The Sun, the Moon, and All the Marbles
Milo was a little boy, four years old, who lived a long time ago, before there were cars, or airplanes, or machines of any kind. And he lived with his mommy and daddy in a village near the sea, and every night he went outside and watched the waves come in, and they go pssshh, pssshh, pssshh.
And in the morning, he would tell his mommy what he was going to do that day, whether to be in the meadow, or at school, or in the village with their friends. And his mommy would always say, “that sounds good Milo, but remember, never go in the forest alone, because it’s scary, and we don’t know what’s in there.”
So one day Milo was with Olaf Wizendorf. Olaf was the oldest man in the village and Milo would go to his house almost every day to write down everything that Olaf could remember. Olaf said, “I remember when I was a little boy your age, there was a very old man who lived in our village, and people said he was there when the world began. I don’t really think he was that old, but he told this story:
The sun fell in love with the moon, but the moon only liked the sun, she didn’t love him, so she moved far away. The sun was very sad and cried, and his tears became the seas of our world. Then the sun sent the moon diamonds and rubies and sapphires and all other manner of precious stones he forged in the center of his heart. But the moon despised them and cast them down into the pools of the sun’s tears, and those became the land on which we stand. The moon saw what a beautiful thing it was and suddenly fell in love with the sun, and so she began to chase after him, but he was too far ahead, and they have been chasing after each other ever since.”
When Milo had finished writing, he went outside and saw his friend Buttrick playing with his set of gleaming marbles. Suddenly, something funny occurred to him, and he said, “Hey Butt, come play with me. Hey Butt!”
Buttrick replied, “don’t call me that. It hurts my feelings.”
“Butt, Butt, Butt!” Milo exclaimed.
So Buttrick picked up his marbles and went home.
Milo ran after him and knocked on his door, laughing still and saying, “come on Buttrick, it was only a joke!”
Buttrick didn’t believe him and he didn’t come back outside.
The next morning, he wouldn’t come out either, so Milo went back to Olaf Wizendorf’s house and told him what happened.
“Well,” said Olaf, “Did you think it was funny?”
“I sure did,” Milo said, laughing at the thought of it.
“Did Buttrick think it was funny?”
“No. No, he didn’t,” said Milo.
“Well, I think you have to apologize to him, but not apologize because you’re feeling sad. You have to tell him you realize you hurt his feelings, and that you’re sorry to have hurt him.”
So Milo went back to Buttrick’s house and knocked on his door.
“Buttrick, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” he called out.
“No you’re not,” said Buttrick. “You’re just sorry I won’t come out to play with you.”
“I truly am sorry,” said Milo. “I realize that I would be sad if my best friend called me some silly name like Pillow or Mygrow or whatever.”
Buttrick opened the door and they went to the village square where they played together all through the day and into the night, with Buttrick’s marbles gleaming with the light from the sun and the light from the moon.
My Covid Conversion
A bedtime story
At around one in the morning, two glasses of Grand Marnier in, I was grooving on my Beatles playlist. George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord came on, a tune I have long loved but the words to which I have ignored. I’ve never been religious, and even spirituals leave me cold. But on this night – call it the drink, call it the hour, call it whatever you like -- I was particularly struck by the words, I really want to see you. I really want to be with you. But it takes so long, my Lord.
And I thought, what a beautiful thing – I really want to see you, even if it takes a long time to get there. There’s a yearning for something holy that touched me in the moment, I opened the COVID-19 journal I’ve been keeping since the spring and I wrote:
It’s not about death and heaven. It’s not about abdication of personal responsibility. It’s about tapping into a connection, a power of inspiration, of fellow-feeling, of beauty. It is the antithesis of Puritanism or the illness of modern Western religion/religiosity. It is a source of strength and inspiration. It is a wellspring of beauty and universal connectedness with the timelessness and openness to endless possibility.
It is shocking that anyone would want to shut themselves off from this. It is something benign, creative, maternal and paternal, something greater than us that does not seek to crush us – or elevate us. It is simply available to us. It, not us, is eternal. This thing, God if you want to call it that, is incorporeal, not at all in our image, and doesn’t care what we do. It doesn’t have any expectations. It just is.
It started as a rationalization for why someone as gifted as George Harrison would look to something outside himself for strength and inspiration, but it quickly became an argument with myself about why I didn’t want to look outside myself for strength and inspiration. Has it been ego? Has it been the hypocrisy and murderousness of religion? Religion’s role in preventing the adolescent me from getting laid?
I can’t, at my age, reject everything I’ve ever believed and argued. I have an identity to protect, an ego to manage. My own self-image as an existentialist. Can I allow myself to change my view without betraying who I am and have always been? Can I believe in this creative wellspring while still rejecting religion, God the Father, and the Dictatorship of the Faith-Based?
I can’t remember if it was Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins who argued that agnosticism is an intellectual cop-out. I must respectfully disagree.
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Earlier this spring, during one of the many walks I took with Max along the Croton Reservoir to break up the monotony of his stay-at-home existence, I started telling him stories. Sometimes they were about Dirk Diggler, a rude man who drank too many beers at Spangler’s on Route 9, and who got arrested for driving kooky by Officer Brown.
Other times, when he asked me how come things are the way they are, I would tell him about this dude named God, who some people think created the sky and the waters and the fish – the Genesis story.
Sometimes on our walks he would ask me to tell him the Dirk Diggler story. Sometimes he would ask for the God story. My reward was hearing him sweetly struggle with pronouncing “Dirk Digg-a-ler.”
Tonight, after his bedtime story, he asked me how come dogs can’t talk. I said it was because they don’t have vocal cords like us and don’t have brain circuitry that allows them to formulate words. He asked me why that was. I said that was just the way they were made.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, you remember the God story about how people –“
He interrupted me -- “but who made God?”
I told him that was a good question, one to which no one really knew the answer.
“But what do you think?” he pressed me.
I paused and thought pretty hard about how I think about it now, and how best to present it to him.
“Well,” I said, “there used to be nothing, a long, long time ago, and then this power came into existence, and it started making things, it filled the universe with stuff and living beings, and each thing it made gave it more power, until finally it made humans, and humans loved it so much that it got even stronger, and the more we loved it, the more stuff it made.
“But that doesn’t answer your question of who made God,” I said.
“It was a volcano,” he said with assurance.
I told him that was probably the best answer I have ever heard.
My Covid Love Affair
By Michael Hickins
We meet thanks to a global disaster, a catastrophe taking orders of magnitude. We find each other around a coffee on the Canal St. Martin, a shared cigarette lighter, a coupling of despair and hope – that something better may arise.
We come in my place. We stay in my place. No reason not to. My job is gone; the need for idealists has dissipated with the plague, because although I live in a country where idealism can be a profession, demand for idealism has been disrupted. I’ve gone from professional faith healer to my profession of faith: my faith in humankind is being tested.
He, a teacher, no longer has a place to teach. Children need not learn during times of humanitarian crisis, no more than citizens are due civil liberties nor immigrants their basic human rights. Never waste a good crisis, says Jerome, sad savant of economics. A simple country boy from near Pau, a small prefecture close to the border of Spain –could have been anything he wanted, and he wanted to become a school teacher. It speaks highly of our civilization that this should come as a surprise, that a young man who could become anything chooses to become a teacher.
The first week we are together, I marvel at his intellect (when I’m not marveling at the beauty of the birthmark over his one green eye – the other is blue), while he rides me, cowgirl-style.
The second week, I marvel at the beauty of his soul (when I’m not marveling at the exquisite odor of his inner sanctum). He uses my nose for a vibrating clitoral massage implement. “This is the longest I’ve been with anybody,” he says.
The third week, I marvel at the longing inside my belly, the ache I feel for him. He has left Paris for the small commune of Nay, I kid you not, in the vicinity of Pau, where his elderly, retired parents own a small house and a vegetable garden.
He plans to quarantine with them for as long as it takes. He will forage for them at essential shops, will take in the mail for them, scrub the floors, drive them to their doctors’ appointments, help them organize the world like the lights in a poem by Wallace Stevens.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea
Jerome and I have the Internet, the chat boxes, the text machines, the synchronous and asynchronous means of modern communication, the digital walls that divide us into ones and zeros, nothings and heroes, the dots and dashes of the modern era.
The Internet is a modern telegraph. Joseph Reuters made a fortune selling market information by means of carrier pigeon. He was smart enough to see the future, and was one of the first to use the telegraph for modern commercial purposes. Today, the sixteen-wheelers of the information superhighway are the banks, the brokers, the cryptocurrency manipulators, the practitioners of the dark arts of cyber extortion, cyber ransom, cyber racketeering.
And to this jibber-jabber telegraph, to this staccato Mephistopheles of epistolary endeavors, we entrust our love letters, the outpourings of our analog souls, as if spiritual beings could generate ghosts in the machine, as if the digital gears of the gods would grind more gently on our behalf.
But our hourly tick-tack texts, our brushed aluminum promises of eternal love, our daily FaceCrush sessions, our HeadTrip assignations, our TenderBox exchanges – become banal as the topless billboard advertisements for lingerie on the Grand Boulevards.
“Let’s stop,” he suggests.
“Yes,” I agree. “Let’s take a break from this breakless, breathless bacchanalia of banter.”
We put a stop to the solipsistic soap opera that we had ginned up for ourselves. Jerome has his parents to care for, and I had – well, I have all of Paris to heal.
I pretend that I am at peace with the idea that we will afford each other the space in which to miss and rediscover one another at some later, more propitious time for love to prosper.
My nightfall footsteps echo across boulevard Jean Jaures, named for the Socialist revolutionary who led the first modern French Socialist party, where it crosses boulevard Barbès–Rochechouart, named for Armand Barbès, also a revolutionary and the very first rebel without a cause.
I am alone this evening. I have a vinyl pizza delivery sack slung across my back, but instead of pizza, I’m carrying meals from one of the Christian charities. There is no shortage of takers, and the charity doesn’t care who takes the meals, or of what religion they partake, or of what faith they profess, or in which precinct they piss, nor in what language they swear.
There are dozens of us across Paris; I am proud to be of their number, and they remind me that humans are also capable of great generosity.
The newly homeless elbow their way past the laconic, urbane homeless, the experienced urban homeless, the homeless by choice, the homeless by fortune, the homeless vagrants from Syria, Eritrea, and other loci of human loco governments, the foci of populist vindictiveness and popular rage, these homeless poor with dirty fingernails and greasy over-combed hair, of shiny faces, of blackened teeth and grimy shirt collars and frayed cuffs, of ill-fitting winter coats and leather boots held together with duct tape.
I cross the median where the newly unemployed refine their skill at pétanque, a new meridian for this ancient game of balls, of judgment, and of skill, a sport that needs no feats of strength, but only endurance, for the pastis hits you hard under the noonday sun; the playing surface is mottled with spots where heavy metal balls have thudded to the ground and ground the dust under their crisscross alien designs.
A menace looms in the afterglow of the evening’s last metro, a light brown walking stick in his hand, a false smile on his face. I am no dupe, and I also practice la boxe anglaise, which is to say, I box. I know
how to defend myself.
To be an idealist, a humanist, to work for the common good, to work diligently at fraying the rope that
capitalism hands us to hasten our own demise – these things do not mean one is oblivious or helpless or unaware of the realities of life. Cut-purses are nothing new. I bend at the knees as the man approaches, tip-tapping his stick menacingly into the palm of his left hand. I grab a handful of dirt and shuffle it into his eyes. I duck away from his blindly swinging stick, I stick my leg out, I stick him in the face as he falls, I kick him in the ribs, I kick the man when he’s down, there’s no other way to it, I kick the stick out of his hand, out of his reach, he’s out of his depth, he’s near death, he suffers from diphtheria, of acute diverticulitis, of dietary impurities, of lack of dignity and lack of a social security card.
I help him to his feet. He stares at me balefully.
“How do you know I won’t try to gouge out your eyes with my thumbs?” he says.
I don’t bother answering.
“I don’t have any of these fucking meals left, but I’ll be back tomorrow,” I say.
“I’ll be dead tomorrow. My baby will be dead tomorrow.”
“What’s her name?”
“It’s a boy. Vladimir. I thought if I named him after a despot, he would have good luck.”
“He still might,” I say. “If he lives long enough.”
“What a fucking country,” he says. “Why did I bother coming here, only to die in the streets like an animal?”
“Animals die in the forest,” I say. “Humans usually die in the street, and only humans have the stomach to stomach it.”
“What the hell do you know of it?” he asks.
We sit on a bench and observe the moonlit terrain where tomorrow and every day old men hack each other’s hopes to pieces with heavy metal balls with checkerboard patterns etched into their silver.
“I see people die every day,” I say. “I see them dying even when they don’t know they’re dying.”
“Boy, you really feel yourself, don’t you. Well don’t romanticize your life too much, you’re not very far from the gutter of guttural subsistence yourself.”
I don’t tell him I belong to the cultured and educated elite, and that despite my attempt at class suicide, they won’t let me die without a fight. I’d have to do the French thing and find a way to off myself without help of a firearm.
There is no Second Amendment in France, no second chance, not a second wasted on thought, you don’t get seconds, there is no second place, only first loser.
It is a Saturday afternoon in June and I am at another weekend demonstration. Nothing will change, nothing will be accomplished, and the people’s evolutionary aims are diffuse and divergent and difficult to obtain. So and so must resign. Such and such a decree must be rescinded.
We are protesting budget cuts at public hospitals, layoffs of nurses, reductions in the pay of nurses, reductions in medical reimbursements. The President has said it is the end of the providential state, and he has said the providential state will care for everyone.
The guttural protest chants are led by a pair of women straight out of the Mabinogi. The power of their urgent rhyming utterances delivered in combat cadence is unmatched. I understand why the Celts revered their female warriors. Nothing grabs you more powerfully than the urging of womenfolk.
Nothing substantive is ever obtained from street protests, except the ferocious expression of our remaining freedom, our obstinate insistence to be heard, or at least to be seen and gassed, to be acknowledged by television cameras, our images distorted by the words of the reporters.
Our COVID masks partially protect us from the tear gas canisters fired by bazooka-wielding riot police, but nothing shields us from the distortions of the capitalist-owned media who call us rioters, or nihilists, or terrorists. Yes, we are the terrorists, while the machinery of government is used to grind us down like Chinese students at Tiananmen Square.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
They chase a few of us down a narrow street, screaming, “bastards, motherfuckers, motherfucking bastards.” They swing their inflexible batons and kick our ribs with their steel-toed boots, and I am cut by the glass from the headlights of muted cars parked by the side of the road.
Jerome returns to Paris in the summer, when the bloom is off the rose, when the quarantine is over, over and over and over and over. He tells me it’s over.
“I’ve never been involved with anyone for more than three weeks,” he says.
“Technically, we’ve only been together for two,” I say.
“Don’t argue with me, don’t you see it’s pointless. Don’t you know I hate it when you debate me, you constantly debate me, everything is a debate with you, you always have to contradict everything I say, the littlest thing, it’s like you’re looking for an excuse to debate me.”
I remember the moment we met, he and I. I remember the world as it was then, full of promise and the promise of disaster like a storm at sea. We think we want a revolution!
Nothing seems more predictable than prosperity and the end of history. We yearn for novelty, for the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune, for the jab of existential spontaneity, the spouting fountain of precarity. And then it comes and it is more unforgiving than we expected.
Suddenly we want nothing more than to scurry back down the rabbit hole of our previously prosperous existence, back to the comfort of awaiting the outcome we expect, but which we have lost in the foxhole of life’s unpredictable banditry.
But as my darling, departing Jerome says, never waste a good crisis.
To the barricades, my friends!
The Life Store
A few months after my mom died, Laura and I go out for dinner with her parents in Kingston, the upstate New York town that is trying to become Brooklyn North. We have Max with us, and he gets a little restless between the main course and dessert, so I take him on a walk around the neighborhood.
“Is that a park?” he asks after we’ve gone a few feet.
“No, that’s a parking lot,” I say.
“Is that a park?” he asks when we’ve gone another few feet.
“No, that’s another parking lot.”
He’s quiet and we walk hand in hand. I love feeling his little hand in mine; it’s the best feeling in the world, even better than sex.
“Is that a park?” he asks as we cross the street.
“No, that’s a graveyard,” I say. I immediately regret my choice of words. Why couldn’t I have just said churchyard?
“What’s a graveyard?” he asks.
“It’s where we plant people when they’re dead,” I say.
Again, I want to stuff the words back in my mouth, but it’s too late.
“We plant them?”
“Yes, when people die we put them in boxes and then we plant them in the ground.”
It just gets worse and worse.
We stop at the wrought-iron fence and peer into the darkened graveyard. Tombs from the Revolutionary era loom gray and undecipherable to the naked eye. He stares quietly for a while.
“Is Dolly dead?” he asks about our recently deceased, geriatric cat.
“Yes, she’s dead,” I say.
I’m helpless now, trapped in a brutal reality of my own wording.
“I miss Dolly. Can we see her again?”
“No, she’s dead. She’s gone,” I say.
“Is she in a graveyard?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Did we plant her in a box?”
“No, we only plant people in boxes. Well, some pets too, I guess. Some people plant their pets in a box, but it’s dumb.”
“Why is it dumb?”
“Because. They’re gone.”
“What happens when they’re gone?”
“Nothing. They’re just gone.”
“Can we see them again?”
“No, they’re gone. They’re dead, and when you’re dead, you’re gone. That’s why it’s important to be careful when you cross the street,” I say, desperate to get something positive out of this conversation, something Laura won’t absolutely kill me over.
“What does dead mean?”
“It means you’re not alive anymore,” I say. “You’re gone. No more life.”
“Why can’t you go to the life store?” he asks.
I am struck dumb.
“There’s no such thing as the life store,” I say finally.
“Yes there is,” he says. “I saw it a long, long time ago, when I was a little baby.”
“Mommy’s probably worried about us by now,” I say. “We should go back.”
When we get back to the restaurant, Max runs over to our table.
“Mommy,” he announces in his best teacherly voice. “When people are dead we plant them in the ground!”
Laura looks at me and mouths “what the fuck?”
I shrug, palms upward. She shakes her head at me.
When we get home, I look for a moment at my mom’s 1960s–vintage red-and-yellow can of Swee-Touch-Ne Tea, which holds her ashes.
“What am I going to do with you now?” I ask.
What Did Your Father Do?
Thurman and Ebba are pushed together by the expansive car seat that holds Max, whispering their life stories while Max watches age-appropriate videos on my company phone, scarfing up data limits I will hear about from HQ when the bill comes due.
Laura is next to me in the passenger seat of the fancier-than-we-could-afford metallic-blue Volvo c90, occasionally gripping the escape handle above her head. We smile at each other hearing the sounds of budding romance in the middle row, but I am saddened by the knowledge that this part of our lives is over. We will never discover each other again, no matter how hard we pretend otherwise. It is true for as long as human history is long; lovers grow closer, but their sexual sparks grow farther apart as time rolls on.
I still keep waiting for some magic moment, though, an ah-ha moment when she remembers what it was about me that made her feel sexually in love, in special love, specks-of-light-dancing-in-front-of-her-eyes love. But the more time passes, the more I feel this moment will never come, and each time I get that feeling, I turn -- inexplicably-to-Laura -- morose and glum, which is certainly not the spark she’d need to rekindle the specks of light.
The scenery changes abruptly as we leave France and enter Germany. The rolling hills and high stands of skinny trees remain, but the road itself becomes sleeker, and the rest areas less inviting. We learn that “Ausfahrt” means “exit,” which makes all of us giggle like little children. And fortunately, the rest stops have hot dogs aplenty, which is all Max seems to need. That and watching Bob the Builder videos.
It is Monday morning, and we aren’t due at the factory until early Tuesday afternoon, when we’re scheduled to meet with Boris Grosskopf, the current chief executive of the family-run business for more than 135 years that is and isn’t my family’s business.
I’m torn – I want to make this a friendly visit. I don’t want to assert myself too much – not now. There is time enough for the confrontations, perhaps even lawsuits. I know that my claim is still in the early, investigatory stages of the bureaucratic dance. An email from the commission says they’ve received my documentation and are looking into the matter.
I’ve sent everything I know, which admittedly isn’t very much. Why there’s been no claim until now, why I waited this long to make one – these are questions I cannot answer. Because our family relationships have been fragmented by history and bad temper?
I hope to learn something on this trip that I can use to complement my application, bolster it in the later stages. An ah-ha data point that trumps all objections.
My mood can best be described as both confident and apprehensive.
Who wouldn’t be apprehensive about meeting the people who laid claim to their property and even their name, under cover fabricated by the Nazis?
But I am confident, and if not confident, at least sure of myself, and if not sure of myself, at least sure of my standing, and if not confident in my standing, at least aggrieved enough to insist upon my rights and claims.
My mood can be best described as vacillating between anger and sadness.
The closer we get to Ansbach, the more I feel like an avenging Michael Kohlhaas, the anodyne, middle-class provincial who, provoked by mistreatment at the hands of an arrogant German margrave, leads a small army of discontented rabble in a doomed uprising against the tyrannical powers that were.
Kohlhaas would have certainly empathized with my anger, which grows as I chew over the words from Sabine Weber, Grosskopf’s secretary: “he also lives in the house.”
We arrive in Ansbach in the late afternoon. Thurman and Ebba lean forward as I point to landmarks I’ve seen in guide books. We cross the Rezat, the small river represented on the city’s coat of arms. (The coat of arms includes three little fish swimming in the Rezat. My father liked to joke that the village could only accommodate three fish -- one of the few things I ever heard him say about his home town.)
I park at the hotel, which is across the street from a stone gate that indicates where the original walls to the seventh-century city must have been.
The carefully restored city wall has columns on either side of the main gate, topped with stone heads of musicians and poets sculpted to resemble Roman emperors. There is a horse-drawn carriage in the entryway of the hotel, to evoke the city’s bucolic past. The ornaments would seem ostentatious for a city, let alone a small hamlet in the hinterlands of Bavaria.
We pile out of the car and stretch our legs after the five-hour drive. I lift Max out of his car seat, the back of his shirt clingy with sweat, and I let him run up and down the carpeted stairs of our hotel.
We encounter a certain fussy formality in the form of the front desk clerk, as if she felt the need to justify the high cost of the rooms. And we are faced with a logistical challenge – either the suitcases or the people can fit in the elevator, but not both. Thurman solves the dilemma by carrying our luggage up the stairs, with help from Ebba, who is stronger than she looks.
Thurman seems happy – almost carefree. So much so that I’m worried he won’t drink in the whole Ansbach experience. But at least he isn’t in a sad funk anymore. He touches Ebba as often as he can – on the arm, on her shoulder, on the hand.
Ebba came to Paris while on vacation from her job as a data analyst for the Swedish secret service, and never went home. Thurman tells her he’s actually Swedish too, a spy on a mission to lure her back to her old job. They laugh together easily.
Suitcases safely in our stuffy rooms, the majestic beds festooned high with pillows, and electrical outlets in short supply (how are we going to charge our phones, iPads, and power my CPAP?), we meet in the lobby.
Thurman and Ebba linger upstairs a little longer than necessary – no surprise there – and Max entertains us by flirting from his stroller with the young blond woman at the front desk, whose chubby cheeks crease with pleasure at his attentions.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“New York,” I say, speaking for myself, Laura and Max. No point explaining that Ebba is Swedish or that Thurman was born and lives in Paris.
“Oh, we don’t have a lot of visitors from America. We used to have an army base here of American soldiers, but there are fewer now.”
Thurman and Ebba finally come downstairs. We go outside, Thurman offering to push Max in his stroller over the bumpy cobblestones.
The town center has been turned into a pedestrian mall. The streets are narrow and the buildings, ancient. The exposed wood beams bulge from building facades to restrain the aging, crumbling stone walls they support.
There are a few of the typical retail chains -- Sephora, H&M, C&A – but many more stores that are independently owned. Even a place called Chili’s isn’t part of the restaurant franchise.
I want to visit the Jewish cemetery that Google locates on Rügelandstrasse, but which no one we ask seems to know anything about. It turns out that the cemetery was destroyed by vandals in 1950, but the listing on Google Maps proves that some things don’t have a right to be forgotten.
We stroll onwards towards Rosenbadstrasse, where the Ansbach synagogue still stands. It is no longer open, nor even possible to visit. It has a plain wall, yellow of course, with only a small plaque indicating that it was once a Jewish temple, and a video camera affixed to the wall above the door, angled to dissuade vandals.
“Such a shame we still have to deal with this kind of thing in Europe,” Ebba says.
“Not just in Europe,” I say. I am reminded of my father’s dour pessimism, his rejection of the idea that “it can’t happen here,” in the good ol’ US of A.
We get a table at a café across the street from the disaffected temple and order drinks. We allow Max to run around the cobblestoned plaza since there are no cars, but Laura watches him closely.
“Do you get a lot of Jewish visitors here to look at the synagogue?” I ask our waitress, a young woman dressed like a punk. You can see she’d like to be diffident and sardonic, but she’s much too eager to please her customers to be a real renegade.
“No,” she says. “Everyone knows there isn’t much to look at.”
“Well, at least it’s still here. There aren’t a lot of synagogues left in Germany,” I say.
“They only didn’t burn it down because they were afraid the fire would spread to the other buildings,” she says, shrugging.
“My father worshipped here,” I say.
“Ah,” she says as she walks away.
Thurman and I exchange a look of wonder.
“I guess she doesn’t think anything of that,” he says.
“Maybe she’s embarrassed,” Ebba says.
“Maybe,” I say.
“I don’t see any sign of embarrassment,” Thurman says.
We finish our drinks and keep moving, looking for a place to get dinner – and secretly, I’m hoping for an acknowledgement of my father’s existence. Here and there we walk over small square bronze plaques embedded in the cobblestones, scuffing them with our shoes. Upon closer inspection, they seem to mark the place where Jews lived until they were taken away and murdered by the Nazis. People walk over them as if they were nothing, unremarkable to new generations of Bavarians who seem to be doing everything they can to forget that episode in their history.
The fact is that I want to fall in love with this place. It is where my father was born. It is full of handsome, meaningful buildings and parks, just like many European cities.
These are the streets my father walked. There is the old Hotel Zirkel, the hotel where he and other Jewish friends gathered in the afternoon to drink coffee, taste delectable sweets, and remake the world with their idealism. Here is where the margraves lived, and the theater, and the carefully preserved buildings on Martinlutherplatz, where my father and aunt met with friends, sat in cafes, made business deals. And here is the Hofgarten, where the posh bourgeoisie strolled on sunny afternoons bearing bowler hats and dueling scars.
I remind myself that the Germans are different now, and no one here today was alive, let alone responsible for what happened to my family in the 1930s and 40s. I don’t want to look around resentfully.
As a child, in the developing womb of my own being, I disagreed with my father’s every word – even as his words etched themselves like the truth on a stone tablet. He was a pessimist, a recluse, a misanthrope disguised as a hale fellow, well-met. His motto: You do what you must to survive. Pretend you like your neighbors – pretend so effectively that they open their arms in friendship.
But don’t trust them. Don’t tell them about your religion, or your political affiliations. Don’t wear anything on your shirt that can serve as a target for a sniper. Don’t kick bags on the sidewalk because they may contain bombs. Don’t trust women who are too easy. Don’t trust men who pretend to be your friend.
“When I was a boy,” he once told me after I’d come home sobbing from a quarrel with my best friend Hal, “my best friend was a boy named Otto. But then he became my mortal enemy.”
“How come?” I asked.
“He became a Nazi and he killed my mother,” my father said. “So you see, friendship at your age means nothing.”
I resented my father because as far as he was concerned, nothing concerning me meant anything – not my friendships, not my love of baseball, and not my desire to hang around with my older sister Bette. As much as I also boiled with anger at this Otto, I also knew that Hal would never try to kill me or my mother. I knew my father’s story was something from another time, a time when people were pitted against one another for reasons that made no sense. I knew this was America. I knew no one would kill you for being a Jew or a Democrat or a Republican.
I look around me here in Ansbach, and I know that Otto is dead from old age or from battlefield wounds. Either way, he isn’t here anymore. His children, if they still live in this town a half hour by car from Nuremburg, are probably fifteen years my senior, and his grandchildren are ambling out of a grocery store on their way home from work, not remotely responsible for my grandmother’s death, and probably not wishing anyone dead at all.
But they live off the wealth that was created as much by Jews as anyone else. Their health care benefits are funded by Lazarus money! Their Autobahn was built with Lazarus money! I feel this, and I also recognize the absurdity of these feelings.
And I can’t shake the feeling that no one remembers. It’s not history I want them to remember. No, I want them to remember my father, Max Lazarus, and his mother, Dora Hirschkind Lazarus.
I want them to remember that they existed, that they lived here and loved here and made something of value here.
In the morning, Thurman, Ebba, and I take Max to the Hofgarden, the park where my father must have played as a child. His namesake Max has been exceptionally cooperative, and I want to make sure he’s had a chance to expend some energy before we get to the silk factory and our rightful ancestral home.
A five minute walk from the hotel, the Hofgarden stands on 50 acres, and is a perfect place for strolling along gravel paths or spreading a blanket over the grass and having a picnic with your beloved. It has monuments to long-forgotten poets. There is a statue of Kaspar Hauser, the boy raised by wolves.
In other words, it’s a wonderful place for adults to contemplate nature-in-a-box, but not really fun for little kids. There is a small playground hidden behind some tennis courts, but it is surprisingly poorly maintained, dirty, and empty. There are no other children for Max to play with.
Thurman and Ebba, though, do their best to replace the missing children, playing tag and letting Max chase them around the sandbox. I realize that in a way, they are auditioning each other, without being conscious of it, for the roles of mother and father, husband and wife. Thurman can show off his strength and speed, all while remaining gentle and under control, and Ebba can show off her playfulness and agility.
Max runs over to me every so often, to check that I’m okay all by myself, and also to make sure I approve of his new friendships.
I pull Thurman aside. “I’m anxious,” I say.
“Of course, that’s natural,” he says. “I am too. Not really anxious – excited.”
“Do you think there’s a chance he won’t show us the house after all?”
Thurman considers it.
“There’s a chance. But I doubt it.”
I put my hands on his shoulders and shake him gently.
“Don’t you people know?? Max Lazarus lived here!!” I shout.
Max runs over. “Am I going to live here?” he asks.
I smile, but I don’t have an answer for him.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “But who knows.”
The Hirschkind silk factory is on Triesdorferstrasse, outside the city center. Here, the buildings are newer, the cobblestones paved over with asphalt and the sidewalks made out of plain cement. The population is more diverse – which is to say there are Arabs.
Along the way, we find a shawarma shop for lunch on Maximillianstrasse and sit outside in the shade. I’m tapping my foot and jiggling my leg.
Max eats a hot dog – we’ve taken to calling Germany “sausageland.” He knows that isn’t really its name, and it makes him smile to be in on the joke, like a real grownup. The rest of us have roast lamb and eat quietly. Ebba especially is quiet, and I realize that she must feel like the interloper of all interlopers.
“Are you sure you want Max and I to go in there with you?” Laura asks. “He might be a handful.”
“No, it’s his heritage too. And yours,” I add.
Thurman is wearing a clean tee shirt with blue and white horizontal stripes, and a pair of slacks. I’m wearing my suit pants and a collared shirt. I want to show respect to Boris Grosskopf. Laura and Ebba are wearing jeans as well, very presentable, very middle class, very respectful.
We walk uphill on Triesdorferstrasse, and I imagine my father walking up this same hill, perhaps without as many – or any – shops along the way. We pass under a train trestle and I guess that if it was there when he lived here. No one told me anything – I have no way of knowing.
We pass a storefront office that belongs to a guy comically named Sammy West, “your number one coach in Germany for guitar and vocals.” He dubs himself “The Artistmaker” and has a picture of himself dressed up like a young Garth Brooks, with a cowboy hat and a plaid shirt, looking forcefully towards the future.
I chuckle, knowing my father would have considered this neighbor as nothing more than a prostitute selling out his soul for the most convenient buck.
The next building is the one, No. 15, surrounded by a long brick wall, high wrought-iron gates, and a weathered bronze plate on the wall bearing the name of Hirschkind. Through the gate, we can see the house itself, an elegant three-story Victorian building, and to the right, a plain, single-story building that is obviously the factory.
Between the front gate and the house, a lush yard with flower beds and tall trees, probably a quarter of an acre all told.
Under the Hirschkind sign are a pair of bronze doorbells; one for the business, Hirschkind Nähseiden Fabrik, and one for the Grosskopf family. “The general manager still lives there with his family.”
Embedded in the sidewalk in front of the gate are the now-familiar bronze squares: my grandmother Dora Lazarus, my aunt Beatrice Lazarus, my father Max Lazarus, my grandfather Edward Hirschkind – and even one for my late brother Walter – with their dates of birth and, if known, when and where they died.
“The cement around them looks new,” Thurman remarks. “They must have just put them in.”
We’re early, so we continue walking down the street to the end of the wall, to the driveway used by trucks to get in and out of the warehouse loading dock. I turn around and see on the sidewalk a tall, slender man in shirtsleeves waving at us, his arms beckoning us back towards him.
“Look, it’s him,” I say. “Let’s go!”
He is wearing jeans and a casual button-down shirt, and a full head of hair. He grins at me through slightly disordered front teeth. We shake hands and look each other in the eyes warily. He shakes hands with Thurman and nods to Ebba and Laura, and bends down stiffly to say hello to Max.
“Look, I wanted to show you,” he says, pointing to the bronze squares in the sidewalk. He reads each of the names aloud, and tells me who each person is – “that is your father’s mother, that is your father. We didn’t know about your brother – is he still alive?”
“He died a few years ago, from an illness,” I say. I don’t want to say which illness because I don’t want him to judge – and I’m convinced he would judge. Everyone judges. He, least of all, has any right. No one has any right. The bile begins to rise in my throat. “This is Max Lazarus, your father.” Oh, really? You entitled son-of-a-bitch with your Lazarus-funded healthcare system, your Lazarus-funded retirement system, and your Lazarus-built mansion where you can park your ass every night.
“Shall we go in?” he asks.
“The offices are here in the house, the first two floors. The last story is living quarters. The factory where we make the threads is through here.”
Of course I want to visit the factory – the factory my grandfather built and that my father managed.
Max starts fussing in his stroller, and Laura tries to shush him, but the more she tries, the less he cooperates. Usually, I would step in, but this is one time I won’t. Thurman is by my side, and Boris is in front, leading us from one factory room to another. Ebba trails behind, obstinately refusing Thurman’s silent entreaty to walk alongside him.
The first room has broad exposed metal exhaust pipes hanging from the ceiling, and on the floor stand dozens of plastic bins, some lime green and some bright yellow, filled with industrial-sized bobbins of thread. More bobbins are perched on hooks attached to an olive-green machine that spins them.
“Most of what we make isn’t silk,” Boris says. “It’s too hard, and all the manufacturers want cotton or nylon.”
He shows us a room where threads are dyed and then heated to a billion degrees. “Some of these threads are refractory to ordinary dyes and treatments, we have to treat them separately,” he says.
I try to pay close attention – as if this were mine, or would be some day. The word refractory stands out to me: like me, or my father, or Max. Stubborn. Some would say Teutonic. It’s a perfect word for to him to use.
I ask questions like a reporter. “What caused the disruption in the market? Where are your major markets?” that sort of thing.
“My father told me at one point this was the second largest silk thread company in the world. Some Italian company was first,” I say.
My father never actually told me this, but my mother did in her later years, while using thread from my father’s antique sample case to darn her clothes.
“Why do you care?” she asked when I protested at the use she was making of the thread.
“Because,” I said. Because what? Would I be following in my father’s footsteps across the eastern steppes of Russia, Turkey, Greece and India? Would I be showing the wares of my family business, signing letters of intent, receiving letters of credit, signing off on bills of lading? Why did I care?
“There is a lot of competition,” Boris says. “It’s a very tough market. But we have our niche, we often supply our larger competitors when they need to deliver on short notice, or a short run. We think we can keep this business running another twenty or thirty years,” he says.
I am shocked at the timeframe. The company has already lasted more than 135 years – why give it an end-date at all? It nearly brings me to tears.
“Another twenty years?” I say. “It has lasted this long – why not another 135?”
Boris gives me a patronizing smile that infuriates me, and he doesn’t deign to answer my question.
We have finished our tour of the factory and are standing on the first floor of the house itself, next to the staircase that leads up to the other offices and then to the managing director’s apartment, where my father grew up and banged his head on the wall in frustration and thought about girls and read the Torah and maybe masturbated thinking about Rachael or Rebecca or one of those sexy Talmudic vixens.
Here is where he grew up, where he watched his father build a business the way Thurman’s friend Florent watched his father build a business. There is a chasm between my generation and my father’s, with Thurman, little Max, and I on one side, and my father and my grandfather Edward Hirschkind on the other. Between us, the Nazis and the War.
I keep peeking up the carpeted stairs, the transition from place of business to place of family. Family-owned for more than 135 years. I long to climb them, to barrel past Boris and crash through the door of history that separates me from my family. And my rightful heritage. I wait for the right moment to ask.
“I’ve been here 25 years, the last ten years as the managing director,” says Boris. “There are many people here who have been here as long. It’s given us all a good living, but these days it’s hard to get young people interested in this business.”
My father could have done better. My father could have inspired young people to work here.
Standing at the entrance of the main office, Boris is interrupted a few times by employees asking questions, each of which he considers carefully before answering quietly but authoritatively.
“How often do you travel? I know you were on a sales trip when I first emailed,” I say.
“Oh, not so often,” he says. “Maybe twelve or fifteen percent of the time.”
I’m shocked the figure is so low. No wonder you’re losing market share, I think. Get off your lazy ass and sell some damn threads!
“What did your father do, did you say he worked here?” Boris asks.
My heart stops beating, I stop breathing. I clench my fists and unclench them.
“He owned this place,” I say, smiling.
“Ah,” he says, nodding. “I know everything about this company that happened since the war. Before and during the war, I know nothing. I know we didn’t make silk during the war, but I don’t know what we did make. “Reinhardt Jaeger married Gertrude in 1947 and they had a girl in 1953, Renate. Reinhardt died in 1959, and Gertrude ran it until 1975. Then Renate took over and still owns it, but I am the managing director. She’s no longer active.”
“And the other daughters?” I ask.
“There are no other children,” he says. “I’m sure of that much.”
I scratch my head.
Max has been building to a slow boil, and finally explodes, crying and demanding to be taken out of his stroller. Laura can’t control him – no one can control him. Ebba and Laura try jollying him up, but to no avail. He wants out, and that’s that. I wonder if he’s affected by the vibe – something he can’t identify or articulate, but which maybe pervades the atmosphere like the stink of his favorite stuffed skunk: some mixture of anxiety, anger, rage, and hypocrisy – Rageanopoxrisy. Laura and Ebba take him out to the garden.
“My understanding is that Reinhardt divorced my aunt because Jews weren’t allowed to own property after the 1936 Nuremburg laws,” I say. “So they divorced and the family all gave him their shares in the business until things got back to normal, so to speak, at which point they would get remarried and everyone would get their shares back. Only when the war ended, he told my aunt, ‘Sorry, I met someone else and got married, and we have a couple of kids.’”
Boris shakes his head. “No, I don’t know anything about that story, but Renate is the only child they had, and Gertrude was his wife only in 1947.”
“So why did they tell me that story?”
Boris shakes his head again – the mysteries of dispossessed Jewish families are beyond his understanding. I don’t blame him there. “You would have to ask Renate,” he says. He goes into his office and scribbles her address on a sticky note and hands it to me.
I’m becoming slightly irate at his willful ignorance of everything “before the war.”
“Let me educate you about what this was before the war,” I say. “This house and this factory was built by my grandfather, Edward Hirschkind, and after his death, the business was owned and managed by my father Max Lazarus until the Nazis forced him to hand it over to Reinhardt Jaeger.
“My father, Max Lazarus, lived here upstairs. May we visit the upstairs? Just my eldest and I?”
Boris purses his lips, then smiles. “I’m sorry, these are my private apartments. I don’t even need to lock them because no one comes up there but family.”
“Yes,” I say. My chest tightens. “But this is where my father grew up. I would like to see –“
“It is all changed now. Nothing is the same.”
“But just to see.”
I try composing myself.
“These are private things,” he says.
“Private things? Let me tell you about private things.”
Thurman puts a hand on my arm. He’s seen this side of me before. Boris has not, and the volume of my voice has attracted others. The foreman and one other worker appear behind Boris, between us and the staircase.
“You are ruining this business with your private things, with your 20-year timeline, you shortsighted little man, your private things you don’t see that all this is because of my family, not yours. You travel twelve percent of the time – my father would have slapped you!”
Boris reacts as if I had indeed slapped him.
“What did you say?”
“My father would have fired you. This was the number two silk factory in all of Europe.”
I realize I sound ridiculous, cartoonish, and that I look even worse, an out-of-shape, red-faced
American Jew – yes, Jew, Jew, Jew – but I don’t care at this moment. A moment I may regret, but the hell with it.
“I’m sorry Mr. Lazarus. I realize this visit is emotional for you. Now, I have to get back to my business, and perhaps plan some travelings.”
“Of course,” I say. “Some travel. I understand the Germans are very good travelers.”
I’m not sure the man understands my jibe.
“Goodbye, sir,” he says.
I want to rush past him, through the men at his back, and up the stairs, to fling open the door to his – my – apartment. But for some reason I stick my hand out for him to shake instead, and for an equally mysterious reason, he takes it.
Then he turns on his heel and goes inside, leaving Thurman and me on the door step.
I lean back towards the door, but the foreman steps in front of me and crosses his arms, daring me to pass.
“I’m getting this whole place back. You’ll have to find another apartment,” I shout into the hallway leading to the office.
“Papa,” Thurman says, nudging back out.
“I’m getting it back, do you hear me?”
Laura takes a picture of the three Lazarus boys in the front yard – Ernst, Thurman, and Max – with their backs to the house. Our house. What should be our house. What could have been our house. What will be our house. The photo shows me scowling, Thurman with arms crossed, and Max looking perplexed.
“Daddy, why were you yelling?” Max asks.
Laura looks at me reprovingly. Not now, I think to myself. Jesus not now.
“I was upset,” I say. “Not at you. I was upset at that man.”
“Why were you upset?”
How do you explain appropriation to a three-year-old?
Thurman goes to a knee. “The man was very rude,” he says. “He said things that are not nice, and that do not make sense. Our daddy doesn’t like people who are rude or who say stupid things.”
Max nods approvingly. I put my hand on Thurman’s shoulder as he rises. He hugs me, and I try to maintain my composure, to not heap more confusion on Max’s plate. I’m trembling as I swallow my tears.
How bitterly I want to have seen that place. Of course there would be no marker that says Max Lazarus slept here, no dents in the wall from where he threw a fist or banged his head, no dried semen, no 19th century sheets, no slaps from his father’s hand imprinted on his ghostly visage, no smells of his mother’s cooking. There is nothing to see here, probably not even a single beam of his light remains.
Or perhaps there is. Maybe there’s some sign of him, or a secret sign he left for me to discover one day, left behind on the day he fled, but before knowing he would decide to never return, before knowing I would exist. Maybe there’s a hidden metal box like my mother’s, a fake wall that I alone would discover, explaining why he never demanded restitution from his brother-in-law Reinhardt, or why he and his mother waited so long before leaving – so long that it cost his mother Dora her life.
We stand on the sidewalk outside the gates, now closed, and I peer at the doorbells. The Grosskopf family.
“This should be your house,” Ebba says.
“In another life,” I say. “In a universe where my father returned to Ansbach after the war, somehow still met my mother, and I was born. Everything else the same, everything different, but me being me and owning this house.”
I try to smile, but I can see by the look on Laura’s face that I am failing.
Max demands to hold Laura’s phone so he can look at the photo of the three of us on the lawn in the garden where he too, in another universe, would be trying to climb the tree or cut through the air on a makeshift swing tied to its branch.
“My father used to say that our trees, the trees in Upstate New York, were nothing compared to the size of the trees in Bavaria,” I say.
“Is it true?” Ebba asks. “Are the trees here bigger?”
“Our trees are much bigger,” I respond.
My mother used to smile at my father’s tree parochialism also. The black-and-red Swee-Touch-Nee can full of her ashes is in the Volvo. I had considered asking Boris if I could scatter the ashes somewhere in the garden, a way of reuniting my father and mother in a historical overexposure, superimposing the improbably younger girl in her future husband’s former childhood garden; now, obviously, I’m not going to do that.
At dinner, Laura is on her phone. Thurman, Ebba, and I take turns entertaining Max. The restaurant we pick is very highly rated, but the outdoor seating in the garden makes it okay to have Max there. I guess there’s an unspoken rule that you can bring a fussy toddler to a 5-star restaurant as long as there is outdoor seating.
I ask Ebba how she likes living in Paris.
“You have no idea,” she laughs. “It’s like living some kind of heaven dream where handsome young men come to the restaurant with their fathers and charm me with little, do you say vignettes?”
“So you like living here – there – better than Sweden?”
“I wouldn’t say that. But for now it is better, yes.” She squeezes Thurman’s hand.
The menu has extensive notations on the local provenance of the food. It has footnotes indicating that an extra 20 cents will be charged to guests who insist on mustard for their sausage, and another 20 for every extra slice of artisanal bread.
“I want to visit Renata Jaeger in the morning. Then we can leave for Prague,” I say. I don’t remotely feel like going, but I promised Laura we would, and I guess I owe it to her.
While we’re still eating, Max watching YouTube Kids on my phone, the owner of the restaurant and his wife appear in the garden, carrying hunting rifles and bags for game slung over their shoulders, and belts full of shotgun shells like characters from The Last of the Mohicans. They are a squat, middle aged couple out for a little walk in the evening, with murder on their minds. Hunters in the ordinary course of business.
After dinner, we walk around the town, and we let Max push his own stroller until he tires of struggling against the cobblestones. He abandons it in the middle of the sidewalk and starts running hither and yon, getting underfoot of other pedestrians, pausing at café terraces to gawp at the customers, and shrieking and laughing his head off.
He might bother some people – in any case, I am hoping so.
The next morning, Thurman and I walk to the street address I got from Boris Grosskopf and knock at the door of Reinhardt’s daughter Renate Jaeger. It’s another one of those mock-Victorian homes the German bourgeoisie seems to have adopted as their own, down to the obnoxious brass door knocker.
An older woman peeps through the curtains of the glass framing the wooden door.
A flurry of incomprehensible German comes through the door.
“I don’t understand German,” I say. “Please.”
She opens the door a crack – just enough to show her upper lip, wrinkled by age and years of smoking, and wisps of white hair under her chin. “Ich weiss nicht,” she says sharply.
“Yes, I think you do know. What happened between your father and my aunt? Why did she leave him the factory? Why didn’t she or my father come back to claim it? Everyone has lied to me. I just want to know the truth,” I say.
“Ich weiss nicht,” she says again, her determined answer all we get.
She slams the door. And if she didn’t actually utter, “Juden, raus!” she may as well have.
Michael Hickins is author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, The What Do You Know Contest, Blomqvist, I Lived in France and So Can You, and other books. "What Did Your Father Do?" is an excerpt from Hickins's just-completed novel The Factory, as was "The Life Store."