A few hours after my nap, it was time again for calories and I was at the Kosher Nosh restaurant with the old flesh and blood—Aunt Florence and Uncle Irwin. Jeeves was home, doing who knows what—probably writing letters to fellow valets in servitude in far-off lands. Meanwhile, I was meditatively chewing on a large, wartish, dark green pickle. I had already broached the coffee matter during the car ride to the restaurant, and my uncle, as Jeeves had predicted, was perfectly reasonable and forgiving; so now, with each bite of my pickle, I was gathering up the courage to tackle the next difficult issue—to let the old f. and b. know that their beloved nephew was going to take wing the next morning.
It was part of our normal routine to go to the Kosher Nosh on Monday nights. It was a delicatessen restaurant with about fifty simple tables, all very close to one another, and the whole place was bathed in bright fluorescent lights. On one side of the establishment was the dining area, and on the other was a thirty-foot glass counter filled with all sorts of meats and salads and knishes of various origins, and behind the counter were usually about half a dozen yarmulked, white-smocked countermen, who engaged in playful Yiddish banter and efficient meat-slicing and shouted with authority, “Next!”
The clientele of the Kosher Nosh were ancient Jews who had no business eating pastrami sandwiches. They hardly looked like they could walk, let alone digestively break down noxious smoked meats. But there they were, happily absorbing substantial portions of kosher brisket, corned beef, pastrami, roast beef, chicken, hot dogs, tongue, liver, and steak.
I was as Jewish as any of the alter kockers—that’s “old codgers” in gentile—present at the Kosher Nosh, but my surname Blair (originally Blaum but changed at Ellis Island), and my somewhat Waspish appearance often have me mistaken for a gentile. But my palate—I love pastrami and Cell-Ray soda—in contrast to my looks is a dead giveaway and decidedly Semitic, as is my digestion, which, like with most Jews, is constricted at best. If anyone should be vegetarian, it’s the Jews. But we may have developed constipation in a Darwinian way. We’ve spent centuries hiding in cellars during pogroms, inquisitions, and holocausts, and so if you don’t have to go outside to the bathroom, where you might get killed by a passing Cossack, inquisitioner, or storm trooper, then you live longer and pass on your genes, including the lifesaving constricted-bowel gene.
So every Monday at the Kosher Nosh, I got my weekly pastrami fix, and it was the one communal meal where my uncle’s mastication didn’t completely unman me. The other chewing noises coming from the tables around us were all so ghastly that his noises seemed to be lost in this gruesome chorus; in fact, in the world of the Kosher Nosh, the gurgles and spittles and frothings of his chomping were normal, and so their power over me was somehow nullified.
We placed our order with an exhausted, ready-for-the-grave waitress—for some reason, the Kosher Nosh only hired newly minted female senior citizens; it was a restaurant of the aged serving the even more aged. And it was while I was nervously starting in on a second pickle to pass the time and muster courage that an Asian family of four poked their heads into the dining area. This seemed very unusual. They just stood there, father, mother, a son, and a daughter—all of them clearly uncertain about storming this gathering of Israelites in Montclair. We weren’t a fierce bunch of Jews, but if all the elders wielded their aluminum walking sticks at the same time, we could make a dangerous mob.
“Look,” I said to my aunt and uncle, because of the novelty of the occurrence. “A Chinese family. Or maybe Korean. I don’t think they’re Japanese.”
“They should come in,” said my aunt Florence. “The food here is the best.”
“I wonder what they’re thinking, looking at all these Jews eating corned beef and ready for heart operations,” I said.
“They’re thinking,” said my uncle, “‘must be a good place—there’s Jewish people here—that’s always a good sign.’”
My uncle, despite a number of faults, often displayed a quick and amusing wit, which I admired. I smiled appreciatively at the cleverness of his remark and even let out a little laugh.
But my aunt, who at sixty-three looked no more than fifty with her honey-colored hair twirled in a challahlike, teenagelike braid, did not understand why I had giggled at my uncle’s rejoinder. Her sense of humor, like her braid, was a bit naive, though in all other areas she was bright and sensitive. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
My uncle was momentarily incapable of speech; he had grabbed and was destroying a pickle, nearly swallowing the thing whole—all tables came with an aluminum canister filled with the phallic green wands soaking in brine—and so it was left to me to explain to my aunt. “You know how when we go to a Chinese restaurant,” I said, “or when any Jewish person goes to a Chinese restaurant, and if they haven’t been there before and they see Chinese people eating there, they’ll say, ‘Look! There’s Chinese people—that’s a good sign.’ Well, these Chinese people—if they’re Chinese—have come to a Jewish restaurant and it’s a good sign to them, according to Uncle Irwin, that there are Jews here.”
“Oh yes,” said my aunt, smiling sweetly, “I get it now.”
“I think,” I said, “it would be interesting someday if Chinese people ate Jewish food as much as Jewish people ate Chinese food. There should be Jewish fast-food places, like the Chinese have. Instead of wonton soup, chicken soup; instead of egg rolls, egg matzo; and a Jewish fortune cookie could be a piece of rugelach with a stock tip or something from a Jewish investment bank. You know, so people could make fortunes.”
My uncle Irwin shot me one of those oysterish glances he specialized in. You know, where the eye is all cold and dead and runny. It wasn’t as fearsome as the lobster look he had given me that morning, but it wasn’t what you would call a tender glance. He didn’t like it when I posited unusual hypothetical situations, like Jewish fast food and fortune cookies. To be honest, he thought I was a bit loony and something of a layabout. One time, he burst into my lair while I was working on my opus, though, actually at that moment, I was playing solitaire at the computer as a way to stimulate the Muse—she often likes it when I play solitaire for an hour or more. But when my uncle saw the cards on the computer screen, he shouted, “So this is what you do in here all the time! Talk to yourself and play solitaire!”
So before things went too far downhill at the Kosher Nosh and became overly frosty because of my Jewish fortune cookie idea, I thought I had better break the news about my leaving.
“I have something to announce,” I said, flourishing my pickle like a green and swollen extra finger. “I’m going to take off for the Poconos for the rest of the summer. I’ve burdened you enough these last few months. But I’ll be in frequent contact and will flood you with postcards of rural landscapes.”
Uncle Irwin, to my surprise, continued to beam oysters at me. I wanted to tell him that oysters were trayf and had no place here at the Kosher Nosh. I had thought he would be glad to hear I was leaving.
In spiritual contrast, my aunt Florence’s eyes were not at all oysterish—they looked sad and concerned. “Alan, I’ve been worried,” she said. “I was going to suggest tonight, after we had our food, something very different from you going off to the Poconos.” She paused, steeled herself, then continued, “I think maybe you should consider going back to rehab.”
“We know you’ve been drinking again,” growled my uncle. “We took you in when you had nowhere to go and the way you thank us is by hitting the bottle.”
This was a contretemps I had not foreseen. I lowered my pickle to my plate, like dropping my sword. Then the Asian family took the empty table next to us. I smiled at them, wanting to welcome them to the promised land of brisket, but this smile was a cover-up while I tried to put together a defense. One came to me: I would drop my shield to go along with my pickle sword. No defense.
“Yes, I’ve been drinking,” I said, taking the honest path, but then, swerving, I continued, “though not to excess. One medicinal glass of red wine each night as a sleeping potion. They say it’s good for your blood. If the French didn’t eat a lot of fat and smoke cigarettes in the delivery rooms of hospitals, they would live exceedingly long lives due to all the red wine they go through.” I hadn’t meant to produce such a disquisition of facts about the state of French health, but when nervous, I’m prone to obfuscation, not to mention lying.
“Alan,” said my aunt, and she looked at me with love, “the Flatleys” — she was referring to the next-door neighbors—“asked us if we were putting wine bottles in their recycling bin. I said no, of course. And then they joked that somebody was going through two or three bottles a night and trying to pin it on them.”
“That’s why you closet yourself in your room all morning, isn’t it?” said my uncle. “You’re hungover! You’re supposed to be writing your book.”
“I do write my book. And I don’t drink at night. It must be Jeeves!”
“Jeeves! You’re insane!” exclaimed my uncle with anger. But he was quite right to be furious with me—I shouldn’t have tried to smudge Jeeves’s character as a way of oiling out of a tough spot.
My aunt ignored this Jeeves exchange. “I spoke to Dr. Montesonti,” she said, and my mind reeled. The dreaded Montesonti—the nerve specialist at Cedars Grove rehab in Long Island where I’d had an unfortunate residence! He had told me that I was a maniac, in the classic sense of the word, which appealed to my ego a little, but he had wanted to destroy my relationship with my Muse by prescribing lithium. “I will not go on lithium!” I had protested. “It’s only a salt,” he’d argued. “I don’t like salt,” I had riposted, and luckily for me he couldn’t force me to take that horrible seasoning. And then I miraculously escaped his clutches when my insurance ran out.
“Montesonti is a terrible doctor,” I said to my aunt and uncle. “What kind of psychiatrist is grossly overweight and chews Nicorette gum?”
Aunt Florence didn’t respond to my statement; she clearly had her speech prepared and pressed on with it:
“He recommended that either you come back to Cedars or we find you a place out here. But he also said that if you refused to go back to rehab, that we were to ask you to leave. That by letting you stay, we were enabling you. That we had to give you tough love. Your mother would want me to love you any way I can, and if the doctor feels that tough love is the best kind, then that’s what we have to do. . . . Will you go back to rehab? You hardly went to AA, and you haven’t stopped drinking on your own, as you promised. And that was our contract—a quiet place to do your writing if you don’t drink. So either it’s rehab or we can no longer have you in the house.”
I could see that my aunt hated to say this, but she thought she was doing the right thing, and perhaps she was.
“You use up a lot of electricity, you know, with that computer, playing solitaire,” said my uncle, “and you don’t need to run the hot water the whole time you’re shaving. Just turn the water back on when you rinse the blade.” These were obviously economic grievances that he had been harboring for some time.
“Irwin, that doesn’t help matters,” said my aunt. Rarely did she speak harshly to him. My uncle, chastised, savaged another pickle, and it disappeared into his Padre Pio beard, never to be seen again. The Chinese family to our right were studying the Talmud-sized menus and consulting with one another in their native tongue. A shade, in the form of a waitress, arrived with our soups. We all had ordered mushroom barley, but now our unity in soup seemed quite sad. Our shared preference for barley soup had, over the months, given me an odd sense of family, despite whatever tensions existed between myself and the uncle, but the discovery of the wine bottles by the Flatleys had shattered this. My uncle started to eat; my aunt and I were too upset to begin.
“I understand your position entirely,” I said to my aunt Florence, trying to gather myself with dignity; my uncle’s head was bent to his bowl. “You’ve been wonderful and good to me and I’m very grateful. I promise you that my drinking is not out of control. . . . At least I don’t think it is. So I don’t want to go to rehab. It almost killed me the last time. . . . So I guess it’s good timing, my decision to head for the Poconos.”
I peered into my soup, ashamed. Barley and vegetables floated listlessly in the overcast broth. And yet, in that murk, I could make out my reflection—my eyes in that soupy mirror were two black coins. I didn’t recognize myself.
“You’re thirty years old,” said my uncle. “You’re a free agent. Just don’t put me in your book, if you ever write it. I want to write my own novel about being a salesman. Arthur Miller wrote the play, but I’ll write the book.”
“I won’t write about you, I promise,” I said.
My uncle, satisfied, ate his soup. My aunt took a sip of water, and then she said, “We love you, Alan. Please, please be careful.”
“I will be,” I said.
“He’ll be all right,” said my uncle to reassure her. “Eat your soup,” he then barked, commanding both of us, not wanting us to waste food, and I did so numbly, without tasting it. I avoided my aunt’s eyes for the rest of the meal. Naturally, I didn’t have much appetite. My uncle had my sandwich wrapped up, told me to eat it for lunch tomorrow. Not an ungenerous man, he paid for dinner.
Later, at the door to my bedroom, my aunt hugged me goodnight, and when she released me, she said, “I love you very much. . . . Irwin is fond of you, too. Loves you, you know, even if he seems gruff most of the time. He’s liked having you here. If you stop drinking, you can always come back to us.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I love you.” She didn’t look like my mother, even though they were sisters, but telling her I loved her was almost like saying it to my mother, something I hadn’t been able to do since I was twenty, except in my mind.
“We probably won’t see each other in the morning unless you get up when I do,” she said, “so let’s say good-bye now.”
She opened her arms for a second hug. We held each other. “Please don’t hurt yourself with the drinking,” she said, and let go of me.
“I won’t,” I said.
Then my aunt Florence walked down the short hall to their bedroom. My uncle was playing his weather channel. He played it at night, too, a habit from his days as a traveling salesman when he needed to know the weather just as much as a sailor.
I lay on my bed, once again careworn. How terrible to be alcoholic. You just want to quietly soothe and maybe poison yourself, but you end up poisoning those around you as well, like trying to commit suicide with a gas oven and unwittingly murdering your neighbors.
I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration—Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O, but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror. “Yes, Jeeves,” I said.
“Will you be needing anything, sir, before I retire?”
“A new brain, Jeeves.”
“I’ve made a mess of things. Aunt Florence found out about my tippling.”
“Most troubling, sir.”
“I’ve hurt her terribly. I should be lashed. If we weren’t heading for the Poconos, she was about to give us the boot. She said she has to practice ‘tough love’ on me, Jeeves. And I don’t blame her, but she’s been overly influenced by those admirable twelve-step programs. But I need more than twelve steps. For what ails me, I require that whole staircase in Rome.”
“Most vexing, sir.”
“They say it all comes from low self-esteem. Maybe I can order chest-expanding equipment from Charles Atlas. That might help.”
“My aunt also said she doesn’t want to enable me. All this language is strange, don’t you think, Jeeves? Enable. Tough love. I think enable should be switched to spoil rotten. . . . And that’s what you do to me, Jeeves. Spoil me rotten, just by listening. It’s a great comfort.”
“I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir.”
We weren’t about to throw ourselves on each other’s neck, but it was a moment awash in tenderness and bonhomie.
“Good night, Jeeves,” I said.
“Good night, sir,” he said and I blinked and he was gone.