Authors: Ken Finkleman
For Sidney, Abe and Marion
oah Douglas was not a nostalgic person in the sense that he longed for a certain time or event in his past, but he did long for something that now, at forty-one, was long gone. He longed for that state of mind which spanned the years between his first joint in junior high school and the day of his marriage at twenty-eight, that state of mind which knew nothing of ambition, or goals, or the striving for respect. He longed for those glorious years when each morning, no matter what had transpired the night before, was a new day. Noah longed for unconsciousness.
hey had no children, so the divorce came down to dividing up their assets. Because Noah had always believed his wife was a more sensible and truthful person, he accepted her judgment on all domestic issues and he accepted her claim that he had ruined her life because she was now thirty-eight and beyond her prime child-bearing years. The guilt he felt for this crime resulted in her getting most everything of value, which included their circle of friends.
It was a cold March morning when Noah left the cheap second-floor apartment he had rented above a Starbucks
after leaving his wife with the house. This was his weekly walk to visit his aunt, who was dying of cancer. She was the last of the family with “real” money and lived in an exclusive enclave about a half-hour away. He made these trips for two reasons: one was a sense of charity, which was more family tradition than good intention, and the other was to support his shot at a piece of the inheritance his Uncle Cotty had left three years earlier after a massive brain hemorrhage on the Pinehurst Country Club's ninth hole, which was subsequently renamed Cotty's Corner. Noah got drunk at the funeral, and when comments about the deceased were solicited, he volunteered that the club had managed to exclude Jews but couldn't keep Death from teeing off. Since then he had worried that he might be cut out of the will entirely.
Noah jammed his gloved hands into the pockets of his twenty-five-year-old navy blue cashmere topcoat, which did little to protect him on a day like this. The coat had been a gift from his parents on his twenty-first birthday. Between its remaining patches of deep navy richness and the frayed sleeves, faded elbows and shredded satin lining, you could pretty well trace the financial record of Noah's adult life. As he liked to say about
old money, “The first generation makes it, the second drinks it up and the third has to work for a fucking living.” Noah was the third. He came out of Queen's University in 1990 with a master's in philosophy and ended up a staff writer on a TV cop show, an occupation the extended family couldn't quite grasp.
“What are you doing these days, Noah?”
“You mean television?”
It seemed he'd repeated this conversation a hundred times in one form or another at family events, which, mercifully, in recent years had been reduced to Christmas dinners and funerals.
He pushed through the headwind that felt like a bottle of vodka from the freezer pressed against his face. His ex-wife would be proud of him, he thought, going out on a day like this for money.
He passed a street person bundled in all his or her possessions, sleeping on a sidewalk heating grate. A dead duck, he figured, if it stayed this cold overnight. But then, “Everyone has his own battle.” Noah had never forgotten this remark made by one of his philosophy professors, and it gave him some comfort as he left the homeless person behind. “I should have worn long underwear, for Christ's sake.”
But he hadn't owned a pair since the sixth grade at Chesterton, the boarding school where, he enjoyed reminding his relatives, he had exorcized his latent homosexuality. He wondered where his long johns were now. He wondered where all the other stuff had gone too: the model WWII destroyer, the planes, the board games, the Bond novels, the bolt-action .22, his Rawlings glove, the essays, his desk and chair, the fishing gear, snorkel and fins. Do they end up sunk to the bottom of some vast swamp of childhood things? The graveyard of happiness. Almost everything was gone.
He passed through the entrance to his aunt's enclave. Two stone pillars connected by an ornate wrought-iron span straddled the road. There was no locked gate or guard to hold back the undesirables. This handful of grand houses had been built at a time when the mere
symbol of wealth was enough to repel the unwashed. He passed the single clay tennis court, maintained by the community's grounds committee, and circled the frozen pond where two white swans mysteriously appeared every spring and glided like slow-moving question marks until they mysteriously disappeared in the fall. We have swans, Noah thought whenever he saw them, and this reassured his sense of entitlement even though he himself was always close to broke.
The door opened and there stood Jeanne, his aunt's Jamaican live-in. She wore a tight-fitting nurse's outfit. Her face lit up with an expansive grin that was both seductive and motherly. Everything about Jeanne was expansiveâher grin, her lips, her hands, her hips, her feet, her ass, her tits.
“How are you, Mr. Noah?”
He stepped in and wondered if “Mr. Noah” was a typical Jamaican expression just like the big grin or whether both were some sardonic comment on this sinister clichÃ©âblack servant, white boss. Or maybe she was simply who she appeared to be, a devoted caregiver with a generous smile. Or maybe not. This is how Noah's mind worked. Nothing was simple. And at times it exhausted him.
“Let me take your coat.”
Noah wriggled out of his backpack and from it pulled a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, a bottle of Schweppes tonic water and two lemons, then handed Jeanne his coat.
“Gin and tonic,” she laughed. “Auntie and me are going to have a good time this afternoon.”
Noah laughed and wondered how much of what he usually brought was consumed by Jeanne. He knew his aunt still liked her gin and tonic, and he felt proud of what was perhaps her remaining laudable quality: she was still a drunk. He imagined how much better a funeral it would be if she staggered and fell dead drunk into her grave rather than being lowered with all the phony elegiac reverence that was sure to come.
Jeanne examined his coat's tattered lining. “If you stay for a while, I can fix this for you.”
“No, no. Thank you. I have a guy, a small place on my corner, a tailor and laundry. He says the whole lining has to be replaced. I'm taking it in this week.” He had no intention of taking his coat anywhere because it wasn't the kind of thing he did.
“How's my aunt?”
“Just fine. Doing very good.”
Noah nodded and smiled and thought, Why couldn't she say just once, “Auntie's dead, Mr. Noah. There's two million in cash for you on the dining-room table”?
“I'm making her favourite black bean soup. She loves it, but I don't let her eat too much because it gives her gas. Why don't you go up? Try to be quiet, she's sleeping.”
Noah went up to the bedroom where his aunt lay sleeping on her back. He settled into the visitor's chair. Her remaining mass barely left an impression under the smoothly tucked covers, and he imagined that with her head lopped off it would look like a freshly made empty bed.
Noah's thinking tended to circle the morbid like a buzzard over a carcass, and there was little else to do in the room during these visits while she slept except think about death. He could smell the bean soup Jeanne was cooking downstairs and wondered if it would give his aunt gas. Perhaps enough gas to kill her with one humongous fart.
His aunt's emaciated body and this line of speculation regarding deadly gases made Noah think of the Zyklon B gas used by the Nazis in the gas chambers. He remembered an anecdote about Zyklon B he had read years before in a book titled
The Crime and
Punishment of I.G. Farben.
The gas had been developed by Farben, a German conglomerate of three chemical companies: Bayer, Hoechst Pharmaceuticals and BASF. When Zyklon B was released into the gas chambers at Birkenau, the extermination camp attached to Auschwitz, its odour would spread through the outer compound. The prisoners would recognize the smell, panic and sometimes riot. However, the odour was unrelated to the gas's efficacy. It was a safety feature, an indicator that the toxic colourless, tasteless and odourless gas was present. Annoyed by the disruption the odour caused among the doomed prisoners, the camp commander demanded that it be removed. Farben refused. The only feature of the gas they controlled under patent was the odour indicator. If it were removed, the market for the extermination of Jews with gas would be open to competition from other companies. This business fight went to the highest levels of the Nazi command, and Farben, with its size and influence, won the day. The odour stayed, the mass murder continued and Farben's contract was secure. This story was, for Noah, the defining myth of capitalist consciousness: devoid of religious, moral or legal constraints, capitalism ends up at Auschwitz. And just as his aunt's near-skeletal form was
beginning to recall for Noah the more horrific photos from the Holocaust, she opened her eyes.
His aunt stared at him without changing her lifeless expression. He was sure she didn't recognize him. “She probably thinks I'm one of her useless sons, who are right now waiting in London and New York for her to croak before they fly in to scoop up the cash.”
“It's Noah, Aunt Helen, Audrey's boy.” He smiled. Nothing. The whole ritual seemed senseless to him. If she hadn't already included him in the will, she certainly wasn't in any condition to change it now.
“It's incredibly cold out there. I walked.”
Then, as if from a brain stashed in a drawer by the bed, she spoke. “Walking is good for you.”
“Yes, yes, you're right. How about the will, am I in or out?” The question was left unstated.