One of the Numberless Ways (We Could Die)

“HELLO,” HE hoped, and I saw immediately that he was a Jewish boy, just like my brother, and I became upset that the only ones who ever hope hello at me are Jewish boys.

“If you insist,” I said.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Jewish boys in this day and age have much to recommend them. I know plenty of girls who were raised to be stoic—that means not complain, maybe not even want to complain—who sigh their tasteful chests up and down in want of a Jewish boy.

“I’m sorry,” I told him, “it’s Saturday. You’ll have to go home to your mother, who will be happy to have you I’m sure.”

“You keep the Sabbath?” he said.

See? I didn’t tell you earlier, but he doesn’t even look Jewish. I can simply spot them from the masses. One tribesman’s heart cries chosenly to another’s.

I didn’t tell you earlier because I know you’re liable to call stereotype. It’s the 21st century! you’ll be thinking. You are a highly educated young Jewess! But please go ahead and describe the picture you conjured when I said “I saw immediately he was a Jewish boy.” Yes, I know all about it. So I am now absolved from blame for as long as I have you, dear or accidental listeners to this weekly midnight radio program.

The whole truth is he was very tall and childishly hairless, with a bit of blond fuzz coating his head and an apparent inability to grow a beard.

“No, I don’t keep the Sabbath,” I said, suppressing my sudden desire to shout Shabbat Shalom! right there on the sidewalk of Hoboken, New Jersey, beside an Irish pub.

“Oh,” he said, “me neither”—a bit proudly, which meant he was still deeply smushed beneath his mother’s thumb and rebelled by poking at it gently with his little finger; or a bit guiltily, even worse, because what is more typical than Jewish guilt? My poor big brother Jakey has it in spades about a whole cabinetful of faults, mostly never playing baseball with our old-now dad who can’t play baseball anymore.

“Just don’t tell my dad about the shabbos thing,” the Jewish boy said, and grinned. “He’s a rabbi, after all.”

A rabbi’s son! And to think—I don’t have to tell my few but steadfast listeners—I’ve been seeking a nice Christian boy for some time, with no luck. It’s about time for children, I say, and I want mine to have insurance. Coverage against man, the universe, and acts of God. I’m no ignoramus; I listened when my Nana spoke. I don’t want blood that’s also liability.

“Hey,” I said, “what happens when a minister’s son, a rabbi’s son, and a Jewess walk into a bar?” I laughed alone, because the joke was its own punchline; I was on my way into the pub to meet my Catholic man. I told him so.

“You have a Catholic man?” he said. His smile vanished.

“No,” I repeated. “I’m going to meet one.”

“Can I come too?” He looked at me, which was a very unfortunate event, because Jewish boys can read me like the alphabet. “I’ll come too,” he corrected himself. I walked in the door without checking whether he was following me. Assuming he was.

*

As long as I have you won’t be terribly long, just so you know. I was only able to commandeer so many radio minutes, and besides I’ve never been good and likely never will be good at keeping anyone for any length of time. Those who share my last name I’ve fared better with; my mother kept her own, so you can imagine the muck I’m in there.

The last time I spoke to my mother, we were on a sagging couch deciding which of Nana’s stuff we wanted and which to throw away.

“I want the photos, Mama.”

“What, to show my nonexistent grandkids?” said my mother. “Or are they inspiration for your radio career?” She said this last derisively, a voice full of italics. I looked at the picture in her hand, all those great-aunts and -uncles, and my unmade cousins twined and waiting in their DNA. “You take right after your father with your storytelling,” my mother added.

By this, I was sure, she meant lying.

It was then I asked the simple question Jakey and I had wondered all our lives: Why are you and Dad still together?

And instead of giving me a prickly answer I would nod and be annoyed about, my mother said, “If we weren’t, would I ever see you again?”

The guilt settled squarely on my shoulders.

“I’ve never known if you’d come home to visit, if not for him,” she said, and the fear I’d feared since high school, about how clearly she could read me, bloomed in my chest.

“What about Jakey?” I said.

My mother sighed. “We should love best the people who love us best, Evia,” she said. “But we never do. We love best the people who we want to love us best.” She slid the picture into my lap. “The wanting is the thing.”

*

This was three months ago by my count, though I hope at least to make it four. Being loved best is too much responsibility for me to disappoint. I thought the point of Jakey was to distribute that burden. Yet there I was in the low-lit pub, primed to make my mother love me even more, stumbling on a rabbi’s son. I needed to get rid of him at once.

“Doesn’t seem your Catholic’s here to meet you,” said the Jewish boy.

“Yeah, yeah,” said I, and I approached a red-haired man with a large crucifix tattooed on his bicep. “Excuse me,” I said, but he continued playing pool.

“Well!” I said, embarrassed that the Jewish boy had seen me flounder. I ordered a shot of tequila from the bartender, downed it, spilled some on my shirt, orphaned ten dollars on the counter, and walked outside and down the sidewalk. The Jewish boy followed as if I were a mama duck.

“I might as well know your name,” I said.

“Saul Klein,” he said. Saul! In this day and age! This is what I mean about these boys: a boy named Saul. They stick out, these boys. You could pick them off.

We kept walking single-file along the sidewalk, passing a gas station where an attendant was pumping premium in an unbuttoned vest. I did not even bother swerving to the pump.

“I guess I’ll take what I can get,” I said. Don’t worry: the Jewish family inoculates its boys to grumpy women. Saul knew not to take me personally. I turned and walked backward for a moment, just to watch him there in my path. I was able to do this because I could navigate home blind and deaf, as I live atop a Chinese take-out that always smells of pork buns.

I said, “I am going up to my apartment now.”

“Can I come too?” Saul was nice enough to ask. I led him up three flights of stairs so well-lit that they squashed any potential romance. Just outside my apartment door, Saul said, “Do you live with someone?”

I did not.

“Then what’s that noise?” He was right to hear the sound of pots and pans, clanging against a stovetop on the other side of the door. I opened it without a thought.

“Jakey,” I said.

“Saul,” said Saul.

“Jacob,” said Jacob.

“Name your tragedy,” I said.

Jakey thought a moment. He was scooping yolk onto prospective French toast. I saw on my kitchen chair that he had draped a suit, a tie, two tall white socks, and a pair of boxers that read I’M JEWISH—WANNA CHECK?. I removed myself mentally from the company of anyone who may have checked.

“My tragedy is childhood,” he said.

“Oh, Jakey,” said I, “Freud and I have long since bid adieu.”

“Not our childhood, my children’s.”

“You’re an aunt!” said Saul.

“Heaven forbid,” I said.

“I’m nearing that point, too,” Saul told my brother. “Of considering my progeny.”

These Jewish boys! Not one of them yet thirty-five, with seeds that last a lifetime. I excused myself and descended to the doorway of the Chinese takeout, hoping the tête-à-tête upstairs would meet a natural demise. A bell tinkled, the door smacked me in the arm, and a man holding a large takeout bag stapled to its receipt emerged from the restaurant.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you there.”

I liked that about him, that he had apologized. He seemed the most promising man I’d met all day.

“I’ll live,” I said, and he handed me a fortune cookie. I started to unwrap it, planning to read him a lie about meeting our matches, but he got into his car and drove away.

Did that man consider himself responsible, I thought, for passing a whole type and history of people to his hypothetical brood? I thought of how much Nana I would need to make a Jewish child understand, without exhibit A, and a cold wind found my open collar.

*

When I returned to my apartment, Jakey was sprawled on the couch.

“I am going to sleep,” I said.

“I’ll come too,” said Saul.

Keeping all my clothes on except my shoes, my socks, my shirt, and my pants, I crawled into one side of my bed and generously left some space on the other. Saul joined me, still wearing all his pants. This offended me so greatly that I closed my eyes and daydreamed for a while, until my flimsy images told me I’d been dreaming of babies. Babies! I imagined pushing a little fellow through my pipeline and removing some parts before he could get too attached, and hoping I had a husband would teach him to chop Christmas trees.

“What are you thinking?” said Saul.

“I am considering hedging my reproductive bets. One of the numberless ways we could die.”

“We’re a resilient people,” said Saul. “Look what we survived only last century.”

“How historically correct of you,” I said. “To recall the scarred, molten flesh of the events of a sickened Germany fifty years before your time.”

“The molten flesh of Germany,” he muttered. “Why write for radio, then? A dying medium?” To think: I was sitting on the comforter wearing everything but my outerclothes, and Saul was asking why I write. It was insulting to my body in a way that was most complimentary to my mind.

“I used to think a few good words would attract the perfect man,” I said. I paused, to give him time to laugh, though he declined. “Now I guess I try to show my mother and Dad I can produce some small thing of any value.” He stayed quiet, so I guessed I could talk eternally if I so chose.

“I hope they never die,” I chose, “my parents. I want to write an angel to protect them, from planes in the snow and murderers and their own heart valves. We don’t believe in angels like that, do we?”

I waited for an answer, but it turned out Saul had gone to sleep. I looked a while at his unconscious form in my bed, his chest rising, the crown of his head going bald. Then with my finger, I traced on his back in deep secret:

Why do you sleep with your back to my heart?

Is it not Jewish, though, to want? Has that not been the story, century after century?

I traced in slow calligraphy: To be me and to write of other trifles, when I bear my Nana’s future in my womb?

Saul slept on. If he were awake, he would have said, Oh stop complaining. And I would have said, Who asked you? I was feeling happy for a fight, but Saul’s back was moving up and down like a little boy’s after a long first day at school without his mama, so I let him stay asleep and tattooed on my memory how I could start this argument tomorrow.

About this—this love. About this I will not complain.

*

Back in the living room, in the sun of the morning, Jakey set unbroken eggs and a frying pan meaningfully before me. “Dad’s coming over,” he said.

“You get to meet Dad,” I told Saul. I hoped to give him the idea this would be a real privilege, because it was.

Dad came over holding a rolled newspaper in his armpit. He was my dad all over, but so stooped and birdboned-looking that he made me want to cry.

“Saul,” said Saul.

“Dad,” said Dad.

“I like you already,” said Saul.

“Politics!” said Dad. This is what he says each time he reads a newspaper. “Most of them idiots, one or two brilliant, the ones I agree with all rotting in hell.”

“We’re a practical people, Daddy,” I said. “We don’t do hell.”

Dad looked around the apartment to see if I’d set out any food, which I hadn’t. He checked my trashcan for the scraps that were in his estimation perfectly good.

“When are you two giving me grandchildren?” said Dad.

“Oh, Dad,” said Saul.

“It’s a bad time right now for grandchildren,” I said. I took the newspaper from his armpit and laid it on the table, pointing at any article at all, and said: “Everybody hates everybody.”

“Gotta protect ourselves, kiddo,” said Dad. “Make some more of us, fight ’em off.”

Oh, Dad. My mother would have understood my position, knowing as she does the difficulties that accompany the having of children who fight.

“Don’t mind her,” Saul said. “She’s upset because she found out she loves a Jewish boy.”

“And she can give me little Jewish nephews,” Jakey added.

“I will not,” I said, “be making anybody any Jewish offspring.”

Saul volunteered to buy us some fried rice.

I said, “I’ll come too.”

*

The street beneath my apartment smelled of pork buns.

“You complain too much,” Saul told me. “Your life is good.”

And to think! I at one time had pegged him as a real live specimen, an average Jewish boy who understood that complaining is an activity, like knitting or canasta.

“I do not complain enough,” I said, vaguely remembering that I’d been looking forward to an argument last night, but it seemed Saul was not up for my challenge today. He started walking away up the street. See? This is why I can’t abide Jewish boys or mothers hoping at me. They give me too much that can disappoint me.

“Oh all right,” I said, following him, “all right, I go too far, I see that.” Saul just scratched his ear. “Well what’s the matter with you?” I called. “Speak up.”

He stopped beside the Irish pub near which he’d first helloed me. “I am very lonely for a nice Jewish family,” he said.

“Oh tell your sorrows to your mother,” I said.

“I can’t,” he said.

“Why not?” I said.

“She’s dead,” he said.

This was not a revelation I’d expected from a Jewish boy as full of needing a mother as this one was. I ached for my own beautiful mean mother, who after all had offered me the world.

“Oh no,” I said. “Oh awful no, I’m happy to be your mother. I will take care of you for the rest of your life, I solemnly swear.”

I made a mental note to ask Mama about the whole business.

“I’d rather you be my children’s mother,” Saul said.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m dying.”

“Now?”

“Someday.” I pointed to the gas station down the street. The price per gallon had risen three cents overnight. “The world keeps turning to shambles.”

“So what?” he said.

“The world keeps turning us to shambles,” I said.

“So what!” he said. “So what, we keep on, so what, so what, go say that on your show.” He sat on the curb outside the pub, curled like a chicken in its shell. “Go on,” he said, because I hadn’t left him. “Come back when you’re ready. But please make it today, or I might not be here.”

I went right home to my writing desk and here I sit, twelve hours later, composing and recording, figuring out how not to return to him. It’s my Mama who knows how to raise a Jewish boy, my Nana too, not me. For me, I need a man who is a little less pressure. The whole weight of my people is too great for my feeble shoulders.

Maybe I’ll call a girlfriend over, or you will, faithful listeners, do you know anyone seeking a Jewish boy? And over and above that I will give my Dad to Saul, or my brother Jakey instead of me, that’s what I will do. Perhaps they’ll throw some baseballs.

Why bother hosting this radio show, anyway?

Some among my midnight listernership may, like Saul, be dubious about the value of a really good complaint. My heart sails out to these people, whom as you have seen I will never meet for long. The benefits of a good complaint are many, but I will share the most important: a good complaint can make you feel very justified. I will never marry, I will never breed, and given all there is to fear and learn from and complain about in this world I do feel justified. It is so easy to pick out a Jewish boy. Go forth and multiply, that was a message for a different time. I will do the good I can in this time, now. I will stay locked in alone. I will contribute to the painless wiping-out of thousands of years of my people from a ruthless earth—I will leave my darling Saul there sitting waiting on the street—and do you think I feel the slightest stab of guilt within my molten flesh?