He didn’t want to do it. God knows he didn’t. But in the end, after two trips to the emergency room, a hairline fracture, and a series of long rambling conversations about meeting Hershel to go swimming in the pond that lay through the wood outside Mszcznow on the road to Zboiska, Sol knew it was time. His Mammala, his Mamuleńka—Yetta was her given name but in America she was called Yvette—had to go to a home.
It’s a nice home, as far as such things go, or at least that’s what the geriatric social worker who’d helped Sol find a suitable place for his mother had said: “None of them is exactly the Garden of Eden, but some are better than others, and some are much better than others.” Devorah House, she insisted, was in the latter category.
You couldn’t tell by how much his mother complained, though. She complained that she didn’t get enough natural light in her unit. When she was moved to the other side of the building, she complained that it was too drafty. She complained that the food was terrible, which it wasn’t, at least not for kosher, but what did she expect, given that she’d refused to go any place that wasn’t kosher? She complained that the hot water wasn’t hot enough and then scalded herself and then she complained that the attendant hadn’t been attending her properly and threatened to sue. She complained that the bed was too hard, which was ridiculous, because it was the same bed that she had shared with Sol’s father for thirty years and had continued to sleep in for the next sixteen. When Sol bought her a new mattress she complained about its smell. She said she couldn’t abide the staff and insisted on having a private attendant, instead, and then she fired her.
“These shvartzes,” she said. “Every last one of them is lazy and stupid.”
“You can’t say things like that here,” Sol said.
“Why? Because they’re afraid of hearing the truth?”
“Because it isn’t nice,” Sol said. “Also, the woman who runs this place is African-American.”
“She’s what? Albanian?”
“Is that what they’re called these days?” his mother said.
“Why aren’t you married, are you a poof?” she said.
“It’s not the end of the world, you know, if you are.” she said. “Even in Poland, we had them. The Pedzio. The Paperios. Everyone knew what they were up to. Once, in Mszczonów, right in the synagogue, if you can believe it, the gabbai, he’s putting things right, Shabbos is over and he’s putting things away, you know, and there, right under the Holy Arc, right there where Moses rabenu can see them, these two little fegalas, Moishe and Zalman, sticking it in each other’s arse holes.”
“Nice story, Ma.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes I think maybe even your father was one of them.”
“How he loved the opera, remember?”
“Loving the opera doesn’t make you a homosexual,” Sol said.
“He was a Verdi fanatic. He loved Rigoletto.”
“The prince in ‘Rigoletto.’ Didn’t he have a thing for boys?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Well then, Verdi himself—a famous feygele. A famous Italian opera-loving homo.”
“Wasn’t Verdi married?”
“How would I know?” She momentarily looked defeated. “And even if he had a wife, what does that prove? They all got married, it didn’t mean a thing.”
“You see nothing,” she said. Which wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair for any number of reasons, but towards the top was the fact that he was paying for her care. It was only a stroke of ridiculously good luck that had allowed him to afford it, not that his mother either knew or cared that his book had been made into a documentary, which in turn had launched him as the founder of a new psychological specialty, an under-the-radar niche in the field of mental and emotional health: adult child of survivors, or ACOS. Now there were ACOS groups in thirty-two states that met in synagogue basements and quiet corners of libraries to discuss the particular difficulties of being the adult child of a survivor. He’d been on NPR. President George W. Bush had called him in as a consultant regarding International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And there he was, Sol Zamesk, Mr. Jewish nobody from Hollis Hills and a graduate of Queens College, his mother a housewife, his father an air-conditioning unit delivery man, shaking hands with the President of the United States on the White House lawn
They weren’t from the same town, his parents. Both parents had grown up poor. Both had been swept up by the Nazis. Both had been sent to the camps. They’d met in New York.
“They died,” his mother said.
“Moishe and Zalman. Why? Are you deaf too?”
“I’m not deaf, Ma.”
“Is that why no one will marry you, because you don’t hear so good?”
“I’m not deaf, Ma.”
“Then why aren’t you married?”
“I guess I just can’t find a girl as good as you.”
“Does your thing work?”
“Ma! Don’t you think that you’re maybe crossing a line here?”
“Because it happens,” she said with another of her infuriating, exasperating, homicidal-impulse-inducing shrugs. “I was married to your father for a long time before he died, you know.”
“You still working at that hoity-toity Yekke magazine?” she said. “What’s it called again? Oh yeah: Commissary.”
“You know I’m not,” he said. “And it’s called Commentary.”
“You do, Ma.”
“I could care less,” she said.
“I left a few years ago, Ma. I’ve got my own business going now.”
“You? A businessman? Really?”
“I told you I met the President recently?” he said.
“You told me you met that putz from Texas, if that’s what you mean,” his mother said, infuriating him still further, and throwing him off, too, the way she did that—the way she could be back in the shtetl one minute, thinking she was a young girl running away from the Storm Troopers, and the next, remembering exactly every word he ever said.
“And anyway, that wasn’t exactly recently,” she said. “Wasn’t that already two years ago?”
“You’re killing me, Ma. I don’t even believe you’re doing it unintentionally. You just like–” He was going to say “yanking my chain,” but didn’t want to set her off on a new round of yanking-related free association. He started again. “You just like to—”
“What I like is hard rods.”
“What? What did I say? It’s a song. I heard it on the television.”
Poor thing. She was ninety, shriveled, widowed, flat-chested, stoop-shouldered, and confused. She suffered from hemorrhoids, arthritis, bunions, dementia, and whatever horrors she’d lived through in Europe, not that she’d ever talked about them, or at least not to him. He’d grown up in a house of screamers: his mother screamed at him during the day; his father screamed, in his sleep, at night. It was a one-bedroom apartment, nice enough as far as one-bedroom apartments in Queens went. His parents had the bedroom. He slept in a corner of the living room, behind a screen decorated with Japanese ladies wearing kimonos against a flowered and golden backdrop. When he was very little the Japanese ladies, with their small mouths and hard black eyes, had scared him. When he got older they turned him on. He jerked off with his back to them, worried they’d be offended and equally worried that were he to face them, one of them might actually come down from off the screen and do things with him that he desperately wanted to do but not really. He was afraid of girls. It didn’t matter how shy or friendly or fat or pretty or plain or desperate the girl was. He was afraid of them all. Then he grew up and his father died and he was still afraid of girls, but not so afraid of them that he didn’t, on occasion, have sex with them. Sex he liked. It was women he wasn’t sure what to do with.
He still wasn’t sure what to do with them. On the other hand, that didn’t stop him, mainly from being an idiot. He loved women. Always had. Unfortunately, the one he loved the most was married to someone else, didn’t love him even a little bit, and on top of everything else had already dumped him—it was years ago, but still—and now here he was, back for more, and all because. . . but there was no reason. The thing had no future. It barely had a present.
Zoe’s husband was old; he’d suffered two strokes and couldn’t speak properly and she didn’t love him anymore and hadn’t for a long time. Sol didn’t know why Zoe continued to stay married to him but all she said was “It’s complicated.” Then they went somewhere and had sex.
That night, when he asked her, again, why she bothered with the pretense of her marriage, she got up, began to dress, and said: “Don’t.”
“We need to talk.”
He appreciated her: she was sleek and mean and smart, without a drop of sentimentality other than the large diamond ring she wore next to her wedding band. Her blonde hair had dark brown under streaks. Her blue eyes were ice cubes. She wore perfume.
“I just don’t understand it,” he said. “You’re sleeping with me for a reason, and I don’t think it’s my movie star looks.”
“It’s your charm,” she said as she left the room. He didn’t follow her. There was no point. The door closed. He was suddenly so tired that he didn’t even bother to get up to take a piss.
“Will you marry me?” he said to the ceiling.
In the morning there was an email from his booking agent saying that the Boston affiliate of NPR wanted to talk to him about rising antisemitism in Poland—as if there were enough Jews left in Poland to be anti-Semitic over—and another from his agent, Daphne, who said that Ha-Aretz, English language edition, wanted to interview him for a round-up they were doing on what the editor there called “second generation Holocaustica,” and would he be interested, and since when wasn’t he interested because if he didn’t keep doing this stuff he wouldn’t be able to pay his mother’s bills. At half past ten an email came in from Isa DeWitt, the chief administrator at Devorah House, with the subject heading: EMERGENCY. The email said to get in touch with her as soon as possible.
When he called, she said: “I don’t want to alarm you.”
“Alarm me,” he said.
“I think your mother–” She stopped talking.
“Is my mother dead?”
“I think your mother may have—”
“A hearing problem? Dementia? Cancer?”
“Please,” he said.
“I think you need to come in,” she said.
He sat across from her desk, trying not to look anywhere but her face, but kept finding his eyes sliding down her pretty neck to her even prettier breasts, pillowing and billowing under her red silk blouse.
“His name is Frank,” she said. “But she calls him Hershel.”
“Hershel,” he said. “It means ‘deer.’”
“Whatever it means, it has to stop. She’s upsetting the other residents.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
She gave him a sharp look, the same look almost every one of his elementary school teachers had given him just about every day of his elementary-school education.
“Perhaps you could have a talk with her, explain things to her in a way she can take in.”
“She doesn’t listen to me.”
“Mr. Zamesk,” she said, “I must tell you, your mother is more than a handful. The staff here is highly trained. They’re accustomed to dealing with all kinds of clients, including those who espouse racist views, or hurl racist invective, as your mother does.”
“Ma’s not racist,” he began to say, but then, realizing that she was, stopped.
“They are trained to care for even the most debilitated of our seniors, those who are both physically and mentally impaired.”
“Yes, of course.”
“But we simply can’t have our members engaging in any form of sex here,” she said.
He, for one, didn’t see why not. If the seniors were getting it on, they should get an award. At the very least, they’d be getting some much-needed aerobic exercise. His own mother, though—impossible. She couldn’t even get out of bed without help. Not to mention her arthritis, her fingers bent like chicken claws, her joints swollen and purple and tender.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.
His mother’s unit was on the ninth floor, at the end of the hall. He knocked and went in. She was wearing a spongy green dress that buttoned up the front, and watching TV. “Who’s Hershel?” he said.
“Whoever he is, he’s probably dead.”
“Mrs. DeWitt says you’re running around with someone named Hershel.”
“Did you say Hershel?” she said.
“You know I said Hershel.”
“Don’t tell anyone!” she said, turning to look at him through her dim cloudy milky unfocussed confused gray eyes. “I met him at the pond.”
“There’s no pond, here, Ma.”
“There is, and I met him there. Don’t be a dunce! Oh, I see how it is! You’re jealous of me, jealous jealous jealous! And if you tell Papa I’ll tell him about what you do at night when you think no one is watching!”
“Ma! Ma! Look at me, Ma!”
“Do you know who I am?”
“You’re my homo son, the one who isn’t married, because he likes to do it with boys, is why. Another shanda fur die goy.”
“And don’t take the name of the Lord in vain! Didn’t they teach you nothing at the fancy college where you went?”
“I went to Queens College, Ma.”
“You went nowhere is where you went,” she said.
Had she been this mean when he was growing up? What was he thinking? Of course she’d been this mean. That’s how he’d gotten himself up and out of the house to begin with: he couldn’t stand her. And yes, also, he loved her. But he mainly he couldn’t stand her. A million years of therapy and finally he felt good about that, about how his little boy’s tender heart had known from the outset that his mother, whom he loved with all the tender sweetness of his little boy’s heart, was pure unadulterated venom. When he got his job at Commentary he was pretty sure she’d finally be impressed, that maybe she’d see fit to brag about him, but she didn’t, she was too mean and twisted and ruined by being in the camps, and she couldn’t do anything but sit in her own poison, spewing poison. Not that it was her fault.
“What do I do at night?” he said.
“When I think no one is watching? What do I do at night?”
“You think I don’t know? I only sleep next to you. You think I don’t know what’s happening when you start making those moaning sounds, those cat sounds, it’s disgusting, and you’re going straight to genom, and no one will marry you, and the matchmaker won’t go near you, and if you think for one second that Papa won’t tear you limb from limb you’re sorely mistaken. You’re ugly, too. Who will want a cow like you, an ugly deformed cow with a shriveled leg who plays with her own udders?”
“I’m not Leibka.”
His mother’s only sister hadn’t survived. His mother never spoke of her except to say that she was “lame.”
“Pervert,” she said.
“I not Leibka,” he repeated.
“Then who are you?”
“Sol. Your son.”
“Then how do you know about the pond?”
“What pond, Ma?”
“We don’t do anything there, anyway. We just meet. We talk. We…”
“Come and get me! Catch me if you can!”
But now she was muttering in Yiddish and Sol could only catch a word or two—kish, opsh, shpet, zikher—and he just didn’t know what to do, because as always, with his mother, he didn’t know how much she was putting on, and how much was real. The trace-memory of Zoe’s perfume lingered in his nostrils.
“Who’s Frank?” he said.
“Frank? There is no Frank. Unless you mean Frank Zisk. Remember him? He was our neighbor, when we lived on 9th Avenue. You used to be scared of him. You were scared of everything. You were scared of your shadow. You were scared of your feet, that’s how scared you were.”
“Oh yeah, Frank,” he said, remembering, for the first time in decades, the stoop-shouldered bald man who had lived on the other end of the hall, a man in an undershirt and baggy pants with bloodshot eyes and stained fingers.
“Okay then,” he said. “Hershel. Who’s Hershel?”
“Hesh? None of your business.”
“Whoever he is,” he said. “You need to know that if you continue doing—whatever it is you are doing—with Frank, or Hesh, or whoever he is or isn’t, they’re going to throw you out of here.”
“Who, the shvartze? Let her try.”
“I’m warning you, Ma.”
“Let me ride a hot hard rod,” she sang.
At dinner that night, he told Zoe about his mother, about her penchant for quoting, or misquoting, or pretending to quote rap songs she heard on TV. He said: “And on top of it all, apparently she’s got something going with another resident.”
“Some kind of monkey business,” he said, and then, when she gave him one of her bright-blue looks, her two hard eyes looking at him as if her vision penetrated all the way into the fleshy workings of his brain, he said: “Sex.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe.”
“I guess that’s where you got your libido, then.”
It was nice, and rare, having dinner like this, together like any other couple, out for a bite at a neighborhood restaurant and talking about the events of the day.
“Good for her,” Zoe said.
“I agree. But she denies it. She obfuscates and denies it. She’s a pro. Seriously. She missed her calling. She should have run the CIA.”
“If you say so”
He paid the check. “Do I bore you?” he said.
She raised one eyebrow. “I’m not in it for conversation,” she said.
She didn’t give a rat’s ass about him. He couldn’t explain it, how he loved her.
“Did I ever tell you about the time my father chased me down the street with an axe?” she said, an hour later as she rolled out from under him, impatient as always to get away from his orgasm, his bed, his wet clinging love.
“Do you have to leave? Why do you have to leave? Can’t you just make up some excuse? Is Branson so much as aware of your absence?”
But instead of answering, she continued down memory lane. “My dad was pissed at me, I think I may have talked back to him. And he flew into a rage. I can still see him, his face just flooded with rage, dark red rage like red wine. He told me he was going to kill me, and then I’m just running down the street, screaming my head off because my father was going to kill me with an axe.” She perched on the side of the bed to pull her shoes on. “But he couldn’t keep up with me. I was much faster.”
“Why don’t you stay?” he said. “I promise I’ll never chase you with an axe.”
“I have to be at work first thing tomorrow morning,” she said. “And Branson gets sad when I’m gone too long.”
Mrs. DeWitt kept calling and emailing with warnings about his mother, which he responded to with hiring yet another new one-on-one minder for her, another pleasant and pleasant-faced Jamaican or Nigerian or Haitian woman who managed to take all manner of shit without getting ruffled despite his mother’s atrocious manners and outright abuse, but it was no use: she fired them all. She sent them packing! She sent them packing even after he’d explained to them, in turn, that his mother wasn’t paying the bills and therefore had no power to fire anyone and if things got really bad to tell him know because he’d compensate for his mother’s abuse with an extra something in the weekly paycheck etc. No dice. He kept telling her to cut it out and she kept telling him to mind his own business, but then again, that’s what she said when he first told her the joyous and even wondrous news that his book, Son of Survivors, Child of Mass Murder: An American Story was being published.
“What do you say about that, Ma?”
“What I say is you should mind your own business,” she said.
“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “Should historians mind their own business too because maybe they weren’t there during the fall of Rome?”
“You’re not a historian,” she said.
But that was then, when she was still, more or less, in her right mind; still, more or less, the same mean, cantankerous, spiteful, and undermining disparager of life writ large he’d always known her to be. Now that she was so old, who knew? He wanted her to be happy, and if her dalliance with Frank/Hershel made her happy, who did it hurt? So he tried not to think about it and tried not to think about it some more and then it was spring and then it was late spring and then it was summer and Mrs. DeWitt called him on his cell phone and said they needed to talk, it couldn’t wait, could he come in today, or better yet, now.
“What can I do for you?” he said as he entered Mrs. Dewitt’s office, noting again what a handsome, robust woman she was.
“Frank Benjamin died.”
“What? Who?” he said.
“Your mother went to his room—apparently her aide had dozed off—and we don’t know all the details, we’re still piecing it together, but apparently she was—your mother was—well I’ll just blurt it out: your mother was astride him—”
“Please no details,” he said, shielding his eyes as if from a too-bright sun.
“But she was, and she apparently—well, the thing is, she kept going. I mean, that’s what we think. She didn’t even realize that he’d had a heart attack—she thought he was enjoying things. We’ve talked to her, and that’s what she reported. That he was enjoying himself. But I must tell you, Mr. Zamesk, it’s possible we’re looking at criminal charges here.”
“What? An old guy croaks in mid-nookey and that’s a crime?”
“Frank Benjamin suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease,” said Mrs. DeWitt. “He was unable to give consent.”
“And my mother?” Sol finally said. “She must be devastated. I mean—does she know what happened?”
“We’re not sure. As I said, when we questioned her, she merely said—”
“Got it,” Sol said. He didn’t want to hear any more about it. It was unseemly. He didn’t want to know that his mother still possessed sexual feelings, let alone an active sex drive that, apparently, had blossomed into a full-throttled death machine.
“Isn’t it possible,” he said, “that the old gent would have had a heart attack and died anyway?”
“It’s possible,” Mrs. DeWitt said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that he had a heart attack while she was—while they were—together like that.”
“And all this happened when?”
“This morning,” Mrs. DeWitt said, checking her watch. “Two hours ago. Around ten.”
“I appreciate your tact,” he said even though he neither thought she was particularly tactful nor what he himself meant by that. When she didn’t reply, he got up and, tipping an imaginary hat in response to an imaginary interaction in which she’d said something either delightful or reassuring or sweet or encouraging, left.
Upstairs, his mother, dressed in a yellow sack that wasn’t a dress but also wasn’t a nightgown, sat in the Barcalounger that he’d paid an exorbitant amount of money to have moved to her two-room unit on the ninth floor, watching a cooking show on T.V. She’d never been much of a cook—perhaps she’d lost her appetite for food at the same time she’d lost her ability to love, or maybe not, maybe she’d just never cared—but over the past several weeks she’d become entranced with “The Great British Bake-Off.” Her aide was nowhere to be seen. “And if you’re looking for Lucinda,” she said as he walked in. “She’s toast.”
“Why would that be, Ma?”
“She screwed up, but good,” his mother said.
“What did she do, Ma?”
“I don’t know exactly,” his mother said. “But it was bad. The cops came. That’s how I know it was bad.”
“How many cops came, Ma?”
“And I swear to God, one of them wore a turban. Like a genie in a bottle. So now they have Arabs walking around with guns. This world.”
“What did the cops say, Ma?”
“They wanted to know about my boyfriend.”
“What about your boyfriend, Ma?”
“You promise not to tell anyone, right? Because I swear on everything that’s holy, I swear on Papa’s beard and Mamma’s heart and on the Holy Torah and my own life, that if you squeal, I’ll tell everyone about your—your disgusting business, the thing you do.”
“Fine, Ma. I swear. I won’t tell a soul. Tell me about your boyfriend.”
He turned the TV off.
“Turn that back on!” she wailed. “They’re making a plum tart.”
He turned it back on.
“Tell me about your boyfriend,” he said.
She leaned forward, so far forward over her own knees that she looked like she was about to buckle in two. She was like a hawk, on a branch, leaning forward, forwards—and all that stopped her from plunging into the air were the two claws that held her there.
“Hesh isn’t like other boys,” she said. “He’s sweet, and kind, and gentle, and he thinks I’m the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“So you are, Ma.”
“We want to get married, but you know how stern Papa is, and also, just as soon as he can, just as soon as he’s made a little money, Hesh is going to go to Warsaw, enroll in the university there. But he can’t tell anyone! You know how they are about getting a secular education. He’s going to go anyway, though. Nothing can stop him. And just as soon as he gets himself settled, I’m going to join him. We’ll get married, of course. He’s not like that—he’s not like—he’s a realist, he’s forward-thinking, but he’s not a socialist or God forbid a Communist. He wants to marry me.”
“I see,” Sol said.
“The thing is,” she said in a low whisper. “I missed my monthly.”
“So if I’m pregnant—I’m not saying I am pregnant, it’s too early to tell, and sometimes I miss my monthly anyway or it’s late—but if I am, then, obviously, we’re not going to wait. We’re going to go, together, to Warsaw. It’s not that far from here, and I can get a job, he can too.”
“Do you really think you might be pregnant?”
“Oh Leibkal!” she said, throwing her scrawny arms so tightly around Sol’s neck that he had trouble breathing. “If only you knew how much I love him! And how much he loves me! It’s wonderful, is what it is! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”
And sure, some of what she said that day was in Yiddish, but enough of it was in English for Sol to have caught the drift, to have finally pierced the secret of his mother’s secret soul, and how, for her, love had swept everything else away.