Repentant Watchman


Repentant Watchman

By K.D. Alter


I imagine you may be uneasy to see me here. David and Shimmy were determined to keep me out. Anita argued on my behalf, framed it as my filial right. My brothers were going to let me in only if I agreed to stick entirely to reciting tehillim.
“Dad will know your intentions,” they said.
“I’m not sure I do,” I said.
Because it’s been thirty years since the Desecration; if you remember, that’s how you used to refer to it. You’d be justified wishing it buried with all the other unpleasant memories associated with me. Do you realize we never once spoke of it?
It was the Fast of the Ninth of Av, 1980. Our family was just back from shul, the droning of Lamentations still in our ears, and inside we could hear the phone ringing. We’d recently changed the locks because of a break-in, and we couldn’t get the door open. The porch light was out. You held the new cut keys out toward the street.
“No one calls on Tisha B’Av unless it’s an emergency,” you said.
I stood close as you finally answered and could hear Uncle Moe say, “Isaac, Pa’s gone.”
“Oh, oh! Have you called the others?”
“Not yet. He’s still on the sofa, with his hat on.”
Uncle Moe had gone to rinse out the chamber pot — remember that enamel tub Zaide used after he went blind that looked like an artifact from the old country? When he returned to the living room, Zaide had stopped breathing.
You slid to the floor, hugging the telephone cord, shivering. You’d recently sat that way in shul, mourning the sacking of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple. But this was personal; I remember drawing the contrast.
Your tears stung me, and I wept too. For you. Zaide I hardly knew, even though we saw him every Friday. I only ever knew him as an old man, partially blind, unshaved, a remnant from a bygone era, in a rumpled suit, who spoke softly and only in Yiddish.
You delayed the funeral because Uncle Saul was in Antwerp. You sent word out to the cousins. The body must be watched until burial in respect for the deceased and, harking back to earlier times, to protect the corpse from rodents. We arranged to take turns watching the body and reciting Psalms beside it until the funeral.
You didn’t know it then because outwardly I was religious, wearing my tsitsis out and performing the roles befitting a rabbi’s son and grandson. But the religion had stopped making sense to me. I ate non-kosher. I didn’t keep Shabbos. If you’d known, Dad, you’d have taken me off the watchmen’s roster.
Still, my intentions toward Zaide were honorable. I meant to sit and recite the Psalms during my shift, to comfort his soul and encourage it on its journey to paradise.
You drove me at midnight to the Eisenberg Chapel on Coney Island Avenue and rapped on a side door. Cousin Ezra, who’d had the previous shift, opened up. Outside it was like a sauna after hours, still molting heat. We descended to an overly air-conditioned basement. Ezra handed me Bubby’s cracked leather-bound tehillim and the two of you left.
There was one cane-backed chair. A mechanical hum of refrigeration emanated from the adjoining room, where, through the half-shut door, I could see a sink and a row of refrigerator drawers. The fluorescent lights cast a white shadow toward the bier. By this light I began reading the Psalms.
I read until my mouth grew parched and my eyes strained. I didn’t just brush my lips over the words, but I studied them, to keep my mind occupied and to stay clear with my intention. The close reading made me notice the archaic bombast of the words.
Happy is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity . . .
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee . . .
O God in Whom I trust, save me from the ensnaring trap, from the destructive 
pestilence . . .
Thy way, O God, is holy. Who is so great a God as our God?
Finally I quit. I’d actually brought a novel in my pocket, but it didn’t feel right to read it. The chair grew uncomfortable, and at that age you’re all restlessness anyway.
I was wanting for distraction when I heard a pinging sound, like a small bell. After about a minute it sounded again. I froze, only my eyes searching for the source. In the shadows along the baseboard on the far wall, I thought I saw a rat moving. The bell rang again, then again and again at unmistakably shorter intervals. Gradually the ring turned into a tiny metallic splat, like water dropping into a metal pail, then a combination plop and ring and finally just plops.
I scanned the ceiling. Given the heat outside, perhaps there was a sweaty pipe under which a bucket had been placed, but there were no exposed pipes. No, the sound was coming directly from the vicinity of the casket.
You used to tell the story of a ventriloquist who drove the hearse for the chapel. When rabbis rode with him to the cemetery, he’d throw his voice to the back of the wagon, making a stifled cry, “Hnn! Get me out of here!” I thought maybe this guy had hidden a tape recorder on a timer to terrify the watchmen.
I approached the pine box. Up close it was tiny, like a coffin for a child. I said, “Zaide, are you there?” Haha, can you imagine it? “Zaide are you there?”
The overture was absurd not just because I was talking to a corpse, but because this was only the second conversation I’d ever had with my grandfather!
The second conversation? you ask.
Dad, you were born in this country but your parents’ idea, when they moved to western Pennsylvania with other Galicianers, was to recreate the shtetl in America. Yiddish was your mother tongue. The shtetl, with its peddlers, shoichets, Shabbos goys and legends of miracle-performing rabbis, was the milk of your lifelong nostalgia. In the eulogy I’ve been preparing for you in my mind for some years, I describe how your calling as a rabbi was inspired by the wish to restore the morality of the small-town community. But to me, the old country’s monotonous routines and ancient curses, with the sum of life’s imaginings a yearning for an eternally delayed Messiah — all of that didn’t connect with how I envisioned the world and my future in it. There was no holding back what you called, with confident disdain, “modernity,” even without a television in our house. All around us were miniskirts and bell bottoms, free love, women’s lib, psychedelic music, news of the double helix, moon landings. Can you imagine: when Zaide was born in 1885, electricity was still a novelty. I looked at the casket and marveled at the thought of how Zaide was my age when he was married to his fourteen-year-old cousin from the next town over.
Every Friday when we visited, you sat in the kitchen with Bubby and Zaide eating stuffed cabbage and going over their finances while we kids vied in the book-dark living room over who got to sit in the rocking chair because there was no other entertainment. Bubby smiled and stroked our cheeks when we came in, and I’ve seen pictures of her holding me as a baby, but she wasn’t the type of grandma who brought out milk and cookies. I remember the two of them exclusively in the pale green kitchen — the Pale of Settlement, Shimmy always called it. Zaide’d be sitting at the table, his flaccid red lips fluttering over the long pages of the Gemera, his eyes innocent and gigantic behind his black goggles, while Bubby stood on a rubber mat at the stove, bracing herself against the counter, fixing him glass after glass of weak tea.
What was my conversation with Zaide?
It was July 1977, between the time Bubby died and you found the elderly Holocaust survivor who would live with Zaide. While he was alone for a couple of months, we grandchildren took turns staying over with him. Mine fell on July 31st. I remember exactly because it was the night that Ira Fennig’s cousin was murdered. You remember Ira? You always thought he was a bad influence, but you know, after I’d not seen him for many years, he called when he saw the obituary. Ira’s cousin and her boyfriend were parked in his car with the windows down, and that lunatic, Son of Sam, killed them. No one in Brooklyn felt safe.
You could have baked a babka inside Zaide’s ground-floor apartment. The windows were bolted against Son of Sam, and I was afraid to ask if I could turn on the air conditioning. We were sitting across from each other, he on the same sofa he died on almost exactly three years later.
I knew a few words in Yiddish, but “air conditioner” certainly wasn’t one of them. I asked, “Zaide, aren’t you hot?”
He replied, “I’m not cold.”
It didn’t occur to me at the time that I’d just been sun-showered by his reputed sense of humor. An hour later I helped him to bed. I was supposed to get into it with him, but I was too bashful. From the living room I heard him dribble into the chamber pot.
That’s what I thought of as I approached his casket to have a closer look. “Zaide, are you peeing?” I asked. I thought maybe his lingering soul would appreciate the humor.
I looked underneath and discovered that the box was tilted up at an angle. Liquid dripped from the far corner into a bucket. I had no explanation but that it was body fluids leaking out. At that age you’re still discovering elementary truths. I imagined that when you die the organs and capillaries contract, and the putrid nectars gradually made their way out of body orifices.
A dripping corpse was too much for me. I left the Psalms on the chair and made for the exit. I took the paperback from my pocket — The Sirens of Titan, I remember — and placed it in the jamb so I could get back in. It didn’t occur to me until later that Zaide’s body had been placed directly in the casket after the tahara, the ritual bath, and that it was water, pooled after several hours, seeping out.
It was a relief to be outside in the balmy night heat of the borough.
We lived further out because that’s where your shul was, but Flatbush was mostly Jewish. Shuls, mikvahs and yeshivas were all within walking distance. My yeshiva was there. Yiddish papers were sold at the newsstand and in the butcher shop, too, I remember. In our neighborhood, we knew which streets to avoid and to never go out at night, especially in the summer when the goyim were outside, bored. I was less cautious in Flatbush because so many Jews lived there.
I walked up Coney Island Avenue, unaware that I’d crossed a neighborhood line. Just as I reached Avenue H, a group of Hispanics on the diagonal corner switched on one of those suitcase-sized ghetto blasters. Girls started dancing. I was curious and looked their way for too long. I figured they were too occupied to notice me, but of course my black pants and white shirt marked me. They lowered the music, and yelled, “Yo! Yo! Yeah, you. Get over here!”
Two of them had already stepped off the curb, projecting the threat that they’d come fetch me if they had to. I took off in a sprint. They followed. I wasn’t much of an athlete, but running was kind of my specialty. (Yes, you denigrated all my decisions in life by calling me a runner, but I only ever ran from Puerto Ricans and from you.)
Coney Island Avenue was well-lit and maybe safest for that reason, but the residential streets were Jewish, and I figured they’d feel out of place there, so I headed inland. But they kept on me. I imagined myself being found in the gutter the next morning, beaten to unrecognizability. I was so frightened my legs were tingling as I ran. They were just about to nab me when I reached the yeshiva buildings. Astoundingly there materialized a group of my schoolmates hanging out in the yard. I was saved. My pursuers turned back, calling over their shoulders, “Next time, mother f—.”
The kids in the schoolyard weren’t my friends, but I recognized most of them. They were a clique at school, along with some outsiders. They were amused at having saved my neck. Some wouldn’t leave off saying that I owed them eternal allegiance. They might have made me lick their sneakers if Jay Roth hadn’t made them stop. Roth and I took biology together, and on exams I let him read off my paper. He asked what I was doing “pouring forth my soul abroad” at that hour of night. Speaking in lofty language was how that clique claimed exclusive membership.
Everyone seemed impressed that I’d signed up for watching the body, and even more that I’d left my post to “cruise the eve.” One of the girls in the group was Shulamit Sternlicht, your colleague Rabbi Norman Sternlicht’s daughter. She was famously pretty. I used to time my departure for school so I could see her at the Flatlands Avenue transfer on her way to the girls’ yeshiva. Thanks to the hereditary fate passed through to me in the male line, I was literally beneath notice; she was four inches taller than I was.
Shulamit listened to my story, and,somehow it led to our discovery that, as rabbi’s children, we had a lot in common.
Not too many years later she was a guest at a wedding I was playing. She’d become obese and wore a wig that could smother a sheep. There’s something about Orthodox Judaism that prompts young people to start being old just as soon as they’re out of short pants. We chatted but didn’t have much to say. We felt sorry for each other, I think.   
So there I was in this rough company. Joints were passed around. I’d smoked up once before, but it hadn’t affected me. I thought I was immune to the stuff, and I inhaled away, copying your nonchalant smoking gestures. I remember Shulamit saying something like, “Wow, you toke. That’s really cool.” But it was already happening in a dream, because my normal awareness was slipping away, stealthily, so I couldn’t keep track of the slipping.
It’s a little like death, I’d imagine. When you think of your own, you’re there right until the end. But maybe in most cases conscious awareness departs long before we dock in death’s harbor, and all that remains are the randomly circulating chemicals of dreams.
In your case, your body outlived your senses by several weeks. All those machines that kept your lungs respirating, your heart beating. At the end, you were hallucinating so acutely it was anyone’s guess how much cognizance you had. The day they moved you out of intensive care, I was there with Anita. She’d brought Varda and Tzvi along. You woke abruptly from your drugged sleep, shot your eyes open as though you’d remembered urgent business at your desk, and cried, “We’re late for the tahara.”
You started to strip away the hospital gown, only you couldn’t undo it because of all the pumps and catheters snaking through the sleeves. The IV caddy crashed down and blood stained the gown in the middle where you tried to dislodge the feeding tube. I ran to the nurse’s station. When I returned, you were scampering about on your feet, looking like you’d just been passed a football and were figuring out how to dodge the bed, chairs, and monitors. You were white and red in the face, full of desperate clarity, and you kept repeating, “I have to get to the funeral home.”
Anita was flustered by your being naked in front of the kids, and she screamed, “Not yet, Dad!”
Hahahaha. It’s one of those stories that you’d have gotten a lot of mileage out of retelling.
You were pretty funny when you wanted to be, and irreverent too, for a rabbi. I always wondered if I took more after you than Mom. You either didn’t recognize our similarities, or you were keen on suppressing them. I see how Shimmy does that with Ben, holding him to a standard he never met until he was forty. The hypocrisy of parents!
But that night a demon was on my tail. I heard someone say, “This shit is laced.” I know I was yanked out of the way of a car, I remember the honking horn, and I remember someone saying, over and over, how I was losing my virginity that night, which, even through the hallucinations, exasperated me, because I was trying so idiotically to show off to Shulamit.
I was stoned. That doesn’t absolve me of what happened any more than your hallucinations excused you when you called that nurse a nigger. I’m telling you my version for the first time, since we both know that the events of that night gashed open a wound that never healed.
Don’t deny it. We both know I was never forgiven. You took it as indelible evidence as to my character, and that became a stamp that I lived with.
I don’t blame you entirely. Your father’s body was not yet buried, and you were a recent widower. You didn’t have the resources to sort it out. You had three other children, and sending me away seemed expedient. But I was sixteen, recently bereaved of my mother, and I felt twice betrayed. Because instead of recognizing that I may have also experienced that night as a tragedy, you chose instead to assume the mantle of Moses reproving the children of Israel over the Golden Calf.
You exiled me to Ner Yisroel Yeshiva in Baltimore to spend the rest of high school repenting.
Like everything else prison-like about the Baltimore Yeshiva, school started at the end of July. I was out of the house within a week of the funeral. The night before I left, you sat me down for one of your famous rabbi-to-person lectures. You told me the oft-repeated story of Glen Kargman. Poor Irving and Myrtle Kargman, in their fifties, whose only child was turning out rotten — smoking pot and such. You counseled them that, if they didn’t want to see little Glen end up behind bars, their only choice was an extreme countermeasure — the Baltimore Yeshiva.  He ended up a rabbi with a long flowing beard, who studied full-time, had eight beautiful children and a saintly wife who supported the ten of them on the earnings of a social worker. You dreamt of such a turnaround for me.
Well, maybe I’m not one to say good or bad for Glen Kargman. He tells the story the same way you do. You’d be gratified to know he called to ask if he could deliver one of the eulogies. But the fact was that what worked for Glen Kargman had the opposite effect on me, and I was driven further from, not closer to, religion in that prison yeshiva, which, incidentally, like all prisons, also had its share of sodomy going on in it. Some things just don’t yield to suppression.
And you know Jay Roth, my supposed friend from the famous Desecration
that night (at this age I consent to accepting your nomenclature), who cheated off me in high school biology? He went on to become a dentist, Orthodox and clean-cut as anything you would have hoped for me. Always ironic and painful, these inevitable coincidences, but I ended up doing a gig for that bastard’s son’s bar mitzvah. I played off-beat all night. The band leader kept giving me dirty looks. Roth, strutting over to me with a puffed-out chest that told me his program of self-deluding repentance had been a success, dropped a tip envelope on my snare drum to stop me from ruining the dance. I handed it back and said, “Go piss in your grandfather’s grave.”
He’d been the one to propose that we all take a “class trip” to the funeral home. I don’t know what it is about teenagers that loves to deface a cemetery, but it was a winning proposition. There was nothing I could do to stop it. Honestly, since this is the moment for it, I may have been so far gone that even I went along with it at first. But when we reached the funeral home, and Eitan Mirsky — may he fucking rot —  kicked the door open like the first centurion to breach the Temple, I sobered up quickly and tried frantically to stop them.
The rest you sort of know. The broken bottles, cigarette butts and the defaced casket. That happened when several of them decided to enact my funeral because I wasn’t acting grateful enough to them for their earlier so-called efforts at saving my life. They carried me kicking in animal fury and terror to lay me on top of the bier. It’s a miracle it wasn’t knocked over. Then from the bucket they “anointed” me with water, which I still thought was Zaide’s body fluids. Shulamit begged them to stop, but they were crazed, drunk, high. Someone signed my name with marker on the pine. Another opened a refrigerator drawer with a corpse inside — and left it open.
I can’t disown responsibility for having led them to the funeral home, and that’s why I’ve come now to beg your forgiveness. But as for what was set in motion following that night, a different accounting is necessary.
I wonder if you thought of that night one-tenth as often as I did. You didn’t understand your power to cause hurt and shame with your reproaches. The suppression was worse. You were clear in your wish never to hear of the incident again, and, out of filial obligation, I kept the silence. Until I was married, and Shawna helped me see my exodus to India for seven years as something other than evidence of my inherent iniquity, if I spoke of the Desecration, it was only in the dismal echo chamber of my own memory, where all my transgressions stood witness against me for having murdered my father’s love for his own child.
I was asleep on the floor when you came in at dawn. You woke me with your keening. I tried to crawl into your lap. But instead of taking me in your arms, you lifted them skyward, away from me, and then, invoking my mother, wailed, “The only good to come from your leaving, Sarah, is that you’re not here to see this.”
I’m grown up now, a parent, and I know how wrong you were. You felt it was your right to deny me my mother’s sympathy, and that’s what you did.
Even in adulthood I could never approach you because your worldview was like a wall spiked with broken glass. One of your maxims was that it’s not possible to lead an ethical life outside of religion. You disapproved of everything I did. My livelihood (“the drums aren’t a real instrument”), my marriage (to “the shiksa”), my house (“a hovel”), and how I raised Tia — even her name, which you pronounced Tee-AH behind our backs, but we always knew, and it made my ex-wife detest you the more. It was less your mocking pronunciation of Tia’s name than how you made her feel invisible in front of her cousins that made Shawna think you were a monster.
I also believed that Carmella discouraged you from reconciling with me. She was threatened by your past. Everything that happened before her she referred to as BC — Before Carmella. You loved her for that nonsense because she rescued you from your rudderless bachelor life. But really, can we both agree that “BC” was in poor taste? She used it when anything about Mom came up. All of us felt that you blindly adopted Carmella’s condemnations of us.
In 1990, you had open-heart surgery, and I hurried from Asia to be at your bedside. You had a stroke on the operating table, and the doctors told us to prepare ourselves. When I arrived, you were in intensive care. Carmella was there.
You could barely speak, but you drew me close and breathed the words, “I love you to the ends of the earth.”
My entire body filled with tears, and I turned to Carmella as the nearest witness to this surpassingly sad but healing moment. She was glaring at me like the queen in Snow White when the mirror said she wasn’t the fairest in the land. I knew then that she would sabotage our fragile reunion.
Of course I loved you. And I know you weren’t just Carmella’s puppet. You made overtures through the years, like when you came out to Queens to comfort me after Shawna left. You offered to stay. But accepting solace from you would have felt like an admission that you’d been right about her all along. You were hurt when I turned you away, and I shouldn’t have. We were both hard-hearted.
This must be what my brothers were afraid of — that I’d come in here and defile your last hours, like I did your father’s.
If only you can, through the still-thin veil of death, entertain the possibility that neither of us was at fault. Say instead that God had an inscrutable plan when He placed us together. I don’t deny my sins, Papa.
Here, I’ve brought the tehillim with me. Let me recite them. You taught me well enough and I can remember them all. My burden will be eased and your soul’s journey lighter if you can hear and forgive me.
Goodnight, Dad. I love you, and I always have.



Copyright © K.D. Alter 2018

K.D. Alter lives in the United States. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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