by Jacob M. Appel
[T]o celebrate her sixtieth birthday—she is now older than her parents when they died—my mother asks to take a daytrip. She has okayed it with the shrinks, she says. Dr. Fradkin agrees a twelve-hour pass will do her good. “His first name’s Monty. Monty Fradkin. He’s quite a good looking young man,” says my mother. “If you were to ask me, I’d say he’d make a wonderful father for the baby.”
“Does Dr. Fradkin know where you want me to take you?” I ask. “I’d snap him up myself, Lydia—only they have rules against that. So the headshrinkers don’t take advantage of us, even if we want to be taken advantage of. One man’s professional boundaries are another woman’s enforced celibacy. Did you ever hear such nonsense? I’m suicidal, not syphilitic.”
“I asked you a question, Mom. Does the doctor know where you want to go?”
“He’s an open-minded man,” says my mother. “If he did know, he’d approve.”
We’re sitting on one of the cast iron benches that line the footpath between Red Brick Cottage II and Red Brick Cottage III. Abington Manor feels more like a university campus than a psychiatric facility: waves of jonquils rising through beds of red woodchips, a Gothic revival chapel where the bells peal on the hour. Ten weeks have passed since my mother tried to drown her-self—long enough for the ice sheath to melt off Long Island Sound. The firemen who rescued her are now battling brushfires along the interstate. Jay Bergman, the veterinary student responsible for my positive pregnancy test, is dating a city planner. My mother has already worked her way up to “level three privileges,” meaning she may explore the grounds without supervision. The tranquility is killing her slowly.
“Trust me, darling,” she insists. “This is important. Someday I won’t be around anymore and then you’ll have all sorts of questions. What will you tell the baby when she asks about her great-grandparents?”
“Babies don’t ask questions,” I say. “They can’t talk.”
My quip takes my mother by surprise. She’s the clever one, the scalpel-tongued theater critic who dismisses two-hour Broadway productions with mordant, single-word reviews. I’m just a yoga instructor. While she plays dramatic executioner on the morn-ing talk shows, I adjust big-boned women into the lotus position. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy what I do. Unlike most of my friends, I haven’t yet reached that point where I’m counting on my chil-dren to make up for my mistakes. But I’m no match for my mother at repartee. When it comes to verbal sparring, she’s Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson all rolled into one—and does she know it!
“I’ll make you a deal,” says my mother. “You do this for me and I’ll test Dr. Fradkin out for you. Rules or no rules. How’s that?”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” I say.
Since her divorce, my mother has grown obsessed with her own past: visiting the New Haven bus station where she first met my father, tracking down her classmates from the Hawthorne School for Girls and from Radcliff. It’s as though she’s researching her own obituary. Today, she wants to return to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx—to show me where her parents died.
“I do not understand you, Lydia.” My mother lowers her voice to a whisper—but it is the peremptory, nun-like whisper that always makes me feel like a changeling. “I do not pretend to understand you,” she says. “What sort of girl wouldn’t want to know about her own grandparents?”
“Can’t you just tell me about them?”
“That’s like telling someone about heartbreak,” answers my mother. “Some things you have to experience first-hand.”
I concede there are some things one does have to experience first-hand: love, sex, pregnancy. But the deaths of my grandpar-ents? To me, Sid and Adele Landau are black-and-white strangers lounging on the beach at Far Rockaway. He is bare-chested and paunchy; her stout face is frozen in eternal laughter. They are both voiceless, utterly without personality. Nothing can make them real. Yet I do want answers. I want to know what drives a healthy, viva-cious woman to jump off a jetty in the middle of winter—and that means driving my mother down a lane of bad memories.
“I’ll leave all my razor blades and pills at home,” she offers. “Even my shoelaces, if that makes you more comfortable.”
“I give up,” I say. “You win.”
My mother leans over and kisses me on the forehead. “Good girl,” she says, as though complimenting a parrot.
I am thinking of the baby. They say a fetus can absorb knowl-edge in the womb, that you should play her Mozart and Haydn. Instead, my daughter will explore the South Bronx—and absorb what? The staccato of gunfire?
She’ll be one tough baby. If I decide to keep her, that is.
The Grand Concourse, once the Champs-Elysées of the Bronx, is now lined with Spanish-speaking travel agencies and discount tax preparers and storefront dentists advertising no cash down. Every block boasts a barbershop and a corner bodega. On any other street, these small businesses would suggest communal energy and a revitalizing entrepreneurial spirit—but the Concourse is too wide, too stately, maybe even too arrogant to reinvent itself as a commercial strip. Placards announcing 24-hr BBQ or promot-ing “ultra-sizzlin” R&B albums seem out of place beside the Art Deco facades and crenelated roofs unchanged since the days of Joe DiMaggio. The neighborhood is thriving, yet as much a ruin as Petra or Pompeii.
We park at a metered space. While I fish in my purse for quar-ters, my mother lights a cigarette. “That’s the spot right there,” she says. “In front of the firehouse.”
“Okay,” I say. What else is there to say? Engine Company No. 7 / Ladder Company No. 128 appears no different from any other fire station. If not for the memorial to the firefighters who died on 9-11—a bronze plaque, Polaroid snapshots, yellow ribbons—this could easily be our local firehouse in West Salem. The flag flutters at half-mast: I imagine some public servant has died in the line of duty, but not someone I know. Both sets of red garage doors are closed. There is no public symbol to mark my grandfather’s place of death.
“He had a heart attack, right?” I ask.
“On the way back from the candy store,” says my mother. “That was forty-one years ago, remember. They didn’t move people back then. The firemen just stood around and watched.”
“That’s awful,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
I’m suddenly conscious that we’re two well-dressed white women on a street where two well-dressed white women are rarely seen. Pedestrians look us over as they go by, none too friendly. An obese Black woman pushing twins in a baby carriage pauses directly in front of us. She has ample room to pass. Instead, she waits for me to step aside—and I do. “We ain’t no tourist attraction,” she grumbles.
“Good old Bronx charm,” says my mother. “Different color, same attitude.”
“We’ve seen the place,” I say. “Ready to go?”
A lanky, copper-skinned old man steps into our conversation. He has enormous flounder eyes and is wearing a felt hat. “Don’t you be afraid, ladies,” he says. “The Bronx is the safest place in New York.”
I step backwards, wrapping my hands around my purse.
The man grins. “Nobody gonna fly no airplanes into the Concourse.”
In spite of myself, I smile. The man introduces himself as Doc-tor Ed. “Like the talking horse,” he says. “Only doctor.”
“We were actually just leaving,” I say.
“Of course, lady. But if you want, I’ll be glad to show you around. Take you inside the buildings, maybe—where you once lived. Best one-man tour on skid row.”
“Thank you,” I say. “Maybe another time.”
“Sure thing. I’ll be right here. Doctor Ed—though I’m not no medical doctor.”
He tips his hat at each of us.
“My father died here,” says my mother. “Right where you’re standing.”
“I’m sorry, lady,” the man answers, removing his hat.
“Let’s go, Mom,” I say.
“Not yet. I want to go inside.”
That’s when I first notice a door at the side of the firehouse. It is slightly elevated—like a casket door—with a red milk crate serving as a stair. Ailanthus trees and sumac poke though the surrounding concrete. My mother crosses the sidewalk quickly and enters the building; I have no choice but to follow.
“We shouldn’t be in here,” I say.
“It’s a public building,” says my mother. “I’m the public.” The interior of the firehouse is dim and clammy, more suited
for sea lions or walruses than firemen. We encounter several desks stacked high with manila folders, but no fire poles, no Dalma-tians, not even a fire extinguisher. The fireman who finally stops us has round glasses and a bristly auburn mustache—he looks like a walrus.
“Can I help you?” he asks.
“It’s too late for that,” snaps my mother. “You should have thought of that forty-one years ago.”
Fireman Walrus smiles, puzzled. “What’s that?”
“We didn’t mean to disturb you,” I apologize. “My mother’s father died here. She just wanted to see the place.”
The fireman’s features soften. “I’m really sorry,” he says. “Please take a look around.” He fingers his mustache. “What years was he on the force?”
“I was unclear,” I say. “He wasn’t a fireman. He died outside. On the sidewalk.”
“You should have helped him,” says my mother. “You should have tried.”
“Please, Mom. That was four decades ago. It’s not this man’s fault.”
I offer the fireman my most remorseful look. He has folded his arms across his expansive chest and is no longer smiling.
“Then it’s his father’s fault,” says my mother. “Or his uncle’s. They’re all related, you know.”
My mother does not realize that she is embarrassing herself— embarrassing us both. But I can’t say much without appearing disloyal and embarrassing us further.
“I can’t let you stay here,” says Fireman Walrus.
In response, my mother turns and walks out. When I catch up, I take her hand and steer her towards my car.
Doctor Ed is now sitting on a nearby stoop. “Tell me something, ladies,” he calls out. “Are you two Jewish people?”
I pick up my pace. My mother stops walking.
“Yes, we are,” she says. “Are you?”
“I got nothing against the Jewish peoples,” says Doctor Ed. “Abe Lincoln was Jewish, you know, and he done freed my ancestors.”
“I didn’t know,” says my mother.
“Yes, ma’am. He was shot in the temple.”
This is too much. “I’m exhausted,” I say. “Let’s go home.” “We’re only halfway done, Lydia. Don’t you want to know about your grandmother?”
I’m tempted to say: No! I don’t give a damn about my grand-mother. Which—in some respects—is true. How can I connect with the death of a woman I’ve never met?
“Let’s walk,” says my mother. “For old times sake.” I look over my shoulder. Doctor Ed is following us.
“I think you should find a fireman,” my mother says to me. “Firemen make good fathers—they’re good at carrying things. But not that one. He wasn’t very friendly.”
My mother’s old building occupies an entire city block north of 175th Street. It is named for an obscure signer of the Declaration of Independence. Across the street are a bingo parlor that was formerly an Orthodox synagogue, and a one-time movie theater whose marquee now reads: “Coming Soon: Jesus Christ.” In the traffic island, an ancient, pasty woman feeds crusts to the pigeons and grackles. Long gone are the crimson sidewalk-carpet and the satin-gloved doormen.
An officer of the Housing Police guards the porte-cochère. He is reading a copy of the New York Post.
My mother surveys the buzzer panel. She presses the button for 11J decisively.
She presses the button again. I feel like a push-in robber—and an incompetent one at that. A female voice answers through the intercom: “Whatever it is, I don’t want it. No me molesta!”
This does not faze my mother. “Bronx charm,” she explains. She approaches the housing cop. “Excuse me,” she says. “I used
to live here.”
The officer looks up indifferently. He is much younger than I am.
“Would you mind letting us in?” asks my mother.
“These are private apartments,” he says. “Can’t help you.” “My mother died here,” continues my mother. “On the eleventh
“Tenants and their guests only,” he answers. He must feel this isn’t enough, because he adds: “Look, those are the rules.”
Without warning, I feel a hand on my back. Doctor Ed has wrapped one arm around my shoulders, the other around my mothers’. “It’s okay, Carlos,” he says. “They’re with me. Right, ladies?”
Our elderly guide removes a Rolodex of keys from his slacks.
He tries several before one opens the interior door.
“My tours are famous,” he says. “Better than Hollywood. You ladies wanna see where Uncle Miltie grew up? Where Steve Law-rence met Eydie Gorme?”
“I want to see where Mama died,” says my mother.
“Sure thing,” agrees our guide. “Yessiree.”
While we wait for the elevator, Doctor Ed tells us that as a kid he once met Charlie Keller. I have never heard of Charlie Keller, the outfielder who replaced Babe Ruth, but our guide is enormously impressed—as though he’s had an audience with the pope. It crosses my mind that our pathfinder may have been drinking.
The elevator jolts as it passes each landing. The eleventh floor stinks of stale tobacco.
Doctor Ed knocks on the door of apartment J. “Open sesame,” he says.
We hear several bolts turn and a sliver of face appears at a crack in the door. A female voice demands: “Qué quiere?”
“I got some white folks here who used to live in your apart-ment,” says our guide. “They’ll pay you fifty bucks for a look around.”
I should be angry that our guide is so fast and loose with my money—fifty dollars is an hour of yoga instruction—but I’m actu-ally grateful he hasn’t offered more. I could easily be out five hun-dred dollars, even five thousand.
Doctor Ed steps away from the door so the tenant can see us.
I feel her eyes evaluating—as though this were a police line-up.
“My mother’s been sick,” I say. “She wants to see where she grew up. Just for a minute or two.”
“Okay,” says the woman. “But money first.”
Our guide holds out his hand and I pass him five tens. He slides them through the gap in the door. A moment later, it shuts com-pletely so the woman can undo the chain. I suspect she has also concealed the money.
“I live here only four years,” says the woman. “I not know the historía.”
She is round-faced, large-breasted—probably my age, but not well put-together. Her upper lip could use waxing, and premature
118 miracles and conundrums of the secondary planets
gray tufts of hair protrude above her ears. She is visibly pregnant. In the sunken living room, two pudgy toddlers are watching televi-sion cartoons. The reception is poor.
“My daughter’s also pregnant,” announced my mother.
The woman smiles—now we have a bond. “Do you have a date yet?” she asks.
“Not for a while,” I say.
“I’m Jeca,” she says. “My baby, she’s gonna be Jasmín.”
My mother has crossed into the adjacent dining room. “I hardly recognize anything,” she says. “There used to be a mahogany table here. That’s where Papa did the shock therapy.”
“My grandfather was a psychiatrist,” I explain. “A long time ago.” “A famous psychiatrist,” adds my mother. “He was an expert on
bereavement. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“I think we’ve seen enough,” I say.
“Whatever you wish, lady,” says Doctor Ed. “But you might as well get your money’s worth.”
Maybe our hostess feels guilty about taking cash from another expecting mother, because she adds: “Would you like to see the bedrooms?”
“No,” I say.
“Yes,” says my mother.
Doctor Ed and I stand in the doorway while Jeca leads my mother around the larger of the bedrooms. This must be where my grandparents slept. Our hostess has redecorated in pink and grey. Dozens of baby pictures frame the bureau mirror. A stuffed elephant rests on the bedspread. I sense this plush animal belongs to Jeca, not to the boys in the living room.
My mother walks to the closet. “May I?”
Jeca nods and my mother draws open the double doors, expos-ing a crammed wardrobe and several rows of shoes.
“There,” says my mother. “That’s where she did it.” “Did what?” asks out hostess.
I don’t know the answer—but I suddenly suspect it.
“Right from that beam,” continues my mother. “With Papa’s belt.”
“I do not understand,” says Jeca.
My mother stiffens. “All right,” she says. “Enough.”
She does not thank our hostess, makes no effort to explain. She merely walks out of the apartment and down the stairs to the street. I am not sure whether I want to cry or throw up. I’m not yet prepared to connect the stout, jolly woman from the Far Rockaway beach with this musty, cramped closet.
Our guide pats my arm. “It’s okay,” he says.
His tenderness surprises me.
“You go home,” he says. “It’ll make better sense there.” “Thank you,” I say. “And for everything.” We wait for the elevator.
I have no small bills left in my change purse, only twenties. I probably have another ten buried among my emery boards and cold remedies, but I don’t want to empty out my pocketbook in a sketchy apartment corridor. Nor do I feel right asking our guide to make change.
“Here you go,” I say. “We appreciate it.”
Doctor Ed frowns. “What makes you think I want your money? Just because I’m a skid row drunk doesn’t mean I ask for handouts.”
Then he reaches for the bill and pockets it quickly.
He flashes his teeth. “But if you insist,” he says.
When I reach the street, my mother starts walking. I accompany her up the boulevard—away from our car. We don’t speak. Eventually, we cross Fordham Road and my mother ducks into a dingy coffee shop. The building used to house a bank. An engraving on the granite façade warns: “If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher’s stone.” Beneath it, another sign advertises the adjacent smut shop: “Ask about our chocolate body topping.” We slide into a secluded booth across from a revolving case of colorful desserts. I know they look better than they taste.
Still, my mother says nothing. A teenage girl at the opposite table is eating alone, periodically rocking a baby in a stroller.
“Mom?” I say.
“That wasn’t the right apartment.” My mother’s eyes are icy. “Your grandmother did hang herself in the bedroom closet after Papa died—but not that closet.”
“But you said 11J . . .”
“I got confused, I guess.”
“What do you mean you got confused?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I knew it was wrong the moment I walked in . . .”
My mother’s hands are resting on the tabletop. Her skin is blotchy, her knuckles twisted and knobby like tree knots. She dabs the corners of her eyes with a paper napkin—the first time, I real-ize, I’ve ever seen her cry.
“I just don’t know, Lydia,” she says. “It was the most important place in my entire life and now I can’t even find it . . .”
The busboy slaps two water glasses in front of us. He pulls a pair of glossy menus from his apron. At the next table, the teenager is cradling her baby in her arms.
“Maybe I should marry a busboy,” I say. “They’re good at carry-ing things.”
I intend this to be a joke—but my mother doesn’t smile.
“I thought the baby would make me better,” she says. “I wanted to be better for the baby . . .”
“Look, Mom,” I say. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but . . . there isn’t going to be a baby.”
I shake my head. “No baby.”
“I thought you had a check-up . . . tests . . .” “I got confused too,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
And I am sorry—sorrier than she can imagine—but what choice do I have? I can’t tell her that it is her fault that there will be no baby— that I can’t care for both my mother and a new daughter at once. At least, not alone. Not yet. Maybe someone else could: someone stronger, braver—someone like my mother. But not me. I reach across the table and clasp her dry hand. “There never was a baby,” I say. My words sound decisive; I have almost convinced myself.
“But there has to be a baby,” insists my mother.
The baby at the next table begins to cry.
My mother draws back her hand. “What’s the point if there’s no baby?”
I do not have time to answer—if an answer exists. My mother springs suddenly from the booth and yanks the sobbing child from the startled teenagers arms. The girl cries out as though slashed with glass. My mother darts toward the door.
“Mi bebe!” shouts the girl. “Ayudame! Mi bebe! My baby!” Without warning, she jumps on me. She is shouting and cursing
in Spanish—demanding the return of her child. I feel clumps of hair being pulled from my scalp. In a surge of blind frenzy, I swing her off me.
Outside is a battle zone. Two patrol cars are already on the scene. An engine from the local firehouse pulls up just as I exit the coffee shop. Fireman Walrus is perched on one of the running boards.
My mother is kneeling beside a fire hydrant. She has lost one of her shoes. Her legs jut out at unnatural angles, leaking blood and tissue onto the concrete. Miraculously, the baby appears uninjured by her fall. The child is actually smiling. My mother is also smiling. Both seem utterly oblivious to the sirens, the shouting, the circle of onlookers who dare not approach.
I follow my mother’s ambulance back to Abington Manor. The girl has agreed not to press charges—her baby is unharmed. She has limited bargaining power: I have a large, bloody gash at the base of my skull and deep scratch marks beneath my eyes. Besides, I’ve promised medical checkups for both her and the baby. My mother will have to help me with the finances. There is no other option.
So what now?
We are the lead story on the local radio news: “In a bizarre inci-dent this afternoon . . .”
Once my mother is safely ensconced at Abington, I drive aim-lessly back toward the Concourse.
The Bronx seems more itself at night. A light rain is falling and the streets are nearly deserted. It is possible to look down the bou-levard and to imagine the Concourse in all of its lost glory. I can imagine my grandparents, arm in arm, wishing good evening to a white-gloved doorman and strolling up the street for a cup of coffee. But it is impossible to imagine what they are talking about, how they say it, who they were . . .
I pull up in front of the dingy coffee shop. It is nearly midnight. I can see through the plate glass that the dive has few customers: a couple of men in blue sanitation uniforms chatting at the counter. Even the dessert case has stopped spinning.
The sidewalk outside is now quiet. Hosed down, littered up. Nothing distinguishes this corner from any other city corner, this fire hydrant from any other fire hydrant. I stand under the pink streetlight and sob—for my mother and for my grandmother—in a place that already matters to nobody except for me.
from Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets (Black Lawrence Press 2015)