Gray, by N. Marc Mullin

Ariel dear,

I can’t hide like a stalker outside your apartment—everything in this body hurts. Your boss won’t put through calls. You don’t answer your cell. And what does a grandma know from e-mail? So, with one of those fat red ballpoints that Grandpa gives customers, I’ll write what happened that day. Maybe you’ll forgive, remember the good things between us, and come back.

While you waited tables at the diner, Gabe and I had nothing but fun. I’m sorry you and your parents have issues these days, but it’s been my joy to step in with babysitting. The way our boy talks! He sees the cat’s belly swinging, and with his arms spread out to hug the world, he sings Boosafah—“Bruce is fat” in his language. Any day, he’ll break out with full words and sentences. They’re wrong, those teachers who say he’s slow. A race car is slow while it’s parked in the garage.

We were making pancakes for Benny, expecting him any minute. He loves breakfast for dinner and says it’s like beginning a new day. Who wouldn’t want a fresh start after making awnings in his shop with that crazy Salvadoran. This, I think, is where his upset began. Turns out that while I was enjoying my great-grandson, Miguel yelled at my very quiet husband about the week’s schedule. Instead of apologizing, this so-called helper stormed out, slapping off all the shop’s light switches as he left. Benny was left in the rear of the shop behind his sheet metal break. On his way through the darkness, he banged his knee into a workbench and got agitated the way you’ve seen, where he needs a little medication. Unfortunately, he had no pills. Worse still, he came outside to snow and had to brush off his car with bare fingers. You must understand, Ariel, that it was in this upset condition that he drove off in his old Lincoln.

I knew nothing of this until later, when Benny was home sick and Miguel called to apologize. What I did know was that in a glass bowl sat a smashed egg—shell and all—in a pile of Aunt Jemima’s. Gabe threw it in before I could stop him. “Good helping,” I said while I dusted off his arms and shirt. I spooned away the mess he made and dumped it in the sink. I added milk and mix and told him that a bissel un a bissel macht a fullen schissel—“a little and a little makes a full bowl.” Like I taught you, Ariel, in a world with no taste for Yiddish. This, too, Gabe sang in his own words.

As I went to get vegetable oil, out of the corner of my eye I saw him standing on the high chair’s footrest, about to fall. I yelled and he plopped in his seat with a fat lip and tears building up. He’s hard to comfort once he lets go, so I had to get to him. “Slow,” I told myself. “Don’t race your heart, Estelle. Put down the oil. Keep a hand on the counter.” My cane hung a few feet away. In my slippers—the beaded ones you gave me—I made my way.

This, of all times, is when the doorbell buzzed, long and hard, like it was angry at me. Why? Benny has a key. He knew I couldn’t leave Gabe alone in the kitchen. I unbuckled him and somehow got him to the floor. I yelled that I was on my way, but the bell wouldn’t stop. Gabe got scared as I walked to the door, and he hung on to my housedress, almost tripping. “Benny,” I yelled, “enough!”

I opened the door, Ariel. A Montclair cop in motorcycle boots stood close to Benny, making him look shorter and skinnier. I’m okay, Shtelka, Pop said, but his head shook worse than usual from the Parkinson’s. He had no color in his face, and a gash on his forehead, stitched up, ran like train tracks into his white hair. Where was the beige driving cap he wore for years? One of his eyes had a blood splotch.

Too much, this was. I got light-headed and they helped me to the living room sofa. Stretched out and with eyes closed, I asked questions, which the policeman ignored or answered short and sweet, as if they charged him a dollar for each word. Benny’s car slid on ice and hit a boy outside the high school—that much I got. After going to the emergency room to close Benny’s wound, they came to our house to pick up his medications. Next stop would be the police station for questioning. I asked, “Why the station? An accident is an accident. Talk to him here.”

At that point, the only thing the policeman addressed was how the boy was doing. “Possible broken arm and concussion,” he answered me.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that the cop, a young black man, had pulled over a dining room chair near me and was helping Gabe with his hammer set, holding up a plastic nail. The policeman, Officer Deane, asked if I took in children for babysitting. I told him no, this was my great-grandson. And you could see confusion in his eyes. What was an old Jewish couple doing with a brown-skinned toddler? “Our granddaughter Ariel,” I said, “married an Algerian.”

I pointed out your wedding picture that we keep for all to see, Ariel, on that table by the front door. It’s in the heart-shaped frame Benny cut from mahogany in his shop. I have it near me now. You stand tall with your black eyes and lavender scarf. Brahim, in his all-white tuxedo, looks at you with pride and respect. Officer Deane said you’re beautiful. Which you are, Ariel. He asked me my name. Estelle Blochman, I told him. He smelled of mint and had a voice from the islands, deep and kinder than when he first spoke.

Benny came out of the bedroom with a paper lunch bag of his meds. He took one look at me and—I guess I was still pale—he asked the cop if they could please stay with me a few minutes until you, Ariel, came by to pick up Gabe. “Okay,” the policeman said and he took off his jacket and hat as if to visit a little while. He suggested Benny join him at the dinette table. My husband sat, but didn’t take off his coat. When Gabe came and hugged his leg, Benny ignored him, something he would never normally do.

I managed to get up at that point—a little bit dizzy—and went to my husband to put my arm around him and get his coat off. Also, this was dinnertime and I wanted to fix him a bite to eat, but he shook his head when I offered.

Finally, Ariel, I needed answers from these two sitting men. What in God’s name was going on? Why more so-called questioning at the station? Officer Deane looked up from Gabe’s toys—they had the fire truck out by now—and said, “Mrs. Blochman, what does schvartze mean to you?” Just like that, out of the blue. I looked to Benny for some hint about why this might be important, but he didn’t look back.

“It means black,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because your husband said that word after his car hit this boy, when my partner arrived on the scene. Your husband said the schvartzes from the high school were walking slowly down the middle of the street, on purpose, in front of his car.”

“Well, it means black,” I repeated and added that probably, knowing the high school, the kids in question are black.

“They are,” the officer said.

At this point, Benny looked up and said in his quiet way—he’s a man who doesn’t have the capacity to raise his voice—that these students disrespect him whenever he passes that way. “They see an old Yid in a car,” he started to say and I cut him off, Ariel. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Benny, I’m sure they didn’t know. This is just something teenagers do—take their time in the street, make a spectacle of themselves, show a little power.”

And I asked the cop what this schvartze business had to do with anything. He said that the kids had just gotten out of an after-school event, and that a few of them claimed Benny sped up when they walked in front of his car. So when he slammed the brakes, the car skidded far and fast, hitting this boy. He said the police had to consider whether this was a hate crime, if you can believe such a thing, Ariel.

This is when you knocked. You came in from the cold with apple cheeks and those funny earrings with feathers. Seeing a cop, you wanted to know what happened. You, unfortunately, heard the rest while you held and hugged our sweet Gabriel. The cop said schvartze was a hateful word, like the N-word, as he put it. I said that was an exaggeration. You must understand, Ariel, that I feared for Benny’s health at that point. He’s an 84-year-old man. His hands trembled and he melted like candle wax in front of me. That’s the only reason I mentioned that Benny sometimes refers to your Brahim as a schvartze and even jokingly—to me only, honey—he calls Gabe his schvartze great-grandson. You must understand that I was trying to put things in perspective, to keep a husband home. How could I allow him to be led away by a man with a gun and motorcycle boots? Hearing all of this, you screamed at me and I don’t want to remember what you said. As if he understood every word you said, Gabe started crying hysterically. Ariel, Grandpa does not use that word the way you think. It does not have that meaning to him.

You stormed out, so you weren’t there when I told the officer that it was not possible for my husband to be hateful toward kids because of their color. I admitted, however, there were reasons he might have seen disrespect where it did not exist. And, God forgive me, Ariel, I grabbed Benny’s wrist, pulled up the sleeve of his flannel shirt, and showed his gray tattoo from the Terezín camp.

Because he was young, I had to ask the policeman if he knew what such a number meant. He did. “I’m sorry,” he added, “but I don’t see why that excuses anything.” I said that such a number should excuse an awful lot. “Explains,” he said in his lovely, deep voice, “not excuses.”

Benny went to the bedroom while the cop and I continued to talk. He has two girls, ages five and nine. He earned an accounting degree at Rutgers in Newark but couldn’t get a job in that field. At some point, the policeman stood, put on his hat, and called into the station on his shoulder radio. He walked into the kitchen as he spoke. I felt sick that I’d failed to make a friend of this man, to stop him from taking my husband. But when he came out, Officer Deane said there’d be no need for Benny to come down until the investigation had been completed. They had people out there who could figure out from skid marks whether Benny was going too fast and whether he had sped up. I sat there, Ariel, and held back tears. I should tell my husband, the officer said, never to use that word in public; that people hear it in a certain way. I knew that, it goes without saying.

And maybe, Ariel, I should stop writing here or shouldn’t send a letter like this at all. Regardless, Officer Deane left and for the longest time I didn’t have the nerve to walk into my own bedroom. During our fifty-five years of marriage, I’d never done a thing like this, drawing attention to a tattoo they forced on him when he was as young as that boy his car hit.

I found Benny sitting on the edge of our bed with no shirt. With great difficulty, I helped him get settled, sliding off socks and pants, putting a pillow under his head. He was limp as a sleeping baby. I wanted to see if his wound needed more ointment, so I turned on the nightstand lamp. The fingers of his right hand, I noticed, were wrapped around one of his red pens. Though he held it tight, I took it from him.

I turned to tuck him in and saw that he’d scribbled over his number, pressing so hard he’d broken the skin. Blood spotted our sheet. “Why, Benny?” He looked away when I asked.

Now, he mostly stays in bed and eats only soup. He has nothing to say. It’s a week already and we’re still waiting to hear from the police. Forgive us, Ariel. Come see us with your boy.

***

A native of the Bronx, N. Marc Mullin drove a taxi and spent years as a sheet metal worker before he became an attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law. His short stories have been published in Storyscape Journal, Hawai’i Pacific Review  and are forthcoming in the Willow Review and Superstition Review. He published as a finalist in the Middlesex University (UK) international short story contest and he has published nonfiction, including an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

Neil Mullin

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