Widow's Son, an excerpt


widow's son

The Widow's Son

A novel by Bruce Steinberg

"Graveyard Hopping"

an excerpt from The Widow's Son


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     Grandma Elaine, more than Grandpa Erwin, loved to do this thing called graveyard hopping. It's not what either of them called it, and they certainly didn't hop, but I figure it's what it must've looked like to strangers happening by.

     "Grandma Elaine wants us to visit the Waldheim relatives," Mom or Dad would say, and we three kids, in a rare moment of agreement, would let out a group groan, our death wail, to mark the killing of our Sunday fun. Waldheim, after all, was a cemetery, and why anyone would want to ruin their day visiting dead relatives, I thought, graveyard hopping, escaped my understanding of what to do on a Sunday afternoon.

     "You're going," Dad said to us all.

     Our father, the manager of gas stations, the driver of trucks to far-away places, the father of three kids, got ready to go graveyard hopping for Grandma Elaine and Grandpa Erwin on his day off. There was no way a puny, Mad Magazine-reading kid like me could come up with an excuse. Not the way David could.

     "I can't stand up!" David said under his bedcovers one graveyard hopping Sunday morning.

     "What do you mean you can't stand up?" Dad said.

     "It hurts bad to unbend my middle." David squinted through teary eyes. "Really, Dad. I can't."

     Cheryl said, "I'll stay home and take care of him."

     "That may be a good idea, honey," Dad said petting Cheryl's spaghetti hair. "We don't want him accidentally getting up to play pinners."

     "But I'm not faking!"

     "Seems to me this happened your first day of kindergarten," Dad said. Dad walked to David's bed and ripped back the layers of cover and bed sheets. Still only in his BVDs, David lay on his backside to his waist, but there his legs bent up, folded cross-legged, as if he had been sitting on the bed, froze up, and fell over.

     "My, my," Dad said. "Just like before."

     "This is worse than before," David said. He pointed to his feet. They tucked up over his thighs, and his legs were twisted pretzels, ready to snap if anybody tried to undo them. Dad pressed down on David's knees, sticking out sharper than grasshopper joints, and David's body rose as stiff as the backside of the letter L.

     "This is amazing!" Dad said. "It's a good thing your mother works with doctors."

     "They're animal doctors," David said. "They don't know nothing about this thing."

     "What thing?"

     "The stuck body thing."

     "Let's give Mom a chance with this anyway," Dad said, and he let go of David's knees. David fell back and his stuck legs rose again.

     "He wiggled his toes!" Cheryl said.

     "Did not! -- everything's stuck!"

     "What's going on?" Mom said putting on an earring as she appeared behind Cheryl. Mom dressed in her black, graveyard hopping outfit -- those Laura Petrie stirrup pants Dad liked and a black, halfway button-up sweater that looked light and puffy, like cotton candy. Dad watched Mom's body first before he looked at her eyes; his stare was easy to follow, from Mom's legs to her waist to her booby area back down to her hips. Dad's stare moved no different from my stare when Charlie Grossman showed me those fold-out naked ladies in his father's magazines. It was embarrassing to think Dad had Mom pictured like that in my own bedroom.

     "Al," she said scolding, but laughing a little at the same time, and then Dad looked at Mom's butterfly wing eyeglasses. Those glasses were so ugly, like they were meant to hide everything beautiful about Mom's face. Maybe Mom wore them to calm Dad down.

     "Stuck again, Mummy," David complained.

     "He's faking," Cheryl said. "I'll stay home and watch him and tickle his feet if I have to."

     "Oh, I don't think that's necessary," Mom said.

     "I told you Mom would know," Dad said.

     "I'm not one of your animal hospital animals, Mummy. I'm a people. I don't think anything you know will work on me."

     "Oh, I'm not going to do anything," Mom said. "Not at first. First, we're just going to have to wait and see, like the snakes."

     "But I'm not a snake."

     "I know that, but you've got what some of our snakes get -- My-tushy's-stuck-a-tosis."

     David said, "I don't think snakes have tushies."

     "Sure they do," Mom said. "They're just tiny so you can't see them, but they're there all right. And when they get my-tushy's-stuck-a-tosis, well, they look just like you, like they're forever stuck in a chair."

     I suspected David had planned that Mom would come over and hug him and coo over him and tell him to get better and stay in bed while the rest of us went graveyard hopping. She did that the other time he had my-tushy's-stuck-a-tosis. Of course when Cheryl and I came home from school, David had recovered enough to teach Grandpa Erwin how to play pinners. We were all impressed with the name of David's disease, it was very long, but it was a made-up name, I knew, for whatever was going on in David's head.

     "Here's the thing," Mom said to Dad. "This is the second time David's had this. When the second time happens, there's only one thing to do. We have to wait. Either he's going to get over it in the next five minutes, or it's forever. If he does unstick, then it's just nervous muscles and not my-tushy's-stuck-a-tosis. If he doesn't unstick" -- Mom sighed as deep as she possibly could -- "we're going to have to give him a shot to put his tushy to sleep like we do to the snakes."

     "But I'm not a snake!"

     "Let's go," Mom said spinning Cheryl toward the bedroom door.

     "Where do you stick the needle?" Cheryl said.

     "Uh, boy!" Mom said. She turned to me to start the countdown. "Let me know in five minutes what I need to do with your brother."

     Left in our room, facing graveyard hopping or a shot in the tushy, David didn't wait much of the five minutes before his feet began to slide. His toes wiggled along the mattress, legs stretching, pushing blankets toward the foot of his bed, and he blinked at the ceiling.

     "C'mon," I said. "Nobody likes graveyard hopping except Grandma Elaine. Better that than having my-tushy's-stuck-a-tosis for real."

     "I've got nervous muscles," David said. "Really, I do."

     We all had nervous muscles going to Waldheim Cemetery. It wasn't a death thing, beyond our murdered Sunday fun, 'cause we didn't worry about death. It wasn't real and it wasn't something that could ever happen to us. We hadn't thought even a second about it, not until we had the sight of it forced on us in our own home. Before then we thought only that if someone wanted to make a monster movie, Waldheim Cemetery was the place to do it.

     As Dad drove us to Waldheim, houses like ours soon disappeared; like driving to Grandmaland, the buildings packed together and piled on top of each other. Trees four or more times the height of Loblolly Avenue's honey locusts towered to the top of Harlem Avenue's buildings, often over the top, but the circle of green around them shrunk as we drove. Cement seemed to creep out from everywhere as we continued our way, "Into the city," Dad said.

      "It's not Chicago," Mom said.

     "It's got enough cement to be Chicago."

     I agreed with Dad. I wondered how those poor trees got their drinks of water. Soon there were no trees, just cement -- the street itself and the cracked, uneven sidewalks along storefronts only ten feet from the curb. Even on a blue-sky summer day we saw the gray cement, and it felt like we were going to a cemetery.

     After Dad turned west on Roosevelt Road, a patch of green appeared above the south half of the horizon. These were the trees of Waldheim Cemetery, rising into a forest as we drove. I wondered why living people surrounded themselves with cement and gave a forest to the dead people. It seemed kinda backwards 'cause it's not as though dead people can go hiking or climb trees or anything like that.

     "You know what Hannah Waxberg told me?" Cheryl said like she was reciting a reading-time school story. "She said that big trees suck things up in the ground, not just water, but . . . " Cheryl paused to ghost-hush her voice -- " . . . everything."

     "Like what?" David said.

     "Like the people."

     "Stop it," David said. He was a nervous muscle.

     "Then the trees become the people except they're really mad 'cause their feet are stuck in the ground and they can't move. They just throw things at you like twigs and branches and leaves."

     "That's not true," David said sounding worried that it probably was true. "It's not true, Jeremy. Cheryl's just a liar, right?"

     Getting teased a lot was David's punishment for being born after Mom and Dad had already had me and Cheryl. "Just the same," I said, "I wouldn't go standing beneath any of the bigger trees."

     David was shocked. He called out for Mom and Dad in our Chevy Bel-Air as if they were a mile away.

     "Of course they're gonna say it's not true," Cheryl whispered only loud enough for the back seat. "That's what Mom and Dad are supposed to say about tree monsters."

     David was born only a year after Cheryl and was almost as tall. But even so, with Cheryl's brainy hair circling her head, high over David, and his face looking like he was always about to ask a stupid question, there was just no comparison. She beat him up with words. The thought of cemetery trees made his eyes dance the rest of the way to Waldheim.

     Even with all our whining about graveyard hopping, Dad always managed to get us to Waldheim early. Grandpa Erwin drove up in his Buick with the holes along the hood. He wore his gray slacks and white, button-down shirt like he always did sitting in his chair watching Family Classics with us. Grandma Elaine stood from the passenger side, her dandelion-gone-to-seed hair glowing as bright as a summer sun, and she smiled her puff-cheeked smile that was wrinkled a bit, like aging grapes. She wore some flowered-up skirt that blew around her ankles, and a scarf that had its own flower show going on tied beneath her chin. She always dressed that way for graveyard hopping.

     Every time it was the same. Grandma Elaine walked toward us, her long skirt and flowered blouse flapping in the breeze, carrying a picnic basket in each hand. She filled the baskets, overflowing, with little green-leafed plants and gardening tools.

     "We're planting cucumbers today," Grandma Elaine said, or, "We're planting lima beans, or beets, or peas." Whatever we were going to plant, she said so right away carrying those picnic baskets full of food sprouts and gardening tools.

     "Your mother's a bit odd," Dad often said to Mom before Grandma Elaine got too close.

     Holding the baskets, Grandma Elaine stretched her arms out, like she wanted to hug us all at once. She sniffed the forest air. "This way," she said, and we followed her, giving her weary looks when we knew she wasn't looking at us.

     "Do the roots of cucumbers reach down to the bodies?" David said.

     Nobody answered him, ever, not even Cheryl.

     Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Rabbi Abrahms had said at Cousin Dora's funeral. We never graveyard hopped in the fall to see Grandma Elaine harvest the food over the dead relatives' bodies, the plants growing strong in the ashes and dust. Spooky, I thought of Grandma Elaine's food plants. Every other family planted flower plants or small bushes, or had something called "perpetual care" keep a neat mound of crabgrass over the graves.

     "This makes me tired," Dad liked to whisper to Mom, "like watching you shop for shoes, it's the same feeling."

     David warned him, "Don't lay down on the ground!" David grabbed Dad's hand. "The tree monsters might suck you up."

     We hopped to Cousin Dora's grave first. We always did, as if we had to get her out of the way. She was Grandma's mother's sister's daughter, and she had done something bad in 1947. We stood in a half circle around the gravestone and planted three food plants. Grandpa Erwin Ahched pretty loud when he got up wearing grass stains on the knees of his pants. Grandma Elaine wasn't about to kneel in her flowered dress so she just gave Grandpa Erwin instructions. I think that's what he was Ahching about -- Ahch! Why did you wear that damn dress if we were planting?

      Grandma Elaine placed a remembrance pebble on the gravestone and started talking to it about not going to a wedding it certainly could have gone to in 1947, and that it should have gone to. "What's wrong with you?" she said. "He's your brother!"

     "She was sick," Mom said.

     It was the same old story told every time we went to Waldheim Cemetery and watched Grandma Elaine put a remembrance pebble on Cousin Dora's gravestone. "You weren't that sick," Grandma Elaine said, "not sick enough to miss your own brother's wedding!"

     The gravestone said 1889-1961, Rest In Peace, but Grandma Elaine carried on, ignoring that instruction.

     We marched along the path to Cousin Shlomo's grave. Shlomo was the brother of Cousin Dora, and Grandma Elaine muttered on about that 1947 wedding as we followed her like baby ducks. We walked between tall gravestones and cranky-looking trees. The tree trunks were knobby and as thick as rocket ships. The gravestones near them tilted here and there, hardly any one of them standing straight as fat tree roots plunged into the earth and swelled the ground. Cheryl's voice peeped to David, "They're sucking up the people!" -- and David tried to hop the rest of the way to keep from standing on the ground in one place for too long in case, you know, the people trees went after him. We were graveyard hopping.

     Dad asked the question out loud that I was thinking -- "Why would any parent name a newborn baby boy 'Shlomo?'"

     I have a kid in Hebrew school class whose Hebrew name is Shlomo and he sits behind another kid named Pinchas, who sits behind another kid named Yakov, who sits behind a kid named Moshe -- so by the time Mr. Trauby gets his classroom roll call to Shlomo, we're all pretty much laughing anyway. Shlomo stands for Steve 'cause his regular name outside Hebrew class is Steve. We tease him and call him slow-moe and do Three Stooges impersonations around him in slow-motion.

     Grandma Elaine placed a small remembrance pebble on Cousin Shlomo's gravestone. Beneath the Hebrew words, a Star of David, and 1893-1960, the words Shlomo Rabinowicz carved deep into the red granite. We have our regular names back when our Hebrew school class ends. Cousin Shlomo stays Shlomo forever at Waldheim Cemetery.

     "Dora didn't mean it," Grandma Elaine said to the pebble on Shlomo's gravestone. "She was sick. I saw her." Grandma Elaine talked on, trying to convince Shlomo as if it still mattered to him. The rest of us planted food plants on his grave.

     Mom and Dad didn't say much the whole time. They kept themselves busy trying to keep David, Cheryl, and me from saying something that might sound mean to Grandma Elaine and Grandpa Erwin. Grandpa Erwin did as he was told, planting, walking, carrying baskets. Sometimes he gave a suggestion as to where another set of relatives might be. But Grandma Elaine always pointed directly away from where Grandpa Erwin suggested we should go.

     "No, I'm sure it's over this way," she said, and we went with her.

     "Of course you're right," Grandpa Erwin said. He wasn't good at helping Grandma Elaine with directions at Waldheim Cemetery. She already knew she was right.

     Mom once explained to me that it was our job to go graveyard hopping. She liked the words "graveyard hopping," and I told her to watch David so she could see what I meant. Dad started saying "graveyard hopping," proud of me for coming up with something so perfect to describe what we do. Sometimes Dad said boing, boing under his breath when Grandma Elaine hopped us along, to Uncle Art and Aunt Adelle and second cousin this and second cousin that. Mom slapped him in the shoulder when he did that and grumbled at him to be quiet, but I saw Mom's lips curl up, then force themselves down, like a tug of war between smiling and looking serious. Mom and Dad didn't want to be at Waldheim either. I figured that out. It really was something of a job, I think, to keep Grandma Elaine happy, that's all.

     * * *

     This whole Sunday morning's been bad. Mom drove me to the Professional Building at the Old Orchard Shopping Center and she asked me to talk completely and truthfully to Dr. Bondurant about everything I know. Mom's got her graveyard hopping clothes on, the black stirrup pants and puffy black sweater. I feel her eyes on the back of my head as I leave her in Dr. Bondurant's waiting room. Dr. Bondurant's office smells like alcohol, the kind doctors rub on arms before they announce that the shot won't hurt a bit, and, of course, it does hurt really bad.

     Dr. Bondurant's office has a space for a receptionist, with a desk, chair, and telephone, a note pad, a picture of kittens in a cat-shaped picture frame, and another of a woman and a man holding hands at a wedding. The receptionist isn't here, being Sunday, I guess.

     Sitting behind her desk, Dr. Bondurant looks prissier in her thick gray suit and coat than Sheriff Andy Taylor's girlfriend, Helen Crump, could ever look. She locks her white-knuckled fingers together, working and grinding them on her desk blotter as if squeezing my brain in her imagination for some information. She tells me she knows that Cheryl thinks she's killed Dad, but Cheryl's not saying anything more. I watch Dr. Bondurant's tiny gold earring to avoid her stare, and make my sight go fuzzy by not blinking as soon as I should.

     "Tell me about Waldheim Cemetery," Dr. Bondurant asks, at first trying to be nice.


     She gets angry and squeezes her fingers hard.

     "Tell me."

*           *           *

     The last time we went graveyard hopping, the summer before Dad's truck accident, Cheryl shouted "1872!" at a gray gravestone, as if she had claimed a prize for finding the longest buried person. Cheryl's hair rolled itself up into poodle curls, looking brainy and busy calculating something important.

     "Been down there a long time!" she said.

     David's eyes bugged out at the ground in front of the gravestone, and he whined that he wanted to see someone come out of the ground and win a breath-holding contest. Cheryl laughed the kinda laugh that made David's face sag quicker than a popped balloon; he knew he had said something stupid, but didn't know what it was. Cheryl had her advantage of knowing everything, and it was dangerous to be David, around her, knowing just about nothing.

      "Over this way," Grandma Elaine said, "and two rows to the south."

     We followed, as we always did, to the last set of graves we visited when we went graveyard hopping. David held Dad's hand, scampering his short legs forward to keep up.

     "For cry'n' out loud!" Grandpa Erwin shouted. "Quit stepping on the people!"

     David squeaked -- "I didn't step on nobody!" -- and squeezed Dad's hand harder.

     David wanted to be carried, he begged for it. Mom grabbed David's other hand, and Mom and Dad lifted him, swinging him over the ground, letting his feet touch down for a second, then swinging him forward again.

     "Careful where you let me down!" he said in the air, then down he went, and up again -- "Careful! Careful!"

     Grandma Elaine stopped to stand in front of a small gravestone set between two waist-high gravestones, each in the shape of a scroll. She lowered her baskets, almost empty of strawberry plants, and stepped forward.

     "She's standing on somebody," David whispered to Mom.

     "No, David. Aunt Rose is very small."

     Our graveyard hopping trips to Waldheim Cemetery always ended with Aunt Rose, and Bubbie and Zadie, but I never knew how to find them, not like Grandma Elaine could. She always stood there stiff as a statue and the rest of us kinda stepped back. It felt natural to do that, to give Grandma Elaine some room. The last time, the time before Dad's accident, was no different. After putting her baskets of strawberry plants beside her feet, she said the same thing she always said, as if we had never been graveyard hopping before.

     "This is my sister, your Great Aunt Rose."

     Grandma Elaine's voice floated in the air as solemn as Rabbi Abraham's Mourner's Kaddish on Sabbath evenings. Slowly, she brought her hands to the small gravestone. Grandma Elaine's skin, rough and spotted, blended with it as she petted it across its face. She said something in Yiddish, it sounded like a lot of spitting to me. Then she read the words carved there as her fingers followed along -- Into this world, February 11, 1901. Dearly departed, July 17, 1907. Grandma Elaine stepped back, leaving a jagged remembrance pebble wobbling on the gravestone.

     "Give her a strawberry plant, Erwin," Grandma Elaine said.

     We watched Grandpa Erwin, with Grandma Elaine standing behind him pointing out instructions, go to his knees and balls of his feet, squatting a foot from Aunt Rose's gravestone. He began to dig into the ground toward whatever was down there. David refused to blink.

     "She was only six!" Cheryl said protesting that such a thing was possible.

     "A lot of people died young back then," Grandma Elaine said. "There was nothing we could do."

     The puffs of Grandma Elaine's cheeks smashed between her smile and her tightened scarf. Grandpa Erwin wasn't smiling, and he let us know his back hurt him with all his grunting and Ahching as he stood up and shook his pants.

     "My sister would be older than me," Grandma Elaine said, as if people older than Grandma Elaine could not be possible. She stretched her arms toward the tall gravestones beside poor Aunt Rose. "These are Bubbie and Zadie."

     I've never known any other names for them, and their gravestones were carved entirely in Hebrew. Bubbie and Zadie were Adam and Eve as far as Grandma Elaine was concerned, she refused to talk about anything before them, except this one time, this one last time before Dad's accident.

     "Bubbie and Zadie took all six of us over on the boat." Grandma Elaine said the boat as though there could be only one boat, that there was in fact only one boat, ever, and Grandma Elaine was on it with Bubbie and Zadie, and with her brothers and sisters, including Aunt Rose. She spoke about her trip on the boat like she was teaching a history lesson, a time so important for all of us that it was natural for me to think she was talking about The Mayflower. I knew Grandma Elaine wasn't that old, not for The Mayflower's first trip, but there was no reason why The Mayflower didn't make more than one important trip. Bubbie and Zadie sounded important enough for The Mayflower.

     "Where're their parents?" Cheryl said to Grandma Elaine.

     While Mom shushed Cheryl, Grandma Elaine said, "We never had the money to get Grandma and Grandpa here."

     "From where?" Cheryl said. "Where are they?"

     "That's enough, honey," Mom said.

     Grandma Elaine was about to say something. But she hesitated and pinched her lips together. In a moment, she blew air out her mouth, like she was glad not to say what she was thinking.

     Cheryl pulled away from Mom, a little mad, her hair curling tighter in the humid air. She stepped behind Dad and shoved David away from Aunt Rose's grave.

     Grandma Elaine clapped her hands and said, "Let's plant the rest of the strawberries!"

     While Dad gave us the little shovels, Grandpa Erwin grunted and groaned and Ahched to his knees again, setting out the small strawberry plants for us to stick in the ground.

     "This is wonderful!" Grandma Elaine said.

     "Are we gonna eat the strawberries next year?" Cheryl asked Dad.

     Dad's President Kennedy hair was neat except for a bit of it poking out over his left ear where he had scratched away a mosquito. Dad was thinking about something, and I felt chilled to think that he might believe in people trees and people strawberries.

     "That would be interesting," Dad said.

     "They might suck them up," David said laying his little hand shovel down over Zadie. "Like the trees do. I'm not eating no strawberries!"

     "I don't like this, not one bit," Cheryl muttered digging toward Aunt Rose. "This place makes me think strange things, even in the daytime." She dropped her shovel and leaned toward Aunt Rose's gravestone. "What's this? What's this?" she said. Her little hand pulled back a bronze plate shaped like a stop sign, uncovering the black and white picture I had seen before, of Aunt Rose.

     There were pictures of Bubbie and Zadie, too, I could remember them without having to open the bronze covers on their gravestones. Bubbie wore a dark dress and she was fat. She looked twice as big as Zadie looked in his picture, like she could've squashed him if she wanted to just by rolling over. I supposed she wouldn't, though, 'cause she had a friendly grin on her face that made her look like she wouldn't squash bugs, and certainly not Zadie. Zadie wore a hat in his picture in a way that hid the top part of his face beneath a shadow. But you could see all his teeth, and they were straight and as full as a smile in a toothpaste commercial, and they glowed right through the musty old black and white photograph.

     "That's you!" David said leaning over Cheryl's shoulder, pointing at the picture of Aunt Rose. He tried to touch the rounded glass covering the picture, but Cheryl pushed him back hard.

     "Get away!" she said. She jumped to her feet, her voice commanding, "Stop digging! Stop digging!" She began to cry. Mom tried to comfort Cheryl, wrapping her little body in her arms, cooing, "What's wrong, honey?"

     It wasn't as if Cheryl hadn't seen that picture before. But she never paid much attention to it until David pointed it out the summer before Dad's truck accident -- "They look the same!"

     Cheryl's shout hit my ears hard enough to make my head vibrate. The leaves on the trees waved overhead, rattling and rustling, like they were talking to each other. We stood beneath them, surrounded on all sides by thick trunks and the gravestones the tree roots pressed against.

     "Don't let me die!" Cheryl cried into Mom's shoulder.

     "Why, honey," Grandma Elaine said so calm and unafraid, "let me show you where I'll be buried one day."

     Cheryl ran from Mom's arms. She had no idea where to go. Only Grandma Elaine knew the way out. Dad chased her and caught her by her elbow near a stone bench alongside a dirt path.

     Dad said, "Nobody's going to die, honey."

     Grandpa Erwin told me to close Aunt Rose's picture. I watched the shadow cast by the octagon cover as it fell over the old photograph, and Aunt Rose's sad eyes, her curly hair, her face, Cheryl's face, looked back as if she was sorry to see the world leave her.

     Though she was so young, Cheryl understood about death. She understood it as well as a little girl could, the summer before our father died.


  Bruce Steinberg was born in Chicago in 1958 and grew up in Skokie, Illinois. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Loyola School of Law in Chicago. "The Widow's Son" took Grand Prize at the Gardenia Press First Novel Fest Writers Conference and Contest, and is Mr. Steinberg's first novel. He lives in St. Charles, Illinois with his wife and family.

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from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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