by Harry Lang
part 1 of 2
On most days he could be seen roaming the Avenue, a distracted geriatric Popeye more partial to beer than spinach, bereft of strength and swagger. Indians and Koreans would grit their teeth and sweat when he wandered into their shops, knowing he gave customers the willies and didn’t buy, but most of the merchants had grown up in the neighborhood in which his family had been a fixture since the First World War.
They treated him like a long-lost cousin, especially those with names like Heinze and Beck, greeting him in the time-honored tradition of their far-flung family. “Frederick! Wie geht’s?I” they would call from behind counters or through open doors of stockrooms and cramped offices. Would the old boy remember? Of course he would reply, “The heck with the gates, jump over the fence” and bend their patient ears with his aches and pains, his complaints about now and his praises for then.
The priests at St. Tony’s knew him as well. They smiled and shook his hand when he made it to mass, assigned the usual penance when he confessed sins not listed in any known scripture, bit their tongues as they discussed repairs to the hundred-year old rectory and the giving habits of certain parishioners. And they did remember him in their prayers though they weren’t exactly sure what they wanted the Lord to do for him.
Frederick was sure, sometimes. He thought he might know as he rocked in the threadbare parlor of the exhausted row house, watching sunlight pierce snowfalls of dust to embrace the ancient snake plants and African violets. Maybe there was a place beyond her reach, he reasoned as Mamma’s ninety-year old rocker whispered its darts into the silent heart of the house. Maybe there was a place where death makes a difference after all.
One dusty afternoon in September there was a knock at the door.
Swearing in two languages he dropped the needle-nose pliers in the circle of light beneath the feeble desk lamp. Pieces of an ancient transistor radio lay strewn across the dining room table. He knew nothing about electronics but he’d be damned if he’d be gouged by some sleazy repairman.
“We don’t want any!” he called, emerging from the gloom of the dining room.
The knock was repeated.
“All right already!” he wheezed, fumbling with the array of locks on the inner door of the vestibule. “Keep your shirt on.”
The house inhaled as the outer door swung into the light, pulling the sweet aromatic warmth of September through crumbling hallways and rooms suffocating in dust and age. Order and the meticulous beauties of the old world had abandoned the place long ago, leaving it to swirl slowly toward oblivion.
“Hey, Father Jimmy. Block collection already?”
“Just a visit, Mr. Moser.” Young Jimmy Gallagher, complete with red hair and freckles, had grown up a few doors down the street. Even with the full authority of Mother Church behind him, it was a challenge to call his neighbor anything but Mister. “No strings attached.”
“Like hell. You want a beer?”
The priest surveyed the shadowy parlor, recalling the spotless perfection of the days when Frederick’s wife Magda reigned supreme. Some of his elderly parishioners maintained their monuments to the past with iron-fisted compulsion, setting themselves against the flow of bewildering change like rocks in a rushing stream. Mr. Moser had no such sense of mission. If cleanliness were truly next to godliness, Father Gallagher had his work cut out for him.
“Well, I won’t say no.”
“C’mon in the kitchen.”
The priest followed his guide through the musty twilight of the dining room where the past rested undisturbed. Furnished for a race of giants, the room was an outpost of the distant Fatherland occupying the brownstone monotony of urban America. Frederick’s father had created a round table of solid oak at which Siegfried might feast or plot conquests. More oak buttressed an entire wall in the form of a sideboard designed to outlast the earth itself. Eleven chairs, heavy as trees, stronger than steel, stood silently awaiting the return of kings and heroes or Mamma and Pop with their nine children.
Beside the entrance to the kitchen stood a china cabinet, the edelweiss in the miniature Teutonic landscape. Delicate as the other pieces were commanding, its inspiration had blossomed in rarely glimpsed regions of the old craftsman’s soul. A haphazard collection of crystal and china was displayed along with a set of willow ware which had been a gift for the newly wed immigrants.
The beat-up kitchen completed the first floor. A single window, frosted with grease and dirt, framed a brick wall a few feet away. An enormous spider plant languished amid cobwebs, dropping gray-green leaves on the pill bottles and ashtrays littering the table. Pale drops of sunlight trickled from the unseen sky.
“So what can I do for you?” asked Frederick, pouring beer into a nearly clean glass.
“We’ve missed you at church.” Gallagher wondered how many of the prescriptions were out of date. “Everything all right?”
“Oh sure.” Smoke billowed in ghostly thunderheads as the old man ignited a Camel. “Everything’s fine. Doc wants me to go for a chest x-ray. I told him I got a cold, that’s all. He don’t listen.”
“You know what they say. Your health is your wealth. Will you do what Dr. Scharf says?”
“Yeah, after I make his life a living hell.”
“That’s the spirit! Where’s he sending you? Jefferson?”
“No.” Frederick took a thoughtful drag then filled the tiny room with smoke. “There’s a guy over at Fitz he wants me to see. Some damn Indian. I don’t know. They killed Pop over there, you know. One day he’s fine, walking Mamma up to the Avenue to do her shopping, next day he goes in for tests and that’s it. He’s dead. ‘Sorry Mrs. Moser, there was nothing we could do.’ Bastards.”
All of this was reported in a mumbling monotone, dry as the crackling leaves of the spider plant.
“And Mamma,” he went on, “why, she was eighty-five and losing her mind. She started going by her maiden name Czikeli and would only speak Hungarian. Nobody could figure out why. Her English was always pretty good, see. Pop used to yell at her in German so the neighbors wouldn’t understand. She’d give it right back in Hungarian so he couldn’t understand. Anyway, they finally found an old nun who told her, ‘Es tut mir leid, Frau Moser. Er ist tot.’ She had to tell her three times.”
Jimmy and his friends were playing stickball in the narrow street when Frederick and his brother John brought the old lady home. As soon as she climbed out of the car, wrapped in her black lace shawl, white hair and babushka fluttering in the afternoon breeze, all the neighbors knew what had happened.
Even the kids, impervious as they were to such adult realities, stopped what they were doing and watched silently as the brand-new widow tottered up the steps clutching her cane and pouring out streams of grief and venom as her sons tried in vain to take her brittle arms and help her.
“That’s when Magda decided we should sell our house up in the northeast and move back here to take care of Mamma. Everybody else was too far away or too busy or they had kids. Mamma and Magda were birds of a feather. ‘Zwei Erbse’ Uncle Max used to call them, two peas.”
“Uncle Max? I don’t think I remember him. Must’ve been before my time.”
“He didn’t come around much. He did when I was a kid, but he stopped for a while.”
“Your father’s brother?”
“No, Mamma’s. They grew up on a farm in Transylvania. Max went to college in Budapest; that was always a big deal. He was some kind of scientist. Something to do with bugs.”
“Yeah, that’s it. An etymologist. There’s a book around here somewhere...” Frederick looked around as if he’d just put it down. “A book that he wrote. Probably upstairs. It’s fat, like an encyclopedia and it’s all about one kind of insect.”
“Wow. I had no idea.”
“They all had brains, those Czikelis did.”
“Why did he stop coming to visit? Did he move away?”
Frederick filled his ragged lungs once more, mangled the remains of the cigarette in the crowded ashtray and started another.
“He used to play Santa Claus every year. He was big, you know. I remember one time when I was little, maybe five or six.” The smallest possible smile appeared and Gallagher saw an image of slowly melting ice. “Six it was. We had the old-style Christmas tree with the candles you had to light. So Uncle Max puts me up on his shoulders so I can light the ones way up top. Mamma was furious. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she says. ‘He’ll burn the house down!’ Uncle Max just said, ‘Of course he won’t, but if he does, you can all come to live with me and Lotte’.”
“What? No, Max was a bachelor. Lotte was his dog, a big collie. He used to tell me, ‘Freddie, nothing is the end of the world. God always provides.’ Mamma thought everything was the end of the world. Hard to believe they grew up in the same house.”
“I know what you mean. It’s like that with my sister Jane. The whole family goes to mass every week and Mom goes every day. Jane makes it Christmas and Easter, and you’d think she was a martyr. As if the Lord should thank her for showing up.”
“C and E? Magda, I mean Mamma used to talk about those people. They really burned her up. Uncle Max used to talk about them too, but it was different. It was like he felt sorry for them because they were missing something.”
“So he was religious?”
“You better believe it! Every Christmas Eve he’d read the Christmas story from the big old German Bible then make us say our prayers before we went to bed. And we weren’t allowed to pray for presents either. Not that we had to. It was the Depression, see, and Pop couldn’t afford much, but Uncle Max always made sure we each got one really good present. There were nine of us so that was a nice piece of change.
“Then there was the year Pop lost his job. We figured Christmas would be a bust. But we got more stuff than ever. Years later I found out that Uncle Max took a second mortgage to keep us on our feet till Pop found work.”
“Pretty risky in those days, wasn’t it?”
“But that’s how he was. Never asked Pop to pay it back, not even when he lost the house. But he wasn’t just generous, you know. He gave things a lot of thought. If he brought you a present it would never be what you asked for. It would be something better, something you’d never expect. I remember when I was ten he gave me a butterfly collection.”
Copyright © 2012 by Harry Lang