On Sunday, my father phoned to say that my mother’s funeral would be held the following Tuesday, at 10 a.m. He gave me the address of a funeral home on Queens Boulevard, not far from his flat. “Don’t come late,” he said.
A few weeks earlier, anticipating a funeral – my mother had been dying of cancer for nearly two years – I had shopped at Alexander’s, buying a dark-blue suit, white shirt and a bland blue tie. On Monday I made sure they were not wrinkled or stained, polished my only pair of dress shoes – oxblood, Florsheim’s – clipped and cleaned my fingernails. I slept well and woke early, showered and got dressed. It took me fifteen minutes to knot the tie. The mirror told me that I looked respectable enough for a funeral. Despite the long hair and the gold earring, I was sure that I wouldn’t cause too much of a scandal.
I arrived at the funeral home at 9.30 a.m. The lobby was enormous and glitzy, with baroque furniture of gilt and red plush. The floor might have been real marble, as well as the stairway, which climbed in an elegant curve to a well-lit mezzanine. An enormous chandelier hung from the stucco ceiling. It was a palace, a palace of death.
The staff members were young and bland and dressed in dove-grey livery with gold epaulettes, like Las Vegas doormen. The mourners from other funerals looked affluent, uncomfortable and in a hurry to get it over with, as I was. Near the entrance, I found a bulletin board listing the day’s scheduled services, the names of the deceased and the times and venues (the Versailles Hall, the Medici Salon, the Taj Mahal Room) of the services, but I couldn’t find my mother’s name on it. So I waved at the nearest staff member, a tall, plump young man with acne and the fixed and eager smile of a car salesman. His name tag said I should call him Roger.
“I’m looking for the Mortkowitz funeral, Roger,” I said. “I can’t find it on this board here. Regina Mortkowitz.”
“Mortkowitz?” he said cheerfully. “That sounds familiar. I’ll be right back.”
Roger returned a few moments later, looking like a man wearing shoes two sizes too small for his feet. He cleared his throat and stammered, “You said Mortkowitz? Regina Mortkowitz?”
He cleared his throat again. “I’m sorry, but that funeral was yesterday.”
“Yes. The Mortkowitz funeral. I remember now. That was definitely yesterday.” Then, as if I’d suddenly turned radioactive, he spun on his heels and rushed away, leaving me to simmer in the soup of my bewilderment and humiliation. I felt that everyone was now looking at me, happy to have their attention momentarily diverted from a dead loved one to a living fool. I turned and threw myself through the door, into a blaze of autumn sunlight.
It took a few moments for my mind to absorb the new information. Yesterday. That was Monday. Not Tuesday. I thought back on what my father had said. Did he say Monday? No. I could still hear his cold, even voice. “The funeral it is on Tuesday.”
It was a warm morning in September, and I became conscious of my suit and tight collar. I took off the tie, stuffed it into a pocket and undid a few buttons of my shirt. Queens Boulevard was a carnival of irrelevant tumult – bright yellow taxis, the buses, a mosaic of voices and footsteps – and I was boiling in a lava of emotions. I didn’t know what to do, where to go, what to think. Would my father have intentionally given me the wrong day? Was he really capable of that? And, if so, why would he have done it?
But these were the wrong question to ask. The right question was: Could he have given me the wrong date by accident? That was unlikely. He was scrupulous, even obsessed, about getting things right. He hated being wrong and being caught out in a mistake. No, he’d done it on purpose. Or accidentally on purpose. Could it have been a slip of the tongue?
Sure. But why?
Because he wanted all the attention at the funeral, all the condolences, all the pity. The big man in sorrow. Jakob weeping. He coveted the attention he felt he deserved, for all he’d suffered and all he’d sacrificed. And he didn’t want to share it. Not with me, the bane of his existence, the bad son. Who hadn’t been capable of helping him care for her when she was dying. Who has always been an embarrassment, the child you hid from friends and relatives because of his long hair, his earring, his slovenliness and his misspent life. I was living proof of his failure to rear an obedient Jewish child. Why parade that failure in front of friends and family?
About ten years earlier, when my parents were still living in the Bronx, I had come home one day from college without forewarning them. I was still a full-fledged hippie then, sporting a scruffy beard and wearing old jeans, a faded work shirt and no underwear. My hair, already thinning, was long and unruly. They were out, but I waited in front of the building. I don’t remember why I came to see them. Probably I needed money. I’d been waiting for about twenty minutes when a green Cadillac pulled up to the curb. All four doors opened and four people emerged. Two of them were my parents, dressed in their finest. I didn’t know the two people who climbed out of the front. They were dressed up too. All four walked to the building entrance, beside which I stood. I raised my hand in greeting, but they just sailed past me without a glance, as if I were a bum who’d approached them for spare change (which wasn’t really far from the truth). They’d been ashamed of me in front of their friends. Old World Jews often judged each other by their children. A hippie son coming home for a handout would not have spoken well for my parents’ child-rearing abilities in front of this well-heeled couple, whoever they were.
But the funeral was something else. Sure, I still wore the earring, a gift from a former girlfriend, but I’d bought a suit, I’d brushed my hair, I’d put on clean BVDs. I’d made myself presentable. I was presentable. I was working at an actual job. And I had wanted to do the right thing. I had wanted to be there. And wouldn’t my not appearing at the funeral provoke more of a scandal than my showing up no matter how long my hair was? Of course it would. I could imagine the outrage among the mourners. My family and their friends, all of them Holocaust survivors, all of whom had adored my mother, would have seen my absence as typical of my bad character, one more crime against the family, against Jews, against Judaism itself. There was already quite a rap sheet: doesn’t finish college, marries a Shikseh, dresses like a bum, his hair so long and dirty, such a good boy when he was small and smart, but they grow up into monsters sometimes, and always takes, takes, takes and gives nothing back. And his poor father, after all he suffered, only heartache and tsuris he gives him. Hitler must have danced for joy in his grave the day that mamzer was born.
But that didn’t matter. I didn’t care. And my father’s reason for giving me the wrong date didn’t matter either. All that mattered at that moment was my anger at the underhanded trick he had played on me – for whatever reason. I took it as a message that read, “Fuck you, pal.” It felt like a blow that involved old grudges, years and years of resentment that had stuck to our psyches like sludge. This was something fundamental and it hit me hard. And then I knew where I wanted to go. I walked down Queens Boulevard, towards his address, tight as a clenched fist, scarcely breathing, seeing nothing beyond the red curtain of my rage.
When I reached the entrance to his building, I still had no idea what I would do. I had no plan. I didn’t even know how I’d get into the building. I didn’t have a key and I didn’t want to alert him by ringing the downstairs bell. I wanted to surprise him. To ambush him. I didn’t want to give him a chance to cook up a story.
I was in luck – an elderly couple was just leaving the building and kindly held the door open for me. The elevator took an eternity to climb the four floors to his flat, and the higher it climbed, the angrier I grew. When the elevator finally stopped and the inner doors accordioned open, I was a little crazy.
I rang the bell. He opened it a crack, saw it was me and tried to shut it in my face. I put my shoulder against it and pushed. The door flew open. In an instant I was inside. My father was still staggering backwards from the force of my entrance, the hem of his bathrobe flying, his eyes large and wild. He caught himself and quickly regained his composure. I could see his mind working, thoughts percolating behind his eyes. Then his expression changed.
“Why do you not come to the funeral?” he said, his voice calm. “Where you were?”
That was all I needed, the perfect trigger. “You said Tuesday!” I screamed. “You said Tuesday, you son-of-a-bitch! You gave me the wrong fucking date!”
He shook his head. “No, I didn’t,” he said so calmly and confidently that I almost believed him.
He had a white towel wrapped around his neck, and his cheeks were shiny from a recent shave. His hair was damp and combed, his eyes were clear. The bastard was feeling fine. He seemed perfectly at home, at ease in his world. I could hear the TV in the sunken living room just behind him. Some war film was on; I heard shooting, shouting, explosions, the voice of John Wayne. There was nothing of the grieving husband about him. The merry widower.
“Liar!” I screamed, and lurched towards him like a drunk. He retreated, grabbed the railing and descended, backwards, the three steps to the living room. I took the steps in one bound and grabbed him by the lapels of his bathrobe. He smelled of after-shave, minty and sharp. We were face to face, my fists clutching terrycloth. A voice on the TV shouted, “Look out!”
But something was wrong. He was light, much too light, as light almost as the injured gull I’d plucked out of Provincetown Bay many years earlier. The bird had weighed nothing. My father was just as insubstantial. I thought there’d be more to him. He’d always seemed massive to me.
I didn’t know what to do next. I wasn’t going to hit him. And I didn’t want to talk. Suddenly I felt empty and dumb, my rage spent. I released him, and he sank into the overstuffed brown armchair facing the TV. The bathrobe had opened, revealing his thin ankles and spindly white shanks. Mottled with liver spots, the backs of his hands resembled dying leaves. Tufts of grey hair grew out of his nostrils. Jesus, I thought, he’s an old man. To me, looming above him, he looked tiny and frail. I thought: Where’s my father? What happened to my monster? What the hell am I doing wrestling with this old man?
I left the apartment without a word or backward glance. I’d come to demand something – my father owed me something, goddamn it! – but now I didn’t know what it was. Whatever it was, it wasn’t to be had at this address. There was nothing for me there.
SIEGFRIED MORTKOWITZ works as a free-lance journalist and lives in Prague. His work has appeared in B O D Y, Brown’s Window, The Prague Revue, and After Hours. His first chapbook, Eating Brains and Other Poems, was published by After Hours Press in 2014.
Read more by Siegfried Mortkowitz:
Non-fiction in the September 2019 issue
THE STORY: Siegfried Mortkowitz on Leonard Michaels’ “City Boy”
Poem in the May 2013 issue
Poem in the September 2012 issue
THE POEM: Reading Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”
Poem in the January 2018 issue