Ethan Allen Express
“Get me my fucking room, bro, just do it!” Troy screams into his phone. His right leg is twitching. It’s four hours into a last-minute train trip and Troy is not spontaneous. Or he can be, but within geographic limits, like that time he was drinking Bud Light but ran out so drove 40 minutes from West Pawlet to the Walmart in Rutland to get another 12 pack. He put Troy, Jr and L’il Markie in the back of the blue Chevy Nova. They giggled when they crashed into each other, pushed to the right and left by the force of a turn as their Pops sped down the winding roads. It was like bumper cars at the amusement park but the state trooper who stopped them did not find it funny.
Neither did Troy’s wife. “Fuck her, bro,” Troy says when he thinks about it, and he still does 23 year later, which is why he called L’il Markie Thursday night, beer having kicked up the residue of nostalgia, though he’s only seen this boy a handful of times since he was 8. L’il Markie is Mark Pisano, co-owner of Sunshine Siding in Ft. Myers, Florida. He’s in New York City for a trade show, with his wife and two kids. Troy, Jr. took his mother’s side, understanding, at 11, the evidence she presented on that one-way drive south that Pops was no good. L’il Markie could not be persuaded. So now he shouts into the phone, “Come in and meet us, Pops! I’ll get you your own room!”
L’il Markie arranges a round trip ticket and Troy does show up for the Ethan Allen Express, tossing his army green duffel bag packed with one pair of jeans and boxer shorts, a light blue button-down shirt, four Bud Lights and a pack of Camels, on the empty seat next to his. “I gotta wear this mask the whole fucking ride, bro?” he inquires. “What the fuck?”
Troy has a habit of talking to no one in particular, although his mutt Luther, now white around the muzzle, is a regular audience member. So is Heath, Troy’s neighbor, who he enlisted to check on Luther. “My boy’s done real good,” Troy explains. “He’s getting me my own room, bro, none of this sharing shit.” And so are women, this time Rachael, who calls Troy to explain why she did not come by on Thursday. “It’s all right, you know me, I’ve got nothing but love for everyone, bro,” Troy says.
“So he told me to pack a bag and come down!” Troy has called his mother. “No! It won’t be like last time, Ma,” he promises her. He’s getting angry. “That uptight bitch can’t keep me from my grandkids! Hello, hello?? Fuck this cell service!” The call is lost to the Catskills.
“She’s the best woman in the world, my mother is gold, bro,” Troy mutters, wiping away tears. Day drinking makes him weepy. He calls L’il Markie. Voicemail again. “Get me my fucking room, bro, just do it! I’m almost there!” he yells. He looks across the aisle at this girl with a sweet smile. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend a weekend in a hotel room paid for by L’il Markie with her?
Troy exhales smoke. “That’s better, bro,” he says as he looks at his phone. Nothing. “What the fuck, where am I supposed to go, bro?” He is on the corner of 8th Avenue and 33rd Street. A small woman is tottering towards him on black heels, one broken so she has a dissymmetry to her gait. “She looks like a kid, bro,” Troy says as he catches her moist eyes. Her short red dress has inched up her thighs and she’s pulling it down as she maintains eye contact with Troy.
“Hey, you need a cigarette?”
“How did you know?”
Troy places the filter end into her slightly parted lips and holds a flame as she inhales.
Troy’s fingers explore the tender lump on his upper right cheek. “What a night bro,” he says, looking around the train, “What a goddamn fucking night!” A young woman in the seat to his right looks up; his fidgeting has caught the corner of her eye. He smiles at her. “You’re lovely, you know?” he says. She has headphones on and cannot hear him.
“He had problems, I know that.” We are in line at Trader Joe’s and Ruth is 98. When I ask if she’s doing okay, she says, “What choice do I have? I make myself okay.” I comment that she has so much energy and she says, “I’m so tired but I force myself to do things, cook matzoh ball soup, vacuum my apartment. If I don’t, they’ll put me in a home!”
Ruth lives in the Seward Park Co-ops in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I do now too. She is telling me about Shraga Pivovoz, the man who lived in the studio I recently bought from his estate. A few weeks after I moved in, I met Ruth as she sat in the building’s courtyard. “Are you a strong woman?” she asked and when I said “Of course!” she informed me that Shraga killed himself. He jumped from his, now my, window. He was 65.
“But he was from a good family, you must believe that,” she says. We have picked the conversation up five months later.
“What kind of problems?” I ask.
“Oh, he scared people,” she says.
“Scared them how?”
“Oh, nothing dangerous,” Ruth says. She assures me that “his father was a respected rabbi, his mother was lovely, his sister. He was just a little strange.” I make plans to go to Ruth’s apartment. She is going to tell me all she knows which I suspect is a lot.
“He was stunted,” Paul tells me. He is the middle-aged artist who lives on my floor with his wife and their small black dog with a rust-colored face who barks at me when we meet at the elevator. “Stunted how?” I am trying to piece together this life that fell apart 6 floors below my window in the building’s playground at 7:47 am when paramedics found an unconscious Shraga. “By his religion. He was orthodox. He had no guide for how to be a man in a secular world.”
I have a lover. That first awkward kiss on St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue, I pulled away, “I’m not ready for this” I stammered. “I need to go slowly.” The next morning, I wonder what slow means when we may have so little time left. “I’m much less awkward with my clothes off….” I text and we’re now in a world that doesn’t have rules. No plans for marriage or co-habitation. We are so light. I am 52.
My lover is reading me a story he wrote called Kol Nidre. This is the Jewish prayer that is said the night before Yom Kippur, a day dedicated to introspection and atonement. An appeal to outcasts, it invites them to return and grants the community the opportunity to repent for casting them away. Shulkham Arukh, the code of Jewish law, says that there are to be no mourning rites for a person who commits suicide, no eulogy, only comforting of the mourners out of respect for the living. It is a sin to spill one’s own lifeblood.
I recently had brunch with a second cousin who informed me that the great aunt I was named after, the one who my father told me tragically died of pneumonia, actually killed herself when her family forbade her to see the married man with whom she fell in love. “You should know that I am an atheist,” my lover tells me.
“You should know that I believe in a god,” I answer.
“You believe in God,” my lover says, “And I’ll believe in you.”
Shraga gets letters in my mailbox from the same person, I can tell by the handwriting on the card stock envelope. I now have six, sent priority mail, the most recent labeled “Return to Sender. Unable to forward.” It was sent back to Tel Aviv but inexplicably re-appeared in the mailbox for M602. The mailman regularly takes his break in the hallway. He sits on a small portable chair and watches soap operas on his phone. When I show him Shraga’s letter, he shrugs as if to say, “I’ve done all I can.” Barrington, a towering Jamaican man who is part of Seward Park’s maintenance crew, recently cleaned my windows. When he finished, he called me over to admire his meticulous work. “I know everything that went on here m’am,” he says, squeegee in hand, as we both stare out the window. The glass is clear now.