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A Walk Before Dinner

By David L. Ulin

It was a Tuesday night in early April, the second night of Passover, and the city was wavering beneath an uncertain twilight, the sky high but closed, clouds fading from a purple-shot blue to silver, the silver of sudden rain. Stepping outside, Peter was struck by a wave of bad feeling. It crept up on him hot as a breath and lingered, filling his lungs and settling into his chest in a hard sharp shape. He tried to blow it out, but each inhalation just brought the feeling back, sharper. As he continued to breathe, he could feel it begin to move in his blood like oxygen.

Maybe it was Annie's absence, he thought, starting to walk. She'd left New York a few hours before, bound for Philadelphia, for her family's Seder. Peter had been invited, husbands were always invited, but he'd been unable to see the sense in spending two hours on a train to go to a dinner where, between spasms of ritual, he'd hardly have time to exchange hellos before leaving for the return trip home. It seemed like a waste-an unnecessary expense of both wallet and spirit he'd told his mother-in-law when he'd made sure to gently decline. He usually felt on display in the presence of Annie's family anyway, and, besides, he'd been looking forward to spending an evening alone.

Yet here he was, alone but not for long, on the way to a Seder of his own. In his neighborhood, it was just another Tuesday night, the Italian women gossiping in their husky voices, and shopping for greens at the Korean grocers. But uptown, his grandmother had been cooking for hours, in spite of every offer made to bring food from outside, or have the Seder somewhere else. It was funny, he thought; in their own ways, everyone had tried to dissuade her. Even his mother, who had pulled out the china and crystal and thrown her own Seder the night before, the good little girl, always the good little girl.

But it wasn't enough. It was never enough. His grandmother wanted to do this, Peter knew that. She was ready for it, unencumbered. The last time they'd all been together at her house was for his grandfather's shiva, and now she wanted to make sure everyone knew that the family went on, that, in spite of everything, there was still a center they could hold.

Peter looked at his watch. Six forty-five. He unzipped his leather jacket. It was warmer than he'd expected, despite the wet needles of precipitation starting to sharpen in the air. He turned onto Prince Street and headed west.

He was going to be late again. He knew it, had known it before he checked the time, had known it from the set of the overcast sky and the color of the light, from the dying half-sheen of it. It was his place to be late, it was his place to stand just outside the family circle and watch the rest of them, a place he had chosen so long ago it had never really seemed a choice. By now, it was just a role, no one even cared anymore, but somehow the thought gave Peter's bad feeling a new form, made it crystallize around him. Like he was stoned or something-encased inside himself, the outer world
muted as if glimpsed through a soft-focus lense, out of reach.

Peter crossed Sixth Avenue. On a bench there, an old man sat tying his shoes. He was white, mostly bald, and frail beneath the bulk of two sweaters, and he didn't seem to have any place to go. For a moment, Peter thought of inviting him to Grandma's. I hope you remembered to set a place for Elijah, he would say to his family, and he'd introduce the old man around, hand him a plate of bitter herbs and a glass of sweet wine, tell him to have a good time, at least somebody should have a good time.

Then the old man straightened up. He hawked and spit, caught Peter's eye. "What the hell you looking at?" he asked, his voice as dry as dust.

"Nothing," Peter mumbled, and turned away.

The wind picked up a bit, blowing a small flurry of soot against the sidewalk and the windshields of parked cars. Peter closed his eyes until it passed, and when he opened them again, the rain had begun. Normally, he liked rain, liked the texture of it, and the taste as the water streamed across his face. But rain made him melancholy also-it shaded everything, running the sharp edges of the world together until he wasn't sure what was what, a blur of doubt that always led to sadness. For melancholy was a form of discontinuous memory, a collection, rather than a progression, of moments, refusing to coalesce...

Peter turned his collar up. The rain settled into a steady spritzing drizzle, neither wet nor dry. Another set of boundaries gone indistinct, he thought, turning down Houston Street, bootheels clicking on the dirty pavement like they were tapping out some kind of code. It was a good thing the subway was only a block away-one long block and he'd be inside, where, hopefully, he could shake these feelings once and for all. He fixed his eyes on the Salem ad above the station entrance and told himself to relax.

But the rain kept working its quiet, misty mojo, the drizzle driving Peter deeper and deeper into himself. It had been like this the day his grandfather died, he remembered, the sky alive with greasy splashes of water, drops that beaded as they hit the ground. He'd seen the old man that day, he'd had a feeling about it, another bad feeling that had trailed him the whole morning until he'd finally hopped a number one train and gone uptown to visit, not wanting to but knowing that if he didn't, he would later regret having missed this chance to say goodbye. At the hospital, it had been a death watch, his grandmother there, and his mother-although, strangely, when he arrived, the room was empty except for his grandfather's body, withered into a bony protuberance like an exoskeleton, all his meat dissolved. Peter had laid a hand on the shrunken forehead, felt its uncertain, fading heat. "I'm here," he'd said. Then he'd gone to the window and sat on the sill, watching the rain splatter against the glass, tracing its marks with his fingers, wondering when it would end.

And when would it end? he wondered again, unable to get the picture out of his mind. That faded corpse was all his grandfather was to him now: when Peter thought about him, it was the only image he could conjure up. At the funeral, Martha, who had worked for his grandparents for sixty years, had asked to see the body, and the attendants had worked the wooden pegs out of the top of the plain pine box to accommodate her. Most of the family had backed away, but Peter had forced himself to look. He was twenty-eight years old and had never seen anyone he knew lying dead before, so he and Martha had stood together holding hands, staring down at his grandfather's twisted form-hardly human, it seemed, back hunched, chin jutting, and that toothless mouth open, crumpled in upon itself like wadded paper. He had been naked in the box, wrapped in a prayer shawl, and within its folds, Peter could see the plastic shape of a pacemaker bulging out beneath the yellow skin of his grandfather's chest. For a moment, it had seemed almost possible to reach down and jumpstart the thing, but in the same instant, Martha bent over and kissed the old man goodbye, and when she straightened up, the attendants moved in to close the coffin again, and Peter couldn't see him anymore. It was only then that he began to look around, to register the faces of his family. As they slowly recollected, Peter understood that, this time, it was they who had stood on the periphery, all those people he had spent his life barely knowing, connected by semen and blood but still unconnected, all those people from whom, even here, he still felt apart...

Yes, all those people... well, they would be there tonight, Peter knew, his grandmother sitting at one end of the table and his uncle-her son-at the other, with everyone else spread out between in a family tableau. He could almost see them, their faces cluttered together and overlapping: cloying, sickening, like the smell of his aunt's bittersweet perfume or the closed, stale air of his grandmother's apartment.

The image brought Peter up short, and a pang of regret whistled through his chest and settled in his belly, wrapping itself around his guts like a noose. Standing in front of the subway entrance, he hesitated, then turned away. Beyond the glancing rain, the evening still held the promise of faint light, everything cast in pastel shades of muted gray, and the streetlights shining reflective, splashes of pure color, in shallow puddles on the pavement. Maybe I'll walk a little, Peter thought, knowing that, late as he was, his grandmother wouldn't start the Seder until the last drop of day had been wrung from the sky.

So he turned up Varick Street, and after that, right on Downing, losing himself in the off-center corridors of the West Village. It had been a while since he'd been here, but these streets held potent memories for him, memories of the summer he'd turned twenty-two, when Annie had lived on Charles Street and studied acting, and Peter had moved in with her and studied nothing much at all. What he had done that summer was to spend a lot of time walking this part of town, memorizing it with the soles of his feet, and for a while afterwards, he had frequently found himself passing back through, often without realizing it, as if his legs had minds of their own. Eventually, though, he'd fallen out of the habit-the passage of time, he supposed, and the accumulation of other, newer patterns to occupy his feet and mind...

The rain kept up its delicate pitterpat. Peter could barely feel it as he took a left on Bedford Street.

The sidewalk was deserted, light seeping from storefronts and Italian groceries, dripping slow across the dirty, wet pavement. In the gloaming, he could hear an occasional voice, not words exactly but more the low, blended drone of conversation or television, snatches of sound that ran together and came to him in rivulets, then flowed away again before he could catch their meaning.
One more time, Peter felt the whistling emptiness of regret. Or not regret but the flooding of melancholy, a sense of disconnection, that things were slightly out of step. The rain, he thought again, but that wasn't quite it; this was something different, something bordering on paralysis, an exhaustion that suffused his whole body and made him want nothing more than to lie down in the darkness of his apartment and wait for Annie to return.

And right then and there, he nearly turned back. There was a payphone on the corner, he could easily call and cancel, but as he came upon it, a voice inside him whispered to go on. The rain kept falling, soft and slow as an afterthought, erasing all conception of past and future until Peter could almost believe that he'd been feeling like this for the last four months, that the rain he'd noticed the day of his grandfather's death had never really gone away, that in the gray winter weeks since the funeral, his grief had hung heavy upon him, the mantle of bad feeling he could not this evening seem to shake...

But the truth was altogether different, that was one thing Peter knew for sure. The truth was that, as much as he may once have loved the old man, after the funeral was over he did not miss him, did not feel much sadness or longing, did not feel anything but relief. It was a truth that didn't make him happy, but the truth had a way of existing outside joy or sadness, of working its way into your life so that, acknowledge it or not, you behaved according to its restrictions. And Peter had long ago disentangled himself from the old man's attentions, from the clutch of arthritic fingers and the immigrant stories recounted in a humming drone that had eventually become the sound of his grandfather's life itself. The truth, Peter knew, depended on who you were, and while his grandfather had always told everybody how close they were-a closeness Peter could sometimes feel if not exactly remember, a gauzy nostalgia that made him think of safety-for Peter, the old man had been a figure of childhood, whose slow, agonizing turn towards the grave had gradually stripped away every ounce of emotion from his grandson until he was nothing but a burden, a painful memory that only death could erase.

Even so, Peter couldn't get away from the idea that he had let his grandfather down. The night of the old man's death, Peter had asked Annie if she thought he'd been a good grandson, and Annie, honest as ever, had told him no. Halfheartedly, he had tried to catalogue all the things he'd done during his grandfather's decline, but the list was a short one, and even then, Peter hadn't understood why it was important, what it had to do with him. The whole thing had been too painful, he'd told Annie, that's why he had stayed away, but even that wasn't exactly true. No, what had gotten to Peter most was the discontinuity, the way all of his grandfather's stories added up to nothing, to an emaciated old man dying alone in a hospital bed that reeked of stale flesh, his mind all gone, his mind shut down, the narrative of his life just another sentimental conceit that had deserted him, along with his name, his family, and everything else he had ever known or loved.

It was a shut down so complete that Peter thought of it as willful, as if the old man had known what was coming and built his defenses while he could, tightening the circle of his life until everything-even the insistent, repetitive litany of the self-was blotted out. The doctors diagnosed it as Altzeimer's and prescribed medication, but one thing Peter remembered from his childhood was the way his grandfather had always left the room when the subject of death came up, how he would not allow it to be discussed in his presence. And Peter wondered if his condition was not just a form of unconscious preparation, if perhaps he had decided that his one best option was retreat, a retreat from life as a way of retreating from death, for fear means nothing to the unaware.

Peter stopped in the middle of the empty street and brushed a rope of damp hair from his eyes. He felt buffeted by memory, by ghosts that rose up as words inside his head, then became more real to him than the things he saw with his own eyes. But they were all illusions. His grandfather was dead, the burden was lifted, and none of it mattered anymore. All that remained of his existence were traces, the divergent lines of his children's lives, and of their children's, which had nothing to do with anything that Peter could see. Just more dissolution, he thought, coming up on Seventh Avenue and following it north.

Yet he couldn't get it out of his mind. For the whole thing was about dissolution, about his grandfather's own slow dissolution, both as a human being and as a memory. In leaving himself as nothing, he had left them all with nothing, had ceased to be anything more than a name, an abstract thing, an absence that hardly seemed to have ever been a presence at all. The last ten years, he had faded like an old photograph left too long in the sun, the withdrawal becoming more and more complete until even Peter's grandmother couldn't take it anymore. Peter had been there the day she'd given him up to the nursing home; along with his mother and his uncle, he had made the trip to West 106th Street to lend her support, although mostly what he did was drift through the linoleum halls like a wraith while the endless bureaucratic forms were filled out, his nose curling at the piss-and-ammonia smell of the place, a slight sense of panic tingling in his bowels at the sight of all those broken human forms, folded into wheelchairs and abandoned in the corridors like derelict cars. The experience reminded him of a building he'd seen at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue on his way over, an enormous Victorian mansion with gables and porches and the unmistakable look of desolation and decline. It had once been fashionable-hell, the entire neighborhood had once been fashionable, back in the days when Peter's grandfather was still a boy in Brooklyn, getting up at five AM to deliver blocks of ice to housewives before putting in a full day at school-but now it was just an empty shell, all boarded up and rotten with termites and time, its sweeping architecture graffitied with homeboy tags and littered with human waste and empty vials of crack.

Entropy. The way of the world. Peter knew it, but still the idea that things were not somehow constant was hard to accept. It made him doubt his own memory, doubt the way things fit together in pieces to tell a story that seemed to make sense of events that were essentially chaotic, that would always move inexorably towards decay. His grandfather had needed the reassurance of a good story, had needed a narrative to hang his life around. And yet there were no narratives anymore, not for him nor for Peter, who couldn't even put a finger on what he was feeling, let alone express it in words.

The rain began to fall harder as Peter made his way through Sheridan Square, its breath now more than just a wet caress. Under half-bare trees in the small park across from the subway entrance, groups of the homeless huddled for shelter. Briefly, Peter thought about heading into the station, but he was distracted by the streetlights of Seventh Avenue casting their fuzzy auroras towards a sky turned pink from the refracted glow. In the quarter-light, he could see chimeras dancing around the edges of his vision, as if the ghosts he had been so long conjuring within himself had finally moved outside, taking shape along the blurred border of night and day.

It was funny how things happened, he thought, how coincidence and opportunity conspired to bring us to moments that, left to our own devices, we would never imagine. Now that the old man was dead, he understood just how much they had in common, now that he was gone, Peter wished for some time, not to make it up to him, but to try and understand. For he too felt the pull of narrative, the way it seemed the only thing that could make sense of the turmoil, the way it lent some shape, some texture, to the finite parade of days. At times, a good story might seem so real you could almost take hold and grab it, and in so doing shrug off the weight of the past. That was what the Seder was about, a ceremony of stories and remembering, and all of a sudden, Peter understood why it was so important for him to go uptown...

But in the same moment, he understood that this, too, didn't matter, that the true weight of the past was the fact that it had been lived and lost and could never be reclaimed, only fretted over and fretted over until it had ceased to function as anything but a ghost. In a hundred years, Peter thought, not even his own grandchildren would remember him, in a hundred years, the stories of his life would be as meaningless as those of his grandfather's were right now. That was the thing that got to him, that there was no line you could draw, however small, against the flow of time, that everything-not just narrative-was sentimental, a wish wished on a candle that would always go out, except the candle was you and when it was gone, there was nowhere left for you to go...

The thought sent a twitch through Peter's heart, made his stomach contract in a clench of queasiness and fear. He jerked his head to shake it off, but the only thing to break loose was a spray of water, exploding like a burst of shot from the ends of his hair. He looked up, desperate for bearings, for anything that would root him to the world. To his right, Greenwich Avenue glistened like a photograph, its neon row of restaurants flashing liquid colors in the rain. The sky above the city had finally gone dark, and he knew his mother was probably trying his number, watching the other members of the family from the corner of her eye while listening to the message on his machine, wondering where he was. It's now or never, he thought, it's time to let this go...

Peter crossed Greenwich Avenue and moved on towards Twelfth Street. He could see the subway entrance up ahead, a darker patch of black against the grimy background of the night, and as he headed for it, he became aware of himself again. He was drenched, jeans streaked with long patches of water, hair streaming, collar wilted and damp. Yes, he thought, it was certainly time.

Even so, when he reached the station, he lingered at the top of the stairs, still unable to make up his mind. Across the street, the windows of St. Vincent's emergency room spit tendrils of light onto the sidewalk, and again he was reminded of his grandfather, of the nursing home. The memory was not specific, just that same image of the old man all toothless and corroded, and Peter closed his eyes and rubbed them until everything fragmented into pinbursts of color and black....

Then he started down. The station smelled musty, a mix of rain and urine and the soggy stench of dirty clothes, and Peter recoiled the deeper he went into it, his boots clicking out an involuntary rhythm on the concrete steps. At the turnstile, he dug a token out of his pocket and dropped it in the slot. And just then, for a moment, he felt a whisper of belonging, as if this small repetitive gesture might contain all the meaning he could expect from the world. It wasn't much, but it was something, and it warmed him as he headed down the passageway to the platform, hoping that the train would be there, that he wouldn't have to wait too long.

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