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Sad Gay Friendship

IKEY

“Ikey died.”

I stood at the breakfast table, looking down at my parents and my sister, Susan. Their blank expressions left me wondering if they even knew who I was.

“Ikey Leibowitz?” my father finally asked, and I nodded.

“Ms. Lewis just called from the nursing home,” I said. “They think his heart quit during the night.”

Susan leaned back in her chair and yawned. “I didn’t think he had a heart,” she said.

Susan is 13 – two years younger than me and 5 years dumber. I glared at her; then I shot my parents a “do something” look.

They didn’t.

“I’m sorry about Ikey,” my father came through again.

What I should do?” I asked, as I dropped down in my chair.

“Do?” My father looked puzzled.

“About Ikey. Should I just shower, get dressed and make like today is a normal Saturday?”

“Definitely shower,” Susan said, laughing, as she left.

My father looked at my mother. She reached over, squeezed my arm and gave me one of her “I’ll just look empathetic” expressions.

“What did Ms. Lewis tell you?” my father asked.

“The funeral is tomorrow, a graveside service. She asked me to join her.”

“Do you want to?”

“I don’t know. I guess I should, but I’ve never been to a funeral alone. Just family stuff.”

“Stuff?” My mother glared. “Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Celia. They’re just ‘stuff?”.”

My cell phone rescued me.

“Hey, Danny. Movie this afternoon? It’s raining.” It was my best friend, Ben.

“Well,” I started. “Remember Mr. Leibowitz, the guy I visit at the nursing home? He died during the night.”

“Sorry.” He paused. “Well, then, why don’t you pick the movie.”

“Thanks for your sympathy, Ben.”

“What do you want me to say?” he asked. “Besides, you were kinda forced to visit him for your school 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 me. I didn’t exactly look forward to riding the bus across town after school every Wednesday to sit in a smelly room with a smelly 90-year-old man and get clobbered at checkers.

Now I felt guilty for ever complaining about him.

“I’d better skip the movie, Ben.”

“You gonna stay home and pray? He’ll still be dead. See a movie and take your mind off your terrible loss.”

I hung up. A few seconds later, it rang again.

“I guess we got disconnected,” Ben said, laughing. “Let me try this again. We can look for a movie where no one dies.”

I hung up again. This time it took.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Up in my room, I didn’t have a tree to plant or a prayer to chant, so I pulled out my service project journal.

The first entry, three months ago, followed my introduction to Ikey, in the cafeteria of the nursing home. First, I met Ms. Lewis, Ikey’s social worker. From our phone conversation a few days before, I’d imagined a short, old, matzoh-ball shaped Jewish woman. She turned out to be about 39, tall, thin, black, attractive, and – as I guessed from the cross around her neck – not Jewish. I immediately liked her.

I looked around the room and saw clusters of residents, eating and chatting. Finally, Ms. Lewis pointed at an old man, sitting alone, and we approached his table. Ms. Lewis cleared her throat. Ikey didn’t move. She tried again, and he looked up at her, stared for a moment, then lowered his gaze, still silent. Ms. Lewis finally spoke.

“Ikey, there’s someone here who I’d like you to meet,” she said. Ikey still didn’t move, so she tapped on the table, and Ikey gazed up at us.

“This is Daniel Goldberg,” Ms. Lewis said. ”Remember, I told you about him last week. He’s excited to meet you.”

Ikey grunted.

I extended my right hand; Ikey just stared at it. Then he spoke, without looking at me.

“You play checkers?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“We’ll start next week,” he said. And he returned to eating.

Ms. Lewis and I stood awkwardly for a moment; then we turned and left.

“That may have been the strangest – and shortest – conversation I’ve ever had,” I said.

“I think we’re off to a good start,” Ms. Lewis said.

I laughed.

“Really? How do you figure that?”

Ms. Lewis smiled.

“OK, a bit odd,” she said. “But I’ve heard and had shorter conversations from Ikey. He’s a man of few words.”

“I’ll bring a book.”

A week later, I went directly to Ikey’s room, as Ms. Lewis and I had planned. It was practically empty; just a bed, dresser and folding chair. The walls were bare, except for a faded certificate on the wall and a few books on the dresser. I found out later that they all were technical books about fabrics. Ikey’s bathroom reminded me of my grandmother’s, smelling like medicine, lotions and old age.

I quickly noted Ikey’s appearance: uncombed hair, bullfrog voice; and early homeless shelter-style clothing: plaid flannel shirt, speckled with food stains; buttons off-line; a black bow tie; faded corduroy pants, and a rope belt.

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 deserts.

The certificate on Ikey’s wall thanked him “for fifty years of service to the garment industry.”   Someone had hand-written on the bottom, “We’ll miss you, Issac.”

Ikey cleared his throat and looked at his watch “You ready to play checkers?” Food crumbs flew from his mouth.

“Yes, sir.”

“You any good?” he snapped, as he studied me over the top of his frameless glasses, with thick, dirty lenses.

“No, sir. Why?”

“Players who think they’re good,” he said. “I tell ‘em, ‘Don’t bother sitting down.

“Let’s get started, boy. I haven’t got all day.”

I noted in my journal that he probably did have all day. I also noted that he won all three games, the two of sitting on his bed, the checkers board bouncing like it was floating on the ocean.

“Let’s meet in the cafeteria from now on,” Ikey said. “I’m getting seasick, playing on the bed.”

It may have been his only time ever trying to say something funny. Or, maybe he wasn’t trying.

As I was leaving, I pointed to the certificate and said he must be proud of it.

“Those bastards,” he said, spitting out the words, along with cigar saliva. “I sold millions worth of fabric: cotton, polyester, wool. I knew everything about everything they made, and I sold it all. Then they shoved me out the door with nothing but that lousy piece of paper. They even misspelled my name.”

The next three visits, a pattern emerged: no smiles, little talking, no wins for me. We played in the cafeteria, and I noted that none of the other residents even acknowledged Ikey’s presence . . . or mine.

On my fifth visit, Ms. Lewis told me Ikey had a mild fever and wouldn’t be allowed to see me.

“So, what do you think of our Mr. Leibowitz?” she asked.

I hesitated.

“He’s, uh, interesting,” I finally said.

“You mean ‘ornery and obnoxious,’” Ms. Lewis said, laughing.

“He doesn’t have any friends here,” she continued, “and you’re his only visitor. He rarely goes to things like game day and music performances. The staff and the 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 our closely fought games.”

“I think he likes it that you keep showing up. He’s testing you, and I think you’re passing. “

“He’s got a strange way of showing it,”

“I teased him and said he was ruining his rotten reputation.”

I asked if he had ever shown any kindness.

“A few months back, one of the other residents called me ‘shvartze,’ a Yiddish slur for ‘black.’ Isaac jumps up and points a finger at the guy. ‘Apologize,’ he shouts. ‘Tell her you’re sorry!’ And the guy did.

“I think our Mr. Leibowitz knows what it’s like to be put down.”

I asked Ms. Lewis what she meant by “put down.”.

“It’s easy to write him off as a mean 90-year-old,” she said. “But I think there’s more.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I think he’s been hurt. The kind of hurt that doesn’t heal. He can’t be happy as a hermit.”

I couldn’t imagine Ikey as a child, so I asked him one day if he’d played checkers or any other games with his father when he was a kid.

“None of your business,” he said. “And one other thing.”

“What?”

“You lose again,” he said, chuckling as he leapfrogged across the board, wiping out my last three checkers.

When I told my father what had happened, he said something about catching flies with honey, so I brought a fresh loaf of challah next time.

“What made you think I like challah,” he snapped. “So where’s the butter?”

Ikey ate four slices. But he didn’t even thank me, and he didn’t go easy at checkers.

That did it. I told him I had to leave early to finish a school project, and I called my father to pick me up ahead of schedule.

“What’s wrong?” Dad asked, as I practically dove into his car. I explained, bracing for a fatherly lecture about honoring commitments. But he just asked, “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. After the second time, Ms. Lewis called.

“Giving up?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Oh, 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 open door.

“Maybe it’s time we gave up on volunteers for Mr. Leibowitz,” she said. “I appreciate your trying, and I hope you’ll let us match you with someone else. You’ve been great.”

A week later, I was back, and I checked in with Ms. Lewis.

I told her I felt bad about quitting.

“Has he asked about me?”

Lewis smiled. “No,” she said. “But he seems gloomier than usual. I think he misses you, but he’d never admit it.”

Encouraged, I figured he’d show some emotion when I returned. He did.

“Where the hell have you been?” he barked.

I gave him what he needed, I guess – two quick, easy wins. Then he surprised me.

“You know chess?” he asked.

“Some, sir,” I said.

“Next week, we’ll play. I’ll show you. And, from now on, you’ll call me Ikey.”

Three days later, I got the phone call that Ikey had died.6

*       *       *       *       *

The next morning, my father drove me to the cemetery. Ms. Lewis met us in the parking lot and said she’d drive me home. Bundled in a long overcoat and scarf, she walked up the hill with me, holding me by the arm as we both shivered and lowered our heads against the cold wind.

When we reached the top, I counted five people surrounding a casket beside an open grave: two grave diggers, two women leaning on their walkers, and a rabbi. Mrs. Lewis explained that the women were the nursing home’s “sunshine committee.”

The rabbi zipped through a few prayers. When he remarked that everyone would miss “Isaac’s kindness,” one of the sunshine women muttered, “Another rent-a-rabbi, or else we’re burying the wrong Isaac.”

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 cried.

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.”

“You’re probably right.”

*       *       *       *       *

Ms. Lewis said she had something for me at the nursing home, so we detoured there, straight to Ikey’s room. She tugged me over to his closet, reached out to a shelf and handed me a flat wooden box, expertly carved.

Inside, I found an inscription, neatly burnt into the wood – “Isaac Leibowitz Bar Mitzvah, August 26, 1933.”

Taped to the box was a slip of paper with my name on it.

Inside was a chess set, with carved wooden pieces resembling medieval fighters and peasants. It looked ancient, but it was in good shape. Underneath, I found a small, yellowed, stamped envelope, addressed to Isaac Leibowitz in New York, with a letter inside, hand-written with precise penmanship.

Isaac,

Your mother’s condition has worsened, and she wishes to see you. I have enclosed a check to pay for your travel home and return fare.

You will stay at our house. But, understand: I still do not accept what you call your ‘choice.’ Years ago, I sat shiva for you, and nothing has changed: Your mother will die without grandchildren; I will live with shame.

Martin Liebowitz

“‘Sitting shiva?’ Ms. Lewis asked.

I explained that Jews ‘sit shiva’ when a family member dies. “They mostly sit around at home, mirrors covered so they don’t think about themselves. Friends and family pay respects, but everyone mostly just talks, without acknowledging why they are there.”

My turn for a question.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked, holding up the letter.

Ms. Lewis nodded. “Some of the residents gossiped that he was a ‘confirmed bachelor,’” she said, making quotation marks with her fingers. “It means they thought he was gay, but no one dares actually saying that.

“Leaving you that letter, Daniel, Ikey outed himself to you.”

We were quiet on the drive home, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the letter.

“He was 35,” I finally said to Ms. Lewis. “How could his father treat him that way?”

She shrugged. “Ikey lived with hurt for a long time,” she said. “He protected himself by locking out other people.”

She paused for a few seconds.

“Except for you.”

Pausing again, Ms. Lewis cleared her throat.

“Uh, Daniel, I’m afraid to ask you, but . . .”

“Yes, I will,” I answered.

She laughed.

 “First you should take a short break,” she said.

I nodded, then answered again, with a smile.

“That’s ‘yes,’ only if he plays chess.”

January 26, 2024 19:23

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3 comments

Alexis Araneta
08:23 Feb 08, 2024

This was beautiful, Michael. You made me love all three main characters. I loved it.

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Kathryn Kahn
21:12 Feb 06, 2024

What a sweet story! I love the main characters, all three of them, and I appreciated the way they were tied together. Ikey's great need for kindness was met with Ms. Lewis' natural kindness, and Daniel learned something important about himself while he thought he was just doing a service for someone else. Very satisfying.

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Ty Warmbrodt
13:32 Feb 03, 2024

Wonderful story, Michael. Great character building. If I was Ikey, I would be closed off too. Really enjoyed the story.

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