The siren shatters my sleep. I scream as I spring up in bed, ready to defend myself. Flashing lights douse my apartment in a seedy red. My heart pounds against my skull. Clinging the covers to my chest, I scan the room to make sure they’re not here for me. Apart from the receding siren, everything is quiet.
I exhale the breath I’ve been holding, and it all comes rushing back. The nighttime transfers to the hospital. The rising death toll. How it starts with fatigue. Then, the dry cough. Soon, a choking for air. Forty-one days since I’ve seen another human. Longer since I’ve touched one. Nobody is coming for me.
There’s something funny about the way I startle just like him, but I haven’t laughed in so long. As a kid, waking him was terrifying. When I needed Mom in the middle of the night, I’d tiptoe carefully across the coarse carpet of their bedroom. But inevitably, the house would creak beneath my weight. Dad would scream as he shot up in bed, fists out in front like a boxer, and I’d run to my room in tears. Dad would always follow soon after. Apologize and reassure me it wasn’t my fault. It’s ancestral, he’d say.
Another siren tears through the night. I press two pillows against my ears and thrash in my sheets. Sleep exists only in fragments now. Snuck into the soft silences of the ambulances’ absence. If I knew I was going to get this little sleep, I would have just had the baby, I said to Helen when she called to console me. She didn’t laugh. Neither did I. Thirty-six days ago.
I throw a pillow against the wall. Watch as it crumples to the floor. Then, I snake my hand between the wounded soldiers on my nightstand and grab my phone. The screen is littered with notifications. Thirteen missed calls, most from Mom. Twenty-two missed texts, none from Dad. I try not to think about it. I brush away the reminders. Make my way to Twitter instead.
I like Twitter. There’s a comfort in its predictability. How the same arguments are recycled over and over again. When the feed loads, the same tired discourse presents itself. One tweet celebrates Shakespeare for writing King Lear during quarantine. Another criticizes this tweet for promoting an ideology of production. I don’t take sides. I’m just here for the show.
Besides, it’s rather goyish to be so obsessed with Shakespeare.
Shakespeare be damned. I know to whom I compare.
Fifteen years old and author of a masterpiece. She makes the rest of us literary Yids, sputtering in quarantine, look listless in comparison.
It’s unseemly to be jealous of Anne Frank. It’s only that her body of work haunts me.
Growing up, I staged elaborate protests to get out of the many activities in which my mother enrolled me. At soccer practice, I’d roll in the grass and force the kids to jump over me. At tennis clinic, I’d aim all my shots at the coach. At karate, I’d wet myself until a puddle swelled around my feet.
“Why can’t you be more like Eli?” she’d shout up the stairs as she sent me to my room.
It didn’t bother me. I never wanted to be like Eli. He was her prized racehorse, and she rode him to exhaustion. Wrestling tournaments, violin recitals, quiz bowls. Each spiky plastic trophy was the carrot. Her disappointment, the stick. The whole community celebrated the way he jumped their hurdles, always a single misstep away from being put down. She wanted me to join him in her stable, but I wanted something different. Free to run, maybe, but mostly to laze in the sun. To explore the shrouded hills in the distance. To graze until I was too full to move. To splash in the river. To bray at the waxing moon. What I mean to say is mostly, I wanted to play Halo with my friends.
By the beginning of sixth grade, I had thwarted every extracurricular except Hebrew school. Two days a week, my mother would drop Eli and me off for three hours of additional Jewish instruction. More school was profoundly unjust, so I decided to get expelled. I tried everything. I threw boys’ kippahs on the ground and spat on them. Ripped pages out of bibles. Took long naps on that inexplicable couch in the women’s bathroom. None of it worked. After each offense, the balding principal would simply lock me in his office and read me stories from the Talmud until it was time to go home. Most of the time, he wouldn’t even tell my mother what I had done.
It was time for escalation.
One afternoon, I asked my mother to drop us off early. I sat on the Jerusalem stone outside the tinted front doors, waiting for my peers. As they filtered in, I handed them rolled up balls of paper and instructed them to await my signal. A few minutes into Miss Tanya’s lecture, I yelled, “Bombs away!” and we pelted her until she left class crying. My mother picked me up within the hour.
I grinned in the back seat of the car. We sped through the suburbs of Las Vegas back toward home. The car bore the odors of sunscreen and a floral perfume that made me nauseous. I asked if I could roll the window down, and my mother said no. In the rearview mirror, her face knotted with anger. Tears carried mascara down her cheeks in silted rivers that pooled into muddy lakes at the corners of her mouth.
It was unpleasant to look at her, so I looked out my window instead. The soccer fields were wheat brown, grass cropped short. I pictured thousands of dead soldiers buried beneath the fields, dead grass sprouting from their scalps like chia pets.
“Why are you doing this to me?” my mother asked. There was a hitch in her voice.
I crossed my arms and kept my chin high. “It’s not fair,” I said.
The muscles in my mother’s forearms tensed as she choked the steering wheel between her hands. She put her blinker on, cut across a few lanes of traffic, and came to a sudden stop in the shoulder.
“Not fair?” She unbuckled her seatbelt and turned around. “Not fair!”
She put a knee up on the console and reached into the back seat, clenching my cheek between her thumb and index finger.
“You know what’s not fair?” She squeezed harder. Her eyes narrowed, and her painted-on eyebrows pinched together. Her bangs stuck to the sweat of her forehead, and her breath smelt of whitefish.
“Not fair is how when your Great Grandmother Hilda was eight years old, the Nazis shot everyone in her village and tossed them into a mass grave. Only Hilda wasn’t dead. She waited for hours, buried beneath limbs, until she was sure they had left. And then, she climbed out from beneath the pile of bodies. She climbed out over the decaying flesh of her brothers and sisters. Her mothers and aunts. Her neighbors, and even her enemies. And by the time she made it to the top, she was soaked in the blood and shit of everyone she had ever known, and she was all alone. But still, she climbed out over the pile of bodies to pass on the gift of life to you.” She released my cheek and her long, angular nose wrinkled in disgust. Then, she dismounted from the console, clicked on her seatbelt, and turned the car around. “What a waste,” she said over her shoulder.
I was back in Miss Tanya’s class by the opening number of The Prince of Egypt.
Once my mother discovered my weakness, she transformed into an overeager police chief, dismantling my dissent with overwhelming force at the slightest provocation. When I locked myself in my room to avoid having to go to the dentist, she picked the lock and pinched my cheek while she told me about Uncle Stu, who pulled out his own teeth at Buchenwald. When I didn’t finish my plate, she’d tell me about Aunt Elsa, who died from the syphilis she contracted when she slept with a guard for an extra loaf of bread. But these were specialty stories, told only on specific occasions. Mostly, it was Hilda, climbing over the pile of bodies. Like that joke about the Aristocrats, each retelling only became more absurd and grotesque.
One night in seventh grade, we sat around our small, glass dinner table. My dad had picked up WingStop on the way home from work to celebrate. Eli had gotten all As in the first semester of tenth grade. We tore at the chicken with our teeth and stacked the bones on a shared plate in the middle of the table. It was a nice evening until the phone rang, disrupting our gentle camaraderie. When my mother came back, her raised eyebrows were a pair of cobras.
“When were you going to tell us you failed math?” She slammed her hand on the table, and the tower of bones shook. When I shrugged, she tore the drumstick out of my hands, meat still feathering the bone, and added it to the heap.
“Do you think Hilda scraped out her mother’s skin from beneath her fingernails,” she poked her finger into my chest, “choked on her own father’s hair, so you could profane the gift of life like this?”
A small bowl of buffalo sauce was in front of me, and I recalled that you could drown in just a few inches of liquid.
My dad put his hand gently on her arm. “Linda, there are better ways to motivate him.”
She sat back down and picked up a wing. Grease glowed in the wrinkles of her austere cheeks. “Cheaper than reform school,” she said. Then, she pressed the flesh out from between the bones and slid it between her teeth.
I cough myself awake. Keep my eyes shut. Wonder if it’s found its way to me. Take a deep breath and count to ten. A free test. Only when I safely finish the count, do I exhale and crack open my eyes. Sunlight illuminates the veil of dust in the air, and the filth of my apartment stares at me accusingly. Three bags of trash slouch against the front door like sullen teenagers. At the foot of my bed, a mound of laundry mildews. Above the half-full Chinese takeout pails crowded in my sink, a family of fruit flies congregates. I cough again. Stumble out of bed. The apartment reeks. Rotten chicken. Stale beer.
From the edge of my bed, it’s sixteen uninterrupted steps to the kitchen sink. When I approach, the flies scatter to make room for me. I cough again. It’s phlegm-forward. I trap the mucus behind my teeth, and my shoulders untense. Just a wet cough. Nothing to fear.
I grab one of the takeout pails from the sink. A flare of flies erupts. I hack onto the globules of moldy, orange chicken. More like green chicken, now. My dad would have liked that one, I think. I try to laugh. But it comes out as a cough. I hack into the container again. Place it back in the sink. That’s when I notice the bodies. Dozens of flies pepper the sauce. In an old container of walnut shrimp, dozens more. A graveyard of flies in my sink.
I close the flaps of the pails. “Rest easy,” I say. But when the flaps slip open again, I peer inside. Not all the flies are dead. Some writhe in the sauce, struggling to escape. I root for them, but don’t help. I’m not so sure life is better than death. I don’t want to be the one to decide.
Instead, I overfill a kettle. Water sloshes down the side. I fight to force the lid back on. The kettle clatters onto the stove, and I blast the flames. High as they can go. The droplets clinging to the bottom hiss. The sound of incineration:
I backtrack six steps to the living room, which is really a stained coffee table and a plaid recliner with its stuffing protruding. The chair looks out the window and onto the alley between my apartment and the one next over. There used to be two chairs here. I threw out Helen’s months ago. Her scent clung stubbornly to the fabric. Lavender and orange peel. I push away the thoughts. Collapse into my chair. Close my eyes.
His face appears bright against the abyss. Two shards of terracotta pottery cover his eyes. His right cheek has gone slack. Excess skin jowled below his jaw. His lips are purple and twisted into a pained grimace.
A howl. I jump awake. Hands out in front. Nobody is coming for me. Nobody is coming for me. Nobody is coming. Forty-seven days. The howling continues. Is he trying to tell me something? I see the kettle on the stove, shaking violently, foaming at the mouth. I turn off the stove. Scoop some coffee grounds into a filter. Watch as the scalding water drains through them. When the water is gone, the dark remains rim the filter like a hole in the ground.
Would you call life a gift? There have been moments when I thanked my ancestors for their efforts, but they were brief and almost always occurred in Helen’s arms. With the aid of pills and prophylactics, we’d invoke our ancestors’ proclivity for perseverance while avoiding its terrifying implications. In the dazed and delirious bliss that followed, I’d sometimes thank the long chain of creation that made it all possible.
But then, there too have been moments where life cascaded downward into a darkness. Where the world felt like it was piling up with bodies, and I knew it was my task to climb out, only I didn’t really care to.
Two weeks after my best friend took his life, my dad found me in the bathroom with a box cutter.
“I was looking for that,” he said as he lifted it from my hand. I hadn’t made the first cut yet.
He walked me to my room and sat on the bed next to me. Four lines of wrinkles etched across his forehead, his gray, curly hair flopped over his ears.
“Talk to me,” he urged. I didn’t know how to tell him the things I was feeling. How I felt broken because I hadn’t cried yet. How before Driver’s Ed, I’d go to the bathroom and rub water under my eyes so my classmates wouldn’t think I was a psychopath. How at the memorial service, Chris’s dad pulled me aside when nobody was looking. His sunken eyes and fat, swollen cheeks made him look like a cartoon hippopotamus.
“Did he say anything to you?” His dad asked. I could hear the wild desperation in his voice. He gripped my shoulder and stared into my eyes as though I was a riddle to solve.
“Nothing,” I assured him. I was as surprised as anyone.
Dad rubbed my back and assured me I could share anything with him. Michael Jordan stared at us from a poster on the wall. He was crouched in a low crossover, and his tongue hung out over his bottom lip. “Greatness is a choice,” the poster read in bold, white letters.
“It’s not that I want to be dead,” I tried to explain, “it’s just that it’d be nice to return it for a little while.”
He tilted his head.
“The gift,” I said. “Sometimes it feels more like a burden. Like I was born with an anchor chained to my chest.”
“Thank you for trusting me with that,” he said and wrapped me in a hug. The weight of the anchor felt a little lighter in the strength of his arms. As its weight shifted, the first tears escaped. Soon, I was heaving tears into his white work polo. He held me until I had nothing left. When finally, I lifted my head, he said, “Let’s take a drive.”
It was dark, and the streets were slick with that afternoon’s rain. The streetlights made little halos in the mist. He pulled the car into the Temple’s empty parking lot, and my stomach soured.
“What are we doing here?” I asked him.
“Just trust me.” He got out of the car and swung the door shut behind him. I ran to catch up.
We skirted around the main building and toward a structure in the corner of the lot.
“The Holocaust Memorial?” I was sweaty and my skin was starting to blotch. “Dad, please, I really don’t want to hear about my ancestors right now.”
He smiled and waved me on.
The circular wall of the memorial was made out of a smooth, grey stone. Protruding from the wall at regular intervals were faded cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto. On top of each, a bright yellow daffodil rested its weary head. Waterfalls cut the wall into thirds. They trickled water into the thin moat that formed between the long, continuous stone bench and the wall. Lights shone from beneath the water, turning it gold and diffracting a dappled light across the stones. Above, the memorial opened to the night sky.
It was beautiful here, but I longed to rip the cobblestones off the wall and build myself a tomb. “What are we doing here?” I asked.
“I wanted to show you this,” He pointed at a plaque beneath a cobblestone.
In Loving Memory, the inscription began. I stopped reading. “I told you I don’t want to hear about my ancestors.”
“Keep going,” he urged. He turned me back around and pointed again.
I took one step closer and saw the name: Fanny Licker.
I looked at him, at the plaque, and back at him again. His eyes were soft and expectant. I started laughing. First, as almost a hiccup. Then, a full body spasm. He was laughing too. By the end, I was lying down on the bench, tears rolling down my cheeks, and he was keeling over and wheezing for breath. When our laughter faded, he crouched in front of me. “We laugh our way through loss,” he said, “that’s our biggest strength.”
We drove back home in a relieved silence. I made him promise not to tell mom. He made me promise I’d come to him if I ever thought of hurting myself again.
Back home, my mother asked where we had been.
“Just went for some ice cream,” he said.
“None for me, I guess.” She continued up the stairs.
I scream again. This time when the doorbell rings. I’m naked and reclined against the tiled wall of the shower. Water clings to my skin. I shiver violently. My teeth clatter.
I stand and wrap a towel around my waist. My reflection haunts the mirror. Beard thick and unruly. It puffs at my cheeks and patches at the base of my neck. My ribs ripple the surface of my skin, and my lips are purple. The doorbell rings again. “I’m coming!” I shout.
It’s eight steps past the disheveled bed to the front door. Little chips in the maroon paint checker the door like pockmarks. Surgical masks hang from a key hook. I take one and stretch the elastic bands around my ears. I layer another one on top. Then, a third. A fourth wouldn’t hurt.
The doorbell rings again. I don’t recognize the man on the other side of the peephole. He has golden brown skin and straight black hair that hangs thick over his forehead. A blue and orange Knicks mask hides his face. I hope the landlord hasn’t sent him. I still need to figure out unemployment. Pretty sure I can’t be evicted during the pandemic. I start to open the door, but then I remember the gloves. I trot to the kitchen and open a cabinet. Slide on two yellow kitchen gloves. My heart jitters at the thought of interacting with another human. Sixty-one days. Maybe more.
I turn the knob and smile with my eyes. Friendly. Reassuring. A really nice dude. I hope he picks up all this and more. But when the door opens, the hallway is vacant. Very strange. Alarming, even. I run after him into the hallway, but I trip over something at the threshold. My face crashes into the filthy wood floor. A sharp pain travels through my lip. I try to yell. My mouth is filling with blood. I scramble to my feet. Put out my gloved hands. Catch the blood streaming out from beneath the masks. Three tall brown bags of groceries are lined up outside my door. Jump over them on my way back inside.
A mad dash to the kitchen. I lean over the sink. Rip off the soaking masks, and blood spills out of my mouth. It has the fruit flies in a frenzy. They buzz in a great haze above my head. I run some cold water and cup it into my mouth. When I slosh it between my cheeks, my front tooth wobbles. The world spins. I take deep breaths so I don’t throw up. Sweat gathers along my neck, and the flies are drawn to it. Their legs tickle my neck as they land. It feels nice to be touched.
When the nausea recedes, I stand up straight. His face floats in the window. The swollen jowl. The terracotta eyes. The pale, purple grimace. “This is good material!” he’d say. “Just laugh it out!” The laughter builds in my chest, but it’s unable to escape. It burns sharp like heartburn. I burp. The exhaust of the bile mixes with the iron of the blood.
I use the towel around my waist to wipe the blood off my chin. Retrieve the bags of food from the hallway. Shut the door. Latch the bolt. Slide the chain into place. In one of the bags, there’s a note. Watermark: Instacart. Message: please call, love mom. I shove the paper into the clenched mouth of a trash bag. Go back to the bathroom. Stretch my lips with my fingers and bare my teeth in front of the mirror. My front tooth dangles from the gum. Fingertips on a cliff. Nobody is coming. Not for me. I fetch my pliers. Return to the mirror. I close my eyes and think of Stu.
When I was eleven, I faked sick by rubbing the thermometer against my sheets until it read 101. Gloved and masked, my mother laid out blankets for me on the chaise lounge in the living room. When she gave me the all-clear, I came down from my room and tucked myself in. My mother, still masked, sat in an armchair across the room and played sudoku. She asked if I wanted to watch her favorite movie, Overboard. I rasped, “yes,” and tried not to look too excited.
About twenty minutes in, Goldie Hawn falls overboard and splashes into the water. She backstrokes desperately to keep afloat. My mother seized the remote and paused the movie. Her eyes hooked into mine.
“If I ever fall off a boat,” she declared, “don’t try and save me, okay? I don’t want to fight off sharks or suffer the indignities of a jellyfish sting. I’m certainly not spending a night freezing cold, hoping to be rescued. No, if I fall off a boat, I’m taking a lungful of water, and I’m checking out.”
She nodded to punctuate the statement. Then, she resumed the movie, and no further clarification was offered. It was odd, but then again, I was used to being presented with things I wasn’t really supposed to remember, like the names of all the presidents or Nevada’s state bird. But my mother became quite fond of the expression, and soon, checking out was a featured phrase in her vernacular.
A few months later, my mother picked me up from middle school and drove me to a bar mitzvah lesson across town. Out her window, The Strip stood proud. Out mine, Joshua trees and burning bushes blurred past. Bored, I asked if she could only bring one book to a deserted island, what would she bring?
She scrunched her nose and her glasses inched upward. “I wouldn’t bring a single thing,” she said, “I’d be checking out the second I got there.”
The sentiment was dark, but there was a loving commitment embedded within my mother’s dedication to checking out.
One seder, after the first hand washing, my grandmother made a solemn announcement. My mother’s second-cousin, David, had lost his battle with cancer. In her grief, his mother, Anita, had taken too many sleeping pills. She survived but was now under evaluation at the hospital. Visits were encouraged.
My mother held her hand against her heart and was the first to speak when my grandmother sat back down. “If Eli ever died before me,” she said, “or Ben, I wouldn’t live the rest of my days in suffering. Just like Anita, I’d be checking out.”
The heads of my extended family all bobbed in agreement until my grandfather coughed pointedly into his hand. A chill blanketed the group, and my grandfather glowered across the long table. The tips of his fingers flushed white against his glass of wine. “You’re embarrassing yourself, Linda,” he said, “and me.”
My mother’s jaw set, and her eyebrows raised, but the cobras were defanged here. Next to her, my dad shifted in his seat. The wrinkles in his forehead deepened, and he was opening his mouth. But my mother cut him a look and squeezed his thigh beneath the table. He shook his head, fingers tracing the handle of his butterknife. Everyone else stared into their empty salad plates.
“Who’s next?” My grandfather said.
It was my turn. I stood and straightened the forest green button-down my mother made me wear. “Next we dip karpas into salt water,” I read to the table, “this represents the tears our ancestors shed as they toiled in Egypt.”
Everyone golf clapped, except my grandfather, who was staring at my mother, and my mother, who was crushing a crumb of matzah into the navy-blue tablecloth. When I sat back down, my aunt handed me a sprig of parsley. I plunged the leaves into the tears of my ancestors. Relished the way they scraped at the back of my throat.
Later, I would come to understand Climbing Over Piles of Dead Bodies and Checking Out to be the dual mythologies my family inherited from the Holocaust and Masada, respectively.
The Holocaust: Survive any and all horrors so as to pass on Jewish life.
Masada: Know when it’s time to quit. And by quit, I mean commit mass suicide.
The two poles of Jewish life: climb out over the pile of dead bodies or lay underneath them.
Thunder. Screaming. The windows rattle. Pots clang. I gasp. A storm, or an earthquake. But when I open my eyes, it’s bright and still. The sounds seep through the window. I’m soaked in sweat. My gum throbs. I stick my finger into my mouth. Startle at the fleshy stump where my tooth used to be.
I groan. Walk to the window by the plaid recliner. In the tall, red-bricked building across the alley, heads and hands hang suspended from every window. They’re cheering for something. Maybe me. I smile back at the dangling appendages. The air is ice cold as it rushes through the gap in my teeth.
By the time I landed in Vegas, it was too late. I called my mother from the airport. Around me, tourists filtered through the slot-machine riddled terminal toward baggage claim. One out of twenty wore a mask. Things were bad in Europe, but it hadn’t found its way here. Not yet. I sat on the plush stool of a Wheel of Fortune slot machine as she broke the news. The theme music and the clinking of coins made it hard to hear, but still, I understood. He was gone.
At the hospital, Eli and my mother held hands in an empty room. Eli’s dark, heavy brows hooded his eyes. My mother’s were bloodshot, and she held a wad of tissues in her free hand. Eli stood to hug me first. He wore a crisp long-sleeve button-up and smelled of a musky aftershave. He must have come straight from work. When he finished hugging me, he held me by the shoulders and asked if I was doing okay. I didn’t know how I was doing. I nodded.
“Becca just brought the kids,” he said, “I’m going to go break the news.”
He left, and my mother stood. Her cream cardigan peaked over the knobs of her shoulders. Her glasses were askew, and the wrinkled skin of her face appeared paper-thin. The ivory of her cheekbones showed through her flesh.
“You just missed him.” She pressed the tissues beneath her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
I pulled her into my arms and kissed her on the forehead. When I looked up, a doctor was leaning against the doorframe. “You two made the right decision,” he said. He gave my mother a hug and me a painful handshake. Then, he flipped through his notes and left the room, coat flapping behind him.
“What decision?” I asked.
My mother wrapped her arms around herself and took a seat in the plastic armchair at the edge of the room. Her shoe tapped rapidly against the linoleum, and she chewed on her lip.
“We had to decide, Ben.” She wouldn’t look at me. “The aneurysm burst twenty minutes before I found him by the front door. The doctor told us there was no chance of meaningful survival. Keeping him on the ventilator would have only prolonged his suffering.”
My hands balled into fists, and my arms started to shake. “We couldn’t have decided together?” My voice cracked at the end of the question. “You couldn’t have given me a chance to say goodbye?”
“Ben, you weren’t here.” My mother looked at me. Her eyes were firm. “We had to do what we thought was best. Would you have made him suffer for hours just so you could say goodbye?”
I paced the room back and forth. My vision narrowed, and all I could see were my shoes clacking against the pale blue squares of the floor. I bumped into the standing tray table next to where his bed used to be. It wobbled for a moment, but stayed upright.
“Ben, don’t make a scene,” she said.
I stared directly at her as I kicked the tray table. It crashed, and a dixie cup of water spilled across the floor. I walked out of the room and stepped on the cup on my way out, its weight collapsing beneath me,
My mother had offered to host me for the night. Eli’s family was going to sleep over, too. But I couldn’t be around them. Instead, I booked a smoky room at the Gold Coast. I spent an hour on the hard, spiny bed with my phone above my face, stalking Helen and wishing she were there. Her face was so soft with her baby in her hands.
I always knew she would make a good mom. That was never the problem. It was more that I was never sure I’d be around long enough to see our kid grow up. I never told her about the box cutter in the bathroom. Or how my dad drove to Tempe and threw away the pills I had procured after I flunked out of college the second time. Or how he stayed on the phone with me all night, soothing me away from the Brooklyn Bridge, the first time we broke up. I wish I had told her all that. Maybe she would have stayed. At least for a little longer. Instead, I told her I didn’t want to bring a baby into a world like this. I showed her an article that said because of global warming, each newborn will be responsible for the death of seven children in the future. Asked her if she really wanted that blood on her hands. A week later, she came home, kissed me once, and told me she wasn’t mad, but she had to leave.
Her baby’s name is Eloise. I wonder what the names of the seven she’s responsible for will be.
I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t keep my eyes closed long. Instead, I left my phone behind and floated across The Strip like a ghost. The air was thin and cold, and tourists stumbled around, shouting each other’s names. I walked for hours, until the stream of tourists thinned to a trickle, and the only ones left awake were just as lost as me.
Eventually, I found myself in front of Sirens’ Cove, the pirate-themed water feature in front of Treasure Island. Two replica frigates rest on either side of the U-shaped cove. The water on which they rest is dark and choppy, a perpetual midnight ocean. Behind the ships, storefronts are disguised in mock Caribbean architecture: they occupy rectangular, stacked houses with red doors and pale blue shutters and stone forts with arched wooden doors. Down the middle, a wooden bridge divides the cove in two and leads visitors to the storefronts or, if they continue, straight into the casino.
My dad took me here to watch a show once after Mom and I fought. It was a month before my bar mitzvah. Mom was in the dining room licking envelopes for a Jewish Federation fundraiser. I took a seat directly across from her, cleared my throat, and told her that I didn’t want to have a bar mitzvah. I didn’t believe in God, and I didn’t care much about being Jewish.
She started to tell me about Hilda, but I interrupted her.
“I wish she had just checked out,” I said.
She slapped me. Hard.
Then, she stormed upstairs and barricaded herself inside her room.
My cheek swelled, and I spent the afternoon camped out in front of her locked doors threatening to call CPS. My dad came home in the middle of our standoff, consulted with Mom, and then took me for a drive. We ended up here, in front of Treasure Island.
We had seen the show a couple times before with family friends from out of town. Every hour, on the hour, pirates would emerge from the decks of their ships and stage a great battle with dramatic cannonballs and elaborate pyrotechnics. We stood together at the balustrade waiting for the show. Justin Timberlake boomed on the speakers as the crowd pressed in behind us.
My dad leaned over to tell me something. He had to shout so it’d be audible over the blaring music. “We owe a lot to the ancestors who survived,” he said, “And it can be a heavy burden to bear. Your mother is still trying to live up to the life Hilda wanted her to live. It can drive her crazy sometimes.” He paused, waiting for confirmation that I was listening, or at least hearing him. “But Hilda also showed her how to be strong and how to be proud of who she is and where she came from. The two of them were close, but Hilda was really hard on her. Would chastise her for the smallest mistake. When they’d fight, Hilda would say, ‘not all love looks like a hug and a cuddle.’ And I know you hate hearing about Hilda. Your mom knows that too.” He stopped to search my eyes. “She does. But when she tells you about Hilda, it’s because she thinks you need to hear it. And she’s willing to sacrifice her relationship with you because she thinks it’s important. You might disagree with her. And that’s okay. But I hope you can find a way to see it as its own form of love.”
The music stopped and a pillar of fire shot up from the pirate ship on the left. Figures emerged from the decks and stood in the shadows. The spotlight flipped on, illuminating the crew, but to our surprise it wasn’t pirates standing on the decks… but strippers. Apparently, the show had been rewritten. My dad checked behind us for an easy escape. He saw the crowd was thick and pressed right up against us, endless and impossible to climb through. He shook his head and said, “Don’t tell your mother.” I took a step up onto the curved bottom of the balustrade so I could get a better view.
The strippers on the ship introduced themselves as sirens. They wore pirate-themed lingerie and danced on the masts of the ship. A ragtag group of horny pirates emerged on the other ship. They wanted to kidnap the sirens. The sirens weren’t afraid – they had a plan. A siren crawled out onto the bowsprit and announced to the audience, “No man can resist the siren’s call because it offers the promise of life and the certainty of death!” She flipped her hair and hopped onto the deck, where the sirens sang in unison to lure the pirates closer. When they finally were in range, the sirens launched a volley of cannonballs. The pirates returned fire. With each cannonball that hit the sirens’ ship, their bodies would flail overboard and sink to the bottom of the sea. At the end of the show, the two ships made peace, and the whole crew had a dance party. It was the worst show we had ever seen. We laughed the whole way home.
The wind picked up, and I pulled my jacket tight around me. What would I do without him? I stared into the choppy waters of Sirens’ Cove, and the anchor once again tugged at my chest. Below, I pictured their bodies, stacked one on top of the other, preserved beneath the waves.
In the morning, I arrived at the funeral early and asked to have a moment alone with him. The room smelled of halitosis. When the funeral directors left, I pried up the top of his pine casket. I wanted to say goodbye. Through the thin shroud, I saw the pottery eyes, the swollen jowl, the twisted grimace. The chalk white skin, the pink blotches, the purple bruises. There was nobody there. Just a body, left behind. I left before the service, so I wouldn’t have to see them. Picked up some ice cream, instead. Ate it in the memorial with Fanny Licker.
Dead or alive, Philip Roth once complained, Anne Frank is the perfect Jew.
Dead, she joins the pile of dead bodies, providing the foothold our ancestors needed to survive.
Alive, she scraped her way past the carcasses, becoming one of those who made it impossible for Jewish children to complain about attending Hebrew school.
More sirens. A chorus of sirens. It’s the middle of the night. Can’t remember the last time I’ve slept. I sprawl across the grimy tile of the kitchen. Ants march up the cabinets. Rat droppings cling together in dusty clumps beneath the fridge. I’m at home here. Among the detritus.
761 days. Crammed in an attic. Going a little crazy. But still. I’m just at 70-something. Don’t know how many more I can do.
I close my eyes. See his body and hers. They stare at me from the top of the pile. Skin melts off their faces like cheese off a pizza. Beneath them, splay Stu and Elsa and Margot. Limbs bent inhumanly. Nearby, the skeletons of Eli and Becca. They’re wrapped tight around the bones of their children. A layer below rest Helen and Eloise. The seven others they have taken along with them. At the bottom, the corpse of my mother. And her mother. And yes, even Hilda. Trapped beneath the pile. At last.
Another siren adds its shriek. The world’s most demented round. This one lays on its horn. My bones rattle. I scream and punch the floor. Something cracks. There’s pain. But it’s vague and distant. Something I’m supposed to feel.
“I’m checking out,” I long to declare. But my mother’s words haunt me. “They climbed over piles of dead bodies. Hid in attics. In basements. In boxes filled with onions. Just so they could pass on the gift of life.”
The bodies are piling up. Portable morgues roam the city just to handle the influx, the outflux.
A fly lands on my foot. I glance down. Notice I’m all bones now. My stomach has cratered into a valley that only rises to meet the crest of my hips. They jut out from beneath my boxers.
One more siren adds its shrill voice. But this one is different. There’s something alluring in this siren’s call. Promise. Certainty.
I want more. I crawl to the window. Push up with all my strength. It groans as it slides open. I climb out onto the fire escape. Corrugated metal cuts little diamonds into my feet. The heads and hands emerge again. They cheer me on. The siren pulls me down the stairs. Faster. Can’t be late. I skip two steps. Then three. I try for four. Miss a step. Tumble down the final flight. My left elbow throbs. Its skin flaps in the breeze. I rip it off. Leave it behind. Stand and run. To the street.
I make it just in time. An ambulance is racing toward me. My ears burst with its cries.
“Stop!” I yell. I put my hands out in front.
It slams on its brakes. Gravel sprays against my shins. The ambulance drifts down the street. The two men inside are pale. Their mouths agape. But I can’t hear them.
The sirens beckon.
The legends have it wrong. They offer a choice. Between the bodies of everyone you’ve ever known. Ever loved. Ever lost. To any man who hears them sing. But you have to climb.
Burnt rubber perfumes the air. The hot breath of the ambulance tickles my legs.
I laugh. It feels good.
The bumper misses by a few inches. A pile of dead bodies waits inside. I smile at them as I stretch myself across the asphalt.
“Put ‘em here,” I say. I throw my arms open, ready to accept their gift.