We've just arrived, late, and we're all crammed into the entry-way of a small efficiency unit. To our left is a tiny kitchenette, dimly lit with a flickering fluorescent tube. To our right is a shut door, presumably the bedroom. In front of us is a combination sitting and dining room that looks like a discount furniture sale, circa 1959. Under the surveillance of Al's mother we begin to move into this area and find seating. The largest chair in the room has a pillow in a soiled pillowcase on top of its seat cushion, and gives off an air that it's been reserved and is not to be sat in without the express permission of Al's mother or some other authority. Oddly enough, the acrid, gagging smell of the corridor has not followed us in here, at least not in its entirety. In here there is a coverup atmosphere, an invisible cloud of floral-scented germicide.
New Mom Roberta, the shining star of the lobby and its fawning pack of blue-hairs, has lost at least half her luster and wears a new face that frowns with the pang of neglect. "Aren't you going to say hello to Kayla, Mama? Look at how big she's gotten. Kayla, say hello to Grandma."
Al's mother peers at the infant through her owlish, sparkly tortoise-shells. "I don't know, she still looks like a peanut to me. Have you got enough in there?" And her liver-spotted hand shoots out like a talon and grabs Roberta's left breast. Roberta jerks backwards, startling Kayla, who begins to howl.
Mark, the father, gets up from the discount sofa with a pleading look in his eye and stands beside his wife. Al's mother turns her scowl on me.
"Mama, this is Jake. The guy from work. I asked him to come here so he could see the Feldstein House."
She seems supremely unimpressed as she eyes me up and down. "What's he going to do, buy the Feldstein House? If he does he'll probably throw me out. He'd better not try."
Mark, Roberta and the howling Kayla have moved into a corner for a family conference. Roberta turns her back to me, hunches her shoulders and fiddles with the front of her dress. When she turns around, Kayla is breastfeeding quietly and Mark is attempting to stand between mother and child and me, not without reason. He knows I'm looking.
"I hope there's enough in there," says Al's mother. "That kid looks like a peanut."
Al has already told me things about Eddie, his older brother. Eddie briefly worked for a printer, but that was years ago. He became disabled; or, to put it more accurately, his disability emerged. Eddie couldn't focus on anything, not on anything with as many parts to it as even the simplest job. So Eddie collected disability checks, and the checks helped pay for his mother's unit in the Feldstein House, whose charter specifically read that its occupants were to be elderly people in need of assisted living. Not even fifty two years of age, he is the youngest resident of the Feldstein House ever.
While Kayla breastfeeds, Al's mother passes around a tray of Ritz crackers spread with a gray, briny mixture. "They had extra in the dining hall," she says, "from the Oneg Shabbat on Friday night. Frank the cook gave it to me. He knows Eddie loves chopped herring."
I try one and it's better than I thought it would be, but one is enough.
"Don't you want another one?" asks Al's mother.
I tell her I'm saving my appetite for lunch.
"This might just be lunch," she says, "so be careful. When Eddie wakes up he'll be hungry."
I excuse myself and walk the few feet from the sitting area to the bathroom, passing the shut bedroom door on the way. The bedroom door has a simple flush surface, painted the standard institutional beige that's all over the Feldstein House. In the split second it takes to pass it I think I hear rustling or groaning, or just a fan, or nothing at all. Just outside the door, in a little corner, is a small brass urn with an umbrella and three or four wooden backscratchers.
I go into the bathroom and find myself in a space no bigger than a closet, a closet in which urine is the dominant smell, overpowering the floral spray Al's mother uses. To the left of the toilet, on the wall, is a palm-sized grey disk with red letters that say push for help. On the right is a tall Detecto medical scale whose grey balance indicator sits near the numerical peak, on the notch that reads 300 pounds. Just above the scale is a shelf with numerous squeeze bottles lined up like rockets: Fleet enemas and Debrox earwax removal kits, together with cotton balls and Q-tips.
Something about the smell and the closeness of the windowless room makes it feel as though a big cat has been in here. I lift up the seat and stare down at a white porcelain rim spattered with thick, yellow-grey blotches of congealed uric acid, concentrated piss.
When I rejoin the group, Mark is talking about what a good sleeper Kayla is and how much more of a person she's become in a few short weeks.
"It's amazing what a couple of pounds will do," Mark says. "At birth she weighed only six pounds, seven ounces."
"Eddie weighed seven pounds, six ounces when he was born," Al's mother says.
"Mama, Kayla's ten weeks," says Roberta. "Eddie's over fifty years old."
In my mind's eye, the combination of the 300-pound notch on the scale and the urine blotches touches off a flight of fancy, and I begin to picture Eddie, this creature yet to emerge from behind the door in the bedroom, as a version of all the bizarre fat people who have ever come across my radar. I picture him as Steinbeck's Lennie, and as one of those enormous, bedridden men the authorities have to free by chopping down walls, because they've eaten so much they can no longer fit through doors. When two full hours have gone by with no Eddie I get a flash picture of him as an obese Borscht Belt comic, making his entrance with a grunt and a fart, grabbing a backscratcher out of the urn and hoisting his huge ass onto the soiled pillow on the largest chair in the room. With the chair as his stage, he commences a routine of stinkers and clinkers. Two peanuts went into the woods. One was assaulted... Then a chicken went in. He was so cold he was walking with a capon...Hey, how do I know Jesus was Jewish? He lived at home till he was thirty three and his mother thought he was God.
I picture Eddie as one of those men who waddle on planes and can't fit in the seats in coach. I picture him as a human hippo testifying in a Weight Watchers infomercial that he's finally found the regimen that will turn his life around.
My pictures are shaped by snatches of conversation, by what I saw in the bathroom and overheard from the kitchenette, and by stories Al has told me. I see Eddie as an eccentric food addict, madly creating repulsive versions of ordinary dishes: stuffing the microwave with a dozen hot dogs and radiating them for an hour; then gulping down the residue, the pink, powdery cylinders of nitrate; pure deli dust, as parched as styrofoam.
And then I visualize him languishing in bed, obsessed with the orifices of his swollen body. Squeezing Fleet enemas into his ass; squeezing Debrox earwax removal liquid into his ears; plugging his ears with cotton to block out the sounds of the external world so that all he hears is the popping, rushing babble of the hydrogen peroxide mixture as it melts the wax and etches its way through the canals that twist into his skull; and when the rushing subsides plucking a Q-tip from the bedstand to probe and extract the thick inner ooze. I picture him doing this round the clock, not noticing date, time, day, night. Oblivious to his sheets, his bathrobe, his mother talking to him. Waiting and listening for each new crescendo of bursting peroxide bubbles; waking up to it and falling asleep to it. Focusing on nothing else.
But in all the time I spend at the Feldstein House that afternoon I never do get a good, close look at Eddie—I don't get any look at all. As I remember it, I'm sitting there still figuring out what to do with the stained mug of coffee the mother gave me, still troubling myself about the wasted day when I see Al's mother bolting out of the bedroom like a banshee and slamming the palm of her hand onto the push for help button on the bathroom wall. Next comes a crowded blur of paramedics, cops, firefighters, oxygen tanks, I.V. hookups and stretchers. In what seems like only seconds, so many uniformed people surge into the tiny apartment I never do see them transport Eddie out.
And then I am with them all again a few days later, still following Al the way a fingernail follows a swarm of blisters breaking out all over you, head to toe. They're all there: Al, Al's mother, Roberta and Mark, listening to the rabbi eulogize Eddie as a good son, a loyal son, a larger-than-life son who honored the Jewish way by staying faithful to hearth and home. As she hears this, the mother's face twists with disapproval, as though she wants the rabbi not to talk but to act: To get back that which wasn't just taken from her, but stolen. And I'm shocked to find that, even though I'm a total outsider, I'm feeling that way too. Only because of the moment of Eddie I never got: that glance, that whiff, that word or two—it didn't happen and I'm suddenly a mourner. I feel he was stolen from me too, and here I am on my own, protesting and appealing, even as the rabbi calls him by his Hebrew name, Ephraim. Ephraim Ben Yakov.
BIO: Paul Silverman's stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, Minnetonka Review, Worcester Review, Alimentum, Coe Review, Jabberwock Review, Eclectica, Hobart Online, Pindeldyboz, The King's English, Smokelong Quarterly, Laura Hird, The Pedestal, Adirondack Review, Dogmatika, Summerset Review, VerbSap, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon and many others. He has three Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and was shortlisted twice for The Million Writers Award.