman mourned those marriages; those divorces weren’t divorces, they were deaths in the immediate family. And now this. Lewis and Bianca! After thirty years of marriage! This one would drive a stake straight into her heart.
 
Nothing lasted, Martin knew–he was not a fool, he understood all about entropy, he was sixty-three, he felt it in his bones every morning when he awoke and got out of bed. His children were grown now, off on their own, doing well in their careers, but he could see the hint of disillusionment in their eyes when they came home for holidays. And his own career, once so promising, had come apart. Martin was a minor celebrity in Kansas City’s wretched public school system. Over thirty years ago he’d been responsible for creating the first inner-city middle school-level Film Studies program in the country. He’d won major grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Center for the Humanities, the Kaufmann Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation–but the funding for his grants had gradually dried up, and now in these desperate times, Kansas City’s school district seemed disinclined to pick up the slack. At the school where he’d taught for so many, many years, equipment was outdated, broken, irreplaceable. New technology existed that would have saved tens of thousands over a period of a few years, but there was no money to buy it. 
 
He looked at his students every day, these ten- and eleven-year-old kids, and saw them already bumping their heads on the ceiling of their possibilities. So much of the fundamental fabric of their lives had already been shredded beyond redemption. Most of them came from desperate poverty, from neglect and deprivation. Some of them came to school hungry in the morning, having had no breakfast. He had no illusions. Everything fell apart sooner or later; the legendary actors and directors and cinematographers whose work had so captured him in his youth rose and flourished and then fell into dust, no matter how lionized they’d once been; they grew old, these film giants, they went crazy, faded into obscurity, died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the Old Actors’ Home, choked on a plate of gnocchi in a trattoria on the Via Veneto, were felled by a stroke on a pier in Santa Monica. Even celluloid, the film stock itself, turned to toxic mush over time.
 
In the long run everything collapsed, except his love for Patty, and her love for him, the rich glow of their marriage that warmed him to the coldest, saddest, loneliest recess of his heart. His wife was remarkable, as much now as when he’d met her nearly forty years ago. Even when the kids were young she’d worked in fundraising for the Kansas City Art Institute, a job she’d had now for nearly thirty years. But it was her private life, the life away from her job, that Martin admired most ardently. She had a group for everything: a film group, a chamber music group, a book club, a cooking group. She jogged with friends three times a week, rain or shine. Once a year her cooking group got together and made pesto, a gigantic communal batch of it that they divvied up and froze in small portions to last through the winter. They’d read every Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, poetry, and history for the past twenty years. She had a network of pals, all of them interesting, unlike anything Martin had ever been able to acquire. And she did all this with aplomb, never breaking stride. Things would fall apart, everything would, but Patty would somehow remain intact. She would be Patty: enraged to the point of tears at the cruelty of the world, but still somehow hopeful. Her voice was hoarse, sandpapery, her laugh was unrestrained, when something tickled her she’d throw her head back, laugh herself into hiccups.      
 
What could he say about his reluctant, shaky relationship with his brothers, the long-distance bond they shared, slightly dishonest but oddly heartfelt nevertheless, from New York to Kansas City to Tucson, the tired, poignant transcontinental dance they performed year after year to stay in touch? It mattered to him, not acutely, not steadily, but it mattered, nevertheless. And so yes, reluctantly, yes, he wouldn’t put up a fuss, he’d go along with Lewis’s request, the man was suffering, and if this might help to heal him, it would be worth it. He’d have done the same for Jack. He’d even try to explain to Patty why he’d be leaving her alone for an entire Saturday to run off to God knows where looking for the graves of grandparents he’d never known.
 
The Tischler brothers shared the antipasto platter while their mother yammered on without eating a bite. At Jack’s urging she put an olive and a slice of cheese on her plate, where they sat untouched. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful,” she said in an indifferent tone. “They died a very long time ago. I never even knew your father’s mother. She’d been in the ground for years, the poor woman, before we met. I think she died in the Thirties, in the depths of the Depression, when your dad was just a boy, though he was already out of the house by then. I don’t know what he was doing. He never told me. Something out west. It was a bad time, people were riding the rails. Bums. I remember him telling me he wasn’t there when his mother died. We met much later, your father and I. I was ten years younger than your father. I came from a different kind of family. I knew your grandfather, a little bit. I saw enough. He had a lady friend when your father and I got married. Your father didn’t want them at the wedding. A common law wife, you’d call it. I never met her. She was a Catholic. He kept her somewhere over in Kansas City, Kansas. Not in the Jewish neighborhood.”
 
“Kept her?” asked Lewis.
 
“She had a room someplace, that’s all. I never heard her name. No one in the family ever saw her. I think he’d been carrying on with her even before your grandmother died.” Estelle unfolded her napkin as if she might be about to start eating. “Your father hated him. He refused to go to the funeral, in fact. I remember the phone call. We had a four-party line, we had to listen for the number of rings, that’s the way it was back then. Your father picked it up, listened, then he said, ‘Thank you for calling,’ and hung up, and that was that. He turned to me and said, ‘My father’s dead.’ He didn’t say another word about it. This was when we lived on Paseo, a little apartment, the place we rented before you boys came along. It was after the war, there was a housing shortage, you couldn’t find anything, anyplace to live.” She lifted her chin as she said this, as if sniffing the air.
 
“We know he wasn’t a nice guy,” said Jack.
 
“How would you know? You never even met him, dear,” Estelle said. She put her fork down. “Do you know what he said to me the day Howard and I got married?”
 
“As a matter of fact I do. You’ve told us this story, Mom,” said Martin. “Many times.”
 
“He hit me up for a loan. I hardly knew the man. He said he figured I was good for a hundred. I’m not kidding you. On the day of my wedding. And let me tell you, a hundred dollars was a lot of money then. Your grandfather thought the whole world was stupid. He was smart, everybody else was stupid. He cheated at cards and got caught doing it. They threw him out of his landsmanshaft–wouldn’t let him back in the door. The IRS got him for income tax evasion, which was ridiculous when you think of how little money he made. The Pendergast machine–Tom Pendergast, the boss I’m talking about–owned the egg candlers’ union, ran it top to bottom, your grandfather was so proud–he was the shop steward, a bigshot, and every year Pendergast’s boys came around and slapped him on the back and bought him a drink–and then guess what, when Pendergast dumped the egg candlers your grandfather was out on his ear, no pension, not a penny, and if it hadn’t been for a pittance from Social Security and a check from your dad now and then, he would have starved to death.” 
 
“So let bygones be bygones. You’ll come with us to the cemetery?” Lewis asked.
 
“Please. Don’t even ask. It’s my last day in town, I’m going to take a nap and listen to my French tapes. Irregular verbs. You learn better if you listen to the tapes while you’re asleep.” She picked up an olive. “I still can’t understand it,” she said, shaking her head. “You see each other once in a blue moon. This is the way you want to spend your day? In a Jewish cemetery?”
 
“He was our grandfather,” Lewis said with a shrug.  
 
“Don’t go,” she said. “Do me a favor, I’m your mother, I’m asking you, don’t go.”
 
His mother left a fifty and a twenty on the table and said her goodbyes. Faint hugs, air kisses all around. While Jack and Lewis were in the men’s room, Martin quickly called his wife to explain the situation. “My dad’s parents,” he said. “Lewis wants to feel connected.”
 
“To what?” Patty asked.
 
“Don’t ask me. The past. I don’t know. He’s going through something.”
 
“He’s always going through something.” A pause. “Did you know your grandparents?”
 
“I’ve told you all of this. They were dead before I was born. Never even met them.”
 
Patty sighed. “Remind me: what’s the Yiddish word for crazy?”
 
Meshuganeh.”
 
“Yes,” she said. “That’s the one.”
 
*
 
Five years earlier, everyone at Martin’s school–everyone in Kansas City’s public schools, for that matter–had been urged to take Spanish classes in order to better serve the burgeoning Hispanic student population and their parents. The classes were free. It had been years since Martin had sat in a language class. At first he worried that he’d lost the discipline he’d once possessed, the powers of concentration that had made him such a gifted student as a boy. But it was like riding a bicycle, the old rigorous pleasure came back to him as he learned his irregular verb conjugations, made his way through pronouns (demonstrative, possessive, interrogative, indefinite, relative, and reflexive) his articles (definite and indefinite). As it turned out, he was, as always, the best student in the class.
 
That was all well and good; but how to communicate with these fellows leaning on their shovels in this Jewish graveyard on the northeast side of Kansas City: that was the question. Martin could do well enough reciting verb conjugations, and he was fine in parent-teacher conferences, nervous mothers and fathers sitting across from him as he discussed their children’s progress–but now, here in this down-at-the-heels Jewish cemetery, faced with these brown-skinned, burly laborers, all of them no doubt working off the books, recently arrived from south of the border, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. How was it, by the way, he wondered, that in a Jewish cemetery, the only people working–indeed, the only people in sight–were Hispanic? What had happened to all the Jews? Maybe Lewis was right: they were all playing golf with the goyim out in the suburbs. But shouldn’t there be at least a couple of token members of the tribe on hand, caretakers, professional mourners, someone to say kaddish, to make the place seem authentically Jewish when families came out to pay their respects to the dead?
 
Lewis stared at the sky. “Where are we?” he asked Martin. “Mom didn’t know what she was talking about. She was talking a mile a minute, I couldn’t keep up. I think she just wanted to get home and start napping. You sure you don’t remember the name of the cemetery?” 
 
“I told you. She said Anshei Israel.”
 
“Well, we’re here. This is the address.”
 
“The phone book must have gotten it wrong. This is–” Martin looked around until he saw the sign–“Belikovner Yerushalayim.” He shook his head.
 
“It’s probably the same cemetery,” said Lewis. “This is the way it is in Queens–half the borough is Jewish cemeteries. It’s all the same cemetery, they just cut it up into a lot of subdivisions.” He paused. “C’mon. You’re the one who took Spanish. Go talk to those guys.”
 
“All I know how to say is ‘Your child is doing well in Film Studies this term.’”
 
“Martin,” Lewis said between clenched teeth. “For the love of God. Just do it.”    
 
“Jeez. Okay. But don’t get your hopes up.”
 
“Believe me,” said Lewis. “As in all things, my hopes are not up.” He kicked a pebble.
 
Martin approached the oldest of the grave diggers, a small man with a pencil-thin moustache and a Royals cap, and in a reedy, faltering voice, tried to initiate a conversation. “Estamos perdidos,” he began. He immediately stopped. He hoped that meant “We are lost.” But he couldn’t remember. He’d learned the phrase in Elementary Spanish but had never used it in a parent-teacher conference. It had never come up. Now he stumbled along in a halting voice, hoping he was saying, “My brothers and I are looking for the graves of our grandparents,” but this was stretching his meager Spanish skills to the limit.
 
The man in the Royals cap nodded. “Están enterrados aquí?” he asked.
 
“Yes. Here, I think. In this cemetery.” He turned to Jack and Lewis. “My God, this is
hard,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s saying. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
 
“You’re doing fine,” said Jack. At InfoCard everyone in management had been told to learn Spanish last year as a part of the company’s efforts to improve customer service, but all Jack had memorized so far was “You’re fired” (“Usted está despedido”) and “Put your shit in a box and get out of here” (“Deje el inmueble”).    
 
The man in the Royals cap turned to the others working with shovels and spoke with them in rapid Spanish. “I don’t know what he’s saying,” Martin told his brothers. “He’s talking too fast.” One of the other gravediggers replied to the man in the Royals cap, but again Martin couldn’t follow. Several of them shrugged, one wiped his face with a bandana.         
 
Por favor! Esto es muy importante!” Martin said this in a louder, more forceful voice, the one he used when he was dealing with school administrators in budget meetings.
 
Cuáles son sus nombres?” the man in the Royals cap asked him.
 
“Max Tischler. T-I-S-C-H-L-E-R. Max. M-A-X. And Sophie. S-O-P-H-I-E.”
 
Cuando se enterraron?
 
Martin turned to his brothers. “When were they buried, he wants to know.” He turned back to the man. “I don’t know,” he said. “No sabemos. I don’t know the dates.”
 
The man looked at him wide-eyed, an incredulous smile spreading across his cheeks. He turned to his fellows and spoke to them again in rapid-fire Spanish that Martin couldn’t follow. He imagined the gist of the remarks, though: This fool is telling me he doesn’t know when his grandparents died. That’s crazy. Everybody knows when their grandparents died, even rich white Americans who never do a lick of work know that.     
 
Nuestra familia no esta. . .” Martin stopped. What was the word he was looking for? Close? Tight? “Estamos. . .distantes. Nos hemos separado. Aparte.” He illustrated his point with his arms held wide apart–this was his relationship with his brothers. They were not close. They were distant. Whatever their mother might think, they’d grown apart. They’d lost each other in the maze of their separate lives. It was less painful to make this admission muffled in the mysteries of Spanish, he realized, than it would have been to say it clearly, out in the open, in English. In fact, he couldn’t have said it in his own vocabulary, even if he’d just been talking to himself, shaving in the morning, looking in the mirror.
 
“What are you telling this guy?” Lewis asked.
 
“I’m explaining some stuff to him, that’s all,” said Martin.
 
The man in the Royals cap nodded thoughtfully. Then he motioned for Martin, Lewis and Jack to follow him. He led them down a winding gravel path lined with shrubs toward the cemetery’s main office, a low-slung sandstone building with showroom windows. The door to the office was open, and there was a dusty show room full of sample headstones, everything from grand obelisks to small, simple slabs. No salespeople were on duty. The man unlocked a door at the back of the office and as he stepped through it, he turned back to the Tischler brothers and pointed to some chairs where they could wait.
 
In a few moments he came back holding a large green ledger in both hands. He’d opened it to a yellowed page. “Es éste su abuelo?” he asked, and handed the heavy ledger to Martin. He pointed to a scrawled line halfway down the page. “Aquí,” he said. Martin squinted at the line of print: Max Tischler, it read. March 3, 1955. Age 84.
 
The name was right, but the rest of it was all wrong. It had to be wrong. The wrong Max Tischler. If their grandfather had died in 1955, he still would have been alive when Martin and Lewis were children, and that just wasn’t possible. Martin was born in 1948, Lewis a year later. They’d have been in their first years of elementary school by the time this Max Tischler died, and that simply didn’t fit with the story their parents had always told them. Estelle had been so clear and specific about it all: the phone call, the four-party line, the apartment on Paseo, and so on.
 
“Don’t go,” she’d told them at lunch. “Do me a favor, I’m your mother, don’t go.”
 
On the other hand, Max Tischler wasn’t such an uncommon name for a Jew of the old generation. Surely this was some other fellow. But how many Max Tischlers could there have been in Kansas City over the past half-century?   
 
Gracias,” Martin said. “Donde está la. . . .”
 
La tumba?” the man in the baseball cap said.
 
Si. The grave. La tumba.”                             
 
“What’s going on?” Lewis asked.
 
Martin considered his options. He could tell Lewis the truth, which was that this Max Tischler, the one in the log book, might not be their grandfather–or perhaps he was their grandfather, and their parents had been lying to them all these years about the date of the old man’s death. One way or another, was it worth it? One more lie wouldn’t kill anybody. Lewis was already in rocky shape. Three months of sleeping in the guest room had left him jumpy, vulnerable. While Martin had spent a career forging a modest reputation as one of the secular saints of Kansas City’s dismal public school system, Lewis had quietly soared through the rarified atmosphere of a very old Wall Street law firm. (He was the only Jewish partner in the firm, the only Jew they’d ever partnered, and without being told to, without hearing so much as a hint of advice in this direction, over the years he’d developed a dry, elaborate, deliberately un-Jewish delicacy of manner, an exaggerated Gentile blandness.) But that Lewis was gone, that shell of pseudo-WASP reserve had been cracked and ruined, and in place of the old Lewis, Martin saw a needy man, his hat in his hands, pleading for something. 
 
Martin shrugged and sighed. “You won’t believe it. He’s found Grandpa,” he said. What a faker he was. What right did he have to use the term “Grandpa”? He’d never said it in his life. 
 
The man in the Royals cap ran his index finger across the line to a series of numbers. “Está cerca,” he said.                                             
 
“It’s close by,” Martin told his brothers. “We’re in the right place after all.”
 
“So what about our grandmother, then?” asked Lewis.
 
“He didn’t say anything about her.”
 
“Well, ask him. We’re here. Ask him, for crying out loud.”
 
Martin hesitated. He sighed. What would be enough? This was ridiculous. But then, when would they have this chance again? “Mi abuela?” he asked.
 
The man shook his head. “Su abuela. . .” he said, and put up his hands in surrender. “Una fosa común, por caridad.
 
“What’s he saying?” Jack asked.
 
Martin was trying to remember what “caridad” meant. “Perdida,” the man said.
 
“Oh. Sure. Caridad,” Martin said. He turned to his brothers. “Charity. She was buried in a charity grave. You know. A pauper’s grave. They don’t know where it is. It’s lost.”
 
The man motioned to them to follow him outside, where an ancient golf cart with banged-up fenders was parked on the gravel behind the low-slung sandstone building. He waved the three Tischler brothers into the vehicle. Martin claimed the front passenger seat, and Jack and Lewis settled uneasily into the rumble seat. The cart took off with surprising speed, and Martin held onto the frame of the windshield to steady himself. They drove for several minutes–the cemetery was the size of a golf course. Narrow lanes intersected at regular intervals on a grid.
 
At last the driver slowed and came to a stop. “Aquí está,” the man said, and pointed to the left, down a row of headstones. He turned off the engine and sat still for a moment. “Venga,” he said, and pointed again, nodding to Martin.           
 
“Come on,” said Martin. “We’re here. We might as well do this.” He looked at his brothers. “We’ve come all this way.”
 
“He’s not going to take off and leave us here, is he?” Jack asked. “I don’t want to have to walk back to the car. Where the hell are we?”
 
“He’s not going to take off,” Martin said. “Come on.” He got out of the cart, and Lewis and Jack followed him. He led them silently, slowly, down the narrow gravel path to their grandfather’s headstone. It was small and undistinguished, made of a pinkish stone. Sure enough, the name on the stone was Max Tischler, who had died at eighty-four in 1955. Martin waited for Lewis or Jack to point at the date and say something, but neither of them uttered a sound. Were they looking? Were they thinking? Were they even paying attention? Was he the only one of them actually paying any goddamn attention? 
 
Some of the stones in this row, larger and more distinguished, bore somber, sepia-toned oval photographs of the deceased, encased in glass and surprisingly well-preserved, and Martin had hoped to see one on his grandfather’s headstone–to have at last a picture of the man to go along with the stories he’d heard, but this modest pink stone had nothing of the kind. Was this their grandfather’s grave? The answer was either yes or no, there was no middle ground. Which was more likely: that this was some other Max Tischler, a stranger, someone else’s father, grand-father–or that it was indeed their very own ancestor, the feckless egg candler who shlepped all the way from Belikovna to Kansas City?    
 
If this was their grandfather’s grave, he’d lived long enough to have met Martin and Lewis, his two oldest grandsons, to have held them on his lap, made goo-goo noises against their cheeks. Or later, he could have watched in the audience, rapt with wonder, as Martin played Christopher Columbus in a production of his first grade teacher’s original play, “It’s America!” The old man might have rooted from the bleachers at Lewis’s first at-bat in Little League. It could have been possible. He’d lived not even five miles away from them, trapped in desperate squalor somewhere in the old Jewish confines by the river on Kansas City’s northeast side, while Martin and Lewis and their parents occupied their decent duplex in middle-class Waldo, south of the Country Club Plaza. Before his death, the old man might have even heard of the birth of his third grandson, Jack. Martin’s imagination raced. Max Tischler would have demanded to see the children, his handsome grandsons, at least once. Martin envisioned the old man barging in on them during the dinner hour, refusing to take no for an answer. He had no memory of such an occasion, but what did that prove? He might have been in diapers at the time. He couldn’t remember every chance encounter of his infancy. Would his mother and father have lied to him and to Lewis and Jack all these years, telling them their grandfather had died before they were born? And if they had, why had they? Why sustain such a foolish story, when the truth of the matter was, in the bigger scheme of things, so harmless? (“Don’t go,” his mother had said at the Italian restaurant. “Do me a favor, don’t go.”)
 
A row of blocky Hebrew letters ran across the top of the stone. Martin had no idea what the letters said, or what the words would have meant in English. He’d memorized his haftorah for his bar mitzvah half a century ago and that had been the end of Hebrew for him.    
 
“Can we just stand here for a minute?” Lewis asked.           
 
“It’s a grave, Lewis,” Martin said. “It’s just a headstone. He’s not in there.”
 
“Just give me a minute.”
 
“Whatever we came to do,” said Martin, “we did.”
 
Lewis stood hunched over the gravestone, his eyes shut tight, his bony face pursed into a mask of grief. After a moment he opened one eye and whispered to Martin out the side of his mouth, “I’m having a moment here, okay?” Martin and Jack looked at him uneasily. Lewis remained immobile, hunched, locked into an attitude of grief. At last he straightened up and stepped away from the headstone, leading his brothers resolutely back up the narrow path to the golf cart, where the man in the Royals cap sat smoking a cigarette.
 
*
 
Martin stood in his back yard, his arm on Patty’s shoulder, basking in the late afternoon light, sniffing the ambrosial scent of barbecue smoke rising off their grill. They hadn’t even put the burgers and ribs on yet, and it already smelled like heaven. The sunlight caught Patty’s hair and turned it into a frizzled mass of cotton candy. What could be better than this, standing in the glow of sunlight with the woman he loved? The day had left Martin full of self-doubt, and now he found himself second-guessing even this, his love for Patty, his reliance on that love–it seemed suddenly cloying to him, part of his lifelong campaign to be The Good Brother. But at the same moment he felt the undeniable warmth of Patty’s body beneath his arm, felt it coming into him, that warmth. How could this, of all things, be counterfeit? Upstairs in Martin’s study, Lewis was on the phone to Bianca, calling, as he’d promised Martin, to attempt to arrange a reconciliation. In the kitchen, meanwhile, Jack was in the living room on the phone with Joanie, trying to tell her he didn’t want to see her anymore, not until her stepmother Beulah was dead and in the ground.
 
Martin felt swarmed by mixed feelings. What else was new? Ambivalence had ruled his life for so long now that he wouldn’t have known how to get up in the morning without it. This was a time for summing up: more than thirty years in a classroom, an endless parade of children before him, nearing the end of his career, the school district seriously threatening now to zero out the Film Studies budget and leave him stranded, and now, just as he should have been reveling in a career well done, a life constructed of honor and decency, he found himself less sure of his calling as a teacher than he’d been at the very beginning. Had it been worth it, all the late nights of lesson plans, grant-writing, the appeals to various foundations, the in-service days listening to district administrators droning on about test scores and revenue allocations? Lewis had once told him, “You went to Yale, for God’s sake. You want to be a teacher, okay, fine, be a professor, wear a tweed sport coat, at least you’ll make a nice living. What’s the point of wasting a good education, spending your life shoving François Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman down the throats of a bunch of ghetto kids who’d rather be holding up a 7-Eleven?” Martin had never forgotten this. To be dismissed by his younger brother, to have his life’s work waved off like an overdone steak sent back to the kitchen. Lewis, with his manicured estate in Mamaroneck and his summer place in the Hamptons, his Swedish cars and all the rest of it.
 
But maybe Lewis had been right. What had Martin taught his students after all? To pay attention to the edge of the frame, the hazy details almost out of the camera’s range? To grasp the chance to be someone other than who they were, if only for an hour or two at a time? If he was lucky, perhaps, he’d taught them–some of them–to love beauty in all its guises, wherever they found it. That would have been enough to have made his work worthwhile.
 
Despite his dutiful attentiveness, he no longer knew if he loved his mother–he no longer knew if he trusted her heart, no longer felt certain that he even knew the woman, or ever had known her. All those years she’d spent wiping bloody noses, bandaging skinned knees, the hugs and kisses over report cards, the nakhes she shepped over their various achievements–but the truth was, she’d hidden herself away from all of them; perhaps she’d hidden herself away from their father as well. A decent, hard-working, upstanding Baskind stuck among all these degenerate Tischlers; she must have felt like she was living in an enemy camp all those years.
 
Martin watched the smoke rise off the grill, and remembered his father standing guard over a portable grill at a lakeside beach somewhere in the Ozarks, the smoke billowing up, the smell of the burgers, the onions on the fire. Jack was a squawling toddler; this was probably the summer of 1958. Martin would have been almost ten, and Lewis would have already turned eight. Their family didn’t take many vacations; vacations were invented by Gentiles, with their water skis and coolers full of beer; and this weekend excursion to the Ozarks, a brief escape from the heat and humidity of a Kansas City summer, was a special treat for the Tischlers. It was hard for their father to get away from Jacoby’s Fine Jewelry. The store was open six days a week and usually he had to go in on Saturday morning, if only to help Mr. Jacoby keep up with inventory. Mr. Jacoby, a tall, broad man who wore spats, would have been lost without Howard Tischler, his right hand man, the best salesman on the floor, so honest he wouldn’t have lifted a paperclip.  
 
At the lakeshore resort where they’d rented a cabin for the weekend, Martin and Lewis swam with their father in the afternoon sun, frolicking in the cool green water, dunking each other and splash-fighting, behaving, in his mother’s words, “like a bunch of wild Indians.” Martin remembered the white skin of his father’s arms and legs. He was not a man who looked at home in a swimsuit. Martin recalled staring at the outline of his father’s private parts, which hung impressively at the front of his suit. Estelle sat on a bench by the dock, rocking Jack in her arms, the breeze of the water fanning her hair. And then, in the early evening, as the air cooled down and a few mosquitoes came out, Howard doused the charcoal briquets with lighter fluid, soaking them in the stuff, then lit them. Martin and Lewis watched with fascination as the flames licked up the lighter fluid and danced above the briquets. Their father stood guard over the grill, his legs set apart, his hands on his hips, like the Colossus of Rhodes. Martin remembered reading Richard Halliburton’s description of the mammoth statue as it must have looked once upon a time in the ancient harbor of Constantinople. He and Lewis had read all of Halliburton’s travel books, and had passed them along to Jack, but Jack never seemed eager to read anything his brothers had already pored over. A different gene pool altogether.
 
Martin’s cell phone rang. Reluctantly he dug it out of his shirt pocket: it was his mother.
 
“I’m at the airport, dear,” she said. “We’re having coffee. The coffee here is terrible.”
 
“When’s your flight?”
 
“In a little while. We fly to Chicago then catch the non-stop to Paris. I just wanted to call and say goodbye. I don’t know why I even bother to take this phone with me on these trips. It won’t work in Europe. It’s the wrong kind.”
 
“I’m glad you called. Have a safe trip, Mom. Say hi to Eric Satie for me.”
 
“You went out to the cemetery?”
 
“Yeah. We went. We thought we got lost, but we finally found it.”
 
“And. . .?” she asked after a moment.
 
“We found his grave. I mean, we found a grave. Max Tischler. That was the name. We saw the headstone and everything. The date was wrong, I don’t know what that means.” Martin felt instinctively that he was inching out onto thin ice. He didn’t know how far he wanted to go.
 
There was a pause. “Well, if the date was wrong it means it was the wrong headstone.”
 
“Yes, that’s probably what it was. We might have ended up in the wrong cemetery.”
 
His mother made a noise, not a laugh, more like a snort of air through her nose. “Your
father paid for that headstone. His brothers and sisters wouldn’t chip in a penny. He wouldn’t go to the funeral, but he wrote the check.”
 
“Well, he got his money’s worth. It’s still there.” Then he backpedaled. “I mean, I don’t know. If it’s the right headstone, there it is. Like you say, it was probably somebody else. I told you, we got lost.”
 
Another pause. “And your grandmother? Any luck there?”
 
Martin hesitated. “We didn’t find hers,” he said.
 
“Oh. I’m not surprised. The poor woman. She was a cripple, you know. That was your father’s word. That’s what he called her. A cripple. She wore a boot. There was something wrong with one of her legs. Or a clubfoot, I don’t know. Maybe it was polio. Did they have polio in Russia? I can’t remember the story.”
 
“She’s in another cemetery, I guess. Or another section. They weren’t buried together.”    
 
“Well, I’ve got to go. Give your brothers a kiss and a hug from their little mother. We love each other, that’s the most important thing, you know, Martin,” she said. She whispered this into the phone receiver, and Martin bent his head to catch her voice, caught suddenly by the feeling that he was leaning over her deathbed, the way he’d leaned over his father’s deathbed six years before. At the time his father, with two weeks to live, had become a shrunken version of himself, still gruff at moments but doped out so much of the time that his ornery energy came to him only in spurts. He wanted Martin to order him an extra crispy chicken wing from Kentucky Fried Chicken: that was the portentous announcement awaiting him when his father beckoned him to his bedside one afternoon near the end. Light streamed in through a slatted window blind, casting stripes across his father’s sheets. Martin remembered this, the stripes, staring at them. “Son, go buy me one chicken wing,” his father said. “Extra crispy. Don’t let them sell you that original recipe. That’s crap, that eleven herbs and spices. That stuff will kill you.”
 
“You and your brothers, you’re so close,” Estelle said now. “It means so much to me.”
 
It wasn’t true, of course. They’d grown apart. Did she not know, had she not noticed, was she so intent on her own pursuits? It wasn’t just the breadth of the continent that separated them. They’d lost each other. They were separated by everything. 
 
“I have to go, they’re calling my flight, they always call the First Class passengers early. You make me so happy, Martin,” his mother breathed into the phone. Suddenly her voice sounded as if it might be teetering on the edge of tears. “To see the three of you together. Your father and I never worried about you, we knew you had each other. We always knew that.”
 
“Yes,” he said. “We’re brothers, after all.” She blew him a distant, distracted kiss through the telephone. Martin hung up. Standing in the afternoon sun, watching the smoke still rising off the charcoal briquets of his barbecue, he realized again, for the hundredth time, that whether he liked it or not, what he’d said to his mother was true after all–that nothing would ever change the fact that he had two brothers, one richer, one poorer, one to the East and one to the West, and that despite everything, the three of them were joined together, shackled at wrist and ankle, and would remain so until the end of time. He would never be brotherless, not even after Lewis and Jack were dead and gone to ashes; not after all the delicatessens in the world had closed and all the Jews were gone, just a memory, after the seas had risen and swamped every cemetery in the world; even after the end of everything, they would be his brothers forever.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Gerald Shapiro 2013
 
Gerald Shapiro (1950-2011) was the author of three collections of fiction: Little Men (2004), Bad Jews and Other Stories (1999), and From Hunger (1993). Little Men and Bad Jews were both translated into French and published by Albin Michel. Little Men won the Ohio State University Short Fiction Prize. From Hunger won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction in 1994. Bad Jews was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction in 2001, and was made into a movie, King of the Corner, in 2004. He also edited the anthology American Jewish Fiction: a Century of Stories (1998). At the time of his death he had just completed a new collection of stories, In the Jewish Cemetery.


 

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