Fiction –2nd Place
by Michael Ginsberg
The words spilled out of my mouth before I had time to think about them.
I stood at the breakfast table — my parents and my sister, Susan, staring up at me, like I’d announced I was catching the next flight to Mars.
“Mr. Leibowitz?” My father asked.
“That phone call, it was from Ms. Lewis at the nursing home,” I stammered. “They’re guessing his heart quit during the night.” I shook with a sudden chill, as if speaking those words had killed Ikey.
“Sorry, Daniel,” Susan said, leaning back in her chair and not sounding very sorry. “No more checkers every Wednesday. And no chance I’m stuck with him next year for my volunteer work. I was so looking forward to his belching and farting.”
Susan is 12 — three years younger than me and 30 years dumber. I glared at her, then looked at my parents. They took over the glaring.
“I said I was sorry,” Susan insisted, raising her hands in surrender but still not sounding sorry at all.
“What should I do?” I asked my parents, as I dropped down in my chair.
“Do?” My father looked puzzled.
“Should I just shower, get dressed and make like this is a normal Saturday?”
“Definitely shower,” Susan said, as she left.
My father looked at my mother. She reached over, squeezed my hand and gave me one of her classic looks. This one said, “I don’t know what to say, so I’ll just look concerned.”
“What did Ms. Lewis tell you?” my father asked.
“The funeral is tomorrow, just a graveside service. I guess she wants me to go, and she asked to see me at the nursing home afterwards.”
“Do you want to go to the service?” my father asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I should, but I’ve never been to one alone. Just family stuff.”
“Stuff?” My mother looked puzzled.
“You know — Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Celia — that kind of stuff.”
Mom narrowed her eyes. That’s the look she uses when she wants me to think she’s angry, but not too angry. Then the phone rang. Dad checked the caller ID and handed the phone to me. I hit the “talk” button as I left the kitchen.
“Hey, movie this afternoon?” It was my best friend, Ben.
“Well,” I started. “Mr. Leibowitz, the guy I always visited at the nursing home? He died during the night.”
“Sorry.” He paused. “OK, you pick the movie.”
“Thanks for your sympathy, Ben.”
“What do you want me to say? And, besides, you were kinda forced to visit him for your confirmation project. You said he was a pain, and wasn’t he, like, 150 years old?”
Ben was off by, like, 60 years, but he was right about my attitude. I didn’t exactly look forward to riding the bus across town after school every Wednesday to play checkers in a smelly dining room with a crabby old man.
Now I felt guilty.
“I’d better skip the movie, Ben.”
“What, are you gonna stay home and pray for an old dead guy all day? He’ll still be dead. See a movie; take your mind off your grief and your terrible loss.”
I hung up. A few seconds later, the phone rang again.
“I guess we got disconnected,” Ben said, laughing. “So, which movie?”
* * *
After the movie, I came home to an empty house. Still thinking about Ikey, I pulled out my confirmation project journal. It felt creepy to see what I’d written, knowing the guy I was writing about was dead. But I felt I should be doing something related to Ikey, and I didn’t have a tree to plant, so I read.
The first entry, three months earlier, followed my first visit with Ikey, in the cafeteria of the nursing home. I wrote about my surprise when I met Ms. Lewis, Ikey’s social worker. I’d imagined a short, round Jewish woman, but Ms. Lewis was tall, thin, black, and — as I guessed from the cross around her neck — not Jewish.
Most of my notes were first impressions of Ikey: his smell, like my grandmother’s bathroom, where she kept all her medicine and lotions; his bullhorn voice; his weird looks. It was August, but he wore a red plaid flannel shirt, with a black bow tie and faded corduroy pants. He had a few strands of white hair circling his head and white beard stubble on his face. His skin looked like the dry, cracked earth I’d seen in National Geographic pictures of the desert.
“You play checkers?” Ikey growled, crumbs of food flying from his mouth.
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
“You cheat?” he barked, as he studied me over the top of his frameless glasses.
“You cheat, you meet my enforcer.” He picked up a dark wooden cane from beside him and waved it in the air, as though he was leading a cavalry charge.
“Mr. Leibowitz, behave yourself,” Ms. Lewis gently scolded.
Then she turned to me and added, “He’d never hurt you, but he wants you to think he would.”
I didn’t understand, but I smiled — a stupid, scared smile.
“Sit down, boy,” he growled. “I haven’t got all day.”
In my journal, I noted that he probably did have all day. I also noted that he won all three games that visit, never opening his mouth again — except to belch — until Ms. Lewis returned to rescue me.
The pattern continued for the next few visits: no smiles, no talking, no wins for me. On my fifth visit, Ms. Lewis told me Ikey had a mild fever. He’d protested, she said, but rules wouldn’t allow me to see him.
“What do you think of our Mr. Leibowitz?” she asked.
“He’s, uh, interesting,” I finally said.
“You mean ‘ornery and obnoxious,’” Ms. Lewis said.
I nodded, and she laughed.
“Mr. Leibowitz doesn’t have many friends here, and you’re his only visitor,” Ms. Lewis said. “The staff and residents run from him, and he’s chased away other volunteers. In fact, I believe you now hold the record for visits with him.”
“Four?” I asked.
“I think he likes you.”
“Must be our long, friendly conversations. Or the closely fought games we play. Last time, I managed to take two of his checkers before he wiped me off the board.”
Ms. Lewis laughed again.
“I think he likes it that you’re not scared of him,” she said.
“I guess you don’t show you’re scared. I have a feeling Mr. Leibowitz has traveled a bumpy road in his life, and he’s come to respect toughness more than anything else. When we’re kind to him, he chews us up.”
I stewed on “bumpy road” in my journal. Next visit, I asked Ms. Lewis what Ikey’s problem was.
“At age 90, old and mean is my guess,” she said. “But we suspect abuse, too.”
“Someone’s beating on him?”
“Mental abuse, I’d guess 70-80 years back. Those scars don’t heal.”
I asked Ikey that day if he had played checkers with his father when he was a kid.
“None of your damn business,” he said. “And one other thing.”
“You lose again.” He grinned like a 2-year-old finishing his first bowl of ice cream, as he leap-frogged his checker across the board and swept my last three pieces. Was he smiling because he’d won, because I’d shown interest in his life, or because he’d shut me up?
“Probably all three,” Ms. Lewis said, when I asked her.
Determined to crack through Ikey’s rusty steel shell, I brought a loaf of challah next time.
“I hate challah,” he spat at me. “Where’s the butter?”
Even though Ikey ate four slices of the bread, I was hurt that he didn’t thank me. But I had something else to think about. I was winning.
“You OK?” I asked, after taking two of his checkers.
He answered by blowing me off the board.
“Sucker!” he shouted, slapping his knee, then jabbing the air with a finger as he took my last piece. “You thought you were gonna win.”
That did it. I told him I had to leave to finish a school project, and I called my father to pick me up early.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asked, when I practically dove into his car.
I explained, bracing for a lecture that my visits were for Ikey, not for me.
“Classic bully,” my father said. “Are you going back?”
Surprised that I had a choice, I said I didn’t know.
“Maybe you should tell him how you feel.”
Instead, I skipped the next two weeks, calling in sick once and claiming too much homework the next. In the middle of the following week, Ms. Lewis called.
“Give up?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Well, maybe. I know I’m not supposed to be there for fun, but I feel like a punching bag.”
After a short pause, Mrs. Lewis surprised me — just as my father had done — with another easy out.
“We’ve decided no more volunteers for Mr. Leibowitz,” she said. “But I appreciate your trying, and I hope you’ll let us match you with someone else. You’ve been great.”
When I got off the phone, I felt strange — not relieved, not flattered, not guilty, just … well, yeah, guilty.
A week later, I was back.
“What’s up?” Ms. Lewis asked, as she met me at the front desk.
“I felt bad, quitting,” I said. “Once, in elementary school, I had a friend who suddenly just stopped being my friend, and I felt awful. I didn’t want to do that to Mr. Leibowitz.”
Ms. Lewis smiled.
“Has he asked about me?”
“No,” she said.
Still, I figured he’d show some emotion when he saw me. He did.
“Where the hell have you been?” he barked. “No one to beat in weeks.”
I gave him what he needed, I guess — three quick, easy wins. Then he surprised me.
“You know chess?” he asked.
“Some,” I said.
“I’ve reserved a set for next week. And, from now on, you’ll call me Ikey.”
Three days later, I got the phone call that Ikey had died.
* * *
My father drove me to the cemetery and volunteered to stick around, but Ms. Lewis said she’d drive me home. We walked up the hill to the gravesite, where a rabbi and two grave diggers stood waiting for us.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
Ms. Lewis shrugged. “I guess we’re his family today,” she said.
A cold wind blew leaves around, as the rabbi read prayers and said everyone “will miss Ikey’s smiling face,” which made me guess he’d never met Ikey. I stood stiffly, feeling chilled, feeling bad that Ms. Lewis and I were the only ones there to say goodbye — and she probably had to be there.
The workers lowered the plain pine casket into the ground, and the rabbi handed me a shovel. I knew I was supposed to drop dirt on the casket, but I hesitated. Then I started to cry.
Ms. Lewis came up behind me and patted my back, as I lifted a shovelful of dirt and dropped it on the casket. I wiped my dripping nose on my sleeve and stood, shaking.
“It’s OK,” Ms. Lewis said, gently bumping me with her shoulder. “Ikey would be pleased that you cared enough to cry.”
“He’d call me a sissy.”
* * *
When we got to the nursing home, we went straight to Ikey’s room, where two guys were cleaning up.
“Ikey left something for you,” Ms. Lewis said, handing me a wide, flat wooden box off the dresser.
I set the box on the bed and opened it. Inside was a chess set, with carved wooden pieces resembling medieval knights. It looked ancient, but it was in good shape.
“We found the box in his closet, with a slip of paper taped on the outside,” Ms. Lewis said. “It had your name on it.”
I lifted the chess board out of the box. Turning it over, I found an inscription burnt into the wood — “Isaac Leibowitz Bar Mitzvah, January 14, 1928.”
Peeking inside the box, I saw a small, yellowed envelope. It was addressed to Isaac Leibowitz in New York, with a Louisville return address, no name. I pulled out a letter, hand-written across the unlined page with precise lettering.
October 5, 1950.
Your mother’s condition has worsened, and she wishes to see you. I have enclosed a check to pay for your travel home.
You will stay at our house. But, understand: I still do not accept what you call your ‘choice’ and the fact that your mother will die without grandchildren and I will live with shame.
I handed the letter to Ms. Lewis.
“Oh, dear,” she said, softly.
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “Residents here who knew the family used to chuckle that Isaac was a ‘confirmed bachelor,’”
she whispered, signaling quotation marks with her fingers. “That was code for gay. I never was sure, and, frankly, it didn’t matter, but this seems to confirm it.”
Ms. Lewis handed back the letter.
“He was 35,” I said. “How could his father treat him that way?”
Ms. Lewis rubbed her lips with a finger.
“I’ll tell you a quick story about Isaac, from a few years back,” she said. “One of the other residents was giving me a hard time.
The guy mutters ‘shvartze,’ a not-very-nice Yiddish word for ‘black.’ Isaac jumps up, pounds the tip of his cane on the floor and points a finger at the guy. ‘Apologize,’ Ikey shouts.
‘Apologize to her!’
“Isaac knew what it meant to be hurt because you’re different.”
My mouth suddenly went dry, so I handed the chess box to Ms. Lewis and went into Ikey’s bathroom for water. Pinned to the inside of the door was a calendar, blank except for a thick red box around every Wednesday. I showed the calendar to Ms. Lewis, and she nodded.
As I stood in the middle of Ikey’s room, thinking I should say something important, Ms. Lewis’ pager went off and she stepped out. Behind me, I heard one of the workers growl: “Whatsay we toss the rest of this junk and get the hell outta here?”
Turning, I saw the worker drop Ikey’s cane into a tall, gray garbage barrel. I yanked the cane out of the barrel, glared at the worker and left the room, squeezing the cane in my hand.
“Ikey would have liked that,” I thought.