The Casket in Cogan's Cellar
By Robert Sachs
Herman Cogan is on the phone talking with his mother when she mentions the wing chair she gave him years ago, before she moved to Florida. His mother often reminisces these days. Talking about the past. When they were a family.
“I don’t remember it,” Cogan says.
“It’s the one with the rose-colored seat. You loved to sit in it when you were young. You didn’t throw it away, did you?”
Cogan rarely ventures into the basement of his three-flat apartment building. It is dark and dank and smells of decay. The light switch malfunctioned years ago. Now he’s using a flashlight to avoid bumping into luggage, boxes of books, non-working washers and dryers, old furniture. The landlord has promised to fix the light switch, but never gets around to it. After stumbling over an old garden hose, Cogan finds the chair sheathed in opaque plastic.
Yes. Gray knobbly, with a tufted, rose-colored seat. He remembers. His mother had two workmen with a pickup drop off the furniture she would have no use for in Florida, and he had asked them to put it in the cellar. He intended to sort through it all, but never got to it.
Cogan notices something beneath the chair, barely visible under the plastic. A wooden box. As he pulls it clear of the chair, he realizes it is a small casket. He never noticed it before. Whose is it? How did it get there? Is anything in it?
“It’s here, Mom, the chair. But I also found a little casket. What’s that about?”
“They weren’t supposed to deliver that. It was supposed to go back to the funeral home or something. I don’t know.”
“Was it for Snappy?” They got the dog, a Yorkshire, soon after Cogan was born. Part of the American dream, he guesses now. They kept the dog in the yard and he yelped into the night. Their downstairs neighbor, Mr. Sonavitch (Cogan called him Mr. Sonofabitch) warned of dire consequences unless the dog was silenced. Cogan’s family tried keeping him in the apartment, but when everyone was asleep he’d roam around soiling the rugs and gnawing on furniture. One morning they found him in the yard, lying inert next to the metal trash cans. They suspected Sonofabitch, but there was no proof. They held the funeral service in the yard at two in the morning with great fanfare, including the use of garbage can lids as cymbals. A sort of retribution against Mr. Sonofabitch. Cogan remembers the hole his father dug, but did not remember a casket. That kind of extravagance was unheard of in his neighborhood. No, it couldn’t have been for Snappy.
“It was for me, wasn’t it, Mom? You always tell me how sickly I was as an infant and how worried everyone was about me. And you wanted to be prepared? Did you put me in it to see how I’d fit?”
“Oh, Herman. It wasn’t like that at all.”
“And you kept it all these years.”
There is silence on the other end of the phone.
“I’m hanging up, Mom.”
It is erev Rosh Hashanah, and his friends the Garfinkles, Michael and Linda, have invited Cogan for dinner. After the prayers, while eating a slice of apple dipped in honey, he tells them about finding the casket. “They meant it for me,” he says.
“Oh, my God,” Linda gasps. “What was she thinking?”
“Creepy,” says Michael. “It was sitting in your basement all these years?”
“I had no idea.”
“Who has a casket sitting in their basement for ten years?”
“Get rid of it. Donate it to a burial society,” Linda says.
“Sell it on eBay,” says Michael. “Remember Hemingway’s six word story: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn?” You can do the same thing, only with a happy ending.For Sale: Child’s casket, never used.”
“I should take money from someone who needs to bury an infant? Are you crazy?”
“I’m not the one with a casket sitting in my basement, kiddo.”
By nine-thirty the following morning the sanctuary is filled with people. Once-in-a-whilers, his father used to call them. Cogan sees one of these once-in-a-whilers sitting in his seat, the seat that has been assigned to him for many years. Rather than make a fuss, Cogan finds a seat in the rear of the sanctuary, far to the right, the lectern from which the rabbi speaks barely visible. Why blame this guy? he says to himself. He comes only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I should make the experience an adversarial one? Better he should have my seat and enjoy the service. Maybe it will encourage him to come more often.
The rabbi’s sermon focuses on forgiveness and Cogan finds himself relating that to his mother’s decision those many years ago to buy a casket just in case her sickly infant son didn’t make it. Repentance and forgiveness, the one-two punch of Rosh Hashanah. His mother, Cogan thinks, has some of both to do before this Ten Days of Awe is over.
When he gets back to his apartment that afternoon, he finds a large olive green plastic suitcase at his door. It is dented in various places and scratched throughout. Lengths of yellow, red, and green yarn are tied securely to its handle lest anyone mistake this beat- up luggage for their own. A note written on the back of an envelope is lying on the case: “With Rhoda. Come get me.” Cogan’s mother has flown in from Florida, and is waiting for him upstairs at Rhoda Goldstein’s.
“We need to talk,” his mother says, grabbing his arm and leading him downstairs.
“Phones not working?”
“Don’t be such a big shot. Some things you’ve got to say in person. Besides, you have a habit of hanging up on me.”
Cogan lugs his mother’s suitcase into his apartment. “You’re staying for a month?”
“Make us some tea.”
“Your father, alav hashalom, lost everything in the Depression.” Cogan’s mother is sitting at the kitchen table, her hands clenched in front of her.
Cogan recognizes this as how almost all his mother’s talking-tos begin. “I know, Mom, it was a dark and stormy night.”
“Not funny, Herman.”
“Sorry. Go ahead.”
“A year after your father and I married, we had a child. And…”
“Wait a minute. What?”
“I know. I know. We never told you. A little girl. We told everyone she died.”
“Told everyone? What does that mean?” The tea kettle starts to whistle. Cogan seems not to hear it. “What are you saying?”
His mother puts her hands up to her ears. “Herman, the kettle.”
Cogan walks to the stove, turns off the gas, and moves the kettle to another burner. He stands next to his mother and puts his hands flat on the kitchen table. “What are you talking about?”
“It was the Depression, sweetheart. We couldn’t afford a child. We gave her away. We were ashamed and told everyone she had died. Your grandparents knew. No one else.”
“You gave away your daughter?”
“I know. It sounds terrible. It was terrible, but you’ve got to understand, Herman, things were different back then. We were so young and had no money. Your dad couldn’t find work. Papa refused to help.”
“And all these years, you never told me?”
“Your father and I agreed never to speak of it. It was done and that was it. It was over.”
“But the casket…”
“That was complicated. When our friends heard the baby had died, they knew we couldn’t afford a proper funeral, so they pitched in and bought us the casket. We had no choice but to accept it. We told them the funeral would be private. Just your father and me and our parents. Everyone understood.”
Cogan sits down, his left hand holding his head. “This elaborate hoax. My God, I didn’t think you had it in you. And what’s left? A casket and a baby. I have a sister out there somewhere.”
“She’s fine, Herman.”
“She’s fine? You know where she is? And how she’s doing? You can’t be serious.”
“No,” his mother says, crying now. “I don’t know where she is or who she is. I’m just assuming, hoping, she’s fine. I know this: She went to a good home. Your grandfather assured me of that. No paperwork. It wasn’t a strictly legal thing. They just took the baby. That’s the way things were done. Papa handled all the details. We did what we had to do. Get me a kleenex, sweetheart.”
Cogan can picture his mother’s father taking charge of things. Michael Brustein was a strict German Jew who ran his family like he ran his plumbing supply business. If something went wrong, someone was responsible and had to pay. Even a young Cogan wasn’t spared the retribution. When he was nine, Cogan took his grandfather’s best fountain pen and ruined the gold nib drawing circles on the linoleum floor in his grandparent’s kitchen. The old man spanked Cogan, ordered him to bed without supper, and refused to speak to him for six months. Now Cogan can picture his grandfather’s outrage at his daughter bringing a child into the world without the wherewithal to support it. He never really forgave her for marrying Cogan’s father, a greenhorn from Poland, whose only skill was house painting. He must have enjoyed arranging the details of the adoption.
“You swear you don’t know how to contact my sister? Anything about her?”
“Yes, I swear, Herman. We never knew. Papa said it was better that way. The kleenex, honey.”
Cogan goes to into the bathroom and brings back a box of tissues. He puts it in front of his mother. “And the casket?”
“What was I supposed to do with it? Sell it? Throw it out on the street? I hid it.” She blows her nose, puts the tissue in her pocket, and takes a new one. “I’m not proud of what we did, Herman. But we didn’t think we had a choice.”
“My God,” says Cogan. “My God. And all these years the secret is down in the basement of my apartment building, sitting like a broken toaster oven underneath the damn wing chair.”
“Language, Herman. Remember who you’re talking to.”
“Mom…” But Cogan stops there and takes a deep breath. Who was he talking to? This woman sitting across the table from him had a child and gave her away. She told no one. Not even her own son. “What if the war hadn’t changed everything? What if you still didn’t have any money when I was born? Conceived. Would you have given me away too? Aborted me?”
“That was different, Herman. We were just kids the first time. By the time you came along, we knew better.”
A sister. How old would she be now? Late fifties? Was she in Chicago? Was she someone he might run into? His parents didn’t even give her a name. What name did her adoptive parents give her? No records. No lawyer. Whatever his grandfather knew is buried with him.
Cogan’s mother stays three days. There is a nightly grilling around the kitchen table. Weren’t there relatives who could take the baby, raise it as their own? Did she ever try to find her daughter? Is she sure that no one else knows? She really doesn’t know the name of the people she gave her child to? Are there any other secrets she’d like to unburden herself of?
“Your father made me swear on the Bible that I would never tell anyone,” his mother says. “If you hadn’t found the casket and thought we bought it for you, I would have taken the secret to the grave. Herman, you mustn’t tell a single soul. Promise me.”
“Mom, I don’t know. I can’t make that promise. Not yet.”
“Your father would turn over in his grave.”
“Stop with the guilt thing. Why do I have to make your mishigas mine? I’ll think about it.”
Cogan drives his mother to the airport and kisses her goodbye.
“I’m sorry,” she says before disappearing into the terminal. “I thought I was doing the right thing.” She takes a rumpled kleenex from her purse and blows her nose. “Call me.”
On erev Yom Kippur he runs into Linda Garfinkle in the produce section of the supermarket. She knows Cogan’s mother has been visiting.
“I’ve got to ask, Herman. Was it really meant for you?” she asks. “The casket?”
Cogan hesitates for a second. He remembers what his mother said at the airport. “Yeah,” he says. “Go figure. They thought I was going to die.”