The funeral is over and they’ve almost finished stuffing their craws with water, smoked fish, that good, black bread so cheap but these days rare. Jowls filled with water, bubbling to show off the prowess developed over decades, into middle age, of making unpleasant shapes and noises with their faces. Because this is family, they fall ill from talking to Mom, from being yelled at over things they didn’t do, or worse, things they did decades before. So at night they sneak over to the fish table, shoving in fistfuls of whitefish down the gullet. Now enters the stale black bread, deep down, pushed to the ends of inflated stomachs. A turkey stuffing itself with what looks like foals. Everyone is asleep, they think. But Mr. Niederman is not, his insomnia keeps him awake. A house in Gramercy, the kind of rich people they knew, the kind they pretended to be that got them in this mess. The mess that the rabbi must have been alluding to. “She waited, suffered, loved and stood strong in silent restraint.” When he said this we all looked around at each other. “What the fuck is he talking about?”
Carly hasn’t seen me since—and here she ceases, with two wildly shaking hands indicates a height, level out, and then a much larger and obese shape, before I lost the weight, and smiles and tries to speak but goes for the hug. Carly has a degenerative brain disease, which means her brain is eating itself and they do not know why, and they cannot stop it.
She yaps and tries to say hello to all.
Wondering if it will be her last time.
She is near the sink. It helps her keep in sync, with speaking.
Na you in
It’s hard to take, that she’s crying, it’s her mother’s funeral, after all. That would have been enough. And that sick?
But Gramercy! Don’t you need a key to get into Gramercy Park, Mr. N? Can I see your key? The one park on the whole island that’s private. That’s money. The most expensive real estate and it takes eighteen dozen millionaires to find a block-by-block patch of green. A shopping cart, a poor or just poor-like woman trundling it along by the rustling grasses, so prickly on their face. Self-watered grasses on timers, nobody needs to go and care for them. They are waxy, glossy. There are pits of aborted plants pulled up, dandelions whose generative seeds snuck in in the middle of the night. The leaves mutter. Is that a chicken? Right in the middle of the park, by some lemon-yellow snow a dog must have pissed on.
Someone told me, I like to think it was Aunt Mary, at a time when they taught us in school about sex, about anatomy, how women have an entire lifetime’s eggs stacked inside them, let out loose, a dripping faucet over time. But this was not a new invention, not for mammals alone: The chicken too had all its eggs stacked up, waiting to come out. They lay one every few days, there are enormous chickens, chickens the size of photocopiers, filled with eggs. If you threw them against the wall you could hear all the eggs crack but these chickens are kept out of sight, in the backest barns of backwater farms. The normal chicken now is ancient. She has laid an entire people.
But then there are the rich folk actually entangled in huge, raccoon caps, coats with sleeves worth more than my entire wardrobe, running towards something, they have somewhere to be, knocking away elbows like turnstiles—a huge fur cap and what appears to be a bundle of sticks. She has not shaved her mustache, her nose is powdered, his glasses hang good-naturedly, she can never get them adjusted and she, too, is going inside.
Mr. N wants to sleep but the house is a part of him. The rooms are his extremities. The living room his stomach, the bathroom his left foot. The corners between his thighs, his armpits, the backs of his elbows are the corners of his house. He feels an itch in the bicep, the right one, the kitchen. Someone is down there. Some foul and tragic sandwich artist so depraved he never learned how to compose a sandwich. He builds it left to right, not top to bottom. Lettuce, fish, tomato. He eats it lengthwise, shaving off three inches at a time with his top two teeth like tiny melon ballers.
Moving into the dining room, a rustling upstairs caught in underpants. The dining room is freezing, chunks of ice seem to float past in the stolid air, the never-used china, brass kiddish cups, they seem they would shatter as though just-dipped in liquid nitrogen. There are flying spirals on the wallpaper, white orchids grown mute over time, lace curtains pulled down like Mr. N’s sleepy eyelids, hung heavy in the hoar frost. Mr. N used to get burning with drunkenness at these things, but he has reformed. He is chased constantly by metaphors of giving up drinking. Under a smoky cloud. On the cups.
He takes a chair, offers one. Uncle Matty, apparently, was his friend. They had worked in the kosher meat business before the war, his father and Matty’s father. His name wasn’t really Matty but the ballplayer Christy Mathewson was popular at the time, so. They used to ship kosher meat to a facility, hospital, tip the guy unloading it to say they got the shipment and not unload. There is a picture of him, somewhere, a photograph everyone knows, one we don’t know where it is. Matty has a flowing scarf he’d gotten in his travels, Africa, South America, something. He is slinging it around his shoulder, it is an action shot, and it is still swaying in the breeze. Half-dollar ebony goggles. Skull-tight on his head is a leather pilot’s cap with earflaps.
But poor Aunt Mary. In his mind, she so perfect. Memory’s director of photography has perched up all around soft, frosted bulbs. He’s smeared Vaseline on the lens an inch thick. She is smiling, laughing, apparently sitting there in defiance, in silent restraint.
Defiant, what could it have meant? Silent. They kept it from her, what Britt was doing. She might have been bipolar, Mr. N always figured she was just borderline. Britt called Mr. N one day to say she was pregnant, and Mr. N thought not for her, but for Mary. That, a baby, that is the last thing Mary needs.
But the first husband! Britt was a handsome lady, they’d say. Ira and Mary were pretty people and they had handsome daughters. This is for them the ultimate achievement: be handsome in your time. The first husband was Egyptian, an Egyptian Jew, a businessman, practically a prince. Even after the divorce, he still funneled in money for therapy.
When Britt overdosed, or killed herself, whether it matters, he remembers the funeral. These cousins, all young, the nice house with nice Aunt Mary, more gentle, wish they’d been her kids. Now they look at each other, the four, two boys, two girls, the balance is irreconcilably tainted.
They talk above each other the whole time. Uncle Matty’s brother is there. Duane. They ask Duane what he is up to these days. Learning an instrument. Which one? The kazoo. Ah, ah. And what else? I started translating every word in the dictionary into Chinese. He was the last one to finish spending all of his inherited money.
They talk over each other, they bring back the story of the Chinese dictionary and laugh. Back at the apartment the crystal chandelier sings, the tall, white indoor colonnades let them in. On Manhattan! Metal door handles. The metal is: gold! And a servant’s pantry, a pantry, a butler’s quarters, and two shaggy dogs both named Lucky.
A videotape is sprawled out (even though it is the time before magnetic video tapes. It is the time for non-general-public use of magnetic tape), pulled to the ends, yanked taught, and cut. It is slashing around Mary, around in the air, the tentacles might hit and break skin. But the sharp tentacles are whipping wind in their faces, at any moment one might slash Mary, and she’ll fall to the ground. They can see this, feel it. She stops, breathes in, turns around. What can someone learn from such a tragedy—a daughter’s death? They are quiet. A kernel of advice they may not miss. She says, “Don’t let this ever happen to any of you.”
The intertwining of ornaments, parquet floors, vases infused with flowers in this winter. Some of them are gifts, some of them are reaching off their pots, careening into them, hoping to be picked. The flowers turn away in dejection. They go outside for one beer, Mr. N will watch while they drink it for him. There are caryatids around the entrances, arabesques on the floor. A frail old doorman who must make so much and do so little in this safe marble arch, only barking to the homeless there is no public bathroom and dozing off, letting people wake him up, permitting them up to their sleeping hosts if he finds them suitable. The cornices weigh above him, attracted like pitch drip, a liquid magnet.
The deal with Ira, then. An interior designer. Mr. N doesn’t recall too well, wasn’t old enough or open about being with men at the time, but yes. He was an interior designer, Ira, a good one, important clients of whom he cannot name a single one, a merry man, had to throw parties constantly. How important? We can’t say now. But so much debt, so much owing. Two suicide attempts to get out of jail, to avoid debts. Borrowed money from everyone. A few thousand here and there, from his family. The family never demanded it back.
She really didn’t know about all this? Mary, she must have. She knew who was paying for her high-life. Or if she didn’t, she should have asked. She threw those parties, knew what they cost. Met those important people. Important is said as though it were something unobtainable to anyone sitting at this table with this wretched sandwich. Money, too. Nobody at this table has ever seen money like this.
Mary did know, though, got a job as a buyer at a department store. Hadn’t worked a day in her life and was determined, went out, got the little money. From gold door handles to nothing, fifteen hands after you take the check thrusting them forward, “Don’t cash it! Do not cash that check under any circumstances!” But why? “Let her write it, it makes her feel good. She has to keep the illusion.” But why? And then he died, and there were these debts. She’s old, trouble breathing; bring her out to California to be with Carly. But Carly we know about. Carly is sick too. She comes back after three horrid years. Being told bloated and without dentures she’s “beautiful” and has to sit there and smile and pretend she believes it to make them feel good for comforting her.
An apartment with servants quarters (fires lit by servants! White hall with columns, grandpa, white and proud, in long, dry-cleaned sports jackets, holding his hands entangled in front, twiddling energetic thumbs and rocking weight front to back on his patent leather shoes) to one I’m paying for. Kosher meat money and all that, what do we get?
We met, starting having Martinis. Across the hall, old people talking over what we call ‘before’. She has always loved the class, but me: I used to somersault on my mother’s bed, crawl up to her. Mommy! Mommy! Like a Pekingese, roll into her velvet blankets, and pointedly wag my little tail. I was cunning. She would say, oh. My baby! She would pet me like a dog, I would put up my feet. I wanted to be good so badly. My sister was always saying I wanted to be a dog because I was crazy, that I thought I was a dog. But it wasn’t that—it was simple and fun to crawl, to be rewarded just for getting attention, just for being alive, moving worthy of praise. It was the only way to get attention, to be creative in these ways was all I had. Mary understood passed away wars and wives.
I told her about the iron bridge. I found a plastic green water bottle there, the first green bottle I had ever seen! I thought that the light through the green would purify the water, like the Alaskan blue glass I had heard about. I thought even New Jersey plastic might: purify water. I kept it. I didn’t want to lose it… my favorite, water bottle! Buying other bottles of water, other water bottles, poured it into the crinkled up green one. It seemed cooler, colder, reminded me of the Caribbean, the ocean, the fractionated loud white-streams of the surf; I cooked with it, threw a splash into mushrooms in wine vinegar from old bottle. And one day Mommy threw it out! I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen.
By now it’s morning. The clouds run, they curl into each other, they tease apart, and the cracks come through, then go away and for fifteen minutes it seems it will thunder. The distance becomes bluer, it blues into the end of the block, and crackling from all the grills heating up for morning-on-the-way-to-work-breakfasts, and crystallizes to one consistent sound of stone and rose and moss brushed by pedestrians. All those little things that used to bother me, her, that now, poor Carly could say, who cares? It’s all gotten so worse—and how much! We cannot tell her every five minutes where she is, what has happened. Your mother is dead and you are dying too. No, every few minutes she learns over and over how awful it is. People crowd around Dan. How did she get that watch on if she stutters like that? Does she wear a diaper? And Dan uses the crowd’s sympathy to make himself feel better, it is hard work, he must keep a high nose while dressing her, while shipping her to a home.
Is he smug? If so, how is he supposed to act? But for us, with our awful sandwiches and the morning we can go outside, go to the market, farmer’s or super, to find ingredients, expensive, to fill in vast gaps in leftover meals, spending more on the extra ingredients than on the original leftovers, and spend time not getting it right and then getting it right! The perfect thing to do with leftovers, and next time someone dies and we’re sitting shiva at least we can look forward to this kind of casserole for the next week, this kind of scramble, that kind impossible to express frustration of why the hell am I even bothering cooking when someone is forgetting that her mother is dead and she is dying at fifty years old and must be reminded twenty times a day? So I lower my eyes to look at myself, my hands, my leftovers, and my leftovers gesture to me: Raise up those hands, wave them! See that bird! It is not flying through the air but the air is moving around it, it is cut loose from space-time, let go, released from it all and the earth is rotating around it! It ascends into the air, into the heavens and cannot blow on your face or anyone’s because it isn’t even moving and besides that it is all as is expected: and besides that everything remaining of the day parades on as usual.
Harry Leeds writes about food and, often, Russia (and often Russian food). His work has been published in NANO Fiction, Black Warrior Review, Green Mountains Review, Lucky Peach and elsewhere. He tweets @mumbermag.