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From Still No Word from You, which was published last month by Catapult.

On the black-and-white TV in the kitchen, my mother and I watched Richard Nixon’s helicopter slowly rise. My mother stood at the sink doing dishes. At one point, she stopped scrubbing but left her hands in the dishwater. The kitchen of the house on Hazel Avenue. The house no longer exists. It is less about her expression than that her hands remained in the water but were no longer scrubbing the dishes. Something to do with the stillness, her hands suddenly motionless in the soapy water. Maybe at that moment she wasn’t thinking about Nixon at all. She was staring out at the backyard. I don’t know what month of 1974 Nixon called it quits. I could check. It’s exhausting being able to check anything and everything. Let’s say it was spring, late spring, when Nixon resigned. My mother is looking out the window. She wouldn’t leave Hazel Avenue, with my brother and me in tow, for almost another decade. But I know I read something in her eyes. As if she’d already taken off. My mother, the sound of her splashing, scrubbing, and then, stillness.

My father’s story about how a couple of Irish kids once chased him around the old neighborhood in Rogers Park calling him a kike or a yid or a dirty Jew. He said it like they were fulfilling an obligation and he, too, was playing his role. A little Jew, he ran like hell. When they caught him, those two knocked him around, not too bad, enough to make a proper show. They were welcoming my father to the city he’d been born into eight years earlier. Get it? my father would say. They chased my ass around Rogers Park, not out of it. You want to know how Chicago works, that’s how Chicago—

I’m running out of stories. My father at the corner of Fargo and California, sprinting like mad, those two little Hanrahans gaining on him, kids who have no more idea what a Jew is than they’d have been able to imagine that close to eighty years later, someone, me, would be lying in a bed in Vermont next to a sleeping daughter and remembering that they once existed, two little shits who must be dead by now. As dead as the boy they once chased. Sometimes I fall asleep after reading to her and wake and grope around in the dark for a pen and a scrap of paper. Lately, I write down what I’ve already written. Some stories don’t get lost, they get repeated into oblivion.

I get it, Dad. Persecution as initiation.

He always told it like it was something he lived through so he could tell it later. This is how it was to be chased on a late summer day in the mid-Forties. His father was still in the South Pacific. (A Jewish captain in the Navy, although you didn’t, my grandfather always said, want to be too loud about it.)

Poppa, my grandfather, my father’s father, sailed around town in a rust-colored two-door Continental, doors as big as Rhode Island. A suburban banker with an enormous planet of a head, a flag-waving patriot, a Navy veteran, Ford–Dole sticker on his bumper—a brash, noisy man. Not an especially talented banker. He made a point of being well-liked. Though outwardly jovial to the world, he wasn’t a happy man. His wife, my grandmother, didn’t love him anymore, maybe never had.

He’d come home from the bank and I’d be lying on the floor of the living room, the Cubs on WGN. My grandmother wouldn’t be home yet. Still, Poppa would breathe, Lorraine? Lorraine? He’d call for her like that even though he knew she wasn’t home. He’d wait, as if he thought she might suddenly materialize in the doorway of the bedroom they shared and didn’t share. Separate beds. Hard as concrete. Jump on them and you’d stub your toe. Then he’d look at me, and say, Where is she?

I’d shrug. Beats me.

He’d leave again, peel out of the driveway, and roam the streets. People would be out on their lawns, and they’d say, Hey, that’s my banker, Sy! Hey Sy! And they’d wave and Poppa would jam on the horn. Once, he hit a kid on his bike. At first it was a hit-and-run. My grandfather sped around the block and came upon the whole situation in a new light. For Christ’s sake, kid, are you all right? Turned out he was, just a couple of bruises, and bruises heal, and my grandfather was a Good Samaritan. It’s how you get along in this world, he’d say, you’ve got to seize every opportunity by the throat, steal a lemon, suck that free juice right out of it.

Over the years he mellowed, shrank, became frail, lonelier, meek. His sweater-vest hung off him like the ghost of someone else’s clothes. He’s been dead for twenty-four years. It occurs to me that, in the scheme of things, twenty-four years isn’t that long to be dead. He’s a youthful dead. Is this consolation? As I say, people liked him, he had a lot of friends. Everybody knew Sy. All he was looking for was his wife. He never seemed to find her.

I’m far from Lake Michigan, my inland sea, and—again—I’m thinking about what it was like when my brother and I left the house at night and walked down the dark street to the end of the block and climbed the fence and sat perched on the edge of the eroding bluff (dry, cracked, crumbling, muddy cliff), the lake down there in the autumn dark. My brother and I not talking. Whatever was happening in the lighted house behind us down the street, whatever had driven us outside, was irrelevant for the moment. Nothing touched us, not even the cold.

What we craved was motion, even at night when we couldn’t even see the lake, as if it was the solidity of the house itself—the furniture, the piano, the couches, the loveseats, the chairs, the heavy dressers, the beds, all the beds, all that lack of motion—was the root of our family misery.

I’m not after a particular instance of us out there. I’m trying to get at the idea of being on the bluff above the lake with my brother. How we never huddled together but instead occupied our own space in the cold, in the wind.

My father called the noise my brother made a hocket. I’m not sure this is the right word. If my father liked the sound of a word, he’d repeat it. Chartreuse, horseradish, gulag. What my brother did was hocket. Hocket was something between a cough and a throat clearing. Every time he did it, between two and three thousand times a day, my father would shout, “Stop that hocketing,” which only made my brother hocket more.

During what you might call the heyday of the hocket, say 1978, my brother had a turtle. We referred to the turtle as “he” but I’m not sure we had any idea. In any case, whenever my brother hocketed, the turtle would stick out his head. It’s an image I’ll die with. The turtle lived in a fish tank that my brother had decorated with drawings of weeds to make him feel at home. He didn’t feel at home. He liked it under the bed. He liked it when my brother put him in the toilet for a swim.

By then my mother was sleeping in the guest room. My brother and I were alert to all sounds. Every creak, every sigh. Knockings, murmurings, pleadings. My mother in the guest room reading, a bar of light under the door, and my father turning the doorknob and finding it locked.


One day the turtle shat, happily shat, on my father’s carpet, a runny shit that stretched from the closet to the big bed. Our attempts to rub it out with Ajax only made it multicolored. When my father came home from work my brother begged/hocketed for clemency. My father was thrilled to issue a pardon with the caveat that if that swamp creature shit on the carpet again he’d put the little green fucker in the Cuisinart.

The inevitable. The afternoon my brother liberated him from the tank, put him on a rug, and hocketed hello. Nothing happened. My brother hocketed some more. Even I tried my bad imitation of a hocket. Nothing and nothing. He was so close to us, you know, right there, and yet we knew we’d never see that wrinkled head again. Out in the backyard we dug a little hole. No shoebox. We thought he’d appreciate the soil more. My brother’s eulogy. You were steadfast, and your devotion, hocket, will never be forgotten. Hocket, hocket. There should be more to say. We knew this day would come, hocket, as you were old, ancient really, hocket, and yet we thought we’d have more time with you. Well, you’ve gone to a better place, hocket, at least in theory, hocket, but how can anybody know for sure? You know. And yet you remain in the darkness of your shell, hocket, your ancient scuffed house. Amen.

My mother had a friend who’d been married three times. Being married three times, even in the Eighties, that triumphal era of divorce, was rare and my mother’s friend wore it proudly. She’d come over and they’d talk at the kitchen table. This was after we moved out of my father’s house, now we called it that, and into the rented house on Oak Street. On Hazel Avenue, my mother never had friends over. On Oak Street, every door was always open.

What I’m trying to remember is something that my mother’s friend carried around with her, an unspoken thing, and that’s that Richie, her oldest son from her first marriage, died in an accident. He fell into a sewer shaft while playing Frisbee down in Urbana. I’d never met him. It was one of the ghost stories of my childhood, what happened to Richie Levy.

She used to howl, my mother’s friend, at how long it took for my mother to leave her first husband. My mother, for years, agonized over it, how it would scar us kids, etc. She’d point to me, Does this head full of ears look scarred? And she’d say, My God, Rho, you’ve got your whole life—

My father would call the house every night. The phone would ring and ring until finally my brother would pick up the receiver and stuff it in the silverware drawer. My father would say hello, hello, hello, hello in the dark to the knives and forks.

In the basement of the house that only came to be known later as my father’s house was a small door about a quarter of the size of an ordinary door. The door opened to a narrow passage that led to a small space behind the furnace and the hot water heater. It was a place only I knew about, and many nights and some days I’d wedge into that alleyway, a kind of tunnel, really. A few feet away the constant blue flame of the hot water heater. The house is gone. A neighbor bought it so he could knock it down and have one fewer neighbor. And when they knocked the house down, 105 Hazel Avenue, an address that no longer exists on any map—think of all the lost addresses, all those coordinates of nowhere—and bulldozed the wreckage, somewhere in that flattened pile of metal and brick and lumber was the little door. I was a weird kid. More lonely than weird. I thought I was weirder than I was. Now I see that narrow void as a kind of Jewish kid’s confessional. It felt good just to squeeze in there, the blue light in the small distance. I’m repeating myself. Always, lately, I’m repeating myself. Again, this hunger to return to places that are gone from the Illinois earth. As if I murmur it enough to myself, I’ll be able to go through that door again without ducking.

We were on the Kennedy, heading north, when my mother said, Every time I pass the Irving Park exit I think of spending the night in the gas station.


“The Blizzard of ’78,” she said, “even though by then it was January of ’79 but we still called it the Blizzard of ’78. That winter, it snowed for centuries—”

“I remember.”

“I was driving home from teaching—this was when I was at Lane Tech—and I was on the expressway. At a certain point, I couldn’t see two inches in front of me and anyway the car had stopped moving forward. I left the car on the highway, which wasn’t even a highway anymore, and trudged through the drifting snow to the Irving Park exit. After a few blocks, I found an open gas station. From a pay phone I called Dad at home and he said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it?’”

In 1979, my mother was forty-one.

I call my brother.

“She slept in a gas station?”

“She didn’t sleep. She said she was up all night.”

“I don’t remember that,” he says.

“She said Dad wouldn’t pick her up.”

“That part I believe.”

All those hours. I’m sure there would have been talk, stories, laughter. I think of the light, the fierce fluorescent light. Eating candy and potato chips just to pass time. The grime on the walls so caked it was prehistoric. The snow not falling but flinging into, beating, the plate glass. My mother and others in a Standard station on Irving Park Road, waiting on the dawn.

My brother calls me back.

“One night she didn’t come home,” he says. “I don’t remember the blizzard. I mean I do, but not that they were connected. Only that this one night she was gone, she didn’t come home—you were asleep—and I thought she wasn’t coming back at all.”

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November 2022

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