Writings and Reflections

Coming Home

by Lloyd B. Abrams

Gerald had to parallel-park his fifteen-year-old Camry out on the street and worse, he thought, several houses away. Mona hadn’t remembered to pull her minivan further up the driveway. Goddamn her, he thought. It’s like she does it on purpose … like she does it to spite me.

His ubiquitous-beige Toyota was already two years old when his parents borrowed the money to buy it for him as a graduation gift from City University. Gerald had spent years on the subways, commuting to a specialized high school in Manhattan, and then to four years of college, so his car was a symbol not only of parental, financial sacrifice, but of freedom and the promise of good things to come.

He sat in the car, seething, while the engine knocked and occasionally misfired. Part of him wanted to just pull out and drive the hell away. The all-sports radio station was on, not that he really cared who was playing that weekend. The chatter was just background noise that helped to fight the monotony and the isolation of his daily commute.

Gerald switched off the ignition. With the motor and radio off, it was abruptly quiet inside the car, as if everything around him had mercifully ceased. He closed his eyes and listened to his breathing. He concentrated on the air sniffling in and out of his nose, and he waited until his breathing slowed. Only then did he get out of the car.

By the time Gerald climbed the half dozen concrete steps to the front door, he assumed he had gotten himself under control. But when he walked into the foyer, he knew he was wrong. His breathing quickened and he felt as if he were submerged. He felt pressure in his chest. He was on such high alert that his senses were misfiring. The ordinarily welcoming aroma of pot roast wafting from the kitchen smelled wrong – acrid and greasy and burnt. The Sesame Street jingle from the kids’ room upstairs sounded muffled and off-key. The black and white family photos hanging on the wall looked as abstract, as indistinct, as the cheap impressionist prints mounted alongside them.

Gerald felt anxious and lost, as frozen in time as those pictures. He wanted to run, but an overwhelming malaise enveloped him. He wanted to flee but he could not move.

Then, occurring in rapid-fire succession, like a blur: Joshua and Rachel bounding down the stairs, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy! … Mommy! … Daddy’s home!” Mona approaching him, wiping wet, reddened hands on her apron. The children grabbing onto his legs, demanding, “Daddy! Waddya bring us?” The kids, in their exuberance, almost toppling him over. Gerald wanting to kick them away, slough them off, but unable to do so, with his feet anchored and immobilized. Mona gently touching his arm, asking, “How was your day?” but not waiting for an answer as she turned back towards the kitchen. Gerald, reaching out in his mind, silently pleading, Don’t go. Hold me. I need you. Please! Then, when she had turned the corner and was out of sight thinking, Goddamn you, anyway!

When the children got no response from their father, their hands slowly slid from his legs, and they shrunk away. Joshua, older by a year, turned and ran up the stairs, shouting, “C’mon, Rach.’ Last one up’s a rotten egg.” But Rachel – the daughter who everyone said so resembled her father – looked up at him with dark, penetrating eyes, eyes much older than her age – perhaps, trying to connect with him, perhaps, trying to understand, but not saying anything. Then she, too, escaped up the stairs.

“Rachel! … Josh! … Gerry! … Dinner in ten minutes.”

Jesus Christ. She treats me like I’m one of the kids. He found the strength to answer: “Honey …” – once a term of endearment, but now one of indifference – “I’ve gotta go up and change.”

“Don’t take too long … Okay?”

“Yeah, Yeah. I’ll be right back down.”

Gerald forced himself out of his inertia. He trudged up the stairs, noticing the unvacuumed lint and specks of mud on the threadbare carpet runner. When he heard Sesame Street ending, he rushed into the bedroom to avoid the kids. He shut and locked the door and then sat down on the corner of the bed, purposely ignoring Mona’s usual badgering, “Don’t sit there … you’ll ruin the mattress.” He took off his shoes and socks and wiggled his toes in the carpet. Then he stood up, unknotted his tie, took off his suit jacket and slacks and carefully hung them up in his closet. Finally, he dumped his perspiration-stained shirt in the hamper and put on a pair of jeans and a denim shirt.

When Gerald heard the kids tromping down the stairs, he unlocked the bedroom door and slipped into the bathroom. He splashed water on his face and then looked up at his reflection in the mirror. Already, there were flecks of silver in his beard. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair and began to gently massage his head. Then, he dug harder into his skull, moaned from the pain, and then from the pleasure. He flashed on the idea of trephining – cutting holes in his skull to let out evil spirits – and he wished that he could find a way to drain out the fury that occasionally came upon him but which so tormented him. And, he knew, afflicted those around him.

“Gerry? … You coming? … The food’s getting cold.”

“All right, already! I’ll be right there!”

He closed the lid and sat down on the toilet. He pictured them sitting at the dining room table, waiting. Mona shushing the kids. The white linen tablecloth. The two gleaming candlesticks, each with the same kind of shabbos candles his mother had always used. A warmed-up challah on the cutting board, under the blue embroidered cover. The sterling silver kiddush cup he had bought for their first anniversary. The white Corelle serving dishes, the glass dinnerware, the blue cloth napkins, the shiny new flatware from the meat drawer. And the empty chair at the head of the table, waiting for him.

But he didn’t want to be down there with her, with them, with the whole Friday night thing. He lowered his head and pressed his hands tightly over his ears. He wanted to muffle even the silence.

Then he made a decision. He went back into the bedroom, pulled on a hooded sweatshirt, laced up his walking shoes, and quietly headed down the stairs. He wanted to sneak out the front door without saying anything, without having to make excuses. But Mona appeared at the foot of the stairs, about to call up to him again.

“Ger? … What are you doing? Where are you going?”

“Uh, nowhere. I gotta take a walk. I’ve gotta get outta here for a while.”

“But what about dinner?”

“I don’t really feel like eating.” His stomach was already growling, and the lie only made him hungrier.

“Aren’t you even going to light candles with us?”

“C’mon, Mona. Give me a break.”

“Give you a break?” Her voice was rising. “I’ve been cooped up inside all day with the kids. Cleaning and cooking. And we’ve all been waiting …”

“Stop it! I can’t listen to this. I can’t take this shit anymore.” He turned and fled out of the house.

Mona screamed “You bastard!” and slammed the door behind him so hard that shards of glass from a shattered pane in the door crackled down onto the concrete stoop.

The children came running to find out what all the commotion was about.

“Mommy? Where’d Daddy go?” Joshua, asking.

“Mommy? Why are you crying?” This, from Rachel.

“I don’t know,” was all she could say, shaking her head. “I just don’t know.”

Mona knelt down on one knee and drew the children into her. She hugged them tightly and fiercely, as much to reassure them as to reassure herself. She was unable to stifle the sobs that started to wrack her body, and she held onto the children more desperately as she began to convulse. Then she sagged back against the wall.

The children pulled away. They stood before her, stunned, waiting. Tears rolled down Joshua’s cheeks, while Rachel, who often refused to cry, popped her thumb into her mouth.

Some moments later, Mona stood up, and smoothed down her apron. She said, in a voice as icily calm as the red-hot rage it was shrouding, “Why don’t you wash your hands and go sit down at the table.” She scooted them away. “Go ahead. I’ll be right there.”

That evening, Mona and the children ate pot roast and roasted potatoes in an empty, eerie silence. The children even ate their cooked peas and carrots without complaint.

But that evening, the shabbos candles remained unlit, the challah remained uncut, and the sweet wine in the silver kiddush cup remained untouched.

= = = = =

Arlington Road dead-ended at the park, so Gerald took a right onto Van Nostrand Street and headed up the hill towards Central Avenue. He walked in the street, facing traffic, which he liked a lot better than having to pay attention to cracks in the sidewalks and the ups and downs of the curbs.

It was almost dark, and the unseasonably warm autumn day had become chilly. Gerald pressed on, increasing his pace uphill. Within a couple of short blocks, he felt winded and his lungs started to burn. He patted his sweatshirt pocket for his inhaler. Reassured that he had it, he continued on. He welcomed, with perverse pleasure, the discomfort that his exertion was causing. He started to lose himself in his thoughts.

At work, Gerald had long been deadened and indifferent. In the past, when it was his turn to field phone calls, he responded to questions, complaints, and requests for advice with enthusiasm and, sometimes, even with delight. When he stood at the counter – official regulations prohibited sitting – he handled each person on the never-ending line with efficient care and a sympathetic ear. He knew he was performing a public service. But on a more profound and barely repressed level, he knew he was just shoveling shit against the tide.

Now, like many others who had once taken a civil service job until something better came along, and just like the ones who had once warned him to “take it easy, Gerry … you’re making us look bad,” he counted down the minutes until the next coffee break, the hours until it was time to sign out, and the days until the weekend – all followed all too soon by another Monday. He shuffled from one assignment to the next with numbness and robotic competence. It didn’t help that the newest appointees referred to him and the others like him as “the walking dead.”

He had seniority, a guaranteed income and good benefits. A steady job with a pension was prized over everything else. This was the mantra, the excuse for staying for those who remained, for those who never did find something better like Gerald, who could not turn away from the Greek chorus comprised of his parents and their generation, perched upon and weighing down his shoulders, chanting, in four-part harmony and Dolby stereo, “security, security, security, security.” Recently, he had received a once-desired promotion, but it came with more responsibility than he had anticipated. He was locked in, and the key had long ago been thrown away.

As Gerald marched on, he was glad that physical pain – physical anything – was breaking through his palpable haze of resentment and discontentment. Not only was he wheezing, but his shins had started to tighten up and burn. He stopped to retie his shoes and to take off his sweatshirt. He knotted its arms around his waist and continued on.

It wasn’t only his job and the way Mona infantilized him and the goddamn sameness of it all that had gotten to him. All his life he seemed to dwell upon such things. But he often had the fantasy that something exciting and wonderful might happen during an upcoming weekend, although the expectations induced by his form of magical thinking were inevitably dashed when the Sunday night re-runs came on. And starting off each and every weekend was the unbending ritual of the whole Friday night shabbos thing – the candles, the challah, the wine, the prayers that were recited in Hebrew. He understood intellectually that it connected him to the generations before and to his fellow Jews throughout the world, but he often felt so turned off and disconnected, so isolated and alone, even with his wife and children sitting right beside him. Still, he didn’t have a clear idea about what was really eating at him. But he knew that his Aunt Estelle’s death had a great deal to do with it.

Aun’-‘Stelle – he used to slur the words together, almost like a whisper – was his mother’s younger sister. Gerald loved her sweetness – her hugs, her soft voice, her warmth, her gentleness – and he always wished that his own mother, who was blunt and hard-edged and fragile and bitter, could have been much more like her. After Estelle and Uncle Robert and his cousin Herbie moved to Pennsylvania, he did not get to see much of her. But he still remembered, with nostalgia and wistfulness, his family’s outings to their home in Queens.

Gerald still wondered why Uncle Max, his mother’s brother – the youngest of the three siblings – had chosen him to be the bearer of the bad news when his aunt’s illness was first diagnosed. Max had probably assumed that Gerald’s mother would have taken the news the hardest. But it was not Aunt Estelle who had called him, nor Uncle Robert. It wasn’t his father who was given the bad news, nor his older brother. It wasn’t even Max who had the courage – the balls, or “the cojones,” as his father would have put it – to speak directly to his mother. His uncle had called him when Estelle’s disease was first diagnosed and when its lethality had already been determined, and told Gerald that it would be his responsibility to tell his parents.

Max probably assumed that Gerald’s outward coolness and detachment made him the right one for the job. Maybe it was Max’s hopeful observation, from two thousand miles away, that he was the healthiest of the bunch. But Max did not realize that Gerald always closed himself off to emotionally difficult situations. So when his parents had come over the following Friday night for dinner, Gerald had taken it all in stride by shutting down as usual, and then dispassionately reporting what Max had told him. Tears and remonstration were followed by the Why Estelle? and Why, God? questions that Gerald could not possibly answer. Questions that nobody could answer.

And last month, the dreaded telephone call finally did come. The funeral was to be held two days later, allowing an extra day for transportation. Because Joshua and Rachel were sick, Mona had to stay home with them. Gerald, who wanted to be alone anyway, chose to drive down to Harrisburg for the funeral by himself. He did not want to be with his parents, nor with his brother, nor with anyone else. After Aunt Estelle was eulogized, sanctified and lowered into the ground, after the shovelfuls of sand and pebbles and stones made their unforgettable noise thudding onto the coffin, he made a brief appearance at his Aunt’s house and left shortly after. On the solitary drive back from Pennsylvania, Gerald mulled over and dwelled upon a life not fully lived, inevitable decline and decrepitude, and then, finally, nothingness. And, he wondered, what was the goddamn purpose of it all?

He returned home after midnight. He had wanted, needed, to wake Mona up to talk to her, but she looked so innocent in her sleep. Several strands of hair, which had come loose from her velvet scrunchy, were draped over her face. Her closed eyes did not entirely hide her flittering pupils, and her tongue was peeking out from between her lips. She was making soft breathing sounds. Gerald just couldn’t disturb her, especially at that hour. But, in the days that followed, he could never find exactly the right time to tell her what had percolated through and festered in his mind. So it all remained bottled up inside.

When he got to the top of the hill and started down towards Central Avenue, his lungs stopped protesting but his shins started to ache even more. He remembered, when he was out running almost every day, during the years before the kids came along, that going downhill put more stress on the feet and knees than going uphill. Running had almost always cleaned out his head once he got into his rhythm after a mile or two. He knew that later, towards the end of a run, he would feel calm and soothed, his sourness diluted and his disillusionment salved. Gerald slowed his pace to let the ache subside.

He made a right onto Central Avenue and walked past the twenty-four hour newsstand, and then Gala Nails, where the Asian girls wore little makeup and the women getting manicures wore too much. He continued on past the Good Health food store and then the kosher butcher where his wife always shopped. Gerald wondered if Mona might have even been there that morning since the place closed early on Fridays. The metal shutter had been painted over yet again, but the remnants of a swastika, from a recent rash of antisemitic acts, was still visible.

A bus came to a stop and Gerald’s whole body recoiled from the unexpected squeal of its brakes. He reflexively stuck his fingers in his ears, something he did when a fire truck or ambulance roared by, but his ears were already ringing.

Flanagan’s was on the corner. The stale odor of booze and smoke wafted out through the open door. While he waited to cross the street, Gerald turned to watch a couple standing outside in the halo of a sodium vapor streetlight. The guy’s shirttails spilled out from rumpled pants, his hair was barely combed, his face was unshaven, and he looked not so much as dirty but as simply unwashed. “A schlump,” his mother would have remarked. “Unclean. Treyf.” And the unshaven man was trying to hit on, make time with, get into the pants of – Gerald couldn’t think of the exactly the right phrase – a forty-ish woman who was trying to pass for half her age. He looked them over; maybe he was being too obvious. He saw that she was also coatless, but she refused to shiver. She had on a black tank top, a short woolen skirt and black “shtup me” boots. He was repulsed by the badly-dyed black hair which hung over her bare shoulders and the cigarette dangling from her fingers. The odor of the woman’s too-sweet perfume, commingling with the smokiness emanating from her, drifted by him. Gerald chuckled to himself, but then felt a rush of pity when he realized that all these two out-of-sync people were trying to do was to make a connection.

The traffic light changed and the red DON’T WALK hand changed to white. Gerald was so absorbed in the scene that he did not immediately start to cross. His presence was noticed by the playboy wannabe, who stared at him menacingly with a “whatcha lookin’ at?” glare. Their silent interchange was not lost on the woman, who smiled coyly at her newest squeeze-to-be, flicked her cigarette onto the sidewalk, and took his arm to lead him back into the bar.

Gerald continued on his way past Wickham’s Florist, U-FIX-IT Hardware, the Thrifty Liquors store, Tony’s Pizza, and A Cut Above Most – a unisex hair salon. Gerald stopped to watch a short, squat, olive-skinned woman, with two small children – one in a rickety stroller, and the other holding on to the handle – who was jiggling a key in the lock of a nondescript wooden door. He’d always wondered about the people who lived in the apartments above the stores; he thought of them as somehow beneath him. When the woman finally pushed the door open, she looked back at Gerald with wariness and suspicion, with eyes that spoke of dead-end poverty and hopelessness. Gerald peered inside the dimly lit, dingy green hallway, and the stairway beyond as she struggled to maneuver the stroller over the door jamb. She grabbed her child’s hand and yanked him inside, and brusquely slammed the door behind her. Gerald stood there for a few moments, wondering what the hell was that all about? He shook his head as much from the silent confrontation as from the realization about how different his family’s situation was to hers. And then he continued on.

On the next block there was a vacuum cleaner store, a stationery store with a cardboard sign in the window, advertising “50% off card” – no “s,” he noticed, a cellular phone store, a drug store that had recently closed, with its windows now glass-waxed over, and then a dry cleaners. A 24-hour gas station was on the opposite corner next to a check-cashing place. After that were the auto businesses – an auto parts store, a used-car dealer, a tire store, an empty lot gone to seed where a burnt-out apartment building once stood, and then the Harley Davidson motorcycle dealer. He was drawn into the showroom.

The motorcycles looked malevolent to him, like angry steeds poised to attack. In the front window was the most domineering motorcycle Gerald had ever seen – a dark purple and chrome beast. Gerald walked in, went over to it, and picked up the tag attached to the handlebar: “2011 Electra Glide Ultra Limited, 1700 cc, 6-speed transmission” along with other features and specifications. The price, $23,699, had a pencil-line through it.

“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” A gaunt man, with thick glasses and tattooed arms, approached him. “It’s the Electra Glide Ultra. Top of the line.”

“Twenty three thousand?” Gerald asked.

“Yeah, and worth every penny. I can get it for you in black or cherry red, apple green or that one, which they call psychedelic purple. Whatever you want.”

“I’m really only looking.”

“The Ultra’s on sale. This weekend only. I can give you a great deal on the oh-elevens.”

“It’s really a lot of money. And I’d like to take a look at some of the others.”

“Well, look all you want. I’ll be here if you need me.”

As Gerald turned away, the salesman added, “After, all, I’ve got no where else to be. Until nine P M, that is.”

The salesman snickered as he retreated, but not too far. Gerald looked at a silver motorcycle. The tag read: “2012 Sportster XRL1200X, 1200 cc, ESPFI, $11,799.” Its price, too, was penciled through.

“ESPFI?” Gerald asked.

“Yeah ... Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection. That bike’s a new model, just came out last year.” The salesman had sidled up next to him. “But this one’s a two thousand and twelve. Fast. It’ll blow your socks right off. You want to sit on her?”

“No, not really.”

“C’mon. Try ‘er out.”

“No.” Gerald started to raise his voice. “I just want to look.”

“Okay, okay. Looking’s free.” The salesman started to back away. “My name’s Sal, by the way.”

“Yeah. Hi.”

“Just yell out, ‘Hey, Sal!’ and I’ll help you with anything.”

Gerald checked out the other models. A black, “take no prisoners”-looking 2011 Fat Boy Low, 1600 cc, $16,299. A bright blue 2011 Softail Deluxe touring motorcycle – Gerald had always coveted one of those. This model was “only” – Jesus, only! – $17,174. The least expensive one he saw, an Iron 883 in red, was $7999. Eight thousand dollars! But Gerald started to picture himself, in a black leather jacket and heavy boots, winding through hairpin turns, speeding along country roads with gusts of leaves in his wake, barreling down the expressway, passing SUV’s and eighteen-wheelers, and weaving between dead-stopped lanes of traffic on the Grand Central Parkway on the way to and from work.

Gerald lost himself in his reverie, day dreaming in the evening, searching and yearning for escape, for something – for anything – else. Yes, he could certainly picture himself on any one of these, but they were all much more expensive than he thought they would be, and much more than he could ever afford. Unless … He tried to do a quick mental arithmetic calculation. And then there was Mona and the kids and the house and the … goddamit! – everything. Gerald’s heart sank, and he felt as if the wind were knocked right out of him.

“See anything you want? Something you can drive away right now? Tonight?” Sal was hovering nearby again.

As if it were so easy. “Yeah. I see a lotta things I’d like. But …” Gerald felt choked up and trapped.

“So what’s the problem, man? We got good financing deals. A relationship with a friendly” – Sal winked – “insurance company. And, of course, great customer service.” Sal bowed and then smiled broadly at Gerald. His crooked teeth caught Gerald’s attention. But more, Gerald was put off by Sal’s cloying manner and ingratiating demeanor, which accentuated his desperation to make a sale in the motorcycle business’s off-season.

“It’s not only the money,” Gerald replied. “I don’t know what my wife would say.”

“Oh. You got one of those.”

“No. It’s not like that. She’s really not one of those. It’s that, I ... uh, … just can’t. I just don’t know. I’m not in a position to ...”

With that, there was a quantum shift in Gerald’s thinking. The realization that Mona was not one of “those” started to worm into his consciousness, soon followed by the gut-punching epiphany of absolute certainty. Mona was warm and soft and devoted. She was his wife, his lover, his besheret – his soul-mate. And, of course, the mother of their children. Gerald felt a swelling of guilt, and then, of all-encompassing regret.

“Listen, Sal. I’ve gotta get out of here.”

“Yeah, right. Whatever,” Sal said with a sneer. “Here … take my card. Come back when you’re ready to buy.”

Humiliated by the abrupt dismissal, but thrilled by his own discovery, Gerald grabbed a brochure and slipped it into his back pocket as he left the showroom. As he made his way back along Central Avenue, past the auto parts store, the “50% off card” stationery, the pizza joint, the bar and the nail place, he felt a spreading sense of calmness and contentment and a renewed sense of resolve that intensified as he strode up Van Nostrand and then down the hill on his way back to Arlington Road.

Gerald could not avoid noticing the piece of cardboard taped over the missing pane as he unlocked the front door. The house was still and quiet, except for the hum of the dishwasher. Mona must have already put the children to bed. Gerald locked the front door and set the dead bolt.

As he walked up the stairs, his skin felt clammy. Sweat dripped down his face. He was exhausted, but exhilarated. He unknotted his sweatshirt and then opened the bedroom door. Mona was in bed, reading. She turned to look up at him. It was obvious that she had been crying.

Gerald was still panting. He took a few deep breaths, shook his head and put his hands out in a gesture of supplication. And then he said, “Mona … I’m really sorry.”

He had expected Mona to blurt out a nasty “Well, I’m sorry, too!” but she held it in. He had expected her to scream at him, to cross-examine him, to demean him. But all she said was, “I heard you come in.”

“The window …”

Mona put her hand up to shush him. She patted the mattress, allowing him to sit down on edge of the bed next to her.

A few moments passed. “Uh, listen, Mona … about what happened …”

“Not tonight, Ger. Okay?”

“But I’ve got to explain …”

“C’mon, Ger. I just can’t deal with any of that right now.”

Gerald took another deep breath and let it out slowly. He felt spent.

They sat side by side in silence. He wanted to put his hand around her and on her shoulder, but he was afraid that she might shrug it off.

Gerald waited until Mona finally broke the silence. “Ger … you hungry? You want something to eat? I can heat up some pot roast for you.”

“Yeah. That sounds really good.”

“Then why don’t you go take a shower. I’ll be downstairs in the meantime.”

Gerald and Mona stood up at the same time, almost knocking each other over. He reached out and took her hand to stop her from losing her balance. She paused for a moment, glanced into his eyes, and then gently but firmly squeezed his hand – a silent affirmation that, despite all of their mishegas – their own brand of craziness – she still loved him and cared deeply about him.

For tonight, at least, that meant everything.

Rev 21 / June 20, 2005 .. Updated & Rev 24 September 23, 2011
-- Appeared in Grassroots Reflections Issue 21, November 2011

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September 2011…Copyright © 2011, Lloyd B. Abrams
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