A Very Small Slice of Life – Bruce Katz

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The heaviness in the air resembles a mausoleum. In reality, it’s the musty living room of a mid-century modern, ranch-style house just off Broadway in the south shore town of Cedarhurst, Long Island. The Speilman living room hasn’t seen an event of any magnitude since Michael’s post-Bar Mitzvah bash a couple of decades earlier.

The space Lilly Speilman calls her parlor resembles a roped off room in an historical exhibit. Eisenhower-era furniture is covered with thick, clear, uncomfortable showroom plastic. It’s so sticky most people would rather stand than sit on it. The keys on the ancient Steinway upright have only seldom felt the touch of fingers since Michael moved out. While the rest of the family home enjoys some modicum of activity, the parlor has always been off limits, frozen in another time.

But today, this branch of the Speilman family: parents Sam and Lilly, sons Larry and Michael, and daughter Shelly, anxiously await the arrival of their rabbi, who will perform the ritual of the bris on Shelly’s eight-day-old son, Evan.

Sam and Lilly were married forty-three years ago and have lived in this house since the early 1980s. In truth, they’ve been together since they were both small children growing up in Bensonhurst. Sam often remarks that he and Lilly probably knew one another while they were in the womb of their respective mothers. They resemble a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers. Sam never made it to more than about 5’5” and Lilly, in bare feet, stands nearly half a foot shorter. Her feet don’t reach the floor when she’s sitting in one of their flower-print upholstered wing-back living room chairs.

“I gotta wonder who dreamed up this wonderful little snippet of Jewish tradition,” Larry says, to no one in particular, adding, “pun definitely intended. The only thing gentile baby boys have to deal with is a little spritz of water. I mean, can’t all of Michael’s weirdness be traced back to this particular moment in his unfortunate history?”

“And here we go,” Shelly says.

“My weirdness?” asks Michael. “My weirdness. This, coming from the man who actually refers to himself as the king of easements, with pride, no less. Do you think negotiating easements is what Mom and Dad had in mind when they took a second mortgage so you could go to Fordham Law?”

Larry had done everything he could to avoid being shackled to the family business. He received a full academic scholarship to Adelphi right out of Cedarhurst High School, which he followed immediately with two years at Fordham University Law School. After he passed the bar he landed a job at a large Wall Street firm. When his first marriage fell apart he left the firm, moved out of the city and hooked up with a real estate law operation closer to home, in Hempstead. While he does, in fact, still negotiate easements, he’s also the small firm’s managing partner.

“Can the two of you give it a rest?” begs Shelly, the oldest of the Speilman siblings and lifelong mediator. “It’s about cleanliness, about preventing disease, and,” she says, with a stubborn emphasis, “yes, it’s about being Jewish.” Shelly had started back going to services with her parents when she returned to the family home, about the same time Rabbi Kramer took over the congregation. “Besides,” she says, “most baby boys, at least in America, get circumcised, Larry.”

“It’s too much fun to give it a rest, Shelly,” says Michael. “It’s only been going on forever.” Then to Larry, “I guess you maybe skipped this particular moment in your otherwise oh, so interesting life?”

Larry ignores the question. “The cook speaks and naturally gets it wrong. Didn’t they teach you about time at cook school?”

“I know this is a hard concept, you being a big-time hotshot easement lawyer and all, but I’m a chef, not a cook. I have twenty-one cooks working for me. And just to remind you, the Culinary Institute is like Harvard, only for people who work with food instead of fascinating legal concepts like easements.”

Michael has always been the chosen one in the Speilman family. He knew as a youngster that he was gay and came out publicly at sixteen, when he played Professor Henry Higgins in his high school production of My Fair Lady. On closing night at curtain call, he received a bouquet of flowers and a big kiss from his best friend Alan, with whom he still shares a home and a life. He didn’t quite know what to do with a bachelor’s degree in Literature from Stony Brook so he went to the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA, he calls it) and learned how to do fabulous things with food.

“Oy! Where’s the Rabbi, already?” asks their father. “Lilly, where’s the Rabbi?”

All eyes focus on the tiny lioness, sitting like a doll next to the big bay window box. White nursing shoes surround her tiny, size-four feet, which are crossed at the ankles. The room is dark even though it is still early on a Monday afternoon. No one suggests opening drapes or turning on a light.

Asking Lilly even an innocuous question can light the fuse on about ninety-eight pounds of dynamite. One never knows what impact the potential explosion might have.

All they get from her this time, however, is a weary, “How should I know? Ask Shelly.”

“I know he’s on the way. He should have been here by now.” Shelly walks with Evan towards the phone in the kitchen. “I’ll try him on his cell.” Michael looks toward his brother and mouths, ‘she knows the rabbi’s cell phone number?’

Larry responds by looking at his watch. “Yeah, Shelly, tell him to get a move on it. Some of us actually have people to see, things to do,”

Michael moves across the room to the piano, opens the keyboard, sits and looks at it as if for the first time. It’s been months since he last played so he warms up with a tight two-handed, four octave scale, his fingers fluidly moving up and down the keys.

He seamlessly segues out of the scales at the high end into the opening measures of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. All eyes are on him, just as they always are when he either plays the piano or takes over the kitchen.

“I don’t like jazz,” says Larry.

“It’s not jazz, you dolt,” says Shelly, smiling at her baby brother’s virtuosity. “It’s Gershwin. It’s – I don’t know – American classical.”

Lilly closes her eyes and sways her head back and forth, lost in some obscure memory. Sam taps his feet, completely out of sync with Michael’s playing. Larry is quiet for the moment, staring at his brother’s hands effortlessly navigating the keyboard.

Even baby Evan seems captivated, gurgling in Shelly’s arms. He hasn’t made a peep all day. When Michael finishes he and Larry make brief eye contact. Michael winks at his brother. Shelly and her father applaud. Lilly shifts in her seat.

“So, Shelly,” Larry asks, “you seeing anyone these days?”

Michael just shakes his head. “You know, Larry, for an allegedly smart guy you are truly an idiot. She gave birth eight days ago. Before that, well, you don’t typically see men lined up to get busy with a pregnant, forty-year old woman.”

“You shouldn’t discuss things about which you know next to nothing, Michael,” Shelly says, but she couldn’t keep from laughing out loud.

“God, I hate this room!” Lilly booms, paying off earlier expectations. They all look at one another, always stunned by how much sound can come out of someone so small. “It’s so maudlin. Why are we holding a sacred religious ceremony in this tomb? Little Evan deserves better than this,” she says, gesturing around the room. Of course, she avoids any mention of her own complicity in the room’s mummification.

“There’s a lot you can do with this room, Mom,” Shelly replies, but Lilly just waves her off.

“I have an idea,” Larry begins, “Maybe Julia Child here can whip out her Henkel and,” making a slicing motion, “get little Evan off to a gloriously bloody start.”

“Calling me Julia is not exactly an insult,” Michael shoots back.

Shelly shakes her head. “Let me ask you something. What exactly is the point of all of this non-stop Michael-bashing? You know, I should be jealous. I mean, how come you never come after me? It’s obvious that I’m an infinitely richer target than he is.”

“That’s probably true,” murmurs Sam. Her father seldom contributes unless specifically petitioned by Lilly.

“Let me see,” Shelly continues, counting off on her fingers. “I’ll be forty-one my next birthday, a brand new, first time mother, single, unemployed, living with my parents … I mean, there’s lots of fertile ground here, Larry. Why is all of your love showered solely on Michael?” Then, softer, “What has he ever done to you to deserve so much of your disdain?”

“You’re not unemployed,” say Sam and Lilly together.

“Okay, fair enough,” she agrees, “but what about all the rest, Larry?  You have nothing here for me?”

For the most part, Shelly runs the family’s business these days. Her MFA in Interior Design from Parsons and her experience at a respected New York City studio likely saved both her brothers from a fate that would have, to them, been worse than ditch digging. When she gave up big city life and her fruitless hunt for Mr. Right, she moved back into the family home. She began implementing her own personal succession plan and started learning the business from her father. The fact that the Cedarhurst store is only five minutes from home and that Lilly is thrilled to help out with Evan makes it a win for everyone.

Before Larry can attempt some pithy response, Michael says, “It’s clearly the whole gay thing, Shelly. I mean, since the king of easements here isn’t currently romantically entangled with someone of the opposite sex, he’s secretly terrified that he might actually have, you know, some latent tendencies.” He walks forward, looks at his slightly taller brother and places both of his hands on Larry’s shoulders. “I mean, there’s gayness in our family, right? Come on, Larry, it is so nice here in the sunshine,” leaning into Larry’s face, “outside of the closet.”

“Now who’s being pathetic,” Larry quips, backing away. “No, Emeril, thank you, but I’m moving fast forward in pursuit of the hopefully last Mrs. Larry Speilman. Which reminds me, Shelly, where is … what’s his name?”

“His name is Jeffrey,” she replies, “and he’s as uninvolved now as he was nine months ago. He did only and exactly what I needed him to do and now he’s just a hazy recollection, with good genes and a nice butt.”

“Oy vey,” her father mumbles.

“Or maybe,” Michael says, continuing on the earlier thought, running a hand through his long, stylishly messy, salt-and-pepper hair, “Larry’s just jealous that I have a nice, lush mane here, and he’s got that whole Friar Tuck thing going on.”

Larry pats his bald crown. “Hah – Friar Tuck you Michael. Chicks today feast on the shiny roof.”

Shelly nuzzles Evan, “You have a much cuter shiny roof than Uncle Larry.”

“By the way, Larry,” asks Lilly, “why aren’t your boys here today? They should be old enough to watch a bris.”

“Well, first of all, it’s a school day, thank God,” he says. “But second, I don’t want to inflict any more torture on boys who may have finally healed from the whole barbaric indignity of this … tradition. Leave it to the Jews in their matriarchal wisdom to punish male children for the crime of being born boys. I mean, look what it did to …” gesturing at his brother. Michael just shakes his head and laughs.

Even Lilly has to crack a small smile. “Oy, Larry, enough already where is the rabbi? How much more of this brotherly love am I sentenced to endure?” As the room sinks into a momentary, blessed silence, the doorbell rings.  “Ah, a lifeboat has arrived.”

“Maybe the lifeboat brought some food,” Larry says.

“There’s plenty of food, Larry,” Lilly says indignantly. “Michael brought a feast but it’s for after. Be patient.”

Shelly walks through the dining room and opens the ornate front door. She’s cradling Evan comfortably with one hand. He continues to take everything in without so much as a sound.

“Hi, Rabbi Kramer,” she says, smiling. “Perfect timing.”

“Hi, Shelly,” he says, leaning over and giving her a peck on the cheek. “So today it’s Rabbi Kramer? I thought we’d progressed to where you could just call me Jack.”

“A rabbi named Jack?” asks Larry. He looks at his brother. “Who names a rabbi Jack?”

“You must be Larry,” he says, extending his hand. “Jack Kramer.”

“Like the tennis player?” asks Michael.

“Exactly, except not,” Rabbi Jack chuckles. “I think he’s from the Episcopalian side of the family. Michael?”

“Yes, Rabbi. Michael Speilman from the gay side of the family.” They shake hands.

Jack coughs a laugh and turns to shake hands with Sam who nods and smiles, his entire sales repertoire from forty-five years in the furniture business. Then, the rabbi squats down and takes one of Lilly’s tiny, fragile, bejeweled hands into his own.

“How are you today, sweetie?”

She forces a smile. “If I have to endure another second of this,” she says, waving her hand, “you’ll soon be officiating at my funeral.” Then, with a quick glance at her daughter, she takes his hand in both of hers and whispers, “Promise me, Rabbi, if you ever get married, please, don’t have children.”

“I’ll keep it in mind, Lilly,” he laughs, standing up. “But I have to say it’s nice you’re all here, together, for this blessing. Shelly’s told me that you don’t see as much of each other as you all might like.”

“Maybe we should ask little Evan if he thinks what’s about to occur is such a blessing,” Larry remarks.

“Just once, Larry, could you forget you’re a lawyer and shut your stupid mouth?” asks Michael. Lilly, Sam and Shelly all stare at him. “At some point, even with you,” he says, “enough is enough.”

“We should probably get started,” says Shelly, adding, “You certainly don’t need to get sucked into the Speilman vortex. You’re way too … nice.”

Shelly and Rabbi Jack hold one another’s eyes for perhaps a moment longer than necessary. Larry and Michael cock their heads at one another, raise their eyebrows, smile, and then move alongside Lilly and Sam. Their little show is over. Larry puts his arm around his brother’s shoulder. Michael whispers to him, “She has him on speed dial!”

All thoughts and eyes are now with the baby. Shelly opens up his receiving blanket. They gaze at Evan in all of his naked glory and everyone smiles, even Lilly.

As the Rabbi begins the spoken portion of the ritual little Evan’s eyes dart around the living room, taking in each of the faces hovering over him. At that instant, and as if in all his week-old wisdom he suddenly realizes exactly what is happening, and what his future promises to be, the newest member of the Speilman dynasty, even before catching a glimpse of the Rabbi’s very shiny, very sharp circumcision tool, pulls in a deep breath, scrunches up his tiny face, and with pronounced vigor and enthusiasm, lets out a breath-taking wail.

Bruce retired from the work world in 2011 and spent the next three years completing his college education. He received a BA in English with a concentration in literature and a minor in creative writing from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

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