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Authors: Jacob Scheier

Letter from Brooklyn

BOOK: Letter from Brooklyn
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For Libby
(1946–2000)
and Michael

“You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes — because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue or in Flatbush . . . You can never make that crossing that she made,for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist.”

—
Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz
,
Angels in America
by Tony Kushner

PRE-OCCUPY

“how weak / we were, and right.”

—
Robert Lowell
, “The March 2”

Under General Washington's stone-stretched arm,

less than two hundred of us gathered on the steps

while a passing double-decker (the tourists'

photographs, our posterity) muffled

the shouts lobbed at our Bastille,

the Goldman Sachs tower. “You fucked up,

suck it up,” I mumbled, beneath the chant,

investing only so far. Behind me the

NYSE
's spangled banner stripes were

a shade of barium against the grainy day.

Police officers milled . . . Rain trickled,

smudged slogans, and dispersed the crowd.

I took cover under a Starbucks awning —

its glowing emblem swung in the wind.

LETTER FROM BROOKLYN

I can already see how this will end.

How I will grow tired of the bridge's

steep incline, and the absent-minded tourists

wandering into the bicycle path.

The weather will turn cold.

But that all happens later.

For now it is the early edge of fall,

leaves green still while the air narrows,

is slightly crisp, almost grazing

the hair of my arm like a passing stranger,

as though the air has been forced into intimacy

by the brevity of daylight.

But when it starts darkening at 4,

this closeness, I know, will be a felt distance,

like someone drawing your attention

to their lack of intimacy.

These days I am still walking at a cathedral pace

beneath the branches bending across avenues,

brownstones like rows of lived-in chapels,

like a pop-up picture book I could have had as a child,

but didn't. How Brooklyn makes me nostalgic

for the moment I am walking inside of.

These late afternoons filled

with a loneliness that makes me feel

distinctly myself, and an awareness

of how rare that is.

THE WORLD-CHANGING BUSINESS

“When I asked her if she feels she sacrificed her life to the Communist Party . . . (s)he says: “Sacrificed my life! Of course not. Hon, we were in the world-changing business. You can't get much better than that.”

—
Vivian Gornick
(interviewing Maggie McConnel),
The Romance of American Communism

The world-changing business

was the family business. My father

took me to the storefront at the edge of history,

saying one day all this will be yours.

But our store was the world and it wasn't

supposed to belong to anyone

or it was supposed to belong to all of us.

I didn't understand it either.

For the world already was that way

when I was a child. The way of owning nothing.

I thought the business was to make us all

children one day. Yet childhood

was disappointing. The first time

my father said we were going to a demo

I expected to see wrecking balls

spoon brick and stone. But people just stood,

or walked, or spoke, sometimes of wrecking things —

though no one ever did. My father often spoke

about the world that could be.

Should be. Would be.

I was to inherit this business

of not yet and now and always.

We lived in the future I would build one day,

though I wanted more to be a garbage man.

My father would have preferred that

to what I am doing right now.

MICHAEL'S LOWER EAST SIDE

You have a map,

ballpoint marking the streets

where you lived and my mother lived

and Carl, your best friend who committed suicide,

and Sue's boyfriend Danny who also killed himself,

because he had cancer. Your stories conflict

with her diary. But isn't that what always happens when Jews talk

about origins? And you don't need to know

what your sister believed in 1968. It's enough

that your friends are dead

and nothing on 2nd Avenue is the way you remember it.

If we walk fast enough the three dollar espressos

will turn back into night, the patio legs

fold and table tops resume their previous lives

as garbage pale lids. Right here is where you bought

egg creams at 3 a.m. The Gem Spa on St. Mark's,

soda fountain replaced by the glossy stares of models.

Yonah Shimmel is pretty much the same,

knishes framed in the dumbwaiter.

The dumpy middle-aged man,

not unlike a knish himself, is annoyed

when you ask for cutlery

and this makes you smile. There is no celery soda

so you settle for a Dr. Brown cream. We have never looked

so similar as when resigning ourselves to what is

no longer. Carl or Danny, your parents or my mother.

How thick is absence, too. “It's not fucking here . . . It's gone,”

you say, looking at a vacant lot on 13th, the last place you

and your sister lived before she met my father.

Julie calms you with nothing more profound than,

“Michael, we're on the wrong street.” You laugh, and I know

this is a story you will tell at family gatherings —

and when the times comes so will I.

The next street over is the tenement where you planned

your lessons for P.S. 110 and Sue tried

to figure out what to do with her life

after being kicked out of Berkeley and the Spartacists

and reading Whitman one evening instead of Marx —

though I made that last part up.

And there was that guy who did too much acid and jumped

out the sixth floor window and survived.

And Fred Hampton killed that same week and

you and her were going to live, okay, not forever,

but for quite some time.

RAISING THE PENTAGON

“You created the revolution first and learned from it, learned of what your revolution might consist and where it might go out of the intimate truth of the way it presented itself to your experience.”

—
Norman Mailer
,
The Armies of the Night

You might have been the thin young pirate

with a large Armenian mustache

on page 149. After all, you were there

when the Pentagon was raised.

Spent the night in Occoquan

and still have that mustache,

43 years later. Ending the draft

killed the movement, you say,

as we drink beneath a stuffed gator head,

confederate flag in its teeth. We are far

from your old New England house,

where snow, as though in a koan,

gathers in the eaves and the shadows

of pines rise and recede across the hardwood.

If we drive all night we can be in Arlington

County, 1967, by morning. On the way

we will find your sister, the woman who will become

my mother, at Berkeley, handing out leaflets —

The March on the Pentagon is liberal
,
bourgeois
. . .

She didn't understand, she wasn't there you say

into the empty pint. For years,

whether it was a Central Park “be in”

or trying to make peace

with your father, she would ask

the same smart-ass question,

“Raised that Pentagon yet?”

(I can only imagine what she would say

about your “Hope” T-shirt.)

Her hair a dandelion

about to disperse its seeds

she says it again from the empty stool beside us.

But remembering she's been dead

a decade she loses the smirk and asks

how could you lift a building

but not stop your sister

from falling. And I don't know

who is right. Maybe you didn't,

and maybe you did

raise the Pentagon, clear

into outer space.

I am sure you tried.

You both tried.

RE: GRANDPA'S VILLAGE

About 40 years ago Julie and I found it

on a map of the NY public library on 42nd St.

The spelling would vary. Nipolukovich

is as good as any. Julie thinks it was near

the Prut river and the city of Chernoff.

This is oral history. Everybody is gone.

Love Michael.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S

I've often wanted to be kept by a patron of the arts,

to look out my window and see you below

playing “Moon River” on guitar.

Sounds like my kind of life, for a while. I like not knowing

how things will turn out. Of course, I always entertain

the idea of changing you, just a little,

into the kind of woman without furniture,

someone who'd get her Givenchy sandals soaked,

follow me out of a taxi and onto a rainy movie set.

Maybe you were that kind of person, all along —

just waiting for me to deliver the perfect line. That's what I like

about movies. The words always come at the proper time

and they're the right words . . . And cats are found. I guess

I can revise a few autumn evenings in my imagination,

make the leaves and your dress a little yellower.

Though I wouldn't dream of changing your iris.

And I am a little blonder

(and taller and wider) when I tell you

people do fall in love
,

people do belong to each other
,

because that's the only chance anybody's got
.

Though of course I don't say that exactly.

Just something like it — with the same passion, but my own.

I don't know what you do then.

Even in my imagination it's hard to imagine

you ever really leaving that taxi. It's hard to imagine

it is ever not too late

or people change that quickly

in that way. And, sure, people fall in love,

all too often it seems, but even I want to slap Fred,

or whatever his name is,

when he talks about real happiness.

It just doesn't work that way. I mean, after the credits roll

someone has to speak, apologize, really talk about the weather —

whatever it takes not to end up back in that cab,

failing to say the right words, or worse,

saying them, and that not changing a damn thing.

MY ONLY LOVE POEM

We met before as children, at the ferry dock. Our parents

weren't paying attention to us, and then noticed

we had strayed and were holding each other's mittens —

innocent enough, but still they thought it better

to gently pull us apart. I used to believe all kinds of things then,

like people could explode from eating too many blueberries,

but not that they could fall in love. I knew love

was the forever thing my mother spoke of

and so there were neither fallings in or out.

Love was the weather inside a house.

I didn't think of you very often after we left the dock

and maybe that's because it never happened.

The first time we met was near

a train station. About a half mile from the tracks

we could hear the train beginning to pull away

and pictured steam rising even though we knew

they had stopped making trains that way years earlier.

You were chewing gum outside a gas station

and I was holding a raspberry slushy

much too large for my hands. We were barely

teenagers. You didn't blow bubbles, because it wasn't

that type of gum. You just chewed and looked

at where the train would be if it were close enough to see.

I stood as though I were waiting for someone

but I just wanted to look at you. I didn't know what to say,
so I told you

I liked chewing gum more than the bubble kind

because I didn't know how to blow bubbles.

That was my line, I guess. You said, and this killed me,

It's easy
,
I could show you sometime
. That was the first time

I remember someone saying something that was not about

what they actually said. Later I would come to believe,

except when talking about money,

every adult conversation is pretty much about sex and death

regardless of the supposed subject. You weren't talking about sex then,

not really. And you certainly weren't talking about death.

We were at that age when nobody died.

And now seems as good a time as any

to tell you my mother was very sick then,

that she had things growing inside her.

Though she wasn't going to die. Of course,

I didn't mention any of this while my slushy melted

and we listened to the sound a train makes

the moment after it's out of earshot.

I said something like,
Thanks
,
but I'll never learn
,

referring to bubble blowing. You could say

you were more mature than me

when we met sort of near a train station in a town

I mostly invented. Still, I recognized you

when we met in Toronto last week.

We were older, my mother

was long dead. I knew how to talk about sex

without talking about it. Though I don't

recall, now, what we spoke about. It was New Year's Eve

and we had been drinking. I was far from home

though I had been born only blocks away

in quite literally another century and was

not so much nursing another injured heart,

but giving the little thing hell

for once again being so unwise or unkind

and beginning to conclude

these were not different things. It was one of those thoughts

that stirs profound change. Though the only difference I could see

was that I'd taken to carrying a small bottle of Red Label

in my shoulder bag. And so I told you

I had a bottle of Scotch, because

I didn't know how to say you were pretty

or that we had met before on a dock

and not all that far from a train station.

Or that I was ready, now,

to be taught how to make bubbles,

and my mother was not well. So I casually mentioned

the Red Label and how I would like to drink it with you.

We have known each other for three days.

We laugh about how I thought I was charming.

How you really just wanted a drink

and I was cute enough, so what the hell.

We laugh about this like it happened years ago.

For almost two days we only leave your bedroom

to refill the water glasses. But eventually

we make our way to your kitchen where through the window

a bird feeder in the shape of a house swings back and forth

and everything else is still and snow blankets the shack at the
end of the driveway

and we say how scared we would be in this house right now,

if we were alone. And this is the most honest thing I have said

in years. The only things you have to eat are cheese

and crackers, and they're delicious. I begin to feel

life intended to bring me to this moment. Even though

that means everything has been scripted,

including my mother being dead and me nearly

dying twice, once from a thing requiring surgery

and the other time from something I care not to mention.

Yes, I am alright, in this moment,

with all that life has planned for me. And just as accepting

that there might very well not be a plan. I can't help

saying we should stay for a while, though I'm not sure

if I mean Toronto, since soon we will live an ocean apart,

or your kitchen. It's hard to imagine, I say, never

seeing you again. But already I can see

the kitchen window becoming soft,

the bird feeder slightly pixelated,

the snow blanket dimming, everything turning

to the way I will remember it.

BOOK: Letter from Brooklyn
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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