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Podcast “The Widower”

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The Widower

The widower next door is coming over tonight. My wife invited him for dinner and I didn’t object. His wife died last spring and we went to the funeral out of proximity more so than anything else. I can’t even be certain of the dead wife’s name. Though honestly that isn’t saying very much. I am awful with names, it’s just one of those things I can never seem to remember. Faces, I don’t forget.

The other day I was in the supermarket by the produce section and out of the corner of my eye I see a face I haven’t seen since high school. I know exactly who he is. He sat two seats in front of me in freshman biology. Bright guy, always scored high. I was a terrible student. Never really applied myself to the books. Probably on account of the dyslexia, but whatever the case, I don’t read well. My wife is part of a book club, which is how she got to talking with the widower in the first place. He joined a couple months after his wife died. I imagine it must be very lonely to sit at home alone. She used to ask me to join the book club, but she’s stopped bothering with that.

I don’t say anything to the guy, the guy from high school that is, because I don’t like those types of conversations:

“Is that you, (insert name).”

“Yeesscan I help you?”

“It’s me, Eric, Eric Benjamin. From Hebrew Academy? Remember? (Insert iconic high school moment. Maybe that time someone let mice loose in Rabbi Zuckerman’s class).”

“Oh yeah! Eric how you doing?”

“I’m good, I’m good. It’s been ages since I last saw you. You look (insert lie).”

“You look…well…you look just like you did in high school …”

This carries on until you get to the part where you both agree to keep in touch. He jots down his number on the back of a business card and hands it over. You lose it in your wallet. Then three years down the line you empty out your wallet and find it along with that Tasty Delight card –the one that counts how many you’ve purchased so that when you get to the coveted ten, you get one-free-any-size cup. Sadly, though, after just three visits you lost it behind the business card and had to start from scratch with a new card counter.

So instead I duck my head behind a grapefruit bin, wait till he heads down toward the frozen section, and leave. But I sure as hell knew that guy’s face.

Thinking about it now, the neighbor’s dead wife might have been Jane or Jill. Yes, it is definitely Jill. They did not have children, which is good because that would be truly tragic to leave children behind to raise without a mother. He should be thankful that he doesn’t have children. We don’t have children and I should think that if my wife died I would be pleased that I wasn’t left with mouths to feed on my own. I suspect that’s why my wife invited the widower over for dinner. He probably doesn’t really even know how to cook. Even if he did, there’s just no sense in cooking for one.

“He’ll be here around six thirty. So I’d like you to turn off the television. Take out a book and read something instead of rotting your mind with nonsense,” Betty says from the kitchen.

“Okay,” I say back. There isn’t anything on anyway. I head into the kitchen to see what she has made for us. It’s a lot of food that we don’t normally eat unless it’s a holiday, in which case Betty’s mom cooks when it’s her side’s holiday and my mom cooks when it’s us.

“Looks spectacular,” I say sticking my finger into the mashed potatoes.

“Eric! Stop!” says Betty, eyes widening. “Seriously leave,” she says. “I really hope you can control yourself when Richard arrives.”

Richard, Richard, Richard. R is for Richard that’s good enough for me. Richard.

“What does Richard do?” I ask because I want to remember his name.

“He works in advertising.” Then adds, “He’s very successful.”

I think I would be an excellent ad man. Although I don’t like suits. I didn’t even wear one to the funeral. Betty was upset by that. But I think that if suits weren’t required, I would have certainly been an excellent ad man. Ideas come to me all the time without even trying.

 

The doorbell rings at exactly six thirty. I open it. Richard is standing with a bottle of wine. His blue eyes shine. His hair is gelled lightly to the side.

“Come in,” I say. The hallway light near the staircase is flickering again. Betty asked me to fix it, but I forgot.

“Thank you,” he says. “This is for you.”

I take the wine. It’s red. I like beer.

“Hi Richard, how are you?” says Betty appearing out of the kitchen. She’s wearing her real smile.

“I’m good, thank you for inviting me. It smells delicious in here.” He has a nice voice and he spaces his words well. It’s slow and soothing.

“Don’t be silly. It’s our pleasure. Eric why don’t you take Richard’s jacket and talk in the living room, I just need one more minute to finish and I’ll uncork this lovely gift,” she says taking the bottle from me. “Ha, Richard how did you remember, The Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir. It looks delightful,” she says. I didn’t know she liked Pinot Noir.

I don’t want to be left alone with him, but I take his jacket and he loosens his tie.

“Here we go,” I say showing him to the living room. I plop down in a chair and he follows suit.

Richard looks about my age, maybe thirty-five, but probably more active. His clothes fit well. I look down at my own outfit. I have a little more insulation under my button down and there is a small stain on my khakis. I wet my finger and rub, but it won’t come out. He’s tall, too.

“Would you like something to drink?” I ask with nothing really in mind. We don’t keep hard liquor.

“No, thank you, I’m okay for now,” he says.

“Just let me know.” I don’t have very much to say to him. I’m anxious for Betty to return.

“Thanks again for inviting me by the way. I tend to eat alone these days,” says Richard shifting in his seat, placing one leg over the other so that a bit of his argyle socks are just visible.

The thought depresses me and I don’t know what to say. I just rewet my finger and go back to work on the stain.

“Here you go,” says Betty entering the room. She’s holding two wine glasses filled half way and hands one to Richard. He gets up to relieve her.

“Oh…Eric here,” he says holding it out for me to take realizing there are only two glasses.

“Eric doesn’t enjoy wine,” intercedes Betty. Betty is wearing her new spring dress and her hair is done nice. Straight. Around her neck are the pearls that she surprised herself with for her birthday. She’s even wearing her black heels. She’s a fraction taller than me when she wears them. But I don’t mind. She looks beautiful. I think to tell her this.

“I’m sorry I should’ve brought something else,” says Richard.

“No. I’ll just grab a beer,” I say quickly.

“Well then dinner is served. This way, if you don’t mind,” she says leading Richard to the dining room.

The good china is out, a wedding gift from her Aunt Marge. The food’s out too and my stomach grumbles. I take my normal seat by the main window. There’s a cold Blue Moon already set. Betty sits in her normal seat and puts her wine glass down. Richard does the same. Betty invites Richard to say grace. He does. Out of respect, I bow my head. Betty thanks him and we begin.

There’s turkey and yams, stuffing too. Richard asks for the mashed potatoes and I pass them before digging in. Once I get going I don’t stop. Why would I? I don’t follow much of the conversation anyhow. I think, how many peas I can fit in my mouth at one time? I start slow with a spoonful. Then add another and another. I figure each spoonful must be like twenty peas. I switch to the serving spoon instead. It can hold probably close to fifty. Betty sips her wine and shoots me a look. They’re not even fresh. They’re the frozen kind; I saw her take them out of the freezer earlier. I swallow and stop.

Richard says something about his childhood in Long Chester or maybe about his sister’s children in Long Chester.

“I’d like a couple of my own,” says Betty. I turn towards her. Her eyes haven’t moved off him. I polish off the beer, get another. When I return they’re talking about the last book they read. Then switch to a short story that someone from the group had forwarded.

“It was disturbingly beautiful. The passion. To feel such tremendous love for another is incredible. I mean of course she’s crazy, but it’s the love that drives her to do it,” says Betty.

Richard says slowly and with meaning, “That’s why he’s Faulkner. The way he takes us through the town, the way he invites us in on the action. I felt like I was a member of the town, rummaging through Emily’s house. And to find that gray hair on the pillow beside Homer’s body.” Richard’s voice starts to shake. I look up from my plate, turkey in my mouth, chewing. His eyes are moist. Betty’s eyes too.

“It…well, it get’s lonely sometimes, you know,” he continues. A lone tear twists down his flushed cheek. It’s uncomfortable to look at. I want to wipe it. It doesn’t faze him though and he continues. Betty puts her hand on him and leans in to console him. “Sometimes I wish I could lie with Jennifer just one more time. Roll over and tell her anything in the middle of the night.”

I guess the dead wife’s name was Jennifer then.

“I’m so sorry Richard,” Betty says, her hand warming his arm. Richard gets himself right. He pours more wine into their glasses. For a moment or two nobody says anything.

Then Betty says, “Richard?”

“Yeah?” he says with a sniffle.

“I don’t have to get the aldermen to break open your bedroom door?”

I look at her. Aldermen?

But it must be a joke, because Richard laughs and wipes his eyes clean and Betty’s smile grows with his laughter. I don’t get it and go back to eating.

I’m on my third helping. I was full after two. The conversation goes back to the club. Dinner’s over and Betty brings out cake and coffee. We all have. I like the cake. It’s coconut with vanilla glaze.

I say, “I love this cake.”

Richard asks me questions about stuff. Questions like a guy in a supermarket might ask.

“So what line of work you in, Eric?”

“I’m an entrepreneur,” I say.

“Very cool,” replies Richard.

“He’s in between jobs right now,” says Betty.

“I wanted to work for myself,” I say.

“You know we’re actually looking for people at work. It’s an entry-level job, but it pays well enough. Plus you’ll learn a lot about advertising. You might find it interesting,” he adds not getting the vibe he wants out of me.

“That would great,” says Betty enthused.

“Thanks, but I’m not that into advertising. Not that it’s not a good field. Just wouldn’t even know where to begin,” I say. There’s nothing like being your own boss. It takes a certain kind of person do be able to do it and I don’t think Richard would have what it takes.

We finish eating. Richard helps clear. I invite him to watch the Bulls game. He declines. I take another Blue Moon, grab a bag of pretzels and head to the den. They continue talking and I turn up the volume. I watch the first half. Cozy up under the blanket, flipping the channels during the commercial to catch part of the Hangover. I’ve seen it nearly five times, but I laugh all the same.

They’re speaking louder. Excited by something. Betty’s laughing and Richard’s talking. I lower the volume. The game’s not a good one anyway.

I hear Betty say, “I got your copy for you it’s upstairs. I think it should be a fun read. A lot lighter than the last couple. The Jane Austen Book Club?”

“I’ve heard of it,” says Richard. “My favorite book, believe it or not, is Pride and Prejudice.”

“Mine too! Come with me, I’ll get your copy,” says Betty.

I turn the volume back up. They walk by the den. Out the doorway I see them on the staircase. The hallway light is on the frits, darting here and there. They have their wine glasses and they’re talking. One hand on the rail, Betty’s twisting her body backwards on the second step. Richard, still taller than her even in her heels, is following after. They’re not in a rush. Each step is in unison, slow boxy steps. Betty’s head tilting slightly forward, smiling something to him.

I can see cracks in the foundation of her makeup. Under the flickering bulb, it all looks caked on. I don’t recognize her face. They continue in this fashion up the stairs. I return to not watching the game. Every now and then I hear Betty burst out in foreign laughter –the type of laugher where a hand meets an arm.

I look down at the coffee table. My Blue Moon’s made a ring. I pick it up and pull over a coaster. Bulls are down twenty and I turn the television off. I fold the blanket and put it back neatly. I fold the top of the pretzel bag too so they won’t get stale.

I leave the room and look back. It’s tidy. I get my coat from the hall closest and grab a scarf. They’re at the top of the stairs when I reach the door. Betty’s holding her book and smiling that smile.

“Where you going?” she asks.

“I’m gonna stretch my legs. Dinner was delicious, thank you,” I say, and head out.

I stand on the stoop, looking up at the heavens. It’s chilly outside. I can see my breath, like the thin mist of clouds gently masking tonight’s moon. She’s ducked her face behind a grapefruit bin, I think to myself, and switch over to the stars instead. They’re bright and shine through.

I fix in on the brightest one –way off in the distance.

It must be lonely.

 

 

That Time

I was easily frightened as a child. Wind, tree shadows, thunder, noise. You name it I was scared. I think it was in my genes to be scared. As a Jew I think it’s ingrained in us –I mean if you spent forty years in a wilderness you’d be scared too. Anyway, I was also easily influenced. I had a friend, Joe. Joe and I were best buds. I was a year older but he was braver. And stupider. A deadly combination.

We were always doing stupid things. Like stealing people’s money. We used to steal from our neighbor. We were like nine and our neighbor was like six. Anyway, we used to steal from him. I’m not proud or anything, but we did.

The neighbor was a saver. When the ice cream truck would come, he had the dough to buy the top row stuff. The King Cone, the Tollhouse Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich, a Sunday even. We bought ices mostly.

Anyway, one summer day it was so brutally hot out. We needed the ice cream truck, but we were strapped. Well, like I said, our neighbor had cash.

Joe says to me, “Let’s just take it from him. He has so much. Lets just jump in there and get it.”

I was scared. I didn’t think this was a good idea. But Joe was convincing.

“How?” I ask.

“Well, their car is gone. So they aren’t home. So we stick our hand through the mail slot and unlock the door and we’re in.” This wasn’t really news to me. We learned along time ago that we could do this. Our neighbor’s mail slot was so close to the lock and our arms were so skinny –mostly cause we couldn’t afford ice cream –that we could just reach our paws in and open sesame. We learned this because besides ice cream, we also liked Fruit Rollups, which they had and we weren’t allowed.

“Sounds like a plan,” I say because that’s what I always said.

So we march across the lawn, stomping on the new roses and flowers and stuff. Joe puts his hand through, and voila, we’re in.

I knew getting in would be easy. I knew snatching our neighbor’s piggy bank, taking our Kippa clips and jimmying the lock would also be simple. No, all that didn’t scare me. What scared me was the neighbor’s mom. She was, pardon my French, a bitch. And something told me stealing money from here little darling wasn’t going to please her. So naturally, we’re upstairs stealing and dividing the pot –like I said Joe was stupid, and he demands that we divvy it up right there and then –when suddenly the car pulls into the drive way. That noise still lingers with me today.

“Oh crap! Oh crap! What are we gonna do, Joe?”

“Quick grab the dough, we’ll hide in Rachel’s room.” Rachel was the neighbor’s younger sister. She was four, but had a room the size of–well I don’t know exactly, but it was big. So we dart in there with Joe stuffing money down his underwear because it’s the summer and we’ve forgotten to wear anything with pockets.

The lock downstairs starts to click and turn and the jingling of keys makes my head bonkers. I run to Rachel’s closet, only Joe has the same idea. I’m scared, I tell you, really scared. I don’t want to go to jail or worse get caught by that bitch. I think it will be too risky for us both to hide in the same spot. I’m not sure exactly why, but that’s what I think. So just as Joe reaches for the closet door, I kick him –hard and in the stomach. He keels over and I hop in and yank the closet door shut behind me. I press my eye to the crack and see Joe scamper off to the other side of the bed.

“Sorry,” I hiss after him.

Footsteps are coming closer. I cross my fingers: Please not this room, please not this room.

            “Rachel, let’s get you ready for ballet.” The mom walks in with her daughter. My heart is exploding. She is going to need to change!

            I press my eye to the crack again and I see a little hand reach for the door. I look around desperately. Her ballet shoes! I pick them up and hold them out, praying she won’t notice me. Rachel opens the door a crack, sees the shoes before her face, and takes them. No questions asked.

She closes the door. I put my eye back. I can see the bed and I can see Joe hiding on the other side of it.  Then, I see clothes fling out onto the bed. Little clothes. Then big clothes flying even further, missing the bed by a foot –but they never reach the floor. Instead they land directly on top of Joe’s head. I move my eyes to another crack. I see the mom. I see her bare breast sagging as low as her jaw.

From her angle the clothes look like they’re suspended in midair.

“Whose there!?” she yells, finally collecting herself and grabbing hold of her daughter. I switch back to the other crack.

Joe pops up, the bra still caressing his head.

“It’s just Joe!” He looks at the closet. “I’m just playing hide-and-go seek.”

“What! Hide-and-go seek? With who?”

“Pete, of course. Peter will never look here.”

“Pete? How did you even get in?”

“I just…the back door was open.”

“It was?”

“Yep…sure was. Figured you wouldn’t mind. Anyway, I got to get going. Have fun at ballet, Rachel.”

Just like that and he walks out. I was too scared to look at the mom’s reaction, but I can only imagine.

I stay in there, until I hear the car pull out of the driveway. When I get outside, Joe is waiting for me. We hear the ice cream truck and Joe reaches into his underwear and yanks out the cash.

“Well, that was close,” he says, then turns to the ice cream man, “Two King Cones, please.”

“Here you go. That will be six dollars, young man.”

Joe pays him and hands me mine.  “Cheers.”  We clink them like my parents do their wine glasses, then head to the front stoop of Joe’s house, licking our spoils all the way.

“So… I guess those are boobs then,” says Joe.

Vacation

When you’re on vacation you don’t need to wear a watch. You can go by the tide or the shadows on sidewalks or the pangs of hunger in your belly. And when you’re on vacation you don’t have to worry about people knowing you. You can do as you please. Come and go as you wish. You can be who ever you’d like to be –like Michael or Sal or Roger. It all makes no difference. So tonight I’m Randolph and I work in Wisconsin, and I’m in South Beach for the weekend. I’m also very successful, but I don’t like to talk about that because I’m humble.

I think that’s what she probably notices first: my humility. She walks over to me and leans on the bar. She gives me the look like I can buy her a drink. I do –a cosmopolitan. We speak. Her names Carmela. She has soft brown eyes and a quiet  sense of humor.

“That guy over there,” she says after our second drink, “he’s looking for men.”

“Get out of here,” I say, taking a heavy sip of beer. Her eyes are serious, though. “Why do you say that?”

“You can just tell. Look there,” she points to a hot brunette making her way to the restroom. She struts her stuff by the guy. With his back on the wall, he looks at her, and then looks away toward a group of girls and guys playing pool.

“See?” she says.

“What?”

“His eyes never looked down her. He didn’t even notice her tits or nothing. He was looking for eye contact and when he didn’t get it, he went back to those college boys playing pool.”

“Get out of here,” I say again. “How do you know that he’s looking at the guys? Maybe he’s looking for a younger girl. Maybe he’s just into college girls. ”

She looks at me and we both take a defiant drink. A couple minutes pass and the brunette is out of the restroom. She walks past the guy again. He doesn’t look. She heads directly to the bar, cutting in between Carmella and me, and orders herself a drink. While she’s waiting she looks at me and smiles. I look back trying not to do it. But I cave and look down at her tits. She gets her drink and walks away. Carmella looks at me and we both laugh.

 

If it was my humility that she first noticed, then I guess I’d have to say it was her confidence that attracted me. She’s very comfortable with herself. Even now, she lies on the bed naked, one leg crossed nonchalantly on top of her other knee, as she sucks the end of her cigarette. The position makes the fat around her stomach role up like a wave and I can see the cellulite on the bottom of her thighs, but her hands never move to cover it; the sheets lay idly by, crumpled and sweaty by the base of the bed. She wears her fat well. I turn toward her and place my hand on top and lightly squeeze. It doesn’t faze her. She sticks the cigarette in my mouth. I got a no smoking room, but no one follows that anyway –plus, it’s a vacation and Randolph likes to smoke so I inhale deep.

“I think I’ll stay the night,” she says.

“Okay,” I say, sticking the cigarette back in her mouth. “But I have to get up pretty early. I leave tomorrow.”

“No problem. I’ll be gone when you need me to.” She pats my head and we laugh.

She gets up and heads to the bathroom. She has a nice ass and I watch it until the door closes. I hear the water start to run. I close my eyes and begin to doze. A few minutes later, her phone goes off. I open my eyes. It’s a really annoying ring –it’s one of the ring tones that come with the phone. I get up and knock on the bathroom door.

“Carmella! Hey, Carmella!”

“Yeah?” she shouts back. The water turns off and she says again. “What’s up?”

“You’re phone’s ringing.”

“Would you mind bringing it to me. It’s in my purse.”

I find her purse under the covers and pull out her phone on the last ring. The caller ID says it’s Sid.

“It’s Sid!”

“Can you bring it?”

The door opens and I hand it to her. She takes it in and calls him back. The door closes again, but I can still hear her talking. I hold her purse in front of me, then stick my hand inside. I weed through a tampon, some gum, chap-stick, a few loose coins and some hair clips. I pull out her licensee and a cigarette. I head back to the bed, light up, and blow a puff of smoke onto her picture. Her hair’s in a bun and she’s wearing glasses. It reads: Jessica Prichet. She’s from Connecticut and her birthday is in May.

We’re delayed. The plane takes off at eight thirty. I have a magazine and don’t really care. The flight is only two hours to Newark. The flight attendant asks us to fasten our seatbelts for the landing. I buckle up and sit in quiet anticipation. The moment when you’re just about to hit the runway has an oddly calming effect on me. I can sit back and let my brain go on autopilot. Just sit as the wheels of the plane come out, hovering mere feet from the asphalt.

For that brief moment, I look at the TV in the back of the chair before me. It’s turned off along with all other electronics. I stare at the reflection before me and a guy stares back, a guy sitting in a living room with his wife and two kids, eating a TV dinner and watching reality shows. Then with a light thud, the wheels meet the runway, steadying me. Randolph disappears, and Jason steps out and takes his seat.

When you get ready for a vacation you pack everything but your baggage. When you come back, and pull your bag off the conveyer belt your surprised at how heavy it suddenly becomes.

Sometimes, usually during our TV dinners, I find myself thinking about Randolph and Carmella. They were a good match. They could have been together and have been happy. They could have been anything they wanted to be.

 

A Wish For Him

He had leathery skin and dirty fingernails. Not the kind that were unattractive, but the kind that said he was a hard worker. At that moment, though, they were on break –quietly strumming the base of a guitar as he made his way up and down the aisle. There were only a handful of people in the car and he had space to move about and sing softly to himself. Every once in a while he’d stop in front of me, reach up, and pluck a pen hidden between an ear and an old timer’s hat. Then, bending over his guitar, he’d wet the tip with his tongue and jot down a note or two in his flip-pad.

He wore a serious look when he wrote. His eyes narrowed and his lower lip came up and massaged his seasoned mustache. He wore a heavy knapsack with a sleeping bag rolled up on the top. When he’d write, the whole thing would ride up his neck. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but watching him I couldn’t help but readjust my own belongings. I had used a similar bag when I first got married and went backpacking, laughing my way through Eastern Europe. That was when I first got married –before that bag got heavy.

I tucked the box under my arm and fixed the strap to my purse. The man continued to walk and sing. I looked at my watch. I got stuck at work again and was going to be late.

It got more and more crowded as we moved along and eventually the man had to stop. He slunk his bag onto the floor and took a seat on the other end of the car. He kept his guitar with him still and continued to play. The people near him seemed to be annoyed –either at the space he was taking up or the singing; I couldn’t tell which it was. I was beginning to get bothered as well. Not with him, though. Body odor had begun to creep about the compartment; I could feel it nesting in my hair. I wondered if it smelled less where he was. I decided it probably didn’t. I tucked the box back under my arm again, stretched my sleeve over my hand, and took hold of the metal bar in front of me.

We stopped. More people rushed in. I watched as expensive people dressed in their work attire filtered through the doors, their pupils dilating heavy sighs of relief. I knew that feeling. Phones don’t work on subways.

I soon found myself sharing the lower half of the poll with an older woman. Something about being together at the bottom encourages people to share, as though being short meant we were members of the same club, and women to boot.

“A present?” she said with a nod at the box.

“My son’s birthday,” I nodded back. I could feel her eyes glide over my empty fingers hanging on display across the metal bar. I turned the other way. Between the tangles of body parts I could still see the man, his eyes closed, his head bobbing along to the strumming. He didn’t seem to feel the angry stares.

“Ah, lovely. My sons are all grown. The oldest just moved to Philadelphia.  He’s an architect. Well, not to surprising, is it? Like father like son. Anywho, they have a wonderful program in Philadelphia and his wife is from there as well, so,” she said, her eyebrows raised with an impressive air.  “How old is your boy?”

“Seven.”

“Looks just like his father I’d bet.”

I chuckled and nodded politely. He did, but not that his father would know.

I turned back again. He was holding that pen and a pad. His lower lip feeling along his mustache.

“She’s pregnant too,” she said, her hand reaching out to my shoulder. I flinched. She took it for confusion. “My oldest’ wife,” she explained. “Beth. She’s pregnant. Not that I’m supposed to be telling people yet. But…” her crows’ feet came out. “A grandmother. One day you’ll understand, dear.”

“Does she crave milkshakes?” I asked.

She tilted her head to the side, “I don’t know. I don’t think so, actually.”

“That’s good.”

She waited for me to continue. I didn’t.

“Well, what’s the young man getting?”

“Lego. He likes to build homes.”

“Ah, a young architect as well then. Well it’s never too early to know. Paul knew right from the moment he was old enough to go to work with his father.” Her eyebrows raised again. “All he wanted to do was build. It’s in the genes. It was in Paul’s genes.”             She opened her mouth to continue. I leaned in slightly as to hedge her next question, “Did you buy him Lego for his birthdays?”

The old woman’s face got screwed up, then cracked into what seemed like a million different paths. She had an old laugh that reminded me of my own father. It made me feel young, like a little girl again.

When I was nine, my father took me out to dinner. It was a treat because I wasn’t usually allowed to go out on school nights. My mother had a night shift and didn’t need to know, he said. So we went. It was only going to be us, but my father ran into a friend at the diner. She joined us. They were good friends it turned out. They had stories and jokes I didn’t get. She made one joke that my father thought was hysterical. He laughed and hit the table with his fist. His fist turned into fingers that slithered across the table towards her hand. She had a fresh manicure and I remember it was a beautiful pink. His fingers wrapped around them. I watched and she looked at me. Then my father looked at me. His fingers scurried back into a fist. I got a milkshake. I got a milkshake again when Jake was born and his father snaked his way out of our lives.

Still, I thought, that wouldn’t be bad. An architect.

I figured that was as good a place as any to end the conversation. I looked at the man and kept looking at him and away from the old woman. I don’t know what it was exactly. There was something about the way he moved, the way his hiker boots slumped off the seat and kicked to the music that pulled me in close. And that bag, too. There was something is all I can say.

It wasn’t long before he noticed me staring. He tipped his hat to me and twisted his mustache and that was all the invitation I needed.

“Well, this is my stop,” I said as the train came to a screeching halt. I ducked under the branches of arms and pushed my way through.

“Happy birthday,” yelled the old woman.

I slipped out onto the platform and raced back down towards the far door of the car. Quickly getting lost inside a pack of on comers, I reentered.

“Name’s Jesse,” he said before I could reach his outstretched hand.

“Chloe,” I replied.

We shook. He scooted over, leaving me a half a patch of plastic. I took it, careful not to sit on his coat. It was a tight fit and I could feel his hip resting on mine. I glanced over at the old woman. She had moved onto someone else. She was laughing that old laugh.

“What type of music you like?” he said adjusting his guitar.

“Any.”

For a moment I thought of leaving. That I must have lost it. Like I finally just cracked up inside. That the air in there was flavored badly…and the old woman. I thought about all of this and I thought of picking up and walking away. But then he spoke and there was that something pulling me in again.

“How about I play a tune I just learned from a Jew, a lonely, wandering Jew.”

“Sure,” I said because what else do you say to something like that?

Jesse readjusted a couple of things. Tapped on the base with his palm and bobbed his head again. With his eyes closed so tight and hard, he began to sing or maybe he was praying. People were looking again. I closed my eyes and I could feel his hip gliding across mine as he swayed slowly and softly. And as he got going, I could feel his voice vibrating through me, too. I don’t know. But I was glad I stayed.

“ah—DOHN oh—LAHM, Pee—KOO Lee, Pee—KOO Lee, ah—nee ma—ah—MEEM, ah—DOHN oh—LAHM…”

I opened my eyes. He was looking at me. He was looking at me and for a moment or two, I got lost in his gaze, inside the black. His eyelids never shuttered. He was inviting me in. So I did. I walked right into the black and listened from inside. He continued to sing and I listened. He had an easy voice that sounded right. It sounded like aged wine collecting notes from its oak barrel. It was sweet and soothing. I didn’t understand a word he said and I didn’t care either. But each syllable was sung with all of him.

“Pee—KOO Lee, Dyan Ha—Olam, Dyan Ha—Olam, ROO—Akh Ha—Emet.”

And, then, it was like a light went on. Maybe it was the blitz of lights flashing by the car windows or maybe it came from inside my head or maybe it was from inside his, but whatever it was, it was clear to me. I could see him. With his bag and his guitar, I could see this man. There were signs inside his head too that I could read as I wandered through the ally of his soul: “No greener grass,” “No other,” “No neighbor’s car.” And he let me. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. It was more than that. He gave me a candle and said go ahead. Explore. And as I did, the people around us melted away like wax.

Let them look, I thought. There wasn’t anything to hide. There were no secret wishes. He was happy and it was safe inside.

“That was lovely,” I said when he finished. “Lovely,” I repeated.

“Everyone I meet says the same,” he said. “I’ve been wandering around myself, you know.” He tapped his bag. “Everything I own is in that bag and this guitar. Everything is here.”

I smiled. I already knew what he said was true.

The train stopped. I thanked him. He tipped his hat at me. I bumped into the old woman on the platform. She gave me the eyebrows. I shrugged and made my way up the stairs.

It was six twenty-three when I climbed up my own stairs. I held the box behind my back and turned the key.

“I’m home, sorry –again.”

My father walked out from the kitchen. His back must’ve been hurting because he was hunched to his left. Sometimes it looks like there’s an invisible weight draping him.

“There’s no need to be sorry. We had quite the time.” He pulled my head towards him and kissed it.

“Did you guys at least eat?”

“We ordered pizza.”

“Dad, I told you I made dinner.”

“I know. But now you’ll have leftovers for tomorrow. Or eat it another day. I told you I can babysit again tomorrow.”

“Dad.”

“Are you at least trying to date? Mrs. Thomson has a nephew…”

“I know. I know. And what about you? Mrs. Thomson isn’t bad herself.”

“Oh…she’s a nutter,” he said wiping it away with his hand. “I don’t even understand how Brian put up with her for so long, rest his soul. Then again, he thought the same of….”

I love my father. We are close now, more than we ever were. But there are some topics we choose to let be. Mom is or was one of them. It’s something we learned to do. We know there are only so many ways we cannot agree.

Instead he said, “No. I’m too old to date. You’re young and beautiful and smart. Very smart.”

“Thank you,” I said, then seeing the look on his face I added, “I’m looking.”

He peered at me from over the bridge of his glasses, but accepted the lie.

It isn’t easy. The apartment is small. It’s really all I can afford. My father wanted us to move. He said he would help. We both knew I wouldn’t take it, though. Every once in a while he’ll offer again and I’ll say I’ll think about it.

“Mommy!” Jake ran in as he always does –grabbing both my legs and sticking his head through. “Look Ada, I’m in the stocks.” He let his wrists turn to dead fish.

“I take it you guys watched another western.” I slapped his butt and he pulled out. “And made quite the mess I see.”

There was mud from Jake’s shoes on the carpet. The sofa cushions were missing. Later I’d find that they became the walls of an Indian fort. Some of it wasn’t Jake’s doing, though. The columns of mail on the coffee table are my fault. Bills mostly. There’s just never any time. For bills or for dating.

“So what did you get me?”

“Not so fast. First we need to cut the cake.”

Jake sat on my father’s lap, galloping on his knees as I spread candles on his ice cream cake. There were only six candles in the box. I quickly washed a dirty knife from the sink and brought it all over to the table.

“Quick, close your eyes.” I lit the candles, hoping he wouldn’t notice I was shy one, and turned off the light, which was already on the fritz.

“Open.”

My father and I did a duet while Jake played the composer.

“And many, many more,” I said when we finished.

“Go ahead. Make a wish, a big one,” said my father.

Again Jake closed his eyes. For a long time we sat, waiting.  His face screwed up in concentration as the candles dripped wax onto the cake –but he kept his eyes closed, hard and tight. Finally he opened his eyes, smiled, and, in one breath, blew out all six.

I lingered in the dark. Closed my eyes for good measure. I was hesitant but I did it anyway. And there I was. Again. I stepped right into the black. I took a deep breath, letting the birthday smoke waft Jake’s wish into my nostrils. I held it in me and felt it glide down the back of my throat. I could feel it flutter through my heart –the beat spiraling down my ribcage. I felt my cheeks lift.

It was nothing like my father or Jake’s father. It was sweet and innocent and warm. It was honest. And there were those hints of aged wine.

I exhaled and flipped the lights back on.

“So what’d you wish for?”

My father plucked a candle and sucked the bottom like a cigarette. “Nonsense. He can’t answer that. Then it won’t come true,” he laughed, clapping both his hands on Jake’s small shoulder. It was an old laugh. I could feel the weight of those hands. And something stirred inside me like fingers pulling my cheeks down.

“Presents?” said Jake with a puppy tilt of the head.

I looked at him. He looked up with his father’s eyes. It was as though that invisible weight that drapes my father had suddenly cast itself on to me and I could not shake it. That old woman and her unasked question began to speak to me: what does his father do? I passed Jake the box. I watched as he clawed at it with hungry hands, my father helping him along.

“Hey, Jake,” I said. “Jake? What do you say I come home early tomorrow? I’ll come home early and we’ll go to the park. Or anywhere. How about that? How does that sound?”

But they didn’t hear me. Jake gnawed at the plastic. A couple Lego pieces spilled out. My father bounced him around and clapped his back and laughed that old laugh.

I closed my eyes. Pee—KOO Lee, Pee—KOO Lee.

An architect would be nice, I thought. Jake deserves a big home. Then again that man –I could see that man.

I wish Jake could see that man, too.