THE ARTIST AS AN OLD MAN
by Benjamin Haimowitz
For eleven years since the shaking caused by Parkinson’s disease made life at home with him impossible, Steven’s grandfather had been in a facility for the chronically diseased uptown in the Bronx. The old man, bent, emaciated, hands trembling, fly half-open, stains on his cheap, wrinkled cotton pants, his speech reduced to a toothless mumbling that even his wife and son deciphered with difficulty – Steven was too young to remember anything beyond that pathetic figure. For sure the weekly Sunday visits with his father to the chronic-disease facility were the low point of the day, and, for that matter, the week, but his father never gave him any choice on whether to go or not.
Underlying the basic unpleasantness of a place where everyone was sick and almost everyone was old was an uneasiness centering on his grandfather himself. Here was the dismal culmination of a morality tale, the bitter fruit of a life spent in the pursuit of fame (limited though it was) and pleasure, with little regard for the welfare of his family or perhaps for anyone outside himself. To the extent that young Steven had sinned – and there were sins aplenty – the weekly visit to his grandfather only served to amplify whatever guilt or disquiet he might feel on his own.
Steven’s dim view of his only grandfather (his mother’s father having died before he was born) was hardly the boy’s own creation: his parents had never made a secret of their disdain for grandpa Jacob – all the more now that disease had so thoroughly undone him. There would be stories over the dinner table of others who had faced Parkinson’s with courage, even continuing to work at their jobs, where grandpa had become so demoralized by his shaking that he quickly became impossible to live with. Tales came back of visitors flocking to the apartment with chocolates and books and pep talks only to have their good intentions met with moaning, tears, and outright insults.
And this was only the most recent instance of life-long moral failings. He had never held a job, and, aside from the pittance earned from his books and articles in the Yiddish press, and occasional winnings at cards or chess, he never made anything resembling a decent living. Instead he was content to be supported by his wife, who toiled long hours at garment-district sewing machines, and his son, who managed all manner of jobs while attending high school and tuition-free CCNY.
Still, Steven’s father was able to summon up some measure of wry humor in describing what was once grandpa’s typical day. Wife and son would have been on their way for hours when he would rise and, after a leisurely breakfast, take out an old hand iron and press his suit on the kitchen table along with a shirt he had washed the day before. He would then wash and hang up yesterday’s shirt for the morrow, polish his shoes, and dress. Sometime around noon he would collect the change his wife had left for him and head for the downtown El, procuring on credit the Yiddish paper from a corner newsstand. It would often be long after wife and son had retired for the night that he would return home, if he returned at all, for there were days and sometimes weeks when he did not.
A favorite joke of Steven’s father was of Orthodox Jews on their way at daybreak to morning prayer who happen to look through the window of the Café Aristocrat, a favorite downtown haunt of grandpa’s, where some men are playing cards. The Orthodox prayer-goers shake their heads in wonder. How amazing, one of them says, that men would get up so early in the morning to play cards.
Thus did humor help lighten the Sunday visits to grandpa. And sometimes acquaintances from what was left of the Yiddish downtown world would visit. They would bring oranges and chocolates and a pile of recent Yiddish newspapers and magazines, and they would pull their chairs up close to grandpa, and, leaning in so that their lips almost touched his ear, convey the latest news and gossip. But except for an occasional inquiry about someone they mentioned, the old man had next to nothing to say. Then it would be over. They would have told him whatever there was to tell, and he had shown little interest, and now there was nothing for them to do except sit around with a faintly embarrassed air for the rest of the afternoon. It was Steven’s father who came to their rescue, not merely out of politeness but because he was genuinely interested in their work.
“I overheard you telling pop that you’re editing some translations of T.S. Eliot, Mr. Friedman,” and Mr. Friedman would gratefully leaf through the newspapers and magazine he had brought until he found the one with the T.S. Eliot translations, and would then point out where he had encountered difficulties because of the translator’s uncertain knowledge of English and would watch solicitously as Steven’s father, whose knowledge of Yiddish was somewhat patchy and of T.S. Eliot even patchier, would struggle through a translation.
Grandma Sonya, whose Yiddish was not at all patchy but to whom T.S. Eliot meant nothing, was invariably very deferential with the literary gentlemen, making much ado about getting chairs for them, or, if there were no extra chairs, yielding her own. Hardly had they left when she would arrange the newspapers and magazines in a little pile and bury them in the old man’s bottom drawer with all the unread newspapers and magazine from previous visits: that expressed her view of them. Still, there would be other visitors a month or two later, and they would always pay homage to her husband in a way that she should not help but find pleasing. They would ask Steven if he was going to be like his grandfather when he grew up, and Steven’s father would say he hoped not, and they, genuinely surprised, would ask why, why. So would admiration for the old man sometimes come to dominate these afternoons.
Of greater help in leavening the visits was the hospital’s day room with its big black-and-white TV, where Steven could catch bits of the Sunday ballgames, and helping too was the prospect of better hours ahead. For at 3:30 or thereabouts Steven’s father would seek out the Rumanian nursing attendant Hugo, whom grandpa had been pestering him all afternoon to tip, bestow on grandpa a parting kiss on the cheek, and prepare for departure. For Steven this meant the second of two rituals that defined these afternoons. The first, at the start of the visit, was satisfying grandpa’s desire to feel his muscle, and the second, at parting, was the handshake. Grandpa’s grip would tighten on Steven’s with surprising force, and, Steven would try to free himself, but, as he pulled away, the grip would tighten even more, the old man’s lean jaw elongating into a wolfish grin, as, shaking with silent laughter, he drove Steven to summon the will to press back. It was as if the old man had saved up all week for that handshake.
Then they would take their leave, the three of them walking the several blocks to the small apartment that had been home since the family moved from Harlem a few years after the birth of Steven’s father. It was a tidy, though small, three-room unit on the ground floor of a tenement, at the end of a narrow hall so dimly lit that one had to grope the last few steps to the apartment. The door opened to an almost equally dark vestibule, but beyond that was the brightness of the biggest of the apartment’s three rooms, the kitchen, with its dense array of house plants on a table by the window. There were no rugs or carpets, the floor covering of the entire three rooms consisting of linoleum. To the left was a small bedroom and to the right a somewhat larger living room with a featureless, narrow bed along one wall where Steven’s father had once slept. Behind an armchair and floor lamp was a glassed-in bookcase, in which almost all the books, including, of course, those written by grandpa, were in Yiddish. On the wall were some sketches, one a loosely drawn pen and black ink of grandpa by one of the downtown crowd and the others pencil portraits that grandpa had done, presumably of one or another of that crowd, for there were none of Steven’s father or grandmother. They were all so sparsely drawn that when Steven stood in the center of the room and looked from one to another, he could hardly distinguish them, but moving closer would suddenly bring the subjects’ features to life. There was also a striking photograph from the old country of young people posed not as a group but as individuals, as was the custom in those parts, and finally there was one that Steven found himself drawn to, a pencil sketch in color of a castle, the gates and moats and turrets and flags all depicted with precision but aery as a dream, the castle occupying only the central third of the paper and all else left white, a whiteness that the artist must have considered as worthy of display as the castle itself.
In sum, the room was a little museum that for the past eleven years had lacked the presence of the man whose works, literary and artistic, were on display here and whose current condition was a far cry from their creator’s.
Of his talents there were no doubts. Whatever he tried he did well – whether writing or drawing or tailoring or playing chess and pinochle or just making talk. According to Steven’s father, the closest he ever came to a real job was in the old country, where his father had a tailor shop and put him to work early on. In addition to whatever tailoring skills the father possessed was a talent that his son evidently inherited – an ability to palm off work on others – for, when the boy quickly showed a facility at tailoring, his father began handing over jobs to him that customers were under the impression he was doing himself. As much as anything, it must have been this exploitation that determined him to break out, added to the fact that his mother had died when he was a toddler, and his father having remarried, he found himself in a household of stepbrothers and stepsisters. Escape came via marriage to grandma Sonya, whose family was even more peasant-like than his own but harbored plans of leaving for America, to which at the start of the new century they embarked.
Perhaps because it was the closest he ever came to a real job or because it was so tangible, grandpa’s tailoring skills seemed to impress Steven’s father more than any of the talents on display in the living room. Grandpa would come home with a suit he had bought downtown and would proceed to remake it right on the kitchen table. No matter that he never put those same skills to work on behalf of his wife’s or son’s garments; to Steven’s father the sartorial transformations he witnessed on that kitchen table seemed to rouse his wonder more than anything else the old man did.
But what about the books? There they stood behind the glass door of the bookcase in dull brown bindings with gold letters in a language Steven didn’t have a clue about. What kind of books were they? Were they any good? The little Steven knew about grandpa’s literary tastes was that he had a liking for Dumas, so that his father was eager to keep the old man abreast of Steven’s enthusiasm for The Three Musketeers trilogy and The Count of Monte Cristo, to which grandpa would respond with nods of approval. As for grandpa’s own books, of which there were about a half dozen, Steven gathered that they were a mix of novels, stories, and essays. Early on, grandpa was associated with writers that collectively were known as the Yunge whose work focused on life in the New World and represented a break with the Old World focus of earlier writers.
What fascinated Steven more, though, was that grandpa had written a historical novel having to do with Jesus, which, to a Jewish boy growing up in a largely Irish neighborhood, seemed very strange. While feeling the sting of anti-Semitism only rarely, Steven was always aware of a gap between him and his friends. Adding to it was the fact that, much to his regret, they all went to parochial school instead of the public school that he attended.
Given the gap, given the difference, why would grandpa write a book about Jesus? It seemed very strange, almost a betrayal.
Questions about grandpa’s career always seemed to irritate Steven’s father, who forbore enough to explain that it wasn’t really a book about Jesus, who is only seen at a distance, but was mainly about Jews who lived in the holy land at that time.
And what was the point of the book?
“Now you’re asking questions.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I’d have to go back and reread it, which I don’t intend to do.” Then an odd little smile made its appearance and with a lilting sarcasm, he added: “What I do remember – and you won’t want to let this out to your friends – to Tommy Dolan or Bernie Farrell or Jimmy Walsh – is that the book takes a rather sympathetic view of Judas Iscariot.”
Judas! The Biblical name that popped up more than any other among Steven’s friends. He certainly wouldn’t let this out!
Not that the hour or so Steven and his father spent at grandma’s following the weekly visit to the hospital was taken up with discussions of grandpa’s works and days. Mostly it was grandma fussing over the two of them, as they devoured walnuts and almonds and pecans and other nuts Steven didn’t know the names of followed by cookies and tea. Maybe there would be a few hands of casino with grandma, and then they would leave, heading west six or seven blocks to within a few blocks of the Grand Concourse, where Steven’s other grandma lived, and where his mother would meet them. This was no cramped little apartment at the end of a dark hallway but a handsome, two-family house where grandma and mom’s sister and brother-in-law occupied the ample top floor. There would be cousins to play with and watch television with, all of it culminating in an ample dinner leaving Steven stuffed and a bit woozy as he ambled with mom and dad to the Grand Concourse and a cab home.
Thus did Sundays end on a high note.
This year, though, was different.
First grandma Sonya got throat cancer. The voice became a rasp, and she complained about the pain, and, once it became clear this was cancer and not just some stubborn laryngitis, Steven’s father moved her out of her apartment to live with them. The year before, they had left the rapidly deteriorating Bronx for a three-story house on Long Island; Steven gave up his bedroom on the second floor for the solitude of the third so that grandma could stay in his room.
Their family had been among the last on the block to own a television set, Steven’s parents holding out in protest against the overwhelming amount of junk on TV, but now they relented out of necessity. Grandma would come down in the morning, as well groomed as ever, as if she might be going out to shop or visit a friend, and would proceed to watch that whole succession of situation comedies and quiz shows and soap operas and panel shows and old movies, stolid and unmoved through it all, until it was time to go to bed, and she would rasp an almost inaudible good night and go up to her room.
As for her husband, where for years she had visited four or five times a week, now she declined to visit at all on Sundays when the family would make its usual rounds in the Bronx. Steven’s father tried all manner of persuasion, from imploring her for the sake of grandpa to condemning her for her stubbornness, but to his bafflement none of it worked. Even granted that she could have derived little comfort from a feeble old man who looked forward to her visits mainly for the dollars she would give him to tip the hospital attendant, there was still something to be said for to getting out of the house for other than a doctor’s appointment. She had kept up her appearance, and the rasp could always be explained as laryngitis.
Steven’s mother, who had little love for her husband’s family, put a predictably negative construction on her mother-in-law’s refusal. After all the years of slaving away at sewing machines in the garment district to maintain her husband in the style to which he had grown accustomed, she was now having her revenge. If bitterness at all those years had finally caught up with her, who could blame her? Steven’s father, though he could be as harsh with his parents as his wife was, took strong exception. It was not revenge or anything like it. If anything it was the opposite: she had too much respect for her husband to lie. She knew he wouldn’t believe her and that she would discredit herself by it.
In any event, the debate didn’t go on for long: a few months after grandma came to live with them, she succumbed. And a matter of weeks later, grandpa suffered a fall that almost killed him.
Steven had not seen grandpa since then, having been away at camp over the summer. Grandpa had recovered enough from the accident to be sitting in a wheelchair, although he was no longer able to get out of bed by himself and had to be lifted out by attendants. Had he looked that bad before the summer? Those fleshless cheeks, the slumping of his head as if he no longer had the strength to hold it up: the fall had taken its toll, and, still, he had survived. In a private room just off the ward, Mr. Feinberg, much younger and formerly a lot more vigorous than grandpa, was lying in an oxygen tent. Grandpa had survived all the original occupants of the ward, had survived most of the visitors who had pitied him, and now had survived his wife. Was it luck or lack of it that kept him alive through the summer? Or was it that luck was only secondary and that with every diminution of strength, solace, or whatever it is that is supposed to keep a man alive, he held all the more tenaciously to – what?
Sam Loeb was visiting this afternoon. Mr. Loeb had been a waiter at the Café Aristocrat in its heyday and had worked there until the day it finally closed. He used to visit grandpa with some frequency, but it had now been over a year since his last visit. He’d had a heart attack, Mr. Loeb explained. Still, he had recovered enough to make a trip to Israel.
“I have always wanted to go there,” Mr. Loeb said. “My doctor was against it, but what was I to do, just sit on my fanny?” He turned to Steven. “Your father knows that there were many Zionists at the Café Aristocrat; I thought I’d look some of them up. I met Mendel Bernstein in Tel Aviv; he’s living there with his son and daughter-in-law. You remember him, Jacob, eh? Mendy Bernstein?” Grandpa, absorbed in trying to dig ice cream from a dixie cup, nodded vaguely and grunted. “Your grandfather wasn’t much of a Zionist,” Mr. Loeb said to Steven with a smile.
“So now I have seen the promised land,” Mr. Loeb continued. They sat in a close circle about grandpa, Steven’s father now helping him with his ice cream. “God has been good to me. How many men have recovered from heart attacks as bad as mine? ‘Sam,’ I said to myself, ‘it may not come out so well the next time. God is giving you this chance to go.’ I tell you, every Jew should see it – the work, the spirit – every Jew. If I could, I would write a book about it. Maybe I can, eh Jacob? Maybe being around writers all my live, some of it has rubbed off on me.”
Steven could not remember a time when Mr. Loeb talked this much. Before this, the sigh of grandpa trembling in his chair seemed to hold him in solemn silence.
Grandpa finished the dixie cup, and Steven’s father threw it away, wiped his chin and wheeled him to the bathroom. Mr. Loeb put his hand on Steven’s shoulder. “I heard about you grandma’s death. Terrible, terrible. She was such a young-looking woman. She always took such good care of herself.” He adjusted his rimless glasses and shook his head gravely. His hand, which had tightened on Steven’s shoulder, fell limply.
A patient from across the aisle called to Steven to light his cigarette, and, when he returned, his father was coming back from the bathroom. “I was telling your son how terrible I feel about your mother’s death,” Mr. Loeb said. “I just heard about it last week. Then urgently, in a near-whisper, “Have you told your father about it?”
Steven’s father frowned and bit his lip. He shook his head.
“Ah, you haven’t.”
“I’ve been telling him she’s on vacation,” Steven’s father said.
“I see, I see,” said Mr. Loeb, considering this for a moment. “And does he believe it?”
“I don’t know what he believes. At first I told him that she was sick and then that she was taking a long vacation to recuperate and couldn’t come. He took a bad fall this summer, you know, and for a while the doctors didn’t think he’d live. And, of course, she didn’t visit him all that time. He’s asked for her. Last week he suddenly tells me it’s their wedding anniversary. ‘Where’s Sonya, it’s our anniversary.’ Anniversary, my pop! Can you imagine that?”
His voice breaking, he turned away from Mr. Loeb. He had barely managed to get the last words out. Mr. Loeb made a gesture toward him, but he was already leaving to bring his father back from the bathroom.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t have been here this summer,” Mr. Loeb said. “What a hard time it’s been for your father. You are very lucky to have a father like that. All men should be as good to their parents as your father has been to his. I myself have never had any children, but I know it must be a great comfort to your grandfather to have a son like that in his old age.”
For all his solemnity, there was a deadpan quality about him. His face, small, flat, leathery, seemed to preclude the possibility of emotion registering on it with any force.
Steven’s father wheeled grandpa back from the bathroom, and Steven took the chance to get outside the ward. The three daughters of Mr. Feinberg were in the hallway, the two older ones engaged in what appeared to be an urgent conversation, the youngest seeming abstracted. It was she whom Steven had seen visiting the most, and he waved to her, but she failed to notice him.
How strange that his father’s voice had cracked. It was the closest he had ever seen his father come to crying, a man who always seemed to have a sharp answer for everything. Even religion: Steven’s mother once joked that the loudest sound she ever heard was of her husband sinking his teeth into an apple on Yom Kippur; yet, he now trooped to the local synagogue every Saturday to say kaddish for his mother.
Outside, Steven shielded his eyes from the brightness of the September day. It was a time of year that made him uneasy. He began to feel it in the last week of camp, a sense of time slipping away. Even though he was just a boy with his whole life before him, time slipped away, took its toll. A few blocks away was the little apartment where grandma Sonya would fuss over them every week, and now it was empty, and he would never go there again. And upstairs grandpa, having lived by his own lights and no others, a life that visitors to the old man held up for Steven to emulate, now hung on to the final bare threads.
Having cleared out the apartment over the summer, his father had expressed chagrin over decline in the neighborhood, and now Steven became aware of it as well – a burned-out building here, “for rent” signs in many stores. It was hardly a surprise. His own family had seen the same signs in their neighborhood and had headed for the suburbs.
Where exactly was he now? All the times he had been here, he had simply followed along with his father and grandma Sonya, and now his surroundings suddenly seemed unfamiliar. Paying little attention to where he was going, he seemed to have wandered some distance from the hospital, where they might be wondering where he was. Momentarily he was not sure of the way back but thought it was uphill, and he began to run. The brilliant September sun leaped and danced among the parked cars, a wild, blinding dance.
“Ah, there he is now,” said Mr. Loeb. He was preparing to go, having already put on his hat and the topcoat he had worn despite the mildness of the day.
“Mr. Loeb wants to say goodbye to you,” Steven’s father said.
“But he didn’t have to run for that,” Mr. Loeb said. “I don’t know if you will ever be a waiter, my boy, but one learns always to go at one’s pace, even when people are trying to rush you. God bless you, my boy.”
He patted Steven on the head and turned to the old man. “And, you, Jacob, I’ll be seeing more of you now, don’t worry about that. I’ll be writing my memoir now – ‘My Years at the Café Aristocrat.’ What do I have to lose, eh? Maybe I was a writer all along without knowing it. I would just like to see this through, Jacob. I’m getting to be an old man, older than you even.”
With that he reached out to shake the old man’s hand, but the old man pulled his hand back. And suddenly a loud gargling sound rose in his throat, as if he were trying to expel something that was stuck there, and the sound grew louder and became like a groan, though not exactly because there was rage in it, and got louder and angrier until people in the ward turned to see what was going on. Only when the old man saw the attendant Hugo hurrying over from another part of the ward did he stop. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out bills Steven’s father had given him for tip money and waved them at the attendant.
The attendant chided grandpa for making all this noise and then took the dollar bills, thanking the old man with exaggerated politeness, as if the bills were not real money. It was their little game, the attendant’s smile said to Steven’s father. To show that there were no hard feelings, the attendant told them how glad he was that the old man had recovered from his fall and that he was usually a good patient but they still had to keep an eye on him because there was pep in the old boy yet.
Then the attendant and Mr. Loeb, whom grandpa’s outburst seemed to have puzzled, were gone, and it was time for the two of them go too.
“Say goodbye to grandpa,” Steven’s father said. “He was asking about you before. Tell him about your paper route and see if that makes him carry on.”
Steven bent down to tell his grandfather about the newspaper-delivery route he’d taken over since coming back from camp, how he was making some decent money at it but how it sometimes got boring, and the old man mumbled something he couldn’t make out. He bent in closer, and the old man mumbled it again, but he still couldn’t make it out and so moved in so that he ear was almost touching the old man’s mouth and he could feel his labored breathing.
“All jobs are boring,” grandpa said, his hand suddenly tightening on Steven’s.
“Okay, grandpa, thanks,” Steven said pulling away, but the old man held fast.
“All jobs are boring,” the old man repeated, grinning his wolfish grin.
“Thanks, grandpa, thanks,” Steven said, trying to get loose, and still the old man held fast, not just grinning but shaking now with laughter, until shame swept over Steven, and he pressed back
About the Author:
Benjamin Haimowitz, a graduate of Columbia College, has worked as a public-school teacher, editor, and public-relations consultant. His fiction has appeared in New Directions and Ararat, and other writings have been published in Smithsonian, New Leader, and Journal of Reading. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.