When we reached our apartment building, the rain had stopped, but the wind was blowing up harder. The people in our party hurried toward the entrance, pulling their coats closer. Shimon rushed up the steps before everybody and stuck out his palm.
“Nobody goes in!” he shouted to us, fortissimo.
I thought of a city official I had seen holding forth to a crowd, insisting that they vote for him.
“What do you mean, Shimon?” my Aunt Deborah said.
She grasped Pa’s elbow while holding her pillbox hat down against the wind.
“I mean we need water, Devoyrah,” Shimon said, using her Hebrew name and cutting an arc with his hand as if he were delivering a sermon.
“We have water and soda in the apartment,” she said.
“No, we need to wash the cemetery off our hands before we go inside. I’m talking from the Bible. You shoulda got somebody to put water outside the building for us.”
Elly raised her black half-veil and I saw the kind of huge smile that Julia Roberts displays in the movies.
“It’ll maybe take only a few minutes to bring some water, Deborah,” she said. “You can send Morton to buy a small bottle.”
Shimon took several steps closer to my Aunt, which brought him just inches from her, and said in a bristly voice, “Devoyrah, don’t do a sin on your mother. Phone for a neighbor to bring water or send the kid for some.”
Elly unzipped her purse. “I’m giving Morton money to buy a little water, Deborah,” she said and pressed a dollar bill into my hand. “Morton, any plain bottled water with the letter K for kosher on the label is fine.”
I hoped my Aunt would not let me go. I wanted her, Pa and me to stay together without interruptions. They were the people I needed most in the world. Especially on that day.
My Aunt handed me her umbrella.
“Morrie, please get a bottle of water from the store and come back soon.”
When I returned, I handed the bottle to Shimon.
“What took you so long, Milton?” he asked.
“There was a line.”
It wasn’t true. I had walked slowly to avoid the puddles.
“This is all you got?” he asked.
“Your missus only gave me one dollar.”
He turned to Rabbi Fried.
“Rabbi, the kid only got this little bit,” he said, handing the bottle to him.
I had been wanting to say something, practically anything, to Shimon, and the moment came. “There’s water over there,” I blurted while I pointed at the water spilling from a drain pipe at a corner of the building.
He grabbed my arm and waggled it. “Don’t tell me kaka,” he thundered. “You shouldn’t even be here.”
His grip hurt my arm, so I jabbed him away with my elbow — I did not want to use and possibly harm the hands I
needed to play my violin. Elly pulled me away from him and my Aunt called, “Please, you two, we’re all upset.”
I was surprised to hear myself called ‘upset’, a feeling that I thought adults usually didn’t acknowledge in young people.
My Aunt called to me and I went to her.
“He’s stupid,” I said, disregardful of whether Shimon heard me or not.
“But no quarreling, Morrie, not today,” she said, her voice quivering – I suppose between sorrow and annoyance, but more of the former.
I heard moaning behind us. Pa had grabbed the entrance handrailing and his knees were doubling. Landing on a step, he clasped his knees and ducked his head to his chest. My Aunt sat down beside him and took him in her arms.
“Pa doesn’t feel good,” she said, addressing everyone, stroking the threadlike white hair sticking out around his skullcap. I sat down on his other side and circled him in my arms.
Shimon stepped toward my Aunt. “He was okay to go into the grave, Devoyrah — but not okay to go into the building? Lemme, I’ll walk him inside.” This sounded to me like another one of Nutty Bolt’s orders. I had invented that name for him on the spot.
My Aunt replied, “Please Shimon, my father is not ready to walk this second.”
Then I burst out at him, “Leave Pa and my Aunt alone.”
He looked at me as if wanted me to go up in smoke and disappear.
He faced my Aunt and snapped, “You should not bring Milton to a cemetery, just twelve years old.”
“I’m Morton, like I told you,” I said. “And I’ll be fourteen. And they picked me, not you, to carry my Grandma.”
He glared at me while his hands went into his coat pockets. I imagined his heavy fists in there, so I balled my own hands and stuffed them into my pockets. I was scared but ready, as I was when I was nine, when my dad bought me a punching bag to learn self-protection. He was the person who had told me about reacting fittingly when the ‘spit’ was hitting the fan.
Shimon turned to my Aunt again. “Devoyrah, about the water — like I said, it’s only what God wants.” He touched the embroidered skullcap on his head as I had seen rabbis do while they preached.
I cannot picture Pa mentioning what God wants. He probably never said anything like that, but he had told me other things. For instance, once, while we were drinking bowls of coffee that he had learned to make in the Czar’s army — coffee cooked in hot milk, sugar, and hot water — I told him I had pushed a bigmouth in school against the wall and gotten reprimanded by the principal. His answer stayed in my memory: “Morrie, people’s words are often gifts to us, so try to grab onto their value. It helps, believe me.”
Rabbi Fried unscrewed the bottle of water and told each person to go inside, out of the rain, as he sprinkled water on their hands. I had learned in Hebrew School that Noah wanted to save all the living things on earth with his ark. I thought Pa would be a fine Noah if another flood ever came.
My Aunt and I helped Pa onto his bed and spread Grandma’s robe over him. She rubbed his knees and covered them with a heating pad. The liniment smelled like the minty liquid that Grandma used to rub into the hurting side of her body.
“It’s only arthritis,” she had often insisted, “I don’t need a doctor.”
I looked at her side of the bed. I could not touch it — the idea that it might still be warm from her body upset me. Pa looked up at me and moved his fingers fast like butterflies.
“Morrie, do you remember Artur Rubinstein playing piano — standing up, sitting down, up, down, up, down, like a metronome, and playing the whole time? Your violin makes me remember that. We’ll do harmony together again, don’t worry.”
My Aunt turned off the radio. She had often let it play for Grandma while she was very sick in bed.
“Morrie, please turn off the light.” I sensed the catch in her voice inside my own throat as we left the room. We went into the living room where people from the funeral had gathered. They were drinking wine and whisky and eating raisins and almonds ‘sweet foods to restore them to life after being among the dead,’ as tradition had it.
Shimon and Elly entered the kitchen where I was slicing up a honey cake to serve in the living room. They stood two shopping bags on the table and took little bags of dried fruit out of them.
“Morrie,” Elly said to me, “you can help serve these things to the people in the living room.”
For days I pictured my Aunt crying while pressing Shimon and Elly’s hands, saying, ‘Thank you for coming today, like real family.’ Her words confused me — they clashed with Shimon’s offensive speech.
When I went around serving the cake, I walked past him and his wife.
“Morrie, can we please have some cake?” she said to my back.
I turned and held the tray out — closer to her than to him.
“Thank you, dear,” she said.
Shimon said, “Yeah, Milton.”
“My name is still Morton,” I said.
Shimon walked toward Rabbi Fried, who was putting on his coat. His voice carried over the sounds of dishes and people leaving:
“Rabbi, I’m worried God will not excuse us — the box falling and opening —“
Pa entered from the bedroom, carrying his cane and wearing a dark suit jacket over a wrinkled red and green plaid shirt – clothing Grandma had bought for him. The veins around his eyes looked black.
He squinted at Shimon. “You’re the person who shouted to me in the cemetery? Nathan Beller’s son?”
“And your father, where is he?”
“In a home.”
“No, in a home.”
“He is staying in somebody’s home?”
“No, an old people’s home that I pay for.”
Pa reflected for a moment.
“Do you own a house?” he said.
“So, you have a house.”
“Yeah, ten rooms.”
My Aunt handed Pa a glass.
“It’s just some tea, Papa, “she said. “You haven’t eaten a thing.”
Pa took it and looked at her. “Did you hear? Ten rooms.”
He turned back to Shimon.
“Do you use all of the rooms?”
Shimon was silent.
“You must have one extra room?” Pa said. “But you do not let your old father live there?”
“I got enough problems with my business — the terrible market, rotten competitors…”
“Still, you are well off, so why can’t your father live in your house?”
“He’s a problem — his food, his peeing, his pains – “
“He can have home-care, right?”
“We had somebody, she left.”
“You can’t get somebody else?’ Pa said, raising his voice a notch and looking over at my Aunt sitting on the couch.
“Listen,” Shimon said to Pa with irritation, “we don’t know any…”
Pa turned to my Aunt, “God in Heaven, Devoyrah, is a father too much trouble for a rich son because he is old? Especially a son who speaks piously?” He went and sat down on the couch next to her.
I felt that Pa and I were waging a war together. I pictured Shimon who, in his fine camel hair coat, was being sent by Pa to stand in the rain. I went back to bringing the dirty dishes to the kitchen and said to myself, Your stupid bottle of water.
Shimon turned to Rabbi. “There gotta be a prayer for the trouble at the cemetery,” he said, addressing, I thought, anybody who would hear him.
Rabbi finished buttoning the last button on his overcoat and said, “Mr. Beller, we believe God is merciful. Isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he didn’t kill Adam and Eve for not obeying.”
“Right, and today – couldn’t that have been God showing mercy in a simple accident? Possible, Mr. Beller?”
Shimon was silent and looked red-faced, as if he did not know what to say.
Pa left the couch, wrinkles spreading across his forehead like earthworms. My Aunt reached for his arm, but he was already in front of Shimon and facing him.
“Why are you so bad-tempered with people?” he said through a spate of coughing. No answer came from Shimon and my Aunt hastily guided Pa back to his bedroom.
Shimon scanned everyone in the living room as if everyone took him for a fool. His lower lip twitched, like a child groping for words. He sat down heavily next to Elly. She took a cigar from her pocketbook and lit it with a lighter. He took it and blew smoke.
I thought: Shimon Nutty Bolts, does your father in the nursing home know his sister died and her funeral was today? But I just continued collecting dirty dishes.
Rabbi Fried sat down next to Shimon. “Maybe you know an old story,” he said to him. “Rabbi Israel Salanter was invited for dinner. The maid went to the well for water. She came back, struggling with two overflowing pails. Rabbi Salanter just scooped a little water from one pail to rinse his hands – just a little –”
“Yeah,” Shimon interrupted, “and they spilled the whole two pails on his hands because he was a guest.”
“No,” Rabbi said, “the host just asked him why he didn’t use more water since custom suggests washing the hands liberally before eating. But Rabbi Salanter said to him, ‘We are never obligated to inconvenience another person.’
“What’s burning?” someone called out.
“I smell it,” Shimon said and rushed toward the end-table where Elly was sitting. She grabbed his lit cigar from the table and ran into the bathroom with it. Shimon beat the table with his eyeglass case. My Aunt grabbed the photograph of Grandma and Pa from the table and, as she blew on it, Shimon snatched it and slapped it between his hands.
“I’ll get that table fixed, Devorah,” he said, still striking the picture.
“Don’t worry, Shimon, it was just an accident,” she said.
She left the room and quickly returned with a bottle of liquid.
“Morrie,” she said to me as she rubbed the table with the liquid, “Mama bought this table after they married. Too bad we didn’t make a copy of their picture.”
I was annoyed by needing to throw away the cake that Shimon had left over. I thought that if I ever saw him again, I would tell him things I was restraining. Possibly the first thing would be that the burned table and photograph were not any truer accidents than the fallen coffin he had harangued Rabbi Fried about. Years later, after receiving my degree in music, I recalled Shimon Beller, thinking that people like him added to the human disconnects in this world.
A month later, an out-of-control driver ran Pa down. My Aunt said Pa had bought one of the poppy buns that people traditionally eat during Purim and that it was found, untasted, lying next to him, with his cane under his body and the Russian eagle that was broken off. She stored the cane away atop the books inside Grandma’s trousseau chest.
I brought my violin into Pa’s hospital room. It needed a replacement E string, but my Aunt said I needn’t bother because Pa was in a coma and would not hear my playing.
He died that night rather than go to some old age home and be smothered by staff indifference. After the funeral, several thoughts stayed in my mind: God, ruler of everything, why do you hide your children away forever after they die? Is it to show that you always need the final say?
Still, we had been able to see Pa before he died. I have felt that his soul is still showing interest in me, although I may not have always been aware of it. I discovered a line of Pablo Neruda’s in an anthology: ‘Existence is no more than a string of disguises and farewells.’ But there had not been any disguises or farewells between Pa and me.
Some years ago, the orchestra I am a member of was going to give a concert with me as the soloist. Since the Day of Remembrance was close, I thought that this would be the right time to visit our family graves. I would stop at Pa and Grandma’s and tell them about my upcoming concert. My Aunt wished to us to go together to the cemetery and drove us. While I walked among the last blooming poplars, I saw a cemetery worker that I recognized. He seemed glad to lean on his spade and talk for awhile. I recalled Shimon and his behavior at Grandma Hannah’s funeral.
“I nearly didn’t give ‘im the stones,” he said.
We laughed and he reached into his overalls pocket.
“Ya can have these if ya want ’em,” he said.
I accepted the stones and left them on Dad, Mom, Grandma and Grandpa’s graves. I planned to bring stones the next time I came.