UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 09/2011
The day I allowed my friend Roskowsky to choke to death on his wife’s cooking, I awoke at a quarter past seven. I shaved with a fresh razor, took a lukewarm shower, and weighed myself.
Gottleib and I had made arrangements to meet at the park, from where we planned to share a cab to Roskowsky’s home, and it being the middle of an especially frigid winter, I bundled up for the walk. Before leaving the house, I put on some Oscar Pour Lui, a cologne my wife, Sarah, had been fond of. She first happened upon a bottle of it in a duty free shop at Roissy Airport at the end of a trip we took to Paris three years before she passed away.
It was gray outside and windy, but I was in no hurry to reach the park. On the contrary, my pace decreased the closer I came to encountering Gottleib. Signs in shop windows and the assorted wares of street vendors offered a welcome diversion, and I stopped to examine them. Roma Tomatoes $2.99/lb. Home Style Orange Juice — buy one get ONE FREE. Fresh Strawberries! 2 pints for 10 dollars! The tomatoes were unjustly expensive and the orange juice was no great bargain either, but the strawberries were at a good price, and I made a mental note to tell Gottleib of them.
During our phone conversation the previous week, while we were agreeing on the time and place to meet, Gottleib had excitedly described coming across a store that sold six cartons of eggs for the price of three. As he carried on at length about their unusually fine size and brown hue, how they were equally delicious scrambled, runny, or hard-boiled, and how just a pinch of sea salt stirred all their dormant flavors, I was reminded once more of why I avoided talking with him.
“You think you know from eggs? Believe me, you’ve never even tasted one,” his raspy voice asserted. “These go straight from the hen to the store, still warm from her tuchus. It’s better to handle them with gloves, you shouldn’t maybe burn your fingers. And I’m talking six cartons for the cost of three, Filberger. Six!”
“You want to meet at the park at ten thirty or at eleven?” I asked.
“I tell you, I regret every penny I ever spent on an egg before, and every egg I ever ate until now,” Gottleib continued. “They were all unworthy of the name. They did not merit digestion. They did not deserve to be sold in stores and brought into people’s homes and placed inside their refrigerators. Only these are eggs. All you have to do is try one, you find out. If I weren’t on the phone with you, I’d be mashing some for egg salad this instant. Tomorrow, I’m cooking sunny-side up, the better to soak a piece of toast in. I’ve lived this long, I’m not going to start worrying about cholesterol now. Why should I?”
He offered to bring a carton with him to the park, in case I doubted their excellence. I pictured Gottleib in his small apartment, surrounded by boxes upon boxes of eggs, the kitchen trashcan overflowing with eggshells, the sink piled high with egg-yellowed pans and dishes, the tiles and grout encrusted with the dried yokes of floor-fallen eggs, and him sitting contentedly at the dining room table in his bathrobe before a solitary over-sized egg, studying it under a magnifying glass as he spoke with me. “If you want, I’ll take one to you,” he offered. “Later, you can thank me.”
The truth is, I resented Gottleib. I resented him as a being. I resented his vexing habit of responding to every question he was asked with a question of his own; his never ending dissatisfaction and ceaseless complaints against God, man, and beast; the way hair sprouted limitlessly from his overgrown ears and bulbous nose; how every other minute phlegm surfaced to his throat from a bottomless mucus pit somewhere deep in his stomach, which he discharged loudly into his handkerchief or onto the pavement. He sickened me.
Beyond these irritations, I looked at Gottleib and saw myself reflected in that decrepit mirror: a man attired in clothing three decades behind the fashions; a man past women’s glances; a man who, if compared side by side with the towering, muscular boys hurrying by to close deals and conquer the world, seemed hardly to belong to the same species anymore, but was rather a living fossil, shriveled and worn — an Old Man.
Although I dreaded such meetings with Gottleib, I could not end them. With my Sarah buried, I could not afford to pass on a chance for company, however unpleasant. For this reason, too, I had once again accepted Roskowsky’s invitation to celebrate the annual anniversary of our retirement, some twenty-five years ago, with lunch at his home. If I am to be completely honest, however, I must admit that my decision to go also had much to do with being able to spend some time in the company of Roskowsky’s wife. It’s good to be in the presence of an attractive woman, and while I had never given Kim Li a lot of thought while my wife was living, she had come to assume a certain place in my reveries since Sarah’s death.
Kim Li kept mostly to herself whenever we all gathered, even while Sarah was alive, so I cannot say the two had been friends. Still, Sarah had always spoken approvingly of her. “A real talent in the kitchen that one has. A good, quick eye for setting a table,” she would remark. “And let me not talk badly of someone, but for a woman to stay married to such a man as Roskowsky, she must be a saint.”
* * * *
At last, I saw a park bench in the distance and could make out, seated on it, the ancient, stooped frame of Gottleib. I paused to throw birdseed at a congregation of pigeons before continuing my reluctant shuffle. When I arrived within several steps of him, Gottleib raised his head and cleared his throat. The sound of shifting phlegm prompted a few frightened pigeons to fly.
“You’re late, Filberger,” Gottleib rasped.
“For weeks I don’t see you, and this is what you have to say — not hello, not how are you — ‘you’re late.’”
“What? It’s not true? You’re not late? You’re on time? My watch is wrong, maybe?” Gottleib dramatically pulled his coat sleeve back with a gloved hand and held his watch under my nose. “It’s wrong? No? Then you’re late.”
“So I’m late.”
“You think I have nothing better to do all day except wait on a bench and have pigeons crap on me? Am I unworthy of consideration? Is my comfort of no consequence? Does it not matter if I’m shivering in the park like a featherless bird? Well, you’re here, you might as well sit down.”
I carefully crouched myself into a seated position on the bench and felt a sharp pain in the buttocks as my skin conducted the cold of the metal beneath me. “So how have you been, Gottleib?” I asked.
I knew by heart all the possible permutations of discontent Gottleib might offer in response to this simple question, and regretted asking it even as my mind observed the words passing through my unguarded lips, coasting into the cold air, and reaching Gottleib’s unshorn ears. But it had been days since I had spoken to anyone — other than the Korean man from whom I purchased my morning newspaper, and the sullen, tattooed teenage waitress who took my lunch order at the corner deli — and I could not contain the urge for conversation.
“How have I been?” Gottleib answered. “Why complain? If I complain, my problems will go away? My arthritis will disappear? My hearing will come back, presto, like magic? I will be able to control my own goddamn urine? I won’t need diapers anymore? My wife will be resurrected from the dead? No? So what do you want me to complain for? What would be the point?”
I had never liked Gottleib, even when we were young, even when we were friends.
“I saw strawberries, two pints for ten dollars,” I attempted after some silence.
“Strawberries? Where?” Gottleib asked.
“Over by the Vegetable World.”
“The Vegetable World? Strawberries are a fruit.”
“Next to the Vegetable World — at a stand next to it. I know strawberries are fruit. You think I don’t know strawberries are fruit?” After only a brief moment in Gottleib’s presence I began to sound like him; even my voice became raspier.
“Someone said you didn’t know this?”
“Someone? You know, Gottleib, you don’t need to answer every question I ask you with another question.”
“Who says I have to answer every question with a question? Who told you I think this is the way I should respond? How do you wind up such a big specialist on the way I speak? Suddenly, on your spare time, you’ve picked up philology and become a linguist? Next week you’re lecturing at the Sorbonne? Congratulations, Professor Filberger. The retirement of all the elderly should be so productive.”
I buried my head in my hands and massaged my aching brow.
Gottleib cleared his throat. He removed a yellowed handkerchief embroidered with the initials H.G. from his pocket, blew his nose into it, and spat onto the pavement, causing the remaining pigeons to flee. I contemplated joining them.
“This cold could freeze the crap in a woodpecker’s ass,” Gottleib sighed, returning the soiled handkerchief to his pocket.
“We should get going,” I said. “Roskowsky’s waiting.”
He folded one hand over the other and rested both on his cane, the top of which was in the shape of a parrot’s head, the beak represented by the curve of the handle. “First you’re late, now you’re worried he’s waiting?”
* * * *
Roskowsky and I became friends as teenagers, during high school. After graduation, aside from occasionally bumping into each other on the street, we did not see much of each other for several years. As it happened, however, we both decided to study accounting in college, and ended up finding work at the same firm — that of Fishman, Fishman & Murray. There we met Gottleib. The three of us quickly came to loathe our careers. Upon reaching retirement we were so grateful to finally be free of the foul profession that we decided to commemorate the occasion with a festive meal each year.
From family photos I have seen, I know that Roskowsky was always large, even as an infant. With each successive year of his existence, additional layers of flesh augmented his frame. Now in his late eighties, he had grown so colossal it was a marvel he was still breathing, let alone ambulatory. Since adolescence, his weakness had always been Chinese food, and for that matter, Chinese women, one of whom — Kim Li — he married as a young man. Unlike my better half, or Gottleib’s, his wife was still very much alive, spending most of her waking hours in daily preparation of the massive quantities of fried rice, chicken, egg rolls, steamed vegetables, shrimp, and various other victuals Roskowsky required to persevere in his corpulence. Their marriage was childless, but this did not trouble him.
Roskowsky was actually the descendant of an illustrious rabbinic line. His progenitors were likely turning in their graves at the realization that centuries of scholastic training and careful breeding had found their genetic resting place in an intermarried accountant whose most serious intellectual exertion consisted of a weekly scrutinizing of TV Guide. Unlike other rebellious young men from similar backgrounds, Roskowsky’s adolescent years were not preoccupied with resistance to tradition, religion, or bourgeois hypocrisy; they were governed solely by a desire to defy his mother. This motivation had dictated his choice of a profession, his choice of a wife, and his choice of a vasectomy.
Roskowsky had reasoned, quite accurately, that choosing a career as an accountant would disappoint and terrify his mother beyond relief. The story goes that he waited for the perfect moment before breaking the news to her: the day his cousin Abe was accepted into Harvard Law School.
“Abe is going to be a big lawyer, you know,” Mrs. Roskowsky had declared over breakfast. “Harvard Law School! The Ivy League! You should see the nakhas his mother is getting from him. He was always such a good boy. So good to his parents. What’s it gonna be with you, Sammy? When am I gonna get some nakhas from you finally? You been in college already two years with your philosophy and your history. When you gonna stop this fooling around?”
“You are right, mother.”
“Don’t tell me I’m right. Tell me what’s it gonna be. A lawyer like Abe? A doctor like your Uncle Richard? Maybe a dentist?”
“I’ve decided to become an accountant.”
“An accountant?” Mrs. Roskowsky’s hand shook so violently she spilt coffee on her new purple robe, a fiftieth birthday present from Abe. “It’s good your father is already dead, he shouldn’t have to hear such words. What kind of a profession is this for a boy like you? How will you support a good girl on such a salary? You should see the nice meydle your cousin Abe is dating. So pretty. How you gonna get a girl like that? How? An accountant!”
The conversation was progressing just as Roskowsky had hoped. He made sure to pace himself. “Actually, mother, as I shall be marrying outside the faith that will not be a problem. Shiksas have nothing against accountants.”
“Shiksas! Oh my God!” Mrs. Roskowsky’s tenuous hold on her mug loosened with the shock. Porcelain and coffee splattered across the floor. “Her name is Kim Li, mother. She works as a server at The Cho-Zen. You may have seen her there.”
“A waitress? A shiksa waitress? My son the accountant and my daughter-in-law the shiksa waitress from the kosher Chinese restaurant?”
“We are in love and have decided to wed.”
Mrs. Roskowsky was obviously dreaming. It was a nightmare, that was all, or a cruel prank her son was playing on her before announcing that he, like Abe, was also going to apply to Harvard and become a successful lawyer. Her lips trembled with such force she found it difficult to speak. “But the children — your children won’t be Jewish!”
“Don’t worry, mother. I have decided to undergo a vasectomy.”
At that point Mrs. Roskowsky fell to the floor, where she lay for some time in a puddle of coffee and shattered porcelain while her son finished his cheese blintzes with sour cream. When there was no longer any food remaining on the table, Roskowsky reached for the phone and called an ambulance.
She did not die that morning, but the triple shock of accountant, shiksa, and vasectomy that Mrs. Roskowsky received over breakfast made the rest of her short, worried life so miserable, it were perhaps better she had.
* * * *
Roskowsky greeted us at the door. I could scarcely believe how large he had grown in the few months since I had last seen him. While I, Gottleib, and every other old man I knew were shrinking daily, Roskowsky seemed only to expand. I stared at his enormous chest and pictured layers of fat and cholesterol squeezing his heart like a waffle press. By any known scientific determination, Roskowsky should have died decades ago. Doubtless, I thought, he will outlive us all.
After taking our hats and coats, Kim Li declared the table set, and we sat down to our anniversary lunch. As she busied herself bringing heaping portions of Chinese food to the table, I observed again how attractive Kim Li looked and what a nice figure she had for a woman of her age. Her gray hair still held streaks of black, and she had remained nimble and thin. Within minutes, Kim Li covered the entire table with Eastern delicacies. She had a good, quick eye for setting a table, just as Sarah said. While she positioned a steaming pot of tea beside a bowl of hot and sour soup, Gottleib removed two black pills from his suit pocket, placing them in his open palm. “Charcoal,” he explained, although no one had asked. “They’re good for the stomach. I’ve enough worries without dyspepsia also.”
As the three of us ate, Kim Li entered and exited the dining room, clearing away the empty dishes and bringing forth freshly filled plates of food in a futile attempt to keep pace with her husband’s hunger. Before long, Roskowsky was hard at work on a fourth helping of lo mein, washing it down with vodka. I marveled at the man’s digestive powers: in the past week I had not consumed as much food as Roskowsky was now devouring at this one meal. By the time I sampled some shrimp, Roskowsky had already put away a deep bowl of egg drop soup, several servings of cashew chicken, a plate of beef garlic, and commenced on a fifth platter of lo mein.
I wondered how Kim Li could tolerate such a human whale. An image of them in bed together, Kim Li crushed and suffocating beneath a sweaty Roskowsky, crept into my mind and lingered there. The beluga mistreated her, too; he was forever bellowing at her and ordering her about like some geisha. “Seltzer!” “Napkins!” “Shrimp!” It was disgusting. He was worthy of neither her food nor her figure.
“Filberger! Filberger, a man walks down the street and all of a sudden he finds five hundred dollars!” Gottleib was getting philosophical, an inevitable occurrence at every meal involving alcohol. He had loosened his tie and was swaying slightly in his seat. “The man thanks God for giving him the money. You say good? Well, what about the man who lost the five hundred dollars? He’s not wondering where they went? He’s not maybe asking God to give them back? And this is the way of the world, Filberger. This is the way it is. All you have to do is read the papers, you find out.”
“I say take what you can get and keep what you can find,” Roskowsky declared, shoveling noodles into his mouth. “You must always seize the moment. Let God worry about the accounting. Anyway, we’re retired. Kim! Kim!!! Where in the hell is she?”
Kim Li shouted something unintelligible from within the bathroom.
“Damn woman lives in there. I tell you, I’ve never seen anyone pee so much in my life. Every ten minutes, she goes in. My water bills from the flushing alone — you wouldn’t believe them. When she gets out I’ll have her bring some strawberries for desert.”
“Those strawberries are fresh, Roskowsky?” Gottleib asked.
“From the Vegetable World.”
“Before we came, Filberger was just informing me how strawberries are a fruit.” Gottleib crooked his thumb toward me. “He’s become a bona fide gastronomer, Filberger has.”
Roskowsky eyed Kim Li reproachfully when she reentered the dining room, her arms laden with plates of egg rolls and rice. “So you’ve finally come out of there? We’re going to have the strawberries for desert.”
“You want whipped cream with them?”
“Damn it, of course we do.” He lay down his fork and paused for a moment. “But not yet — we’re still eating. Fetch another bottle of vodka.”
“Kim Li, this meal is delicious,” I said. “You have a real talent in the kitchen.”
She flashed her husband a triumphant grin before retreating. Roskowsky, chewing half an eggroll, waved her away with the back of his hand. “Sammy, you have her running around like a slave. Why don’t you ask your wife to sit with us and eat?”
“Don’t worry, Filberger. It’s good for her.”
Kim Li returned with more vodka, and then, after a nod from her husband, brought out a platter of strawberries, which she placed beside a bowl of whipped cream.
“Maybe we should save the strawberries for later,” Gottleib suggested. His eyes were glazed and filmy. He had by now shared several parables at the table, each more obscure than its predecessor. At one point, launching into an extended diatribe, he had compared the earth and all its inhabitants to an egg dropped on a kitchen floor during cooking, pronouncing both earth and egg worthy only of being mopped up and tossed away. “I need to rest on the couch a little and digest this meal. You have today’s paper?”
“Over there.” Roskowsky gestured toward the living room with his fork, which he promptly used to skewer two shrimps. He poured himself another vodka, passed me the bottle, and plunged into a large helping of fried vegetables.
Gottleib managed to skim the front page before passing into a deep, drunken, old man’s sleep, his index finger still marking the line of the article he had been reading aloud on police corruption in Honduras.
I sat at the table, nibbling a strawberry and watching Roskowsky continue to dine, a spectacle that at once repulsed me and made me envious. In comparison, I seemed to have lost my taste for food. I studied the slumbering, peaceful Gottleib, also with jealousy. It had been sixteen years since I had slept well. Although I could never admit it to anyone, I had gotten so used to decades of being in Sarah’s arms that hardly a night went by when I did not reach for her and wake up terrified at the realization that there was no one beside me in bed. The sound of Roskowsky’s incessant chewing, which had filled the room for over an hour, ceased suddenly. Turning to him, I was surprised by the redness of his face.
“You okay there, Sammy?”
Roskowsky wheezed in response, pulling at his collar.
An image of one of the many posters I had seen on the walls of restaurant bathrooms instructing patrons on the Heimlich maneuver gradually formed in my mind, and I realized with alarm that the man was choking. I shot a glance in Gottleib’s direction, for help, but he was snoring and clearing his throat in his sleep.
A spark of hope lit in my depressed spirit.
As Roskowsky reached for a glass of water, my hand rose fast and pushed the glass from his trembling body. The glass tipped over. Water spread across the table and dripped down its plastic covering onto the carpet. In confusion, Roskowsky instead tried to grab hold of the vodka bottle. Strawberries flew into the air and his elbow landed in the bowl of whipped cream, but the bottle was too far away. He rocked back and forth, and gagged for air. His eyes bulging from their sockets, he pounded the table with his fists.
I got up and paced nervously, shooting quick looks at the sleeping Gottleib. What had I done? What was I doing? What if he survived? What if he didn’t? Roskowsky’s attempts at breathing reminded me of my wife’s name. Somewhere in the house, a toilet flushed. Finally, I broke. I moved behind Roskowsky, struggled to wrap my arms around his wide waist, and began to squeeze. But the images of Sarah and Kim Li and my empty bed were too much for me. I withdrew my arms.
I moved softly to the couch, grabbed a TV Guide from the magazine rack, and spread it open across my lap. Roskowsky’s eyes closed and his head dropped before he fell forward into the heaping platter of lo mein before him. I shut my eyes and tried to slow the violent beating of my heart. I could hear Kim Li running water and moving dishes in the sink now. Soon she would be screaming. In the days ahead she would need much comfort and company. Let God be the accountant.
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