Read More: A Brief Interview with Daniel Schifrin
She sat near the front door, chiding the younger generation:
“My cousin listed people this way in her address book: Maurice with the nose; Hélène who cried wolf; Leah who still owes me for the tickets…”
“Which cousin?” I asked.
“Aren’t you listening? The cousin with the address book.”
I watched the kids watch him, then watched my grandmother watching him being watched. She leaned over to me, and for the twentieth year in a row identified him: “cousin wider-than-he’s-tall.” He turned and waved to her, completely at home in his custom-made, tweed-suited self, and walked into the library. “Excuse me,” he said to the Lubitsch twins, musical prodigies standing at the door with their mouths open.
When did Leonard Meltz, 78, retired tobacconist, become “wider-than-he’s-tall?” I’ll tell you when: at the moment my grandmother first saw him walking under the great rotunda at Steinway Hall in New York, not knowing that he was as big as a baby piano, and for a moment forgetting his name.
The Defection of Martin Zacker
After a long time away, Martin returned. “Call me Martin Zacker,” he announced. He didn’t change his first name, like they did in the Bible, instead choosing a new last name. What was wrong with Fuchs? He nodded and pulled up his corduroys.
Every few years the family shot him out of their sight, as if on a rubber band. And yet he kept returning, with ideas scraped from the back of his mind. One year he insisted on introducing the meat dishes as relatives; another year he summarized his reading about the search for extra-terrestrial life; the previous autumn he wore his bathing suit to the table, even though Julianne’s boss, a wealthy Armenian investor, was also in attendance.
Did he go too far with the Zacker business? Here is my father’s testimony, offered in confidence to everyone at the reunion (except the Armenian): “We didn’t fight the Nazis so that a college dropout could drop the family name for something that sounds like a…a what? A broken ray gun?”
At some point a branch of the Aaronoffs became Fergusons. (It was, admittedly, a small branch, consisting entirely of Cousin Sol). I forget exactly when it happened, but each time we all came together the primary ritual was re-enacted. Sol would find the stranger in this strange land of Fishbacks, Aaronoffs, and Fuchs – the new wife, the new boyfriend, whichever medical aide was assigned to Julianne that season – and begin the performance.
“When my great-grandfather came to Ellis Island, the guard looked him up and down and demanded: ‘Name!’ Exhausted from the journey, he hesitated. This was not an uncommon response, and the gatekeeper pointed frantically toward the thousands of Jews nibbling crusts of bread as they waited to become Americans, ready to scatter at a moment’s notice.” Sol flapped his wings; he screwed his face into a scowl; he stamped the ground with his Birkenstocks, toenails as tough as barnacles. “By now my great-grandfather – Izzy was his name – Izzy was both tired and embarrassed. Looking up at this enormous American animal pointing and waiting and started to sweat from the effort, Izzy raised his arms apologetically. ‘Furgessen,’ he said in Yiddish. I forgot.
“‘Ferguson, then,’” the guard responded, stamping the paper. “‘But the strangest looking Irishman I ever saw.’”
Laughter always followed; comprehension was optional. Everyone was deep into crackers and cheese. Sol always stood an extra moment in the T-position, arms outstretched toward opposing living room doors, belly lifting toward the heavens as his shamrock belt buckle began to sag. No one ever forgot his belly, swaddled in a Harley-Davidson t-shirt, big enough to smuggle in twins.
If any of the newly arrived immigrants to 1178 Pike Crescent Road had asked for a business card, my cousin would have given them the brand-new, off-white, expensive job, a square leaf of pure linen. It would have read:
Sol Aaronoff, Notary Public
“Where’s Aunt Lila?” we all asked.
“I think she’s in the hospital. I forgot the avocados for the salad.”
“Do you want me to go back for them? They’re from the farm. I don’t want to use the ones you get around here.”
The Cousin We Don’t Talk To (Sammy Jr.)
In the back room, two beers in, where reason goes to die:
“You called it off why?” someone asked.
“She fucked like a therapist.”
“She was your therapist.”
“Don’t tell me what to do…”
The aunties sit quietly; smiling, generous, certain. The Nobel Prizes have recently been announced, and the Fishbachs Elder and Younger keep a typed list of “our winners” in their joint purse. As I approach the stone bench almost hidden by still blooming roses they pat the space opening between them.
“Did you hear about Biology this year?” the elder asks. “And Economics?”
I nod, perennially unsure which winners are ours.
“Not many among our cousins,” the younger says sadly. “Only one in all these years. Such a shame! And I know it’s not the weather. Two winners from Tel Aviv just since Reba moved back home…”
Their hands are on my knees. There is no rush. I stare at the dandelions growing into my shoes as the clouds come and go. There is no need even to see the list – my role is simply to know that it exists.
The elder squeezes my leg. As the purse opens into radiant sunshine, the List endlessly refreshed with new names, I wonder what would happen if we lived in Chicago, and it was snowing.
The Former Adjunct Professor at Oberlin
He wandered the back rooms of the house, The New Yorker falling out of his jacket. His suit is the color of filo dough, and the paper-thin side pocket is no match for the gravity of “October 2, 1987.” I like what he has to say, although everyone else finds him dour. He wrote a book called “The Tyranny of Hours,” but it had nothing to do with time, and no one reviewed it.
I followed him out to the back porch, where he plundered a cigarette from his own packet and smoked it badly. “You know the real difference between a story and a novel?” he asked. “A novel is like a family, a culture. So many voices, so many threads. It’s huge. You know it will survive after you finish it.” He breathed in too hard, coughed, then flicked the ash into the wind. It came right back at him, like an angry bee. “But the short story is the life of a person. You just get to know it, it just gets to know itself, and then it ends.”
Rachel-Anne “Sally” Gongaza-Klein
She was doing everything she could not to talk about the will. No matter what she got, it wouldn’t be enough. She could remember the locations of long-broken ashtrays from her first house, could still feel their loss. Julianne’s porcelain polar bears, now orphaned, were staring her down from the mantel. They wouldn’t let her rest, wouldn’t let her be. She knew just where they belonged in her enormous, freezing apartment.
It happens that she is the mother of the former adjunct professor, but this is mostly irrelevant. What’s relevant is her name: Five names, a fist’s worth, held together by hyphens and avarice. Her son, by contrast, now went solely by “Adolfo.”
“How’s our little writer?” she asked.
“The new cousin from Portland.”
This is how Janice is referenced, and how she will always be referenced. Being the new cousin is her function.
What happened is this: Leah was our cousin, and she married Fred late in life, after Fred has already retired as a dentist, having made it rich developing a patent for a thing that keeps your dentures from smelling like horseradish. Not long after the wedding Leah died, and six months later Fred married Janice. We didn’t begrudge Fred remarrying, mostly because Leah had no money, and the new wife therefore wouldn’t be taking something from the family. But it would take more than that to be described by name.
My cousin, the single cousin, has escaped to the den to make a call:
“I’m looking for a book, only I don’t know the title or author. It’s by a woman, I know that much. From the university. Technology and art. Her name is spelled funny, maybe two p’s when there should be one. At least that’s what I remember. Something smart. Can you help?”
It’s 6 pm when I open Aunt June’s mail. It’s only a circular, I tell myself. Something from Sears. Maybe it even says “To our neighbor at 1178 Pike Crescent Road.” She sees me reading the ad, the envelope hanging from my fingers like a poached pelt as she removes the turkey from the oven, her elbows resting on the swell of her apron, the “Gobble Gobble” slippers my mother gave her visible underneath the pan.
I look down to see that washing machines are 30% off; tires are even cheaper.
She stares at me through the steam of the sacrificed bird. Her sister is dead. I want to disappear into the vase of forget-me-nots, but all I can do is imagine the tiny periwinkle petals growing into massive sunflowers, behind whose fibrous bulk I watch Aunt June watching me, her eyes opening wider and wider, until there is nothing left for either of us to hide.
Waiting for the moment…waiting until the turkey is cut, and the steam escapes from the infinity of rice, and the salad’s vinaigrette perfume fills the air with sweet sorrow…
“I ate nothing today but a banana!”
Everyone knew there was nothing wrong with Ricky, which was what made his outburst so…well, you can see for yourself. My mother probably shouldn’t have laughed in the end, but what was she supposed to do? It wasn’t even close to dark, but already too cold for lemonade. The little ones were gathered around the ping-pong table, the wind making each miss funnier than the last, when Ricky’s parents started in about his disappointing but still noteworthy second place in the regional math Olympiad. Nobody had the strength to leave, although the round paper tablecloth desperately lifted its skirt in the breeze. Ricky looked squarely at mom – as healthy and red-faced as himself – and the little cherub started shooting: “You’re going to die, and you’re going to die, and you’re going to die….” He went clockwise around the table, finishing with my father, seated eight deaths around from his wife. The Elder and Younger didn’t seem to hear; the new cousin from Portland looked at Fred, clutching her heart; my mother just laughed, as I said; but my father couldn’t contain himself. My father who had beaten the Koreans and the Vietnamese, melanoma and emphysema, Pebble Beach and Vegas. My father who said, “Nobody likes a fink.”
If you could take the family apart, if you removed the face of it to see what was inside, it would look like a clock; each person a gear, slowly but firmly revolving around its own position, yet part of something larger than itself. How the gears all move in different directions, while the hands of the clock finger the hours in circular perfection, is a mystery that only becomes clear once you flip the whole thing over, opening it up with a sharp pencil and some really good light.
Julianne Stops Time […]
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Daniel Schifrin’s fiction and essays have appeared, among other places, in McSweeney’s, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Westwind, Jet Fuel Review, Transfer, Hinchas de Poesia, and em. He has a been a visiting scholar at Stanford University, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and a co-curator for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Beyond Belief.”
Read More: A Brief Interview with Daniel Schifrin