On my birthday, March 4, l975, my grandfather Alvin Gutowitz (Goot-uh-veetz) took a cat’s whisker from his wallet and taped it to his Grundig short-wave radio, pressed his ear like a safe cracker to the mesh speaker as he painstakingly calibrated the channel dial, and therein arrived Amsterdam. By this time my grandfather had lived with me in my small apartment in Ann Arbor for five weeks and would stay another two months. “Let’s turn off the radio and listen to the past,” wrote Virginia Woolf. But my grandfather turned on the short-wave in order to listen to the past. “No matter what comes in, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn,” he said, “in the background I can still hear the screams of Jewish children being beaten and forced into trucks along Vijzelsraat.” He shifted in the overstuffed living room chair. “I witnessed that many times from my apartment window. I might have been next. Then a miracle. I was smuggled out.” It was as if certain classical music compositions, but only if broadcast from Amsterdam, drew forth these memories. Static, the reception drifted. He moved the dial ever-so-slightly and a Chopin prelude filled the room. “Please, a strong coffee,” he said.
In l944, for the second time – the first was in l929 under very different circumstances – he had left Amsterdam for Halifax, Nova Scotia, finally processing through Pier 21, which he referred to as “the Ellis Island of Canada.” When I asked him why he had abandoned his wife (Hattie, the grandmother I never met) and daughters (my mother, Estella, and my aunt Shirley) and returned to Europe, he said, “I had to retrieve my coin collections.” I said, “But you stayed in Amsterdam for fourteen years.” Hard not to notice that when he felt judged or caught out in an ethical contradiction, Alvin seemed to thicken his accent. “You don’t understand the effects of History on the individual life,” he said, shuting off that subject.
I made him a cup of coffee. We listened without talking and when the prelude ended he turned off the radio. He combed, with his fingers, his thicket of white hair. He was five feet seven inches tall, a touch on the stocky side, with a remarkably unlined, handsome face, but a face – Kafka’s phrase – “always having just registered hurt.” Given my grandfather’s delicate features yet direct, judging gaze, expressive eyebrows, he struck, in a certain light, an uncanny resemblance to the actor Claude Rains late in Claude Rains’s life. He had conservative habits born more, I think, of unending poverty than a natural fastidiousness. During the years I knew him, my grandfather’s speech never quite attained constancy. For instance, it often oscillated, even in a single sentence, in octave and cadence, though never wildly. Still it was noticeable. Perhaps he simply had little control over this, I don’t know. It may have been the peculiar result, as he said, of “the fact that I still think in Russian and Yiddish, less often in Dutch, but have to speak in English,” as if every utterance was a willful and awkward attempt at translation. He sometimes repeated a phrase several times as if auditioning it.
“As for the cat’s whisker,” he once told me, “shipboard on the immigrant crossing, a radio operator showed me the trick. It seemed to work. But how could a cat whisker actually make a difference in reception? Yet what did I know?"—and precisely right there was Alvin’s signature form of probity, a tentative belief followed by an expression of doubt. Impossible questions impossible to answer. "Fifty maybe a hundred Jewish children I saw taken away, down Vijzelstraat alone. How can people be so brutal? Do you think I can even begin to describe my feelings?”
My grandfather Alvin Gutowitz, who never went anywhere without a cat whisker in his wallet, his Grundig short-wave radio, his blue Whitman cardboard folders that held his coin collection. Pennies. Nickels. Dimes. Quarters. Or as he referred to the folders, “My autobiography,” since almost each coin seemed to have a story attached to it. In l975 he was eighty-one years old. The coin collection was his nest egg, his investment, his retirement fund. Early on in his living with me, I discovered in the pocket in the silk lining of his suitcase account books from four different American banks, and the total balance was one hundred eighty-six dollars. His account book from a Halifax bank contained one hundred eleven. He opened up a bank account the day after he arrived in Ann Arbor, which signaled his intention of staying more than “just a few days” that he’d predicted in his letter late the previous January. I received that letter, in fact, on the same day my grandfather actually showed up. No chance to turn him down, which I wouldn’t have anyway. My apartment buzzer rang. I went downstairs, opened the door, and a taxi driver was on the porch, stomping his feet to stay warm.. He pointed to his cab and said, “My passenger said you’d pay his fare. So, it’s either that, or I take the old man to the police station.” Lucky thing I’d been at home. I went back upstairs, got some money, hurried back down stairs and paid the driver. “Just between the bus station and here, he complained about my driving,” the cabbie said.
A week into his visit, we went to the C&E Diner (C for coffee, E for eggs). I picked up the check. Walking back to my apartment, arms locked together, hunched in our overcoats against the snow-filled wind, Alvin mentioned that he needed a winter scarf. We detoured to a very good men’s clothing store on Packard Street, a few blocks from the university. Alvin picked out a gray cashmere scarf and set it on the counter. The woman clerk was about thirty, I’d guess. When I gave my grandfather a fifty dollar bill, he set it on top of the scarf. “Oh, sir, I’m terribly sorry,” the clerk said. “Business has been slow this morning. It’s probably the weather.” She pointed to the sparsely filled open drawer of the cash register. Then she handed Alvin the fifty dollar bill. “Do you have anything smaller?” she said.
To which my grandfather replied, “Call me a stupid old immigrant, but as far as I know, all fifty dollar bills are the same size.”
This was not meant as a joke. The clerk looked at me imploringly and I said, “Be right back.” I went across the street to a bank where I exchanged the fifty dollar bill for two twenties and a ten, but then I asked the teller to please change the ten and make part of that a roll of nickels. I returned to the store, handed the clerk two twenties—the cash register could manage this. She took out a gift box. My grandfather said, “No ribbon, please, thank you,” then sat down in a chair by the dressing room. As the clerk set the scarf in the box, she whispered, “Is that your grandfather?” I nodded yes. “How sweet and exhausting,” she said. She had no earthly notion. Once back in my apartment, I handed Alvin the roll of nickels. He immediately fetched two blue folders from the bedroom, one held Jefferson nickels and the other held Buffalo Head nickels. I noticed at least half a dozen empty slots in each. My grandfather then set out a black handkerchief-sized square of black felt, removed from it his magnifying glass, broke open the roll of nickels and proceeded to examine each one. “Nothing here of any use,” he finally declared, as I delivered a cup of tea to the table. “You can never predict. Once in a movie theatre in Grand Rapids, I took out my pen light and looked at the change I got back from my ticket purchase. And there was a l922 nickel, pristine condition, like I’d never seen before.”
During Alvin’s nap that afternoon, I read The Carrier of Ladders and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment, collections of poetry by W.S. Merwin, who was soon to lecture at the university. I had a formal letter of introduction to the poet himself, from poet-translator Jerome Rothenberg, who was kind of a father-mentor to me; in fact, the reason I’d moved to Ann Arbor —and Jerry was tremendously encouraging in this—was to translate Inuit folktales and poems, a three-year fellowship sponsored by The University of Michigan Society of Fellows. I suppose that I thought that Jerry’s letter might help temper my feeling so intimidated at asking such a famous poet to consider looking at my fledgling translations. The thing was, I never mentioned the lecture to my grandfather because he might have insisted on attending it. I realize that this does not reflect well on me, my not wanting that potential complication.
When he woke from his nap, my grandfather and I talked and listened to Beethoven’s third symphony. Amsterdam came through wonderfully clear. Then, early in the evening, Alvin mortally wounded any promise of romance I might have had – she’d indicated a willingness – with Ardis Schueli, who had come to dinner. “If you tell her it’s your birthday, she might feel obligated,” Alvin said. “A woman should never feel obligated.” I roasted a chicken with potatoes and spiced carrots. “A true winter meal,” Alvin said, I think approvingly.
Ardis was a graduate student in musicology at the University of Michigan. She had been born in Trieste but was raised since the age of five in Chicago. She was twenty-six, a least two inches taller than me, had a wild frazzle of auburn hair and a boatload of freckles (“My father married an Irish woman”), was slim, and yet wore clothes a size too big, which struck me as providing a potential for discovery. Anyway, I’d gotten up the nerve to ask Ardis to dinner. She had walked fifteen blocks through a blizzard. After hanging her coat on the silent butler near the front door, I introduced her to my grandfather. “Oh, do you live here?” she said to Alvin. His response was, “There’s not enough room for three people.” Ardis looked a touch startled, but kissed him on the cheek and said, “I brought you a gift.” This threw my grandfather off; he dramatically sighed, enduring in advance another of life’s sudden benevolent gestures, and slumped down in the overstuffed chair. Of course, Ardis had intuitively adapted to circumstances; since she hadn’t known Alvin would be there, the gift had been originally meant for me. Ardis then displayed a vinyl record album by Peter, Paul and Mary. I was in the kitchen, pretending to give full attention to my cooking but watching, in sidelong glances, all of this unfold. She set the album on the phonograph. Ardis then sat on the sofa directly across from my grandfather. He was staring at his shoes. The first song was If I Had A Hammer. My heart sank; I knew that my grandfather would despise this song. I sort of hated it, too. I much preferred Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter. Perhaps it was nervous overcompensation, I don’t know, but Ardis sat up stiffly and more or less flapped her arms, in a kind of marionette choreography at odds with the music and words, If I had a hammer/ I’d hammer in the morning/I’d hammer in the evening/all over this land —. Ardis danced in place through the entire song. She then stood, walked to the phonograph, lifted the needle and set it on the pick-up rest. The record kept spinning. Ardis returned the sofa, leaned forward, took my grandfather’s hands in hers and said, “Well, Alvin, what did you think?” And that is when my grandfather, his shift to third-person a reprimand for Ardis becoming too familiar too soon, said in a tone entirely absent of irony, “Mr. Gutowitz wonders, didn’t these people have a hardware store nearby? How hard is it, to find a hammer? In Amsterdam, even the poorest neighborhoods, you could find a hammer. This Peter, Paul and Mary, they couldn’t knock on a door and borrow one?”
“Mr. Gutowitz,” Ardis said, “it’s a song about justice and freedom. It’s a kind of protest song.”
He shrugged. “Would you like to listen to the radio?” he said. “I have already perfectly tuned it to Amsterdam.”
Ardis withdrew her hands from Alvin’s and then turned off the phonograph. She placed the album back into his cardboard sheath. She slipped on her gloves before putting on her coat. The album tucked under her arm, she walked into the kitchen, lifted up the lid of the iron pot and said, “This smells so good. But I’d better get home before the snow gets even worse, okay?” The evening in Ardis’s company had ended. I placed some chicken, potatoes and carrots in a rectangular plastic container, which I then wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, all further fixed together by a rubber band. She held the container and smiled. “I’ll enjoy this later,” she said. Ardis kissed me on the top of my head, went into the living room, kissed my grandfather on top of his head (the “unifying kiss” as Chekhov wrote) and said, “Normally I wouldn’t take back a gift. But I don’t want you to suffer any more than you have to.” Give and take, give and take; so poised and dignified; Ardis Schueli, I thought from the kitchen, was the woman for me. But she was gone out the door. My grandfather said, “Remarkable. The snow hadn’t even melted from her coat yet,” and then turned on the short-wave again.
We sat down for dinner at the small dining room table. My grandfather had seconds, polishing off the entire dish, which meant his appetite hadn’t had to defer to Ardis Schueli’s. Over an after-dinner vodka—he always applied cut lemon directly to his tongue before each sip—the short-wave provided the least indispensable, by my grandfather’s lights, of the major composers, Vivaldi. “Would it have done any harm to just have said, ‘Sorry, not my cup of tea,’” I said, “instead of being so goddamn insensitive. I mean, Alvin, it was a thoughtful gift.”
“Look, had I exclaimed, ‘What genius! This Peter, Paul and Mary, their song has gone deep into my soul. It puts Puccini to shame!’ — first of all, I would have to kill myself in your bathroom, because I couldn’t live with such a shameful lie. Secondly, you’ll notice that I did listen carefully to the words of the song. And I had a very legitimate question to ask.”
“Why didn’t they just buy a hammer?”
“Would you like some more vodka, Alvin?”
“Please.” I filled his glass half-way. “I suppose once I heard the song, I should have gone out to a movie. Or to work on my coins in a café. You would have re-heated some food for me later.”
“Well, Ardis Schueli is not coming back to this apartment.” “Not while I’m living here, you mean. Do you want me to pack my suitcase?”
“Of course I don’t.”
“Most love affairs are doomed quite soon. Many before they even get started. You should realize that by now in your life.”
“I’m going for a walk.”
“It’s a snowstorm and freezing out. Think about how bad Dostoevsky had it in winter. That will put things in perspective. Wear my scarf if you want.”
When I returned from my walk, wearing an overcoat, galoshes, gloves, my grandfather’s scarf, I glanced in through the window of my landlord’s first floor apartment, and saw Ardis Schueli watching Saturday Night Live. The television faced the front window. My landlord, Stephen Olcott, was handing Ardis a glass of wine. This was the era of the inaugural SNL cast: John Belushi, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Dan Akyroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin. From the get-go SNL had a cult following. Every weekend Stephen invited a bunch of friends to watch the show. He had a trust fund; he owned the house and rented out apartments on the second and third floor. I figured that charming Stephen must have encountered Ardis in the front hallway and invited her to join the party. (It turned out that they had briefly met, at an Incredible String Band concert, a year earlier, just before the group, who had played at Woodstock, called it quits.) There was a veritable Pleistocene blizzard out, so why not, after fleeing my grandfather’s cold reception, go where the rooms had a well-appointed coziness and meet new people? Later, after my grandfather went to bed (he slept in the bedroom, I slept on the sofa) I sat at the dining room table, drinking vodka, trying without success to figure out a way to invite myself to the _Saturday Night Live _gathering. But the truth was, I had to tread carefully with my landlord. He had quite bluntly told me that he didn’t approve of my grandfather staying with me at all, and mentioned this with increasing frequency and annoyance as he came to suspect that calendar-wise Alvin’s residency was quite open-ended. One morning in late March, when I ran into him at the post office, Stephen threatened eviction, reminding me that my rental agreement specifically said SINGLE OCCUPANCY.
“Jesus, Stephen, he’s my grandfather,” I said.
“I don’t care if he’s Elie Wiesel,” he said. “It’s a second occupant.”
“Got a problem with Jews?” I said, more than defensively. “Look, I’m the landlord, right? But I’m only what? Five-six years older than you. I’m not some square. I watch Saturday Night Live every week. But I have to take care of my house. I’ve got all sorts of adult responsibilities, right? I don’t sit around typing all day like you. Mr. Big Shot Society of Fellows. By the way, Henning and Deborah, on the third floor, have both complained about your middle-of-the-night typing, just to mention it. But have I followed up on their complaint? No, because you pay your rent on time. But you pay it for one person. What you pay doesn’t cover a double occupancy. I don’t care if you’re rewriting the Old Testament on a typewriter. I don’t give a fuck. I’m within my legal rights to either charge your grandfather rent, or evict both of you. I’ve already consulted an attorney. And another thing. Did I complain when you nailed that mezzuzzah, did I pronounce it right? To the doorway. You should’ve asked permission. Technically, that’s a violation.”
Any given moment in life you can suddenly intensify your apprenticeship to your worst instincts. Maybe his calling the mezzuzzah a violation put me over the edge. I reached out, snapped a letter that Stephen had just taken out of his mail-slot, and tore it to shreds. We both stood there staring at the confetti on the floor. He sighed and said, “Federal offense.” He left the post office. When, back in my apartment, I detailed the incident to my grandfather, he said, “I hope it was a letter the shmuck bastard’s been waiting for since age five.”
Anyway, late on the night of my birthday, well past the time Saturday Night Live ended, I heard the sound of Peter, Paul and Mary drift up through the floor. I still thought Ardis Schueli was the cat’s pajamas. So lovely. She’d fled the intemperate weather of my apartment and found shelter on the first floor. The record album was one thing, but I only hoped she hadn’t shared any of my chicken, potato and carrot dish with Stephen.
Life itself sponsored my grandfather’s difficult nature. His temperament. I mean, Alvin lived with me pretty much the entirety of that winter and well into spring, and we even traveled to Nova Scotia together in early summer, and nary a day nor evening passed without some sort of psychological incident, as I now think of them. I was quite aware, too, that I was drinking vodka every night. In talking about any subject, his most convenient strategy was to assign me an opinion and then argue that position into the ground; so in that sense, he essentially was debating himself, like a man who plays both sides of a chess board. This was perhaps most apparent when it came to money.
That, or the evening he finally told me about his murdering a German train conductor in Holland. Oh, yes, this was also true of my grandfather. I did the research. I’d made a considerable effort to find out if it was true.
But as for money, let me tell about the telephone bill. A minimum of four but upwards of seven consecutive nights a week (never earlier than 3:00 a.m. and as late as 6:00 a.m.) my grandfather telephoned Rabbi Meir Tal in Amsterdam. They spoke in Russian and Yiddish, mostly in Yiddish, with German, Dutch and English phrases tossed into the mix, as far as I could eavesdrop accurately from my insomniac perch at the kitchen table, or from the sofa, trying to get a few hours sleep though often I’d be woken by Alvin’s excitable voice. On average I would estimate these conversations to have been an hour to an hour-and-a-half long. With exceptions on the longer side. When I’d barely made my April rent, I’d finally had, or thought I’d had, enough. One evening at the beginning of May, I set the astronomical telephone bill at my grandfather’s now-customary side of the dining room table. He sat down, but before tucking into his bowl of fish soup that I’d prepared, he studied the bill, looked across the table and said, “Pass the salt, please.” I handed him the salt shaker and he sprinkled salt on the telephone bill. He held the bill to his mouth and said, “Charlie Chaplin – Gold Rush,” and then took a bite from the corner of the bill. I was not amused. “I take it you object to my having conversations with my oldest and dearest friend, Rabbi Meir Tal.”
“I don’t object in the least to your conversations,” I said. “If anything I’m envious of them, Alvin. Such intimate discussions with a rabbi in Amsterdam.”
“We’ve been friends for half a century. He’s retired now, Meir is. He lives with his son and daughter-in-law. His dream is to purchase a houseboat on a canal. It will never happen.”
“What I object to is the cost of the calls. No, I object to the fact that you make no effort to help me out paying for them.”
“If I paid for Meir’s and my conversations, they would in the future have to become abbreviated.”
“Yes, abbreviated. You say you are envious about my old dear friendship. But you should be honest with yourself, Howard. You should really say about yourself, ‘I’m a shnorer, a cheapskate, a stingy grandson on a fixed income. Even though you can’t understand Russian or German or Dutch, probably a little Yiddish you understand, doesn’t mean what you hear me saying isn’t an education. Even the tone of our conversations – intimate. Even our dedication to talking about our lives. You get a priceless education on how men who had the experience of Hitler and pogroms speak to each other. You just don’t understand the effects of history on an individual person, let alone friendship. I feel sorry for you.”
“You wanted me to have gone through Hitler and pogroms?” “No, I feel sorry for you, not to have such a friend as Meir Tal. If you can’t understand what I’ve said, my heart breaks for you. This is good soup.”
“Look, Alvin, I only have the fellowship money. That’s my so-called fixed income, as you put it.”
“I’m considering salting and eating the rest of the bill.”
“You lack irony. You lack irony. If history did what it did to me and I still have irony, that is something. The most heartbreaking thing of all – I’ve just decided – is, my grandson lacks irony.”
“Unironically, I’m telling you that I owe the phone company six hundred and five dollars. How about you at least pay half?”
He thickened his accent. “This would—symbolically speaking— mean that you value the rare gift of your eavesdropping education only half of what you should, isn’t that correct?”
“Well, according to your peculiar logic.”
“You and this word logic. I feel sorry for you. I am referring to educating your emotions. Your heart. Your inner life. Even in the best history books, you cannot eavesdrop in on such conversations as myself and Meir Tal conduct. People who went through hell together. How do they actually sound, do you think? How would you otherwise actually know?”
“Out of sadness. Out of pity. Out of heartbreak. Out of many profound things. I will pay half of your debt. But I refuse to abbreviate my telephone calls.”
But in the end, my grandfather could not simply access money from his bank accounts. Easy enough to do, yet it would not have extended the drama of our conversation to satisfying ends for Alvin. Or something like that. So, two mornings later, he asked me to escort him to Stamp & Coin, a listing he found in the yellow pages of the Detroit telephone directory, in the Ann Arbor Public Library. We took a train to Detroit, then a taxi to the shop on Woodward Avenue, near Wayne State University. (“This city looks like it was poorly rebuilt after being attacked by the Luftwaffe.”) In the shop’s front window various rare and semi-rare stamps and coins were on display. There was a sign that said: BUY AND SELL ONLY – NO TRADES. You rang a buzzer to gain entry. Stenciled on the door was Mr. DISUNITY – PROP. The proprietor had a last name out of Dickens, I thought. Mr. Disunity himself was eighty-five if he was a day. He had tremendously wild white hair that looked as if its method of being styled was for Mr. Disunity to stick his toe in a wall socket. After a quick appraisal of the shopkeep, my grandfather said, “And here I’d been wondering where Albert Einstein went after he died. A stamp and coin shop!”
“I see you have some coin folders there,” Mr. Disunity said. “Straight to business, then,” my grandfather said.
Alvin opened his Buffalo Head nickel folder on the glass counter. Mr. Disunity adjusted a clip-on magnifying glass to the thick frame of his eyeglasses, so that it covered the right lens. My grandfather took out a toothpick from his shirt pocket and pried up a l9l8 Buffalo Head nickel. He set the nickel on a piece of oil cloth that Mr. Disunity had spread out on the counter. “Step back,” he said to my grandfather. “I need light.” Mr. Disunity examined both sides of the nickel. He pushed the magnifying glass to the side of his face and said, “Excellent condition. Wait here a minute.” Mr. Disunity, who was dressed in dark slacks, a white shirt with a dark suit jacket and matching vest, walked hunched over the five or six steps to a sagging shelf, and when he reached up for a reference book, groaned the ancient shopkeep’s groan of sheer redundancy. My grandfather oddly enough had pressed the nickel back into its slot, and I wondered if he was having second thoughts. Mr. Disunity set the reference book on the counter, adjusted the magnifying glass over his lens, opened the book to the index and ran his finger along a column. Locating the correct page, he studied the picture of the Buffalo Head nickel in question and read about its provenance. “I’ve had requests for this nickel,” he said. “I’ve had inquiries.”
“That does not surprise me,” my grandfather said.
“I can give you three hundred fifty—cash,” Mr. Disunity said.
“May I please look at that reference book,” my grandfather said.
“No,” said Mr. Disunity.
“My answer is yes to your offer then,” my grandfather said. The shopkeep opened his ledger, wrote a few things down, tore out a receipt, handed it to my grandfather. He had my grandfather sign a STATEMENT OF PURCHASE. He then pried out the nickel and handed it to Mr. Disunity, who set it on a piece of cotton in a small gift box. He placed the box under the counter. He then went into a small office crammed with papers, reference books, all sorts of boxes and files, and returned with seven fifty dollar bills, which he counted out like a bank teller into my grandfather’s open palm. “Satisfactory transaction?” he said.
My grandfather said, “I grab you by your lapels” – though he did not grab Mr. Disunity by the lapels – “and if I discover this is counterfeit money, I will have my grandson here, who works for organized crime, come back and kill you.”
“That can only mean,” the shopkeep said, with a surprising amount of sympathy in his voice, especially considering the threat on his life, “the nickel has meant much to you.”
Immediately my grandfather and Mr. Disunity shook hands. Mr. Disunity went back to his office. My grandfather handed me the money. “Now, that was an example of old European honest business dealings,” he said.
“If you say so, Alvin.”
The entire exchange had taken about fifteen minutes. Our cab driver was still out front, drinking coffee from a paper cup and eating a sandwich. We got back into the same cab. On the train back to Ann Arbor, my grandfather began the conversation by saying, “Pity for a grandson leads to such sacrifices.”
He held the blue folder on his lap.
“I’m sorry you felt you had to sell that nickel. I mean, you have money already in the bank, right?”
“How would you know about my finances?”
“I looked at your bank books.”
“I live in the house of a spy,” he said. “An agent of the state.” He spit out the sip of coffee he’d just taken, into its paper cup. “If only you could sit in a café with me in Amsterdam some day. If only you could sit with your old grandfather and Rabbi Meir Tal. You would get quite the education. Plus you’d drink coffee that wasn’t shit coffee like this I just drank some of.”
“I’d like to see Amsterdam some day, Alvin. I really would. Maybe you should pay for my travels there. We could go together. You never gave me a birthday present, remember? How about a visit to Amsterdam as a birthday present, belated?”
“I wouldn’t want you to die there, though.”
“Why would I die in Amsterdam?”
“Just overwhelmed by history. Just walking down the street. You could just die overwhelmed by ignorance, not understanding what happened there. People die from all sorts of things.”
I took the coffee cup from him and deposited it in the waste receptacle. When I returned to my seat, I said, “Let me ask you something. Why do you always begin your conversations with Meir Tal by saying, 'Arrived Amsterdam’? I don’t understand that. What’s that mean? I’m not hiding the fact that I listen in. You already know that I do. I have a small apartment and you often talk loudly. When your friend picks up you say, ‘Arrived Amsterdam.’”
“I’ll tell you exactly why I say that, if you’ll relieve me of my guilt about Ardis Schueli.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ever since that night with that Peter, Paul and Mary stupid goddamned song, I’ve felt guilty. I know you liked that young woman very much. You probably had hoped for certain things. I shouldn’t always approach every moment in life at such an uncharitable angle. I know this. For weeks and weeks now, I’ve felt bad about Ardis Schueli.”
“I wonder why you’ve waited until now to tell me.”
“I’m not apologizing. I am just telling you I have felt bad.” “Okay. Fine. You should no longer feel bad. I forgive you.” “You forgive too easily. But in this case, I won’t press the point. Now I’ll tell you why I begin my conversations with Meir that way. It refers to a telegram Meir sent me after the war. After the atrocities. We hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years I spent in America. We had fallen out of touch. Then one day, a miracle. I was in Halifax, waiting for my ship back to the Netherlands. That’s when I received at my hotel a Western Union. The telegram contained two words: Arrived Amsterdam. The telegram was from Meir. It was a miracle it found me.”
“Thank you for telling me. It means something to me now.” “Close your eyes, picture our reunion, Meir’s and mine, as part of your education of what history does to people. There were tears.” “I’ll picture it later.”
“That coffee was poison. They try to kill train passengers in this country.”
“I think I understand that you didn’t like the coffee.”
“So, now I’ll tell you about the nickel I sold today. I owe it to you to tell you so you can understand my sacrifice for my beloved grandson’s debts. I found that nickel. You have to find these coins. It has to be fate. Anyone can walk into a coin shop and buy for their collection. I feel sorry for such people. No, in my philosophy, life has to provide the coins. My coin collection is an expression of fate, believe this if you believe nothing else, because it is true. This quarter found in a movie theatre. That dime found in change from a pay telephone. One very valuable penny I found fallen under the cushions of a sofa in a hotel lobby. What a shit hotel that was. And yet as fate would have it I found a very valuable penny there. Unconsciously placing my hand under the cushion like I did. Goes to show that housekeepers never ran a vacuum cleaner under that cushion in how many years? Who knows? And thank God they didn’t. But I would never sell that penny. Not even if there was nobody left but me to pay for my own coffin. Maybe I’ll make it your inheritance from me, come to think of it, that penny.”
“You always say life is unpredictable, Alvin. You’re always quoting that proverb, If you want to make God laugh, make plans. Well, if life is so unpredictable, maybe you shouldn’t predict never selling that penny.”
“I think I’ll write out a last will and testament. I think that penny is to be your inheritance. I’d like to leave you more but you may have noticed I’m not a rich man.”
“Thank you. When the time comes, I’ll sell the penny right away to pay my phone bill.”
According to that April’s telephone bill, my grandfather and Meir Tal’s conversations had become longer than ever. One I’d eavesdropped in on had been carried out, at least on my grandfather’s side, exclusively in Yiddish; naturally I wondered what subject or subjects had required this. It’s how a lot of first generation American Jews experience Yiddish; you hear it spoken through walls but never get it translated. One feels bereft. Those walls divide America and Canada from old Europe, in a sense. But I never did ask what they had spoken about on that particular night, which I regret. One evening in the second week of May, I was ironing my grandfather’s shirts and trousers, which I’d brought home from the Laundromat. He sat in his underwear, listening to music broadcast from Amsterdam. Well into the first of Bach’s compositions for unaccompanied cello, an envelope was slid under my apartment door. My grandfather stood, walked over, retrieved the small envelope, sat down in the overstuffed chair. He opened the envelope and read the card inside.
“What’s that?” I said, starting in on a new shirt.
“Invitation to the wedding of Ardis Schueli and the shmuck landlord. So you see, my hating that goddamned stupid Peter, Paul and Mary saved you a lot of future suffering, right? Because what kind of woman would marry such a man as the Stephen who lives below you?” As I finished ironing the shirt, my grandfather went into the kitchen, sat down at the table with his blue folders set in front of him. I put the shirt on its hanger. I said, “Want some coffee?”
When the coffee had percolated, I poured each of us a cup, set his on the table, added milk to mine and sat directly across from my grandfather. He took a sip. He pointed out the window and said, “It’s raining out.”
“I see that.”
“No,” he said, his eyes suddenly brimming with tears. “I mean, here we sit. On a rainy day. I have my coins. I have my grandson. You have those new typewriter ribbons. Such a rare cozy life, don’t you agree?”