By Ryan Brown
For Muriel Rubenstein, nothing is more important than being sure.
It has been that way since the day she was born. A Friday. Her mother in the kitchen preparing the Shabbat meal. The pain struck her suddenly, she always said, like a falling brick. There was already a loaf of challah in the oven, cloudy matzo ball soup on the stove, a vinegar salad waiting on the table--all of them abandoned for a tiny rust colored baby, two weeks early and already sporting a head of curly brown hair. As the midwife lifted her from her mother, Muriel screamed and writhed. She did not stop as the midwife carefully washed her small body and wrapped her in a scratchy brown blanket. And she kept screaming as the woman handed her to her father, whose hands shook as he took the baby’s weight in his arms. He had never seen a newborn so panicked, so fiercely appalled by the world around it. But his baby, this tiny little girl child, would not stop wailing, no matter how much he rocked her back and forth.
“Dov,” his wife whispered at last, blinking back exhaustion as she lay on their only bed sheet on the bare wood floor, “what is that smell?” He looked up from his crying child, over to the pale woman in front of him. She was barely five feet and just less than a hundred pounds. He could not believe now that this other human person, the one in his hands, had come from her.
“It’s the bread,” the midwife said, calling him back to the warm, stuffy kitchen. “It’s still in the oven.” With that she reached for a rag and pulled open the oven. As the metal door fell forward, a cloud of thick black smoke rose into the kitchen. The midwife coughed. Muriel’s mother coughed. Muriel’s father coughed. And as the midwife reached in and pulled out the charred braid of bread, Muriel fell suddenly silent. Her black eyes followed the pan as the woman turned and set it down on the kitchen table. Only then did she at last look away. Her father watched as she took one, drawn out breath and then closed her eyes. At the edges of her small mouth were the beginnings of a peaceful smile, a calm that radiated from her lips all the way through her slack body. In her mind, everything was suddenly right. The house would not burn down. Her life would not end before it had even begun. She simply had to be sure.
Now, seventy-four and a half years later, things are not much different. Every morning when she wakes up, before she eats breakfast or even puts in her teeth, Muriel makes sure none of her valuables have disappeared overnight. She has exactly four things she guesses would be worth stealing: a squat brown television with a dial and an antenna, a set of ornamental knives her husband Alfred brought back from a trip to Thailand in 1976, a toaster oven, and a tiny personal blender her son gave her for Hanukkah last year. The magic bullet, he called it. She frankly can’t see what is so magical about a blender no bigger than a goose egg, but she hasn’t told Michael that. Anyway, those things are all over the TV these days, so she’s sure there are more than a few people out there who’d love to get their hands on one.
After she checks on the television and the knives and the toaster oven and the blender, Muriel takes her dog outside. He is small and yellow and has breath like a beef and onion stew left sitting out for too long. When Muriel pets him, he feels like a shag carpet. She calls him Buzz Aldrin Rubenstein, after the astronaut who followed Neil Armstrong onto the dimpled surface of the moon that day in 1969. How much braver, Muriel thinks, to be the second man on the moon than the first. All of the danger and none of the glory.
Buzz Aldrin - the dog - is not the least bit brave. He is afraid of mirrors, cats, other dogs, and the news anchor Tom Brokaw. When he sees any of these things, he makes a noise like a siren and runs to hide.
Mostly though, he is quiet. He does not whine or scratch at the door, and he is far too proud to growl at squirrels or the mailman. When Muriel whistles to let him know it is time to go out, the only way she knows he’s heard is the hollow clack of his nails on the wooden floor.
This morning when she calls him, she listens for that familiar sound. When he comes into the room, she takes the leash and clips it to his collar.
“Good morning,” she says, and it is more like a question than a statement. Buzz Aldrin stares back blankly in response and together they walk to the door.
At the market where she and Buzz Aldrin buy breakfast, Muriel gets caught at the back end of a long line. Several heads in front of her the Korean man behind the counter is arguing with a customer through the Plexiglas window. There are bursts of movement: a hand throwing down money, a head shaking vigorously, someone slapping the scuffed plastic.
As she stands there waiting for the crisis to pass, Muriel imagines how she will die. Michael says she shouldn’t think about this, but she knows better. She is old now and these things are relevant. Maybe it will be a fall down the concrete steps of her building some crisp afternoon. The sound of her head striking the ground will bounce through the stairway loud enough for everyone to hear and they will emerge from their apartments in slow disbelief. And there she will lie with her head cracked open, not delicately like crème-brulee or dramatically like an egg, but more like a coconut, blunt and reluctant to break, while the last of the sunlight breaks through the window and the Puerto Rican woman from across the hall falls to her knees and begins to wail a strange Spanish prayer.
Or maybe it will be a car accident, her bones crushed to putty under the wheels of a New York City taxi. Every face on the street will turn toward her. People will close their eyes, look pointedly away, but by then it will be too late. The image, that terrible image - her legs splayed out backwards, her face a bloody pulp - will be seared into their minds forever.
Of course there are other, less dramatic possibilities too. But Muriel hates to think of normal things like heart attacks or simply falling asleep and never waking up again. Her doctor tells her she is in good health, but you can never rule it out. These things happen sometimes. A stroke. A slow cancer. Liver failure. But they all seem wrong to Muriel. Death seems far too important to be wasted on something so completely ordinary.
When Muriel returns to the apartment, George is there. George is the man who does the crossword puzzle at her kitchen table and buys the chew toys for Buzz Aldrin. In the evenings she fixes them both pastrami and soup. Sometimes George brings a jar of pickled vegetables and eats them straight out of the jar instead of having his sandwich, but Muriel is not offended. After dinner he lets her choose the television program and at 9:30 he goes home. He lives on the second floor.
For Muriel, this arrangement is quite satisfactory. Alfred has been dead for 12 years and Michael visits only twice a year. She does not love George, but she is glad for his presence. Like a paperweight, having another person in the apartment holds things together, keeping the razor thin pieces of her life from blowing clean away.
Mostly when George is there, they do not talk. Muriel knows that George once had a wife called Margaret, but he has spoken of her only once. It was just before Jeopardy started one afternoon and she was fiddling with the set.
“My wife Margaret never cared for game shows,” he said as a blast of static flew from the television.
“Oh,” said Muriel. But she did not have time to say anything else, for at that very moment Buzz Aldrin let out a siren wail from the kitchen. Then the crash of an appliance falling from the counter. The magic bullet, thought Muriel, a surprise twinge of regret washing over her. Buzz Aldrin, still whimpering, stumbled out from the kitchen. He dragged his left front paw like a sandbag and his whole fur-carpet of a body wobbled uncertainly. George knelt before him and carefully took the stricken paw into his hands. There was an upturned thumbtack, its point sunk deep into the rubbery sole. George slowly turned the paw towards him. He looked at Buzz Aldrin and began to speak softly in a language Muriel didn’t understand. It was all hard, untraceable consonants and she thought it sounded funny when whispered, like the uneven rev of a motorcycle engine kick starting. He kept talking in that strange language as he pinched the thumbtack and pulled. Buzz Aldrin let out a small cry and then was quiet again. George set down his paw and the dog scampered away to the corner to nurse his wound. Then George stood and faced Muriel. He handed her the thumbtack.
“Thank you,” she said as she took it. He looked away and she imagined him speaking that strange language to Margaret who did not like game shows, the two of them whispering back and forth in the pitch black of a bedroom she had never seen.
At 4:30, Muriel calls her son. Michael is 45. He lives in Chicago and has a roommate named Alex. He doesn’t call him a roommate though. He calls him something else, his partner.
She dials his number three times before she gets it right. First she inverts the two and the five, and then she forgets to put a one before the area code. Finally though, it begins to ring.
“Hello?” the voice doesn’t sound like a man and it doesn’t sound like a woman. It squeaks like the air being let out of Buzz Aldrin’s blue rubber toy.
“Who is this?”
“Oh, hello Mrs. R, it’s Alex. Let me grab Mike for you.” Mrs. R. Mike. This man, this roommate, this partner with the chew toy voice, whatever he is, is always shortening words and names like he won’t have time to finish his thought if he doesn’t. She hears him doing it again, somewhere within earshot of the phone. “Mike, it’s your mom,” he calls out, pounding on a door.
“Just a sec, Mrs. R, he’s on his way out of the shower as we speak.”
“Right,” says Muriel, because it seems she should say something but there is nothing she wants to say to this man. For a minute she simply waits. She doesn’t hear breathing, so she can’t tell if Alex is still there on the other end waiting. She doesn’t ask. Finally, there is a rustling noise and someone picks up the receiver.
She is glad to hear that Michael still sounds like Michael, a soft alto. As a child she and his father always had to remind him not to whisper. She wanted everyone to listen to him; he just wanted not to be noticed.
“How are you?” he asks after a pause.
“How is Buzz Aldrin?”
Silence. Muriel likes silence, even on the telephone. It is unassuming and gentle. Silence fills you without leaving you too full, like a boiled tomato or a single pancake with butter. She likes it when she is alone, but she especially likes it with other people. Michael knows this, but lately she feels it is wearing on him. Across a thousand miles of telephone wire and farmland and cities too bloated and dull to name, she hears her son sigh.
“Mom, what do you need?” As he asks the question, Buzz Aldrin comes trotting into the living room. His feet drum across the wood floor and he plops down on her feet, waiting for a belly rub.
“Nothing,” she says, and then continues. “Michael, why don’t you move out of that apartment and get your own place?”
“I live with Alex, Mom,” he says slowly, enunciating every word as though she is hard of hearing.
“You’ll never get married if you live with another man.”
“Mom, I don’t want to be married.” He’s told her this before, he’s always telling her this, but she knows better.
“You’re wrong.” She can imagine his face at that moment. She has seen him angry enough times to know what it looks like, the way he bites his bottom lip and closes his eyes like he has a headache. His father was like that too. Both of them quiet in their anger, resolute.
“Mom,” he begins at last, “my life is my life. I’m sorry you don’t like it and…” Here he pauses, inhales sharply. “You know what, never mind. This conversation gets us nowhere.” She hears the click and then the line goes dead, just as it always happens in movies. She’s never actually been hung up on before and like the time she dropped a hot teakettle on her foot when Michael was a baby, nothing registers except shock. This is a trick to her old age, she thinks. Hold onto shock for as long as possible to stave off pain. All the way to the hospital she didn’t feel her broken toes, and with Michael she has kept the numbness for 22 years. But when the doctor gingerly touched her swollen foot, she felt like her entire leg was being ripped from her body via table saw. And now, with the dial tone ringing in her ear, Muriel senses that something is giving way here too. One more touch and everything might topple.
Muriel thinks George is German, but she isn’t certain. The night with Buzz Aldrin, the language he was speaking, it reminded Muriel of the Yiddish her parents always used to speak to each other. After dinner, on their evening walk, she asks.
“George, are you German?”
Muriel stops walking. She doesn’t know why, but the ‘yes’ hits her like Buzz Aldrin’s wet tail smacking against her bare leg after he has had a bath, the pain unexpected and stinging. She knows this is no reason to be upset but she cannot help it. German. The word lodges between them like a sinewy piece of meat wedged in her teeth. German. Her aunt Rebecca at Auschwitz, her cousin Ruth in Bergen-Belsen, her uncle Joseph in Warsaw. For years, panicked and overwhelmed, they never stopped saying kaddish, not just for the dead they knew but for all the ones they never would, the faces in the newspapers, the names whispered by friends or overheard in the grocery store. And all of them somehow tangled inside that one tiny word. German.
When Muriel first met Alfred, he never used to wear short sleeves on their dates and one day she teased him about it and he blushed and didn’t respond. She thought he was just being shy. Then came that one morning, the two of them lying on their backs on the dusty brown grass of her parents’ back yard. He had fallen asleep and she reached over and unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt, first one button, then the second. She wanted him to wake to the touch of her fingertips on his forearm, the tiny electric charge of skin against skin. But instead she found the numbers, five of them one after another like a column in a checkbook. 4 1 8 9 3. Neat. Black. She could not look away. And when Alfred awoke she was crying and he told her what she already knew. It was the Germans.
“We left when I was eight,” George says, and Muriel nods. She turns to him and runs her gaze over his face, expecting to find something in him she has always overlooked, but it is just George. These days he’s around 5’9, bent shoulders, only a few wisps of gray hair left on the sides of his head. He wears a dark green shirt missing the button just above the navel. This is not the German she sees in her head and she knows that, but there is nothing she can say, not yet. As he wrings his hands together and waits for her to speak, she tries to capture them side by side, Alfred and George, these men, these lonely men with their sunken faces, these men who have held her with their silence and their softness and their lack of extravagance, these men she has wanted to love but never been able to.
There is another too--the only man she is truly sure she has ever loved, and for a second she forgets George and thinks only of him, of Michael. She imagines him now, just after 7 on this Tuesday night, washing his dinner dishes in that methodical, unhurried way that always drove her mad. Soon, she knows, he will be curled on his couch with a book and a mug of black coffee, reading the way his father always read--with his legs tucked up against his chin like a child. Most likely that other man is there too, and for a moment she cannot help but think of him. He is thinner and taller than Michael, all sharp features and wiry limbs that jerk unexpectedly when he speaks--a foot tapping on the table leg, an open palm shoving against the air in front of him. The last time she visited their apartment she saw him put his hand on the back of Michael’s head and run his fingers through the bottom of his hair just the way she always did when he was a child, even pausing the same way at the hairline to press a thumb into the exposed skin. Now her neck prickles with the imagined cold of those bony hands and she wants suddenly and powerfully to escape from this fantasy, to return to George and the cool Manhattan night where she has left him.
She has an urge now to tell him about Michael, about the time when he was twelve years old and won third place in the Brooklyn Spelling Bee, or how in high school he once memorized five whole pages from the Book of Genesis just to see if he could. She wants George to see him then--proud, serious Michael, Michael with his still brown eyes, Michael who never refused to hug her, not at 8 or 12 or 17. This is the Michael she remembers and she wants to tell George stories about him until her son--that boy--is so complete he appears here in front of them and they can forget all this talk about moving into a new apartment and finding a wife and starting over.
But she knows this is not how it will be. Tonight there is no Michael. There is no Alfred and there is no Margaret. There are only the two of them, George and Muriel. And somewhere, in a small apartment three blocks distant, she has a dog she calls Buzz Aldrin Rubenstein and a cracked blender that she doesn’t know how to fix. There is a half finished crossword puzzle on her kitchen table and the crusts of a sandwich in her sink. All of these things she knows, like the answers from yesterday’s episode of Jeopardy, round and complete and satisfying. They are there and they are true and it is enough. So she does something she has never done before. She reaches out and she takes George’s hand. It feels cold against hers, and hard. He looks at her uncertainly, but she does not pull away.
For now, for tonight, she is sure.
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