I’m sorry I couldn’t write to you last night like I always do on Sunday. We didn’t get home until real late cause we had to go all the way to the Bronx because Nathan died. He was my great uncle but I don’t remember much of anything about him cause we hardly ever saw him. All I remember is that he was a fat man in a dark suit who almost never talked. Maybe cause my great Aunt Esther talked so much and it was always just a bunch of complaints so she did all the talking and he didn’t have anything left to say.
The grownups said he died around lunchtime on a park bench where he always went on Sundays to cool off, read the newspaper and eat a corned beef sandwich on rye. And just like that – he dropped dead - gone in a minute, Mom said.
I wonder if he rolled off the bench – ker-plop! cause he was so fat but I didn’t ask because maybe you shouldn’t ask questions like that about a dead person. I also wonder if he was poisoned by the corned beef sandwich like my parakeet maybe got poisoned after I bought it a new treat that I hung in its cage and the next day there it was at the bottom of the cage lying on its back with its skinny little legs sticking up all stiff. We put it in a shoe box and buried it in the backyard. We had to kind of crunch up its legs so we could close the lid. Nathan was way too big for a shoe box, but I’ve seen TV and news shows where there’s a funeral and the dead person is in something that looks like a big, fancy wooden shoe box all gift wrapped with flowers on top like a wedding cake or an Easter bonnet. Mom told me it’s called a coffin. So I guess they’ll put Nathan in a pretty shoe box-wedding cake-Easter bonnet coffin – one that’s big enough for him so they don’t have to scrunch him up in like my parakeet - and they’ll bury him in a graveyard where there are lots of other dead people that he can make friends with so he’s not lonely. Not like my parakeet who’s all by itself in the backyard.
Anyway, we didn’t hear about it until evening cause we were at the beach all day and stayed on the boardwalk and had potato knishes and French fries with mustard and ice cream cones for dinner and watched the fireworks over the ocean having ourselves a really good time like we do every Sunday evening in the summer.
When we got home, the phone was ringing like crazy and that’s how we found out Nathan was dead. I thought everyone would start crying like you see on TV when someone dies but no one did that. They just looked annoyed and grumbled that we had to go all the way to the Bronx which is a good long hour away from where we live on Long Island when everyone was really tired from being on the beach all day and swimming and just wanted to watch some TV and go to bed and if Esther wasn’t carrying on like a lunatic – as usual (that’s what Mom said) we wouldn’t have had to go.
But we did. We piled into the car - Grandma, Mom and me in the back seat, and Uncle Mickey smoking like mad like he always does in the passenger seat next to Dad, who was driving.
Heshe – that’s their grown up son who still lives with them- except now there’s no them, just a her – answered the door. He always gave me the creeps. Because there’s something wrong with him (that’s what Mom and Grandma say). And it’s not just because his forehead looks like a piece of salami cause when he was a baby - just learning to walk – Esther accidently tripped over him and spilled boiling water on his head. It’s something inside his head that’s wrong. No one knows what because Esther is stubborn and wouldn’t have him tested. She said he was fine even though everyone else knew for sure he wasn’t.
So we walked down the hallway to the kitchen, and there was Esther. Her short, wavy white hair glistening under the lightbulb, a box of tissues by her hand, a bunch of crumpled ones filling up the bowl next to her. She was still dressed in a low cut white shirtwaist with big splashes of blue, yellow and purple flowers, stockings and white patent leather open-toed, stacked heels shoes. She looked like an overweight garden gone wild. I guess she was so busy carrying on like a lunatic that she forgot to change into something black, which is what people are supposed to wear when someone dies to show they feel really sad.
Uncle Mickey took one of the two remaining seats at the table and lit a cigarette. Grandma took the other one, and sat there making disgusted faces and drumming her fingers on the yellow Formica tabletop while Esther – her sister – carried on like a lunatic about how she was going to jump out the window of her 6th floor apartment and put an end to herself and her tsuris. That’s Yiddish for troubles, worries, problems, and stuff like that.
Heshe paced around, wringing his hands and muttering to himself because I guess that’s what people do when there’s something wrong with them.
Dad leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest, looking bored and a little amused by Esther’s carrying on like a lunatic display. It was how he looked when he watched the monkeys at the Bronx Zoo. Once a year, when we visited Esther, after he said hello, how are you and that stuff, he’d take me to the zoo. I was always glad to go because I got butterflies in my stomach when I was in Esther’s house like I was in The Twilight Zone and you know there’s about to be a spooky, unexpected twist. I think maybe there was something wrong with all of them – not just Heshe. Maybe Dad got butterflies in his stomach too. Or maybe he just didn’t like my Mom’s weird relatives.
But it was Sunday night and the zoo was closed so we were stuck there.
The ashes from Uncle Mickey’s cigarette dropped on the floor.
Mom got a piece of tinfoil and made it into an ashtray for him, and then began making a fresh pot of coffee. It was a tradition. Whenever anything happened – good or bad - whenever you sat down at a table, you had coffee, Danish and cigarettes. The only thing missing were the Danish, but the bakeries – like the zoo - were closed.
Around the kitchen window, like all the windows, there was a semi-circular wrought iron guardrail made of wavy black bars that looked like licorice sticks with pointy little arrowhead tops lined up like toy soldiers standing at attention in a tight, half-circle row. It’s so little kids can’t fall out of windows.
How was Esther, in her fancy stacked heel pumps and full shirtwaist skirt going to get over the guardrail to throw herself into the courtyard? Would she take her shoes off first? Would she lift her skirt and tuck it into her belt to make sure it didn’t get stuck on one of the licorice sticks because what if her skirt got caught on one or more of those points and she ended up dangling, her skirt puffing out around her like a gaudy parachute? I bet that would really make her carry on like a lunatic.
Would she dive head first, or just jump? How would she even manage to get herself up to the window ledge?
And once she did it, what would she look like sprawled in the courtyard? If she dived, would her skull crack open like a coconut and her brains be splattered on the cement like a pile of bloody gray dog poop? If she jumped, would her legs get smooshed - the bones poking out from the flesh and blubber like little chicken wing bones?
It was very exciting and suspenseful. Like the high wire act without a net at the circus. I was very much looking forward to seeing how she would do it. It would be a lot more interesting than just keeling over on a park bench like a fat ragdoll.
But I was sorely disappointed. The performance never happened. Was it the coffee? Was she beginning to question her ability to accomplish the necessary acrobatics? She was always nuts about cleaning. Did she suddenly remember some task that Heshe might not think of doing – like scouring the coffee pot?
So in the end, she just sat there rocking back and forth, moaning and sniffling noisily while the rest of us sat around or stood around fidgeting. Except Heshe who walked around in circles like a screwed up cat chasing its own tail.
The whole non-event reminded me of the auditorium morning that we had once a week in school. We’d be all excited, full of anticipation because the teacher said we were going to have a treat. We were going to see a movie. But then it would be some super boring educational thing like the best way to brush your teeth or the food pyramid, and you’d just sit there hoping it would end soon.
After a while, with nothing happening, Grandma announced it was getting very late and that we had to go home. Uncle Mickey - the logical candidate- was appointed night watchman to make sure Esther didn’t suddenly change her mind and decide that maybe the window was her best option.
The rest of us left. Mom took the front seat now that Uncle Mickey was marked absent. I was laid out in the back seat with my head on Grandma's lap and told to go to sleep, which I reluctantly but quickly did while imagining Esther tumbling through a starry sky sparkling with fireworks to the ground where she would end her tsuris life, fade away like the fireworks, and join Nathan in a happy, eternal Jewish neighbourhood in heaven where they make the best corned beef sandwiches on rye that never kill you.