Hymie Schoenberg had always succumbed easily to physical need and had been capable of prodigious sleep in his youth. But now he woke with the first rays of sunlight through the bedroom blinds, while Ruth was still bunched beneath the chintz bedspread beside him. He awoke energized, mind focused, memory sharp. By midmorning he’d hit his stride at his desk in his various projects. But just then doubt would start clawing at him. Stray thoughts resonated, distracted him. There were nagging bodily complaints—the cartilage gone in his shoulders and knees, rumblings from below. As light seeped out of the Delmar Gardens retirement home courtyard, he felt his own being dissipated, his life constrained. By the time the nightly gloom invaded his home office, he could recall only bits of what he’d done during the day and had little more than a plastic white kitchen trash bag full of paper to show for it.
The cherrywood of his desk had grown slick and mottled in the slight grooves where he liked to rest his forearms. To his right, a plain card table, the vinyl torn decades ago by an outburst with a letter opener during the brief time he’d tried to handle his own collections. Pushed back against the wall next to his beloved adding machine were books of check stubs.
This had been one of his projects: finding checkbooks that left stubs when you tore off the checks. The world was full of improvements that weren’t improvements, including the carbon-backed checks that never quite copied everything you’d written. Now checks themselves were almost obsolete. Twin- and triple-blade razors. Why would you want to improve on something as elemental and perfect as a razor blade? Mobile phones took pictures, but Ruth could barely talk to her great-grandchildren for all the static and lost calls. No, he wouldn’t be sorry to miss where this world was heading—and there was no avoiding thinking that way at his age.
Sometime in the morning, Hymie heard Ruth banging around in their narrow kitchen. She could no longer reach most of the cabinets so she left two sets of everything they used during the day on the Formica counter next to the toaster oven. Hymie didn’t look up when he heard the coffee cup and saucer clattering in Ruth’s trembling hands. He couldn’t bear how long it took her to cross a room without her walker. Never a tall woman, she was terribly stooped now, her left shoulder half a foot lower than her right. When he’d first noticed the slight uneveness of her shoulders, he’d teased her that her purse was to blame. He’d been a great needler—he could be a great needler still. Didn’t the children and grandchildren always laugh when he said, “Keep it moving, Spike,” to his shriveled wife when she stopped to fish a birthday or Hanukkah check out of that gargantuan purse? It’d been a fixture in their lives, that brown vinyl bowling bag of a purse, hanging resolutely from its double loops in the crook of her elbow, and all Hymie knew for certain of its contents besides the checks was the compact she extracted at the end of every meal. He imagined all the powder she’d applied over the last half century, its accumulation in the deep crevices of her cheeks and neck. She had powdered herself monochrome over the years: her skin, hair, even the once-purple circles under her eyes, all a pale, powdery pink now.
“Your coffee, Hymie.”
He thanked her with a single guttural syllable, but rather than begin her interminable, lopsided shuffle out of his study, Ruth stood at his shoulder.
“Spit it out already.”
“Do you remember Jeremy’s coming today? To help us move upstairs?”
“Jeremy’s in town?” Lately the mere mention of one of his children was enough to quicken his pulse. It was as if he was returned to the days around childbirth, when the entire world consisted of his immediate family and the sheer physicality and elation of ushering in new life. “When did he get into town?”
The feeling lasted only as long as it took for the details to fill in: Jeremy was their second oldest, a psychologist, a sniveling, unhappy man who considered himself worldly and had somehow found a second wife even more accomplished and attractive than the first. Hymie could summon neither of the wives’ names. Jeremy had only one child, Janie, from his first marriage, a girl—she’d have to be 35 herself by now—who’d been in and out of trouble and with whom Jeremy was rarely on speaking terms.
“He’s helping us move to an apartment upstairs,” Ruth said. “Remember?”
“What’s so great about upstairs?”
“We talked about this.” Ruth’s head was nearly level with Hymie’s, even though she was standing. “We’ll be off the ground floor. We’ll have a balcony.”
“Nu?” Hymie said. “I need a balcony?”
“There’s more services upstairs,” Ruth said.
“I gotta run the numbers. More services means more charges.” That was how they got you. Suddenly you needed this, you needed that. In 1951, Hymie brought home the first television on his block; by sundown Ruth was making iced tea for half the neighborhood. How happy Hymie had been, with everyone gathered in his living room. There were four channels that went off at the end of the day. Now you paid for a million things you didn’t want. “I plan to watch five channels,” Hymie told the man on the phone. “No more than an hour a day, plus the 81 Cardinals away games, a handful more if they make the playoffs. And football on Sunday.” Normally he would’ve added that Sunday football was in the ketubah—it was one of his standard shticks. Hymie was not to be interrupted on Sunday afternoons except to be served lunch. But this idiot studying to be a lunatic wouldn’t know what a marriage contract was, much less appreciate that neither television nor Sunday football had existed when Ruth and Hymie were married. “That’s the plan I want, dammit.” Finally he’d had to hang up on the guy, who was trying to sell him a package with every major league game. You’d have to watch 15 channels at the same time to watch every major league game. Why couldn’t the poor schmuck understand that?
“I gotta run the numbers, Ruth,” Hymie called out when he heard her banging away in the kitchen again.
That had been Abraham’s favorite saying, “I gotta run the numbers.” Straight-A Abraham: older brother, best friend, lifelong nemesis, business partner, and finally, sworn enemy. So smart, so buttoned-up. Always at the top of his class. It was a hell of a way to grow up, two years younger (but three years behind) Straight-A Abraham. It wasn’t until they were in the same introductory philosophy class at Washington University, Abraham a senior and Hymie just a freshman, that Hymie figured out that he was actually the smarter brother. Hymie understood the material more quickly, appreciated the nuance and implications. His papers revealed the deeper insights. Philosophy, even at the introductory level, condescending Professor Eliot liked to say, often requires you to hold opposing ideas in your head at the same time; Abraham wanted no part of it. Abraham would still receive the better grade—even as a second-semester senior already accepted to law school, fulfilling a meaningless requirement, Abraham took notes on every reading and labored over his papers for weeks in advance—but Hymie knew what he knew. And what’s more, he knew that Abe had seen it, too. For all Hymie’s euphoria, there was a tinge of pity for his older brother that would never go away, even when Hymie wanted to wring the cheap bastard’s neck.
Hymie worked various low-level jobs for a few years after college, so that by the time he graduated from law school in 1952 he was six years behind his older brother. They were at competing law firms downtown when Hymie convinced Abe that they should put out a shingle of their own. He’d practically had to beg his older brother to start the law firm that still bore Abraham’s name and made him a rich man. They were a perfect team, Hymie had said, without elucidating exactly how they’d complement each other. Of course, Abe took that to mean that Hymie needed his money, and there was no denying that the savings Abe had already squirreled away would make things easier. But Hymie had been down south twice as part of the Civil Rights movement and could see the way the wind was blowing. He could also see that there was a huge number of potential Negro clients in north Saint Louis that most white firms wouldn’t touch. Giving them legal representation was a righteous occupation, Hymie insisted, a mitzvah. His line of argument held little water with Abraham. Abraham was interested in mitzvahs only so long as they were good for the bottom line. Even comparing the Negro cause to the Jews’ had no effect.
It was Hymie who’d been the prophetic one. He’d been on the right side of history. He’d understood that integration was coming to Saint Louis, and that for all of Saint Louis’s southern character, it would be relatively nonviolent. During the couple months when some mamzer ordered hearses to be sent to both of their homes in the middle of the night, Hymie worried that Abraham might lose his nerve. But Abe seemed to relish the harassment, his young family notwithstanding. “That tells you we’re putting it to ’em,” he liked to say, biting down on his lip and making a fierce, little uppercut with his fist. By that time, the money had started rolling in. By the time Hymie left the firm, half their clients were Negroes, and pro bono work more than paid for itself in publicity and word-of-mouth.
The split had been amicable enough at first. The difference in temperament and inclination was obvious. It wasn’t until several years later, when Hymie asked to borrow money, that the real acrimony began. “Why don’t you go to a bank?” Abraham had said. Go to a bank, have them do a background check like Hymie was some kind of criminal, when his own brother could write him a check? Money that Abe never would’ve made if it weren’t for Hymie insisting they should go out on their own, that they should make a name for themselves in civil rights. If you didn’t swing for the fences, you were never going to hit the ball out of the park, Hymie had told Abe a hundred times. As it happened, Hymie hit the ball out of the park, and Abe got to round the bases and doff his cap on the dugout steps. Abe’s response sounded like it’d been practiced ahead of time: “You keep walking up to the plate with your eyes closed, little brother. You want to swing hard, then swing hard. But open your eyes first.”
In the end Hymie had become the salaried plodder, spending the last 30 years of his career as in-house attorney at a local computer leasing firm. Abe, on the other hand, became one of the few Jewish members of Saint Louis royalty, on the boards at Beth Israel Temple and Westwood Country Club, recipient of awards and honors. His busybody wife, Midge, wore gaudy baubles on each of her fat little fingers and never worked a day in her life, while Hymie’s beautiful Ruth carted home stacks of seventh-grade English papers for nearly 40 years. Toward the end of his career, Abe gave away a sizable chunk of his fortune, all to charities that were in line with his reputation as a crusader for civil rights. Only Ruth knew that it was Hymie who was the real crusader. Well, what had it gotten Abraham, the big macher? All that acclaim, that money? He was dead ten years now, just as dead as Hymie’s other five siblings, all of whom had been forced to choose sides at one point or another in their brothers’ feud. Dead, dead, dead. All of them. God, how Hymie missed them, even Straight-A Abraham, with whom he hadn’t exchanged more than pleasantries for the sake of decorum in more than three decades.
Hymie and Ruth were the survivors. Hymie could picture Abe’s face when he met Ruth. There was nothing openly licentious—Abe was much too buttoned-up for that—but there was no mistaking the acknowledgment. It was like a point silently, grudgingly conceded.
She’d been a great beauty, Ruth Abramov—tennis player, pianist, beauty. And he, Hymie Schoenberg, had won her. Why not? Even his mother—looking down her hawk nose in her shtetl shawls, refusing to answer in English—could find no physical flaw to pin on Ruth. Today, you saw a pair of tits like that on top of such thin hips, you assumed they were fake. But Ruth Abramov was the real thing. Her own mother had been so jealous of her good looks that she picked on Ruth, out of all her children, mercilessly. When Hymie announced their plan to honeymoon in Miami Beach, the machatunim sat on the wooden chairs in the temple’s basement banquet room and gazed silently at their laps. (Machatunim, “parents-in-law”—the word was a joke to his children and their goy spouses, and entirely unknown to his grandchildren. “Such a loss,” Ruth would say, but Hymie wasn’t so sure. Hadn’t Yiddish always been a pidgin language, the Jew’s bastardized version of their oppressor’s tongue? So what if it died out?) Honeymooning in Miami Beach seemed so ostentatious as to portend bad luck to their old-country parents, but Hymie loved the idea of showing Ruth off.
For 20 years, more or less, she’d remained a beauty. For their 20th anniversary, Hymie took her back to Miami Beach. For the first time, they farmed out the kids to relatives so they could travel alone. But Hymie had had to lie to Ruth about their finances in order to convince her to go, and the trip was a mistake. Where the city had made him feel brash and sexy before, the fluorescent lights and art deco chintz just seemed garish now. But Hymie couldn’t muster any real revulsion—revulsion would’ve been a relief. Twenty years earlier, when Ruth widened her eyes at the price of an entree or the cover at a club, she made no effort to hide it from him—it felt like a little bit of shared mischievousness, a sign of bigger things to come. Now Hymie took it as a judgment on him for the limitations of their life, the ways that he’d failed them both. It was even worse on Ruth’s part for being unconscious.
The whole trip, Hymie felt himself lunging for something just out of his reach. There were topless women on some parts of the beach by then, and Ruth not only dared to wear a bikini, she gamely bluffed removing her top. But Hymie couldn’t go through the motions of acting as if that aroused him. He couldn’t help the feeling other women on the beach gave him and could tell that Ruth was only pretending not to notice. She still played a gritty game of tennis before many women her age did that sort of thing, but she was in her mid-40s, she’d borne him five children, and no exercise or diet could rid her of the dimples in her thighs, the extra skin under her triceps.
So his wife had joined the great ranks of women who looked better covered up—so what? It had little effect on Hymie’s feelings for her. She was the mother of his children. Still, though he’d never try to articulate it, not even to himself, he felt swindled: he came from men always on the lookout for a cheat, and here he’d perpetrated the ultimate bait and switch on himself. You married a beauty, and for 20 years a beauty was what you got, then you got something else.
Down early one morning for his newspaper and coffee, Hymie had befriended a younger couple in the hotel lobby, a television producer and his beautiful actress wife from Los Angeles, “doing the opposite coast.” She had a deep LA tan and toyed with the celery stick in her Bloody Mary with long manicured fingers that put Hymie in mind of a praying mantis. All day long, Hymie and Ruth seemed to revolve in and out of their boozy sphere on the beach or in the lobby, and that night the couple invited them to a bonfire at the southern tip of the island. A strong ocean wind blew south to north across the channel, whipping up a curling tower of flame. Hymie and Ruth stood in the throng of people on the south edge of the fire, their faces scalding, the backs of their legs chilled. When the television producer passed him a joint, Hymie tried not to act surprised. He earnestly puffed on the damp-tipped cigarette and then handed it to Ruth, who did the same. (Of course Ruth did it for Hymie—she always wanted Hymie to have what he wanted.) It was partly their midwestern eagerness that caused Hymie to misinterpret something the actress wife said later. “Oh, no, dear,” she responded, “I’m afraid we’re much too old-fashioned for that.” She put her hot hand on his wrist. “I confess I’m flattered, though, you dear man.” A lifetime of forgotten moments, and that one remained crystalline in Hymie’s consciousness. Of course, he never told Ruth.
Five children she’d borne him. Such wonderful potential in each of them, such ordinary lives they’d led. The third, a boy they’d named Matthew for Moshe, Hymie’s then recently deceased father, died as a toddler. Scarlet fever. Hymie could still see the boy’s splotchy red face, could still hear his cries. The truth was that when the boy’s mouth gaped open, no sound came out, and yet it had registered as an auditory memory—a lament so pure that no actual sound could encompass it. Ruth covered her eyes and lit the yahrzeit candle every year on his birthday and the day of his death. One was in July, the other December—this Hymie remembered—so little Matthew must’ve been a year and half.
You wondered how life could go on afterward. But they’d had two kids already, and though he hadn’t known it, Ruth was already pregnant with Ellen when Matthew died. The purple darkness that would bleed under Ruth’s eyes when she was tired or sick became more or less permanent then, though in the last third of her life it had been powdered over in layers of pink. In the pall that descended over their home, Ruth didn’t tell Hymie about the new pregnancy until he noticed her stomach one morning when her robe fell open as she brushed her hair. Even then his first thought was of how long it’d been since he’d taken notice of her naked. She was nearly six months along.
A little before noon, the doorbell rang, the electric chimes set at an ungodly volume. On weekends, Hymie heard doorbells chiming up and down the hall all day long. “Coming,” Ruth hollered, from somewhere in their bedroom. “I’m coming.”
“It’d be easier if you’d just let me use my key.” The voice yelling on the other side of the door belonged to one of the boys. Hymie’s pulse quickened.
“I got it,” Hymie said. It’d take Ruth all afternoon to get to the door. He pushed himself away from his desk with both hands and stood up. Hymie’s posture was still fiercely erect, and though his Florsheims barely cleared the pile on the carpet, he still made respectable time across the apartment. “Added together, you two are in good shape”—their kids had said it enough that it was clearly something they said to one another about their parents. At least they were speaking. At least they were thinking about Hymie and Ruth, not that you’d know from their individual visits. Since Hymie understood what they meant—that the physical diminishment was Ruth’s, the mental Hymie’s—he figured he wasn’t as far gone as they thought.
Hymie opened the door to reveal Jeremy, their second oldest, their second boy. “Whaddya say, Jer? When did you get into town?”
“Don’t start, dad.” The hug was cursory: clap, clap on the shoulder and Jeremy was into the apartment. “Just don’t start, OK?”
Jeremy bent down to kiss the air beside Ruth’s cheek as she inched her way along the wall. “Is he fucking with me, ma?”
How had Hymie become so wrong-footed with his own children? Time was he could talk sports with this son. All the baseball games they’d seen together. Three hours of bumping elbows, filling out their scorecards with stubby pencils, back when Anheuser-Busch had thought enough of Hymie’s business to supply front-row seats by the Cardinals dugout. How many baseballs had been passed to Jeremy by cameramen or grounds crew who got a kick out of the boy screaming himself hoarse? Balls fouled off the bat of Stan Musial, pitched by Bob Gibson. Baseballs touched by immortality. It was impossible to imagine the sneering adult version of Jeremy getting full-throated about anything, though the lurid courtroom transcripts of his divorce certainly suggested that it happened plenty.
Hymie had come to think of him as the family martyr. God forbid you should try to pry his fingers from the back of Ruth’s wheelchair. Of all things, a shrink. It wasn’t dignified, people telling you their dirty laundry, as if that would make them feel better. You want to feel better? Try not thinking about your problems for a little while. And what made Jeremy such an expert on life, anyway, with one divorce on the books and a daughter who was practically a hooker? “A dancer” Janie called herself, according to Ruth. Apparently out of the blue, she’d decided that her grandmother was her confessor, her familial soul mate. Three, four times a week they might talk during one of her crises, for hours at a time.
“Are you ready, Ma? The movers will be here in a minute.”
“Let me get my purse.”
“You keep heading toward the door, I’ll get your purse.”
“Where are we going?” Hymie said.
“We’ve been over this, dad.” Jeremy walked down the narrow hallway into their bedroom. Their hard vinyl suitcase lay on the bed like a dissection splayed open around the central incision, the strapped-in clothes like so many viscera clinging to the body’s walls.
“Jeremy’s taking us to lunch. That Chinese place you like,” Ruth said.
“We need suitcases to go to lunch?”
Jeremy emerged from their room with the purse in tow. “Jesus, ma, what do you have in this thing?”
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Hymie said. “That’s the $64,000 question.”
Two workmen lurked just outside the doorway. They had a dolly with canvas straps draped over it.
“Easy does it, fellas.”
“How you doing, Mr. Schoenberg?”
“Everybody I can get my hands on.”
The men guffawed.
“Carry on, gentleman,” Hymie gave the men a jaunty wave. He’d always had the common touch.
Hymie pushed Ruth in her wheelchair down the hall and then out to the semicircular drive where Jeremy had left his car with the hazards flashing. What a relief it’d been when Ruth finally gave in to using the wheelchair in public, her purse plunked in her lap, nearly as big as her bent torso. Hymie wouldn’t deny that it lent him a little stability, gripping the handles of her chair. After years of practical Japanese cars, Jeremy had recently bought a fancy German one. Hymie couldn’t get used to it: Jews buying German cars.
Such a process, transferring Ruth from her wheelchair to the car seat, Jeremy, grunting and sighing as he bent down to wedge his mother’s nylon-covered legs under the dash. Didn’t he know that she heard more than she let on? No, Jeremy, with all his training, could never understand a woman like his own mother, who kept so much to herself. “Set her down gently,” Hymie said from the backseat where he sat, waiting with his knees pressed tight together. “Set her down gently, kid.”
Hymie liked the restaurant because it was clean and the service was fast and the pretty little Chinese owner woman always greeted him by name, even though she struggled to pronounce it with her open vowels. He liked the unchanging, rectangular, leather-backed menu of lunch specials, $5.95 apiece, including egg roll and wonton soup. “Kung Pao!” Hymie said, chopping the air with his hands, and the woman laughed, as she always did. “Kung Pao!” He repeated his karate chop for Jeremy and Ruth when she’d finished collecting their menus.
Jeremy looked at his watch every 30 seconds, a nervous tic, touching his shirtsleeve each time, even though it was already rolled up to the middle of his forearm. For a change, though, he didn’t seem to be rushing them—he almost seemed to be stalling, insisting on dessert, pouring more tea. He didn’t even hustle Ruth off to the bathroom while he paid the bill, starting that protracted process afterward instead.
When they finally arrived back at Delmar Gardens, a nurse and an attendant met the car. The nurse opened the car door for Hymie and gave him more help than he actually needed extracting himself from the backseat, while Jeremy brought around Ruth’s wheelchair. They were all shvartsers who worked here now. The word came to him unbidden. It was an Abe word, a word Hymie would never have used before. Ah, but this was Louisa, the one he liked. She had a round Jamaican accent and she laughed at all of his shticks, his little nonsense routines. Tell her she’s got a busted suitcase, Hymie thought. Ask her if she’s repealed the law of averages. Their little entourage was shepherding him up the ramp.
“I don’t like this.” Hymie tried to turn around. “Ruth makes me lunch when I’m working. My room’s downstairs. I don’t like this. Our apartment is downstairs, dammit.”
“It’s OK, dad.”
“I’m right here, Hymie.”
“I can push the goddamn chair.”
“You’ll be close to the cafeteria, and all you have to do is push a button and someone will help you.”
“Didn’t I say I could push the goddamn chair?”
The dimensions were different, like looking at his old apartment in a fun-house mirror. The coatrack was there in the corner, but the closet door was further away. All their stuff was in place—the kitchen table, the mirror in the hall—but the Lladró figurines on the side table had inched closer to the doorway, the entryway was foreshortened. Through the bedroom door Hymie could see their giant Zenith against the wall. “No television in the bedroom. We never put the television in the bedroom.”
“It’s either there or the bathtub,” Jeremy said.
“Separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution.”
“There’s no living room in this unit, dad,” Jeremy shouted. Again the sudden, sneering sniff of a laugh, again the compulsive watch-checking. “What? You afraid a television in the bedroom’s going to cramp your style?”
“It’s like bubbe‘s place above the store,” Ruth said, her voice quavering. “Bedroom on one side and parlor on the other. Remember all the people living in just those two rooms above the store? You said yourself what good memories those were.”
“Miserable bunch of immigrants.”
“Come, Mr. Schoenberg. Come.” Louisa patted his arm. She had led him to the doorway to his office. “We set up everything just the same. Here’s your desk, and here’s your file cabinet.”
He sat in his chair and settled his forearms into the grooves of his desk.
“You got a file on me in all them cabinets?” Louisa asked.
“Your story touches me, kid,” Hymie said. “Tell it to the judge.”
Louisa laughed her rollicking Caribbean laugh. “Now you’re talking, Mr. Schoenberg.”
But Hymie stayed agitated. He couldn’t get used to the dimensions of the foyer, no matter how many times he shuffled around the soft beige carpet, running his hands along the walls, the figurines, the ancient mezuzah on the door frame. He could hear Jeremy and Ruth in the bedroom, wrangling about clothing.
“You haven’t worn this in 20 years, ma,” Jeremy shouted. Hymie could hear only the high-pitched trill of Ruth’s responses, but he could well imagine her going about her business undeterred by her son’s kvetching.
There was an iron will inside that bent, brittle body. For all her osteoporotic bones, her near-total deafness, and artificial hips, the simple truth was that Hymie couldn’t imagine Ruth dying before him. His shrink son would have a name for this, no doubt: denial, repression, the names they gave to everything. But that wasn’t it. Hymie had tried—when she was being rolled down the hospital corridors to her hip replacement surgeries, out cold from the medicine dripping into her arm—but he literally couldn’t imagine her dead. “There goes the greater part of me,” Hymie had thought as the stretcher disappeared down the hall; yet he never doubted that she was coming back.
“Ruth!” Hymie couldn’t remember what had brought him to the bedroom doorway, but it was his bedroom—why the hell should he need a reason? “Ruth, I’d like some tea.”
“You can’t make yourself a cup of tea, dad?”
“Are you the party of the first part?” Hymie asked.
“You should get back to work.” Ruth told Jeremy, tugging at his sleeve with her bird claw hand. Somehow she still kept up a number of handwritten correspondences with those hands, though Hymie couldn’t bear to watch the painful, interminable scribbling and, truth was, he had no idea to whom she wrote. “We’re in good shape.”
“For the shape we’re in,” Hymie added.
“I canceled all my appointments today.”
“Really, Jer, we’re in good shape.”
“For the shape we’re in.” Jeremy said it at the same time as Hymie and snorted his mean little snort of a laugh.
“Go ahead now. Take your wife out to dinner,” Ruth said. “We’re OK. Go ahead, now. Enjoy yourself.”
“All the big stuff’s taken care of,” Jeremy said. “Most of the little stuff, too. You know you can call me, ma, if there’s anything else you need help with.” He looked around the apartment, pleased with himself. “All in all pretty painless, hunh?”
“Kenahora!” Hymie said. “That’s what they say about the electric chair.”
“Can’t it be good enough, dad? Do you understand that, dad? Good enough? You know, it was no small trick getting you off the waiting list.”
“Borscht,” Hymie said. For years this had been his signature weekly poker saying when the up cards amounted to nothing. “Unmitigated, unadulterated borscht.”
“OK,” Ruth said. “OK. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Somebody’s got to face facts around here,” Jeremy said.
When the door was closed, Ruth took Hymie by the elbow. “Come,” she said, as they walked across the foyer.
“Dammit, Ruth. Dammit.” Hymie could not shake his agitation. He continued to mutter as they inched across the study.
“Look, here’s the business pages. You haven’t seen the stocks today.”
“Here. Sit. I’ll bring your tea.”
Hymie could barely focus on the stock tables with his magnifying glass. Goddammit, if only he’d bought gold. Just like the 70s. He’d missed it then and he’d missed it again. So, he never made a fortune like his brother, like plenty of other Jewish boys from the neighborhood. This wasn’t a crime. He had no debts. No one in his family had gone hungry. His four surviving children had graduate degrees, successful marriages—second marriages, all four, but that was the norm these days. You couldn’t teach sacrifice by talking about it; they had to learn for themselves, and this generation hadn’t sacrificed growing up. If anything, he’d given them too much.
Hymie heard Ruth inching across his study, the cup and saucer clattering in her shaky hand. He clenched and unclenched his fists. He didn’t turn around until she was at his shoulder.
“I brought the mail, too. It must come later upstairs.”
Hymie had only the vaguest notion of what time the mail arrived—it arrived when Ruth delivered it to him. He noticed the matted blue edge of the personal card immediately, but he didn’t separate it from the pile. First, he threw away the flyers and direct mail ads—two more useless modern contrivances fouling up the world. Then he set out the bills. Only when he was sure Ruth had left the room did he pull out the card and rip it open.
“H,” the note said. Of his intimates, only Ruth insisted on his hopelessly old-world given name, practically an ethnic slur by itself. “I miss you. I know I shouldn’t write but I think of you all the time. I think of dinners in the central west end. I think of our long walks in Forest Park. Of holding your hand. Painful as they are, I am grateful for these memories. I spend a good part of my day with them. I shouldn’t complain, but I am lonely, H, lonely for you.” The hand was rough, a barely corralled scrawl. The note was signed “Samantha”—no closing, no “love,” just “Samantha,” the oversize cursive S rising up in a loop that suggested a certain flare or sexy playfulness, just the kind of thing that would’ve caught his attention in the first place.
He folded the stationery along the seam and, with a quick glance around him, put it back in its matching envelope. Of course she hadn’t included a return address. But there was something else: the stamp hadn’t been canceled. More and more of his mail seemed to come this way—another product of modernization. The computerized assembly line failing where a man with a stamp would’ve functioned flawlessly. Not long ago, he would’ve peeled the stamp off the envelope to use again—it would’ve served the USPS right—but he didn’t have the patience now to worry it with his cracked fingers.
How many days out of the week did Hymie receive such a note? Almost always, they were notes of loneliness, no more than a few lines recalling some romantic interlude or moment they’d shared, as if even writing such a note was too painful to endure for long. The faces were all gone to him, now. Only the places remained. But they were all places he’d been countless times with Ruth, as well. Metropolitan Saint Louis had only so many places.
Samantha. He would’ve liked to search through his notes to find others from her, to match them up and maybe piece together some picture of her. He would’ve liked to pass the last hour of the day at his desk this way and compare, too, how many the post office in its lauded modernization had failed to cancel. But he knew men who’d been caught in all kinds of indiscretions for holding onto a paper trail. In most cases it was nothing more than vanity, and Hymie was not the kind of man to ruin a marriage over vanity. Ruth kept a teenager’s hours in her old age, and for much of the night, when he was in bed, she roamed their little condo with the walker she wouldn’t use in front of him. Would she snoop? He had no idea. When she had a notion in her head, there was simply no deterring her. Hymie looked over his shoulder, then he took the note out of the envelope and read it again. He touched his dry tongue to what remained of the sealant on the triangular flap and closed his eyes. He could almost imagine that it was still moist. Such longing there was in that slanted scrawl, that flamboyant S. “Dammit.” He cursed his memory for not allowing him to picture Samantha. But it was enough to know that somewhere there was a woman for whom the daily-ness of life hadn’t deadened romantic thoughts and feeling. For him. Somewhere outside this 800-square-foot retirement apartment, there was a woman—no, he reminded himself, more than one woman—who reserved for Hymie Schoenberg her truest, most intimate feelings.
Hymie returned the bank statements to their piles and pushed the adding machine to the back of his desk. He pulled the string of the card-table light. He set his hands in the grooves his forearms had made over the years and pushed himself up. He exhaled as he dropped the note into the white kitchen trash bag that lined the inside of his wastebasket, and in his single consistent act of daily housekeeping, he pulled tight the garbage bag full of that day’s accumulation of paper and tied off the neck. He carried the bag out to the fire escape landing and dropped it into a green plastic container. The landing looked different. Where was the mini-Dumpster they shared with batty Mrs. Lupchik next door? No matter. His trash, his card, would be gone by morning.
He used the bathroom, and even the unavoidable dribble on the bowl and on the floor beside the toilet—he wasn’t unaware of his children’s flaring nostrils when they entered the condo—didn’t dampen his spirits.
Every day, Ruth began on the front page and worked her way through the entire newspaper, one article at a time. Along with preparing his coffee and lunch, this was the extent of what Hymie knew of her day. Now she sat with the last section of the newspaper in her lap—she could no longer comfortably look over the chrome edge of the kitchen table. “Come, Ruth,” Hymie said, walking around to her left side so she’d be bent toward him.
Hymie could feel the two wrist bones rotating beneath the loose flap of Ruth’s skin as she used his grip to leverage herself to her feet. Soon, a full hour of Seinfeld in syndication would come on the television. How did they do it, always a new show? He’d set her down on the edge of the bed (hadn’t they had a couch?), then go to the television himself to turn it on, using the brief trip back to the bed to brace himself against the television’s ungodly 80-something volume. Ruth and Hymie would sit next to each other on the bed they’d owned for half a century and they’d laugh together, especially at the antics of George and Kramer, their favorite characters. It took them a full ten minutes to make their way, arm in arm, from the kitchen to their bedroom, but Hymie’s life had been large and he didn’t begrudge Ruth the time.
“Every day,” Hymie said, when they were seated at last.
“Every day,” he shouted, “we laugh together. It’s no small thing, you know.”
“It’ll be 60 years, next spring,” Ruth said, and patted his hand.