Originally appeared in Blab! #7, Winter 1992
Not the least enthusiastic among Florida’s new elderly folks were Jack and Nellie Leibowitz. “Come on down,” Jack cajoled his shy teenage grandsons, echoing the geriatric hog call that had lured him South. Ned and Dave received boxes of oranges and grapefruits. They were promised legendary meals and tropical fun.
Grandpa Jack’s lust for activity got him elected president of Lancelot Court, an oceanside semiluxury highrise with two-hundred units (don’t even think of applying before you’re 62). He wore his retirement like a badge of honor, something he’d earned after 40 years on the road as a traveling salesman. Grandpa Jackie Leibowitz cherished his senior citizenship as if it were knighthood.
Grandsons Ned and Dave were finally swept into their grandpa’s retirement whirl when they arranged a week’s vacation during the Passover holidays. Ned, now 16, had always loved his grandfather. Once a year, Jack drove through New York on his sales route for a three-day stopover. He was a king of the road. He knew Route 66 like the back of his hand, before the super highways came into being.
Ned would watch his grandpa shave his tough steel-gray beard with an electric razor, then splash his face with Florida Water aftershave. He combed an impeccable part in his silver hair. Ned never saw him without a trusty tanktop undershirt, oversized boxers and matching sock suspenders. He watched him slip into a silver suit and silk tie, while imparting wisdom.
“Always remember the first names off the buyer’s wife and children,” advised Jack, “and bring a gift for the kids.” That was the secret of great salesmanship. On came the cuff links, pinkie ring and gold watch. Jack must have racked up more salesmanship trophies than anyone. He worked the road for a firm called Chicago Surplus. Ned never even knew what he sold.
The boys weren’t interested in becoming salesmen. Ned was so distraught with high school, he decided to drop out. With a cannon to his head, Ned didn’t think he could stand one more day of it. Every morning, in the back of the smoke-ladened bus, his friends would shove a hash pipe in his mouth. He fell into a depressed slumber during Geometry and Spanish, his first two periods. He felt persecuted and demeaned by his teachers, most of them mentally ill civil servants. He begrudgingly attended folk-singing Vietnam anti-war rallies every week, and was expected to burn his draft notice in a couple of years. He hated folk music. The girls who performed it all sang with bad breath, their faces spotted with Clearasil. And his pals were compulsive record buyers, amassing huge piles of circular vinyl as status symbols. God forbid if Ned wasn’t versed in the latest Atomic Rooster, Rhinoceros or Sir Lord Baltimore.
Ned needed to flee his surroundings. To feel some old-time values, ancient customs, to be with his grandparents for some balance and sanity. Ah, old people. Grandpa Jack was appalled by the hippie movement, yet he spoke fervently of brotherly love within his own family.
“You really dropping out?” mumbled Ned’s wide-eyed brother, 13-year-old Dave. Dave was a quiet fellow, seen and not heard, who dreamt of being an actor. He hadn’t done any acting yet, but figured it would all come together when he grew up. “What’ll you do instead of school?”
“I dunno. Let’s go visit Papa,” slurred Ned.
Jack and Nellie came to Florida to live out their days, craving sun and warmth, needing to be near the sea and palms. Yet Southern Florida was no glue factory for the elderly. It was being vigorously reclaimed by Americans born at the turn of the century who had just reached retirement. They fled cold Northern cities. Active “senior citizens,” a generation of sexy, young, freshly retired couples in their 60s ready to cha-cha. They were hungry for those tans, golf courses, to let their career-worn bodies soak up wholesome entertainment at the Diplomat and Fountainbleau.
Hurricane-proof condos had sprung up against the oceanside, the concrete barely dry before their elderly tenants arrived. They were propelled by pensions, social security and golden years savings. They were lured by Borsht Belt entertainers endorsing condos. Golf course TV ad campaigns to buy real estate from Red Buttons, Bob Hope, Red “Come-On-Down-to-Sunny-Florida” Barber, Anita Bryant and the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.
Grandpa Jack was ecstatic at the arrival of Ned and Dave at the airport. He whisked them to Rascal House, a delicatessen he’d been raving about since he arrived. “These are my grandsons,” he beamed, to other tables of Lancelot Court acquaintances. “Well-behaved, clean-cut boys, straight A’s. They don’t take drugs or any of that crap you read. They love each other and stick together.”
Ned had recently fallen in with a sad clique of heroin snorters, and his hair was beginning to stream past his shoulders. He thought it odd that Grandpa hadn’t noticed. He feared his desire to leave school would be leaked to Papa by his brother Dave. His grandpa couldn’t possibly ever comprehend the reasons. He still hadn’t recovered over the fact that neither boy had been bar mitzvahed.
Ned heard his grandpa whisper “kikes” under his breath as he passed one table. He was 70, in his third year in Florida. The razzmatazz seemed to have faded from his wild and wooly retirement.
“What’ll yooze guys have?” Grandpa belted out. “I wanna see some hearty appetites! We do a lot of eating down here in Florida.”
Grandpa ordered a turkey on rye, Durkee’s sauce on the side. The waiter regretted they were out of the sauce when the order came.
“What! How the hell am I supposed to eat turkey,” said Grandpa Jack, dropping his sandwich on the plate in disgust, “without a goddamn bottle of Durkee’s?” He called for the manager.
It was a fact: they’d run out.
“Who the hell eats turkey without Durkee’s?” shouted Grandpa, pounding the table. His face turned a shade of heart-attack red, an anger the boys had never seen. Throwing up his arms, he ordered the waiter to take back the sandwich and the pickles. Rascal House had occupied a high place in Grandpa’s personal mythology in Florida, but no more.
The boys received overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, glistening with fat, from the “fresser” column of the menu. “Have some, Papa,” they offered. But the old man would eat nothing, just sit there and stew. He became quiet, squinting into the distance, arms folded like a general plotting an invasion of delicatessens.
“This place is nothin’,” he spoke, in a battle cry as the manager passed the table. “Tomorrow,” he said to his boys. “Tomorrow—we eat.”
The five Leibowitz brothers—of which Grandpa Jack was the youngest—grew up underfed on the Lower East Side. Jack often told his grandsons how the Leibowitz brothers “stuck together.” They defended each other like five Yiddish musketeers. If Yussel, Yummel, Yankela, Moishe or Schmuel (their childhood nicknames) were ever threatened by someone who hated their kind, four other Leibowitzes were there in a shot. Manhattan contained rival ethnic gangs, but according to Jack, the Leibowitz brothers were not to be messed with. Born around the turn of the century, their parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1890’s. Their father was a furniture maker in the old country, who got menial work digging August Belmont’s subway.
A family portrait from 1910 showed an impeccably dressed American family, the skinny boys in knickers. But the father had a tightly wound look of discipline and religious ferocity. Perhaps typical of an old-world shtetl patriarch, he seemed psychotic to Ned. He never smiled or laughed and punished the boys often with a strap. Religious holidays were enforced by the old book. Under their father’s stern watch, the Leibowitz boys prayed for hours over the Seder, before their food. Fifty years later, Ned and Dave found it torture to sit before potato pancakes or gefilte fish for fifteen minutes, during abbreviated Seders with Grandpa Jack. The priorities for survival had completely changed over the decades; the applications of religion from millennia past had no relevance in Ned and Dave’s day-to-day life.
But the Leibowitz brothers were American boys. By the early 1920’s, they were handball champs of Brighton Beach, semi-pro athletes all. One even pitched a few exhibition games for John McGraw’s New York Giants. Trim, sinewy, mustachioed men, they swam and boxed on the beach at Coney Island. Together, they were rumored to have thrown one or two guys off a roof. They sat shiva together as teenagers, when their mother died. Two of them fought side by side in World War I. Through thick and thin, Jack told his grandkids, they stuck together, and most of all, they loved each other.
Ned and Dave’s mom was proud to be a saner parent then her parents had been. In turn, it seemed each preceding generation must have had even more hair-raisingly bizarre and irrational parents. By evolution, each successive generation would be less neurotic than the last. And so, the boys’ mom had high hopes for Ned and Dave.
Jack had recently been reunited with his two surviving older brothers. He convinced Manny and Arthur to come on down for their golden retirement years, and they moved to Lancelot Court.
Ned awoke with pot withdrawals the next morning in Florida. He felt two bright blue eyes beaming over his face. It was Nellie, Jack’s second wife of twelve years, smiling over his bed. She was nearly deaf, but refused to wear a hearing aid, causing Jack to shout for her to hear.
“My boys,” she smiled, in Ned’s face, then turned her smile to Dave. “I’ve got all my boys.” It was the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., and both grandparents were roaming about the living room. Jack was shouting to her in a whisper, as though they were being quiet.
When Dave opened an eye, both grandparents were right on top of him. “We’re gonna have some breakfast,” exclaimed Papa. He was full of piss and vinegar. “Both yooze guys, rise and shine. I’m taking you out for a wonderful meal. Anything you want!”
When Ned and Dave started to fully awake, they found themselves at the Ramada Inn luncheonette down the street. Again, Papa was licking his chops, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of breakfast.
“Scrambled eggs,” said Ned to the waiter.
“What?” came Papa. “Whaddaya wanna get that for, you have eggs back at the house.”
“But that’s what I want, Papa.”
“Okay,” shrugged Jack, totally bewildered. “But we have that at home.”
“And four pieces of toast.”
“Four slices?” said Papa, his blood pressure rising. “I never heard of so many.”
“I can handle it, Papa, really,” Ned promised. Finally, Jack became impressed.
“That’s my grandson,” he said to the neighboring table. “He eats four pieces of toast.”
Lancelot Court was the Leibowitz brothers’ retirement paradise. In the three years Jack lived there, he’d just begun to worry about overdevelopment along Ocean Drive. He led his grandsons like retarded children on a tour, pointing out the aqua-green carpeted lobby with stucco walls and seashell wallpaper. They strolled down to the men’s club poker room.
Ned and Dave, unlike anyone their age, truly enjoyed old folks. They began imitating their walks, their talk. It was like a geriatric acid trip. Ned willingly left his hash pipe at home, the first time in a year. Both boys felt a nagging urge to run out for a quickie bar mitzvah, if one were available. They harmonized an old song written for Danny Kaye:
I like old people
They never tell ya what ya shouldn’t do
They buy you toys and candy
And extra toys are dandy
I like old people
I like them
Papa’s older brothers were new to Florida, but they lapped it up. They all went bowling and played at a “golf course of our faith.” They took gambling cruises to Bermuda, with costume balls. Nellie, Jack would beam, came as “my China Doll,” and she never looked more stunning to him. As icing on the cake, there were few Gentiles around.
Jack showed off his Lancelot stretch of ocean side, where his grandsons wet their feet, then strolled up to the pool. His brother, Arthur, who was 80, waited at the gate. The two old men called to each other:
“Watch your Uncle Arthur,” instructed Jack, as they emerged from the beach. “Watch Uncle Arthur wash the sand off his feet.”
Arthur stood at a hose in his bathing trunks, with a truss underneath. He was truly old, sweet and hollow of voice. He grabbed the hose and began demonstrating, watering down his feet.
“Yout gotta get between your toes, like so,” huffed Arthur, the boys observing. “You don’t wanna track sand to the pool.”
“See that, watch your Uncle Arthur real careful,” repeated Jack. “Can you do it?”
“It’s a cinch, Papa. We can do!”
Already at the pool were Mamie and Manny, Jack’s nearest brother in age, at 72.
“Moishe!” screamed Jack and Arthur.
“Yussel, Yummel!” They shared some deep fraternity of brotherly love, dating back to another era, using their parents’ Yiddish tongue.
Uncle Manny had owned a store in Brooklyn for forty years called Comfy Corner, which sold basic pillows, sheets, bedroom ornaments. He survived two heart attacks, yet he seemed robust and fit. His wife Mamie appeared to be a whole generation younger than her senior citizen peers, strutting about in a sexy two-piece.
“You grew like a stinkweed,” Uncle Manny cracked out the side of his mouth, when he saw Ned and his hair. He rarely acknowledged Ned and Dave, much preferring his own grandchildren.
“The Three Remaining Leibowitz Brothers,” said Ned to Dave, with a wink. “Appreciate ‘em, they won’t be around forever. . . are you appreciating them?”
“Yeah, yeah, I appreciate ’em,” said Dave. Ned felt deficient, he lacked the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit the old men had. There they basted in the sun in pool clogs, old red flesh and gray chest hair, enjoying the good life. They held their arms around each other for a moment. They were golden boys.
“When I was in Mt. Sinai in Miami,” Manny told Arthur, “they took damn good care of me. Pwetty nurses. All the surgeons come by, say hello every day, give ya all the blood plasma ya want. They took some blood, told me you got the reddest, healthiest blood we ever saw. I let ’em take all they wanted. Great food, steaks, desserts. I recommend it for the desserts alone. Ever been there?”
“Naw,” said Arthur, slow and mild-mannered as an old tortoise.
“You should try it. . . Now, St. Francis, Chicago, there’s a hospital. You got an ulcer or somethin’, they’ll cut it wight outta ya.”
“Arrow,” interjected Arthur, “makes the warmest undershirt.”
“Better than Hanes and BVD?” asked Jack.
“Yeah, Arrow. They make a good undershirt. Keeps ya warm in the winter, nice white V-neck. Ya buy ’em three to a pack for five bucks.”
“I prefer Fwuit of the Loom,” interjected Manny, from the side of the pool.
Jack waved his hand. “Nah. . . Gimbels makes one helluva undershirt.”
Ned lay on a sun lounger, his skinny body glistening with lotion. Undershirts: he pondered the concept. Not since the night he became enthralled over man’s simple invention of the toaster had he entertained such cosmic thought. Tanktops were a ubiquitous appendage of old men, like baggy boxer shorts. Even the choice of brand was an emotional decision.
Aunt Mamie emerged from the pool feeling sexy. She began a cha-cha dance with her towel, gyrating much to the displeasure of Jack. Manny broke into a swaying Broadway accompaniment, his voice guttural and phlegmy:
A pwetty goyal
Is like a mel-o-dee
Mamie, with a mischievous smile, undid the back strap of her top, doing a mock striptease. Jack went haywire. He was far more prudish than his older brother Manny, or Mamie, who went to discotheques with her grandchildren.
“Not in front of the kids!” screamed Jack, running over and cupping his hands over Ned and Dave’s eyes. “Stop!”
“Keep your shirt on, Jack,” said Mamie, to the president of Lancelot Court, who was trying to maintain order.
“You keep yours on!” responded Jack, and they all broke up, a simple joy registering on each face. Uncle Arthur and his wife hooted in the shade, like owls.
“Well, whaddaya say we have some lunch?” said Uncle Manny, the former proprietor of Comfy Corner. “Jiffy peanut butter sandwiches, with the chunks in it.”
“Nah, nah,” said Papa Jack, waving his hand. “Who the hell wants peanuts in their peanut butter? I can’t chew that. That’s why they process it into spread. I use Skippy.”
“Jiffy’s better for you, Jack. Real peanuts in it, gives ya all the protein ya want. It sticks to the roof of your mouth. I like it there.”
“Well I say Skippy is good, goddamn it, and Skippy it is in my house,” shot back Jack.
“Skippy is Drippy,” sang Manny, doing a little soft shoe, top hat and cane, “but Jiffy is Terrify....”
“Shut up!” came Papa, violently. “Shut up, you!”
“What, shut up? I’m just singin’, Jack.”
“You, you... you’re the problem here!” said Jack.
Manny waved his hand to dismiss Jack, recoiling sour-faced. “You. You give me a cramp in my bowel.”
“Kike!” screamed Papa, losing his brains.
“Shit!” countered Manny.
“Boys,” rasped Arthur, swallowed up in his beach recliner, buried under a towel. “Boys, boys. Moishe, you’ll give yaself another heart attack, calm down. For God’s sake.”
Mamie rushed to her husband’s side to muzzle him.
“You sickie!” hammered Manny, one more time, as his wife pulled him away. “Nothin’ but one big sickie!”
“Get outta this goddamn pool,” screamed Jack, “and get away from my grandsons.”
Nellie was thrilled to see her men back up in the apartment.
“We’re going to market,” she exclaimed, hardly containing herself.
“To the mall!” announced Grandpa Jack, another fabled institution in their land. He’d regained his composure from the pool episode. Ned was beginning to feel a creeping sense of lunacy during his Florida vacation. They weren’t allowed to roam out to Ft. Lauderdale at night, where older girls were plentiful. It was Lights Out after Papa watched the eleven o’clock news. He was truly riled by the world going to hell. He voiced opinions. “Bust their heads!” he would exhort Chicago cops, when they scattered anti-war protesters.
Nellie was into vegetating. Her main ritual was reading the stock quotations, while Jack read the rest of the Miami Herald each morning. Jack was her fourth husband, and her favorite, going on thirteen years of marriage. Her first husband “wasn’t a real man,” she discovered. Her second husband was poor, but gave her a son, now in his 40s. She’d experienced enough of poverty and vowed to marry rich when she divorced her second husband. Her third husband left her a bundle of stocks when he kicked, which ballooned up to God knows what since she married Jack. But she never touched a penny, save for the new car they had. He paid all other bills, from his social security and pension.
“Wise shoppers stretch dollars,” she instructed the boys. She often spoke out of turn, from her silent undersea world. She wore an ear plug for TV and was delighted by particular commercials, like the old woman with the spray starch which “...Turns iron drudgery... (harp string arpeggio) into Pressing Play-surre.”
“Yeah, pretty cool,” said Ned, repeating Nellie’s fave ad slogans with her like a mantra.
“Here, you want to try my ear plug?” Dave recoiled as she attempted to insert it in his head. Nellie’s number one TV show was something called Tattletales.
“Do you watch Tattletales?” she asked, in all earnest, with a giggle. Ned and Dave watched an episode with her, its sniggering sexual innuendo an affront to all humanity.
“I like Farm Stores. Do you like Farm Stores?” inquired Nell.
“Yeah!” shot the boys, half sarcastic. Ah, old people.
The four of them ambled through the green indoor astro turf of the mall, Nellie smiling into windows. They cruised at about one mile per hour. Nellie wouldn’t purchase a thing, she just liked knowing it was there. A maid did the grocery shopping once a week.
“We have a gal,” boasted Nellie. “I love my gal.” She displayed an odd Southern Belle racism, having grown up in Atlanta. “My James,” she spoke of her son, “once went out with a colored gal. He would have married her if she was white. But I always believed people who go out with coloreds can’t do any better. Don’t you think? He finally dropped her.”
“Howsa ‘bout Chinks for lunch?” asked Jack, hungry after one length of mall. The foursome entered a cottage on the highway called Canton Song. “Now,” said Jack, “watch your Papa eat. Your Papa has one big hearty appetite, and he never left over anything. Never. And neither will you boys.” Papa proudly applied his napkin as a neck bib, and the boys followed.
Ned didn’t appreciate the threat of having to clean his plate. He was sixteen now, and felt protective over what little personal freedom he could muster. That’s what quitting school was about. He was still a minor and in his grandpa’s custody all week, so the eating order sounded ominous.
“These boys have always been good, hearty eaters,” explained Jack to the maitre d’.
“No, they’re particular eaters,” countered Nellie.
“I don’t give a goddamn what she says. They’re hearty!”
“No, Jack, they’re particular about what they eat.” Nellie held her ground. “Now Jack likes soup, ’cause he doesn’t have to chew. Do you chew well before swallowing?”
The boys reassured her they did.
“Your Papa is famous for eating soup. Always loved soup, always will...and so do my grandsons!” Jack declared, embracing the boys. “How is it here?”
“Gooder than a pig,” said Dave, his favorite expression, though no one quite understood it.
“I wipe his tush,” said Nellie, with a big proud grin, almost naughty. “And I clean his pish off the toiled seat. Don’t I, Jack?”
“Yep,” said Papa, shoveling a spoonful of wonton.
“We go out for pedicures. Jack’s too old to reach down and bite his toenails. Can you?” asked Nellie, beaming. “All my boys. You’re my boys. I’m surrounded by my boys.”
“Yooze guys,” echoed Jack, “the best, most wonderful grandsons in the world.”
The boys wondered what the hell he was talking about. Ned carried a rather massive inferiority complex, with due respect to his age. Papa’s compliments seemed to come from Mars.
“I never eat food that tastes bad,” said Nellie. “Do you? If it tastes bad, don’t eat it, I always say.” She nodded to herself, cocksure.
No real questions were asked of the boys, nothing to indicate the old folks were curious about their hobbies, music or beliefs. Jack related incidents of movies he recently stormed out of. He led a dozen senior citizens out of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, demanding refunds from the box office.
“And we got back our admissions. Lewd, lewd, lewd. You call that enta-tainment? People want good, clean movies, decent enta-tainment, like Fiddler and Mame. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.”
“We agree,” said Ned and Dave.
When the main courses came, Jack rubbed his hands. “Oh boy, oh boy, lookit that. And you’ll eat every drop, just like your Papa.” Feeling threatened by the portions, the boys dug in. Jack’s halo of wonderfulness around them was a bizarre, yet not unlikeable sensation, and they didn’t want to spoil it. If he thought they were grand eaters, then by golly, let them eat to impress him.
Silence overtook the table. But less than halfway through, Jack pushed his plate away. He made a sound of disgust, declaring he was full. His plate contained half-devoured orders of subgum, fried rice and partially nibbled shrimp. Upon delivery of the check, Jack threw up his hands by reflex, like highway robbery.
“Thieves!” he wailed, a moment before looking at the check. “They’re all thieves! They pretend they don’t understand nothin’ when you ask ‘em what’s on the menu, then they cheat you blind on the check.”
“Tomorrow,” he prophesied, his finger raised as the confused Chinese waiter looked on. “Tomorrow we eat.”
The next evening, Ned and Dave were ushered off to a special diabetic Seder at one of the big hotels. A private banquet room had been rented by Lancelot Court’s Passover Committee. Certain members had urgent nutritional requirements, were too old to fast, or would pass out during the prayers.
Uncle Manny, Jack, Nellie and the boys squeezed into Jack’s polished pink Cadillac. Uncle Arthur drove Aunt Mamie and his wife. Against a tequila sunset, Jack led the two-car Passover convoy down Ocean Drive. He cursed every other vehicle on the road under his breath, accusing the Wonder Bread truck of anti-Semitism.
“How ’bout some radio, Papa?” asked Ned.
“No radio in the car,” his grandfather ruled.
“For God’s sake, Jack what the hell difference if the kids wanna hear wadio in the car,” came Manny, playing devil’s advocate. “I say let ’em hear it.”
“And I say the car is not the place for radio,” shot back Jack. “They shouldn’t even install radios in cars.”
“When my grandkids want wadio in the car, I turn the damn thing on,” said Manny, playing the modern grandpa.
“I was on the road for over forty years. I should know whether it’s dangerous to play radio in the car!”
“So keep it low, Jack. Let ’em hear their wock music.”
“Beatles, Rolling Stones, long hair, jumping up and down and screaming? No radio in the car!”
The car began to weave in and out of its lane. The boys gripped the sides of their seats.
“Yes, wadio in the car!” Uncle Manny broke into song:
Stwangers in the night
Stwangers in the night
Dat’s what romance is
Jack slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road. He wrenched his neck around to Manny in the back seat. “You goddamn son-of-a-bitch! Shut up! For forty goddamn years I’m on the road, and you’re gonna tell me radio’s not dangerous in an automobile?!”
A half-dozen cars behind screeched to a halt and began honking. Spittle shot out of Jacks mouth, his voice was strained, losing tone.
“Jack, Jack!” screamed Nellie, with God’s fear in her eyes.
“You wanna get us killed?” yelled Manny, at the top of his lungs. “Goddamn you, you dumb bastard!”
“Goddamit! You anti-Semitic kike! Don’t tell me how to drive!”
When the cars reached valet parking at the hotel, the Leibowitz brothers were shaking, their wives calming them down. Oh, how Nellie hated to see them argue so. She would sit there fretting, like a worried hen. At times it made her cry. It put her stomach in knots, she told the boys.
But the Leibowitz brothers entered the ballroom in style. Their white summer suits were natty and perfect in fit, with just a trace of tanktop undershirt showing through their white dress shirts. Embracing friends with mitzvah greetings, they pulled out chairs to seat their wives. They displayed the grace and dignity of retired sportsmen. Ned and Dave felt stiffly out of place in their blue blazer jackets, borrowed from their uncles. The same kind of ill-fitting jackets dispensed from coat checks at formal Chinese restaurants, when you didn’t bring one. Both boys’ hairdos swirled rudely out of the obligatory yarmulkes given at the door. The skullcap gave Ned a strange shiver, perhaps rekindling some ancestral Passover memory of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses.
The banquet table was set with formal silverware, crystal and Passover china. A tray in the center contained sodium-free matzoh, the bread of oppression. The Leibowitz brothers each placed a linen napkin on his lap, and the boys followed. Wine goblets to be sipped during different prayers were set forth by a black waiter.
As leader of the ceremony, Arthur, the oldest man, handed Dave, the youngest, a prayer book to commence.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” read Dave, blushing when his voice jumped.
“On all the other nights we may eat any species of herbs,” Arthur spoke from his book, “but on this night only bitter herbs....”
Grandpa Jack felt obliged to acknowledge the old black waiter filling wine goblets. “How ’bout that Willie Mays in spring training,” he whispered from the side of his mouth. “Still great as ever.”
“So’s Hank Aaron,” cracked Manny, sitting directly opposite.
“Shhhh!” an old woman scolded.
“Behold the matzoh,” recited Uncle Arthur, “bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”
Ned noticed his grandpa fidgeting, somewhat out of touch with the proceeding. He finally got something off his chest.
“Willie Mays is a well-behaved gentleman,” declared Jack to Manny, with an aristocratic nod of his head. “And a credit to his race.”
“Hank Aaron dwesses bedda,” came Manny, in a loud interruptive voice. “Aaron wears bedda suits, silk ties, he’s bedda groomed than Mays. And he’s a bedda ballplayer.”
“Mays hit .289 last year, Aaron only hit .287, what the hell you gonna tell me,” insisted Jack.
“Aaron hit 29 home runs,” countered Manny, standing up, jabbing his finger. “Mays hit 23. Mays is slowing down, he can’t steal like he used to, can’t make those long catches.”
“Boys, sit down!” pleaded Arthur, dropping his prayer book. Mamie pulled her husband down to his chair. Other diners tightened up, but Nellie was oblivious, smiling like a deaf hen. Ned told his grandpa to take it easy, as neighbors patted his back for him to catch his breath.
“Now I’ll try to continue,” said Arthur, “our reading of the Haggadah. We celebrate tonight because were Pharaoh’s bondsmen in Egypt, and the Lord our God delivered us with a mighty hand: Baruh atta Adonai, elohenu, meleh ha-olam....”
There was merciful silence in the room as everybody lowered their heads in prayer. No sooner had the gathering regained its bearings than Ned heard an almost unbelievable outburst from his grandfather:
“I say Willie Mays is more of a gentleman,” blurted Jack, standing up.
“I ca-ca on Willie Mays,” whined Manny, without losing a beat. “He ain’t got no class. He ain’t got no culture. He talks like a schmuck.” Manny was counting examples on his fingers. “Aaron can outhit him, outdwess him. I say Aaron’s the gentleman.”
“Nah, nah—Willie Mays!” exploded Jack, standing back up.
“Jack! Manny!” rasped Arthur. Each man got to his feet, as if making a toast, to have his say. Mamie grasped Manny’s shoulders, begging him to quit, she couldn’t take it. Arthur’s wife held her ears.
“I believe in potaters,” said Nellie to Ned and Dave, zoning in from Mars with a smile. “Do you believe in potaters?”
“What?” came Jack, turning to Nell with daggers in his eyes. “Potatoes? Will you stay the hell outta this and shut up!”
“That’s enough, Jack, please!” screamed Mamie.
“Hank Aaron!” shot Manny.
“Mays is a goddamn anti-Semitic Nazi!” yelled Manny.
“What?!” came Jack, apoplectic.
Manny broke into raspy-voiced song:
Take me out to da ball game
Take me out to da crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Cwack-er Jacks—
“Shut up, you! Shut up! He’s gonna sit there like a goddamn schmuck,” screamed Jack hoarsely to the whole Seder banquet room, “and tell me Hank Aaron’s a better ballplayer and gentleman, than Willie Mays?”
“Hank Aaron’s the gentleman, and cwedit to his wace!” yelled Manny.
“Get out!” screamed Jack. “Get the hell away from my wife and grandsons. You filthy mockey bastard!”
“You anti-Semitic kike!” screamed Manny.
“Get the hell out, you, goddamnit!” screamed Ned and Dave’s grandpa, fist raised, spittle spraying from his beet-red face, the veins in his neck taut has high wire.
“FUCK YOU! I FUCK YOU!” snapped Manny, at the top of his Brooklyn fabric seller’s lungs. He bolted across the table grabbing his brother’s neck. Manachevitz wine goblets overturned, diabetic matzohs were crushed. Stunned, Ned and Dave held down the white table cloth before the whole Seder came undone. They had a situation on their hands.
Several old cockers rushed to pull them apart. Uncle Arthur was unable to separate his brothers as their hands choked each other’s necks. His old blue eyes looked like a defeated fire chief battling out-of-control flames. Caterers streamed from the kitchen toward the table where the two old men flailed each other’s bleeding faces. They were disassembled from each other.
Grandpa Jack lay on the floor, breathing heavily. His silver hair stuck out in tufts, his white suit torn and smeared in hors derves. Manny was breathing asthmatically as his wife attended him. Ned brought his grandpa fresh linen and a wet towel.
“You okay, Papa?”
Jack turned his head away in shame and started to weep. A dozen elderly Seder diners shook their heads. Uncle Arthur and the head caterer decided the two must be kept apart while in the banquet room, and driven home separately. Several tenants of Lancelot Court offered rides. Dave scooped a gefilte fish off the floor and surreptitously put it in his pocket. The Seder was over.
The next morning, the boys took their last swim in the pool. Their flight was at noon. In an awkward moment, Manny ambled out to the pool, across from Grandpa Jack. Both men had bruised faces, and looked older than the day before. Manny set his recliner next to Jack’s, and within minutes they began to talk about the weather, about what they might have for lunch.
“So, you goin’ back to school?” asked Dave, on the plane.
“I dunno. I’ll have to smoke on it awhile when I get home.” Both boys, traveling together alone, felt a new sense of maturity.
“Papa’s great,” said Ned.
“That’s entertainment,” cracked Dave.
“Maybe we should just move down there to Old People Land.”
“Well, TV sucks in Florida,” said Dave, with a troubled look. “They have bad acting.”
“Whaddaya mean? You got your Addams Family, Munsters, Car 54, Where Are You? reruns. They have great acting, great TV down there.”
“It stinks!” cried Dave. “I couldn’t even visit again.”
“They’re nice, old people, they’re nice,” sang Ned, irritating his younger brother.
They tell ya funny stories once or twice
’Cause they’re never in a hurry
You never have to worry what to do—
“Shut up!” said Dave.
© 1992, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman
* “Old People” by Milton Schafer