It’s about a half-hour train ride to Yonkers, much of it along the river. You come out of the city, off the island, and countryside appears—green strips of landscape, woody bluffs, brown water, telephone lines. You can see New Jersey. Stacked up behind you, northern Manhattan fades away. Liesel liked taking the train. If she were there she would have stared out the window, lost among the landmarks. But Bill felt confined. He got bored. In Texas, you get used to driving everywhere. You live in the car. He tried to play a game of solitaire on the empty seat next to him, but the train shook too much. He tried to read a book but felt distracted by various things, including the view. By other things, too. The sound of the wheels on the tracks, metal on metal. It’s true, though (he was talking to Liesel in his head), you get these young-man feelings on a train, you could go anywhere. Or see your sister.
At Yonkers he picked up his tote and emerged into a warm late-August afternoon. The station was on a bridge. A river ran under it, or hardly moved, covered in rocks and reeds. The city had recently invested in its municipal spaces. There was wide clean pavement with bicycle racks and benches lined up against the river railings. The blind windows of a new office block reflected the sunshine; you had to squint against them. Bill stood for a moment on the sidewalk, sweating lightly. Rose had taken him to Polanka’s deli before, but that was three years ago, after picking him up from the station. She offered to pick him up again—How often does my brother come to see me? It’s no trouble, it gets me out of the house. But he told her not to bother. I like walking. But you don’t know the way. I remember, I’ll figure it out. And he set off in a good mood, with just enough low-level anxiety to keep it afloat.
Rose had been in decline since her divorce. She had put on weight. For years he argued with her about this. You can’t eat your way out of loneliness. But, of course, she told him, What do you mean, eat my way? I’m always on some diet or other, you’ve seen that for yourself. Which was perfectly true. And later, when the doctor diagnosed her with a thyroid problem, she felt vindicated—she called him up on the phone. It’s a condition, she said. It’s got a name. Then she read it out to him: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Bill believed her but he also didn’t totally believe her. He also thought, Whatever you’ve got, weakness of will played a part, unhappiness played a part. None of which he blamed her for. When he used to watch Paul playing tennis, in junior high, he couldn’t stop thinking, Come to net, come to net! As a father you have to repress certain insights. It was the same with Rose—there are preventable mistakes, there are correctible habits. You want to be able to control what you can’t control, out of love.
But you can eat your way into loneliness, that you can do. You can surround yourself with fatty tissue. They treated her with levothyroxine, a little pill like an aspirin, which she took once a day. Her TSH levels were under three, the doctors seemed satisfied. But still she kept the weight on, she felt slack and slow and had a hard time getting out of the house. They spoke on the phone once a week and most of what they talked about were their kids. Rose had a daughter, who lived in Evanston. She had wanted a large family but never expressed the slightest envy of Bill and was endlessly interested in all his children, in Jean and Paul and Susie and Nathan. She was a warm curious person and complained very little. On Saturday mornings, when they were kids together (Rose was three years older), Bill would lie in her bed and she would read to him. Whatever he wanted—comic books, even the sports page. They bathed together, too. She had sensitive skin, like his daughters, and turned red in the hot bath. When he lay across her lap he slipped off in the soapy water. And now just the thought of her body made him physically turn away or avert his gaze, out of sympathy. He actually lowered his head.
When he first told his father about his engagement (they knew about Liesel and had met her and disapproved), his father and mother drove him to Pittsburgh, to see one of his cousins, who was a rabbi. This cousin was a persuasive and sympathetic man. He was supposed to talk Bill out of it. He was supposed to say, How can you marry a woman who is not only Christian but German? As if these things don’t matter, history doesn’t matter, religion doesn’t matter. As if you’re above all that. Bill said, Okay, I’ll go along. He was willing to do whatever his parents wanted him to do apart from the one thing they wanted him to do, which was break it off. So they drove up together in his father’s Lincoln Continental. In those days, in that car, it took them eight hours. They set off after breakfast and stopped for lunch at some Penn State student diner. They ate supper with the rabbi and stayed the night, and the next day drove back—watching from the window the Pennsylvania farmland and listening to a Dodgers-Phillies doubleheader on the radio. Bill had kind of a good time. He was twenty-nine years old and about to go on the job market, after finishing his Ph.D. He was about to get married. Who knew where they might end up (Austin!). This was the last extended period of time he spent with his father, who was hardworking, patient, self-disciplined and a little shy. Later, after he died, Bill’s mother had a stroke and came to live with them for several years. But all of that was in the unimaginable distant future, which you don’t have to imagine because it happens anyway.
Rose probably suffered most in the fallout. She hated any kind of family strife. Once she admitted to Bill that she hoped their cousin Seymour would talk him out of it. I don’t know why, she said, because I always liked Liesel, but I didn’t think Mom and Dad would forgive you. She came to the wedding anyway, at the Statler Hotel in Ithaca. Wedding isn’t quite right; Bill and Liesel walked in and they walked out married a half hour later. Two of their Cornell buddies signed the registry. (Both Jews, as it happens, a couple who later married and then divorced, after which everybody fell out of touch.) Rose got all dressed up. She was the only family on either side and wanted to make an effort. Bill wore what he wore to teach in, chinos and shirt and jacket, but he took off the jacket, because it was a hot day. Liesel had on a long pleated skirt. But Rose did the business—pink dress, flowers in her hair—and felt silly the whole time, emotional and uncomfortable, because it showed she didn’t know her brother as well as these other people, who got the tone right without trying. On the long Greyhound bus ride back to New York the next day, she broke down in tears. Her little brother. She told Bill that part, too.
Nepperhan Avenue is a busy, undistinguished street, with a highway frontage road curving off it on the far side, pushing traffic in the opposite direction. A concrete-block wall, growing with the access lane as it peels away, separates the higher ground above it from the street level. The sound of cars bounces off it and against the buildings on the other side. Not pleasant walking, and Polanka’s deli wasn’t the kind of place you’d look twice at unless you knew about it—two cheap storefronts under a 1950s block of flats, at the beginning of a commercial strip. His kids always told him, You’re a little crazy, but this was the kind of place he liked. As a teenager, he used to help out in the stock room of his uncles’ store—that’s what the Essingers did when they came to America. Sell groceries.
The signs were in Polish, but the staff looked Latino. At the back of the shop, through an open door, Bill could see metal racks hung with pale sausage. Hundreds of them, like loose fingers. Under the counter, there were metal trays of food, potato salad and something oily with carrots, goulash, meatballs in tomato sauce, a party platter with fanned-out cold cuts, wrapped so closely the Saran Wrap had laddered like tights. On a warm afternoon, the shop had a smoky locker-room smell. Various breads, dark and white, lay on the counter top, and there were more loaves stacked in floury baskets, sitting on shelves behind. One of the guys was busy making a sandwich for somebody, thickly slicing the tomatoes and laying them flat. “Not too much mayo,” the customer said—a fat kid with his first mustache, unshaved. He had a yarmulke at the back of his head, almost falling down, shiny blue with a Mets logo stitched into it. Bill ordered a mix of things, including two pieces of crumb cake and a bag of powdered cookies. Then he walked out, blinking, into the sunshine.
Rose had a house on Prescott Street, overlooking a park. About a fifteen-minute walk through quiet neighborhoods. By this point Bill was tired and hungry—he ate a cookie as he walked, and then another. Really it was too far to walk, he should have taken a cab; he was putting something off. The houses depressed him. Some of them were boarded up. Around Nepperhan Avenue, among the shopping streets, there were handsome pale-brick apartment blocks, turn of the century. But leaving these behind, he saw crowded row houses with cheap siding. Most of them looked lopsided, they had weak foundations. And the people he saw in the street were black. He couldn’t help it, it upset him, the thought of his sister, spending her life indoors, while the demographics changed around her, and everybody she knew moved to White Plains or Rockland County. Or Florida. (We knew that might happen when we moved here, Rose had said, the wrong side of Lincoln Park. But it’s what we could afford.) Her cleaner was mixed race, Rosario, a wonderful woman, who also helped in other ways—she sometimes did a little shopping for her, she changed the sheets. Rose and Rosario. People adapt, what else are they going to do.
Sometimes he got on her case to sell up, too, and move somewhere with a bit of street life. Something to look at from the window or just so that walking out the door gave her places to go. Restaurants and supermarkets. So she didn’t have to get in the car. But this was the house of her marriage, it was the house where her daughter grew up, if you took those things away from her, she said…
What, he said.
I don’t know.
She was sitting in the front room when he walked up the driveway, sitting at the window, and he waited for her to get up and come to the door. He didn’t need to ring.
“Billy,” she said.
The way she stood, leaning slightly back, thick-legged, you could tell she had trouble with her knees. Nobody called him Billy anymore. He put his arm lightly across her shoulder. The Essingers were not a physical family, they were talkers not touchers. And then he waited again for her to turn around—it was like watching a vehicle turn—and followed her slowly down the dark hallway, checking his stride. She sat down at the kitchen table while he laid out the food. He took plates from the dishwasher (which had recently run), he filled glasses from the tap, waiting for the cloudiness to resolve itself and then filling them again. He put two kielbasas in the oven and while they were baking, he emptied the rest of the dishwasher and stacked what he couldn’t find places for on the counter.
“I like this kitchen,” he said.
There was a view over the sink of the boxed-in garden, which had gone to seed, but not unattractively. Rose just didn’t have the energy or money. Blighted roses grew against the wooden fence. The grass looked long and thin, like thinning hair; it was seeding, too. Dead ivy, still clinging to the windowpanes, blocked some of the sunlight but also cast pretty shadows. Linoleum counters, milky with age, a few burn rings. The tap dripped. On the shelf with her cookbooks, next to them, Rose kept her cereal boxes, which were also bright and decorative, in their way—yellow Cheerios, purple Raisin Bran, Frosted Flakes, sky blue. Judith, her daughter, had a four-year-old boy, and when she visited, Rose liked to spoil him with sweet things, but after he left the packets went stale and she couldn’t bear to throw them away.
It looked like their mother’s kitchen at home, in Port Jervis. In their first house, the one they were born into. When Rose was thirteen and Billy was ten, they moved. He never liked the new house as much as the old one. For one thing, he loved the old kitchen, which had a hanging lamp in the middle and a table for four underneath, where you could squeeze six people, especially if the extras were kids. Kids like Lisa Liebowitz and Kelly Hanes, Rose’s friends, and Mike Schultz, who played catcher on Bill’s Little League team. In the evening, under that lamp, his mother taught him to read. He did his homework while she washed clothes in the sink. The new house had a laundry room and a dining room.
Rose, peeling the lid off the potato salad, said, “Judith’s going through something right now, I don’t know what to call it. If we were Catholics maybe you’d say a crisis of faith. But it’s hard for me to do anything. She’s too far away.”
Her daughter had moved to the Midwest for college and never come back. At Northwestern, she studied biology. She wanted to be a doctor and got into med school in Chicago. Three years later, she changed her mind and dropped out. The coursework involved a lot of memorization; it was like a factory, she said. You pick your little part of the process, you do things over and over. This isn’t why she went into medicine, to be a cog in the machine. After that, she bummed around for a while, living with friends, working as a secretary at a medical clinic in Jefferson Park. Wasting her life, as she put it. She also had a lot of unhappiness with men, some of them Jews, but mostly not. Eventually she applied to law school. I miss getting grades, she told her mother. Northwestern accepted her, and she even made it through two and a half semesters before dropping out—to get married.
Somewhere along the way she had decided that the cause of her unhappiness was religious, that she had drifted away from her faith. Northwestern had a strong Hillel community, and one thing led to another. She changed her diet and lost weight, she started covering her head. Whatever Judith did, she had to be the best, and that also meant being the best Jew. She let herself be persuaded to try a matchmaker. Two dates later, she was in love. For months this was all she could talk about. How she had spent ten years on the dating circuit and never met an intelligent, decent, clean American man. Rose found the whole thing extremely upsetting. But for a while, it’s true, Judith seemed happier. She married the guy, a doctor, as it happens, who seemed perfectly nice, with predictably old-fashioned views; but patient and gentle. They bought a house in West Ridge; they had a beautiful boy. For the first few years, Judith said, she was busier than she had ever been in her whole life, including med school.
But now her son was four and she was getting restless again. She didn’t like the school they were sending Michael to—she didn’t like what they taught him. A very restricted education. This is not how she’d been brought up.
“I could have told her that from the beginning,” Rose said to her brother. They were picking at the food while the sausages blistered in the oven. Pickles and potato salad, with hot mustard. Wiping the dressing up with the soft rye. “Really the trouble is, she’s bored. They wanted a large family, but it’s not happening. If there’s something she should pray for, it’s a baby, but even that is only a short-term solution.”
When Rose stood up, to get salt, she pushed at the table with both hands. Bill could feel it in his groin, watching her move; that’s how it hurt him. A sharp, very intimate pain.
“I put on a dress for you,” she said, sitting down again. It was blue with white shapes on it, like little moons. She wore it over thick dark tights so you couldn’t see her legs. He stood up to turn off the oven and used a tea towel to lift out the tray of kielbasas.
“There are more condiments in the fridge. Mustard is fine with me. I shouldn’t complain—you listen to her talk, and everything she says is very reasonable. It always has been. She starts something and it turns out to be not what she wanted. So she quits and starts over. After a while, like this, you don’t get anywhere. You just get older. But this thing she’s started now is a little harder to quit than the others. You can’t drop out of motherhood. There’s something else, too. Alex keeps bugging me.” Alex, her ex-husband, worked in pharmaceuticals and lived in Santa Fe. He had married again, a schoolteacher named Guadalupe, and they had two girls, twins. “He wants Judith to have some kind of contact with the girls, he wants them to know Michael. It doesn’t make sense to me but all these kids are roughly the same age. What can I tell him, she doesn’t want to. But it puts me in a strange position, especially since, on this front, I think he’s right. Kids are just kids. I’m pissed off with Alex but that’s his fault not theirs. I like to think Judith is taking my side, but that’s not why. He’s raising the girls Catholic, like their mother. Judith thinks it would be confusing for Michael. What can you say to that? It is confusing.”
The kielbasas were good, but maybe he should have left them in longer. Bill liked the fat too hot to eat and the skin almost burned. But he couldn’t just sit there listening, he had to do something. Also, otherwise you fill up on potato salad. He cut a sausage in half and folded the meat in a slice of rye, where it stained the bread. Before each bite, he dipped the end in mustard. He said, “So what do you tell him?”
“I tell him she’s thirty years old. You can’t make her do anymore what she doesn’t want to do. Go out and see her yourself, show up at her door. But he’s right. Judith’s husband wouldn’t like it. I think there’s a very real possibility he wouldn’t let them in.”
“She would let him in.”
“I’m not so sure. But it doesn’t really matter. Alex is lazy. He complains but he doesn’t…I don’t mean to sound critical. The truth is, I like talking to him these days. How’s Paul?”
“Nervous, a little on edge. He wants to retire, but he’s not thinking straight. A tennis player has a long life to be retired in. I mention this in case you want me to see if I can get you a ticket. Tomorrow could be his last match.”
This is why Bill was in New York, to watch Paul play. Every time he qualified for the US Open the Essingers gathered. For Nathan and Susie it was only a train ride; Jean flew in from London. Rose was just over in Yonkers. But she looked at her brother and looked down—at her spreading lap and her knees painfully positioned under the table. She had a fat bottom lip; when she was younger, a teenager and a young woman, boys liked her mouth, which was full and sensual. Now, with her heavy chin and thick nose, her cheeks, pale and red, her soft thin hair, her mouth expressed apology, shame, pity and good-humored self-deprecation.
“I’d like to, Billy. But it’s a long way. I don’t like sitting on those narrow seats. My legs swell up. If I can get it on the television, I’ll watch it here.”
“I don’t think it will be on TV.”
For some reason, this killed the conversation, at least temporarily. They just sat, eating. Bill refilled his water glass—he drank a lot with meals. He had shaved that morning, under his beard, and his Adam’s apple looked a little raw. When he drank, it moved. There was mayonnaise in his mustache; he wiped his mouth. Eventually Rose said, “I didn’t tell you, but Nathan came to visit me, with the girls. All of your children are very attentive. Some friends of his with a big house in Brooklyn were throwing a Fourth of July party. He said I was on the way, he was just stopping by. He’s a good kid, coming to see an old woman. That Julie has a head on her, right? Though what she did to her hair, I don’t know. Everybody wants to grow up. The way she talks, like a professor. Nathan I remember was just the same. Always looking for somebody to explain something to. It runs in the family.”
Bill said, “I’m worried about him, too.”
“I don’t know. Nothing maybe. But he’s getting mixed up in something political, which I don’t much like. There are people from the justice department trying to woo him. He wrote an opinion, which they think lets them off the hook. I disagree—with the opinion, I mean, but it’s hard for us to have these conversations. He thinks it’s personal for me. Professional jealousy. Maybe he’s right.”
“All of this is beyond me,” Rose said. “You know what I hear when you talk like this? Success, that’s what I hear. I’m proud of all of you. My little brother and his many children.”
Bill had told himself beforehand not to mention it, but somehow the association set him off. Also, with Rose in front of him, just across the table, he couldn’t pass up a chance to give her pleasure.
“Nathan went with us to see a couple of apartments yesterday,” he said. “Liesel, when she retires, wants to have a place in the city. She says Texas gets too hot, she wants to be able to walk outside. And then there’s Paul in New York and Nathan in Boston. Susie in Hartford. The grandkids.”
Rose stopped eating. Her wide eyes could still look girlish—she made vivid expressions.
“Well, we looked at them,” Bill said.
“Where were they?”
“Upper West Side. One of them around the corner from Aunt Ethel’s.”
“I’m not going to say anything,” Rose said, and Bill averted his face. When they were kids, they talked about opening a shop together. This was Rose’s idea, it was one of their games, and she dressed him in an apron and bossed him around. He loved it. They stuck prices on their mother’s cans of food, five cents, ten cents. The coffee table in their living room served as a shop counter. Mother came in and pretended to buy things from them, handing over real change. She sometimes had to fight to get it back.
“It’s something Liesel wants,” Bill said. “I don’t know. She wants to retire, I don’t. She likes big cities. It doesn’t make sense to me how much everything costs. For four rooms, five rooms. But I guess these days we don’t need much more.” He couldn’t look his sister in the eye.
Afterward, he cleaned up, rinsing the plates thoroughly and lining them up in the dishwasher. There was half a kielbasa left on Rose’s plate, and Bill asked her where she kept the aluminum foil. But Rose shook her head. “For this kind of thing, at Yom Kippur, I add a few lines to the Al Chet.” And she recited, in her synagogue voice, “For the sins we have committed by throwing away leftovers. For the sins we have committed by not making stock from the chicken carcass. For the sins we have committed by opening a new jar of jam…” Meanwhile he scraped the sausage into the bin and took a piece of steel wool to the baking tray—some of the fats had burned into a crust. Rose watched him, sitting down with the chair pushed away from the table. “You’re a good brother,” she said. “I’ll drive you to the station.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind walking.”
“Otherwise I don’t get out of the house, I sit around all day going crazy.”
“What should I do with the crumb cake?”
“There’s no hurry. I can make a pot of tea.”
But Rose said, “I’ll drop you at the station and come home and have a nap. It’s something to look forward to.”
Before they left, he used the bathroom. Bill had had prostate surgery a few years before, and every time he went on a trip, even a short one, he took a preemptive leak. The toilet had a padded seat; the skin over the cushioning was cracking. Rose used an air freshener, Woodland Escape, a little lime-green unit attached to the wall, but the liquid inside had run out. He looked at himself in the mirror (he looked like his father) and then tugged at the edge to check the medicine cabinet. But there wasn’t much there—it was the downstairs bathroom. Just an open bag of Bic razors and a toothpaste tube. As if she sometimes entertained male guests, people who stayed the night but slept in the spare room. Maybe he had left them there himself.
In the Buick, he said to her, which he always said, “How are you for money? Can I give you something?” And she said, “A little would help.”
With Judith unhappy, really in bad shape, Rose wanted to fly out to see her. But flights cost money, and everything ended up costing a little extra for Rose. A cab to the airport, porters. She could only travel in a business-class seat. She worried about thrombosis. Before you know it, just to see your daughter, to see your grandson, costs two, three thousand dollars. That’s the price of admission. Judith was trying to get Michael into a different school—she wanted at least to check out the alternatives, but there was resistance from his father. If Rose were around, it might make a difference. Everybody resents their mother-in-law anyway, she said. I can take the heat, I got nothing to lose.
“I’ll call Bryce Newman tomorrow,” Bill said. “Tell him to wire it over.”
Rose blushed. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do…”
The car was full of those coupons you get in Sunday’s Times. There were newspapers on the rubber matting at his feet, along with muffin wrappers, empty juice bottles, even a box of Kleenex. When he got in, she reached over and swept everything onto the floor. “Excuse the way I live,” she told him. Climbing out, he took some of the trash with him—there was a bin by the station. “It’s no trouble,” he said, and Rose waited by the curb for him to come back. They didn’t kiss, but she reached over and took his hand; her palm was soft and very warm. Traffic built up behind her, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Okay,” he said, and squeezed her hand and let go.
She leaned across the empty seat. “Tell Nathan to send me the links to those apartments.”
He pushed the door shut and watched her drive off. Then he was alone again—at the hot point of the afternoon, around four o’clock. People were coming out of the station, a train must have arrived, and he waited for the concourse to clear before going in.
On the journey back into Manhattan, he watched the view reverse itself—the green strips of landscape, the woody bluffs, the river, following the telephone lines, running toward Inwood, where the architecture greeted you like a postcard. He had forgotten to leave Rose the bag of cookies. From time to time he ate one, and licked the powder off his fingers. He needed the sugar hit; he felt low. And in his head, he kept up his argument with Liesel about the apartments. She was meeting an editor downtown—they had parted at Grand Central in the middle of it. You have to understand that for me moving here is like going backward, it’s not a simple thing to do, it stirs up various associations.
But he had also withheld from her a part of what he meant. He hadn’t explained himself completely. Seeing Rose, wandering through her neighborhood (the houses in need of repair, the roads potholed, everything scraped at and knocked around by long northeastern winters), he saw Texas in a new light. As an escape from all that. From the narrowness of his childhood. From the two sets of plates and the Friday-night dinners, from the Hebrew you could speak but not really understand. But also from something else, something like bad luck, which was connected in his mind to Jewishness. Immigrants working hard to climb up the ladder. The grocery business his uncles started had expanded. There used to be Essinger Brothers stores all over the state, selling Astor Coffee and Pillsbury Flour. Their kids became lawyers and doctors and accountants. But the ones who stayed, the cousins who stuck around, in Middletown and Port Jervis and Yonkers, had retained somehow an air of struggling against harsh conditions. There were medical issues; they put on weight; they got divorced. Maybe he still suffered from it, too, immigrant’s luck. But in Texas, raised the way his kids were raised, the effects seemed diluted—and Nathan might have emerged clear of it altogether. Anyway, he didn’t want to go back, which is what upset him, saying goodbye to his sister. It was a relief to get away.