For Bill Klapholtz, sitting in synagogue ranked somewhere below having a colonoscopy. Sleep offered the only tolerable solution. As the cantor hit her fork-scratching notes or the rabbi prattled on about something that only existed in their minds, he could enter unconsciousness without difficulty or embarrassment. But on this day, he wouldn’t think of shutting his eyes.
Instead, as Klapholtz entered the grandiose Long Island sanctuary alongside Gail, his wife of 32 years, and Jody, their 26-year-old daughter, he asked himself whether he could make it through the morning without either shouting out, or punching the young, fit and tanned rabbi officiating the memorial service. In the same mental beat, he wondered if he could last the entire day ahead without completely losing his cool with his sister-in-law, the mother of a murdered child. At some point, he’d come face-to-face with the mourner. He knew that raising his voice to her on this day would be monstrous. Yet he’d endured decades of slights. And on this day, he felt as if some truth serum percolated the clear September air.
Klapholtz took note how the Syosset sanctuary contrasted sharply with the modest, 50-year-old building he attended annually and under protest in Queens: the colors of the Syosset stained-glass far more vibrant, the donor plaques far more plentiful. These were the kind of people who could pay to put their names on things.
His shirt collar constricted around his sweaty neck like a snake, the top button of his shirt oppressing his Adam’s apple. He hadn’t been at all hungry that morning. Now, he craved the spread he assumed they’d serve, stereotypes be damned: bagels galore, whitefish, tuna salad, egg salad and rugelach. What tragedy of staggering proportions couldn’t momentarily be numbed by rugelach, a pastry with the texture and sweetness to placate his mouth and bring his mind back from the brink?
“You all right dad?” his daughter Jody—sweet, alive Jody— whispered in his ear as 500 people sat, a muted din of conversation filling the room. “You’re trembling.”
How could he possibly be okay? There were so many things not to be okay about, starting with the fact that Jody hadn’t been asked to speak at the service, though Jody and Samantha had once been as close as sisters.
“This pansy looks like he works at a Wall Street firm,” Klapholtz whispered to his daughter, referring to the rabbi on the bimah.
“Not appropriate, dad,” she said, using her school teacher’s voice. “People might hear you.”
“So, what if they hear me?”
Where did Klapholtz acquire his grudge against the Jewish religion? The better question is: from whom? His answer? Rabbi Sruly Perlstein: In the Parkchester section of the Bronx, circa 1959: the gray suit, the Yiddish accent, the residue of Sobibor in his eyes. “My parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles all died for the Torah, for Hashem. And you, Mr. Klapholtz, are unable, unwilling, to learn one word of l’shon kodesh. If you were an am Haaretz, an idiot, I could understand. But I see you with those statistics, those batting averages. You have a brain and it is choosing to reject Hashem, your ancestors, to ignore who you are and where you came from. You’re helping Hitler finish the job.”
At least Perlstein looked the part, he thought. The bastard had integrity. Not like this playboy on the bimah.
The rabbi cleared his throat, chanting something Klapholtz didn’t recognize in Hebrew. Then the rabbi spoke.
“We know the facts. Samantha Stein went to work on the 101st Floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11 and never came home. She grew up not far from here, in a community that recognized her gifts, in a family that encouraged her to be both great and good. She had begun a master’s program at NYU in economics, but realized the academic life was not for her. She liked numbers, but she liked people even more, and found her way into financial services. Her courage, work ethic, and gift for connecting with people was rewarded and was, by any measure, a Manhattan success.”
He must have breathed heavily or muttered something because Gail grabbed his arm and ordered him to relax. She was always telling him to relax, breathe, center himself, blah, blah, blah.
“Yet these facts,” the rabbi continued, “do not begin to describe the qualities and life of a still young woman. It doesn’t tell us how she never forgot birthdays, that no matter how busy she was she had dinner with her mother once a week, that she tutored a fifth grader in a Chinatown public school, that she was a proud Jew who’d visited Israel and gave generously to UJA, that in the last year she’d rekindled the flame with Eric, her senior prom date, that they’d discussed their future together.”
Klapholtz pictured Samantha as a pony-tailed 10-year-old who spent many weekends at his house. That lasted for a year or so after her father Arthur, a psychiatrist who, as his kitchen was being remodeled, had taken a drive from his coveted North Shore home to upper Manhattan before legally parking his BMW, walking out on the George Washington Bridge and diving off. Samantha would trade in a house of silence, and the tranquility of bourgeoise Syosset, for a rowhome in Fresh Meadows, Queens, playing older sister to Jody. They took in Met games, ordered strawberry-mango-kiwi Italian ice at the Lemon Ice King on 108th Street, grilled Nathan’s hot dogs what they called Duck Lake in Kissena Park, and walked to Luigi’s Pizzeria on Union Turnpike to eat by the slice and play arcade games like “Ring King” and “Gauntlet.” Years later, Samantha had confided to Gail that those weekends away from her mother, away from a house of grief, had saved her life, for all the good it did her in the end.
Klapholtz felt a thudding in his chest. Not a heart attack, he’d told himself, as he had many times since his actual heart attack, the one that hadn’t felt like a heart attack. (So how the hell was he supposed to tell the difference?) His earlier appetite had vanished.
“How can we celebrate one life when while simultaneously trying to comprehend this atrocity committed against our nation, against the citizens of the world?” the rabbi continued. “The Talmud tells us that one who saves one life saves the whole world. A world was extinguished. The only words I have is that God is not behind this work. God is the force within each of us to do good. Let us, as people of all faiths and no faiths, come together to summon that force. We need it now more than ever.”
Where was the outrage from this man, Klapholtz wanted to scream? Those bastards had used boxcutters to turn passenger airlines into weapons, attacked his city and country, killed thousands, marred his skyline. And the idiots at airport security, and the schmucks in the Pentagon and the White House who had their classified intelligence, hadn’t stopped it. And God for sure as hell hadn’t stopped it, so what good was God anyway? And more attacks were surely coming. And it wasn’t just his niece. Tarik, the 8-year-old son on his manager, Samir Ramadan, had already been called a terrorist by a classmate at recess. And Julia Gomez, who’d worked the ticket counter as long as he’d worked on 747s, lost a sister who was serving breakfast at Windows on the World, the jackets-required restaurant that offered a God’s-eye view of the Manhattan skyline. More than once, Gail had talked about having their anniversary dinner atop the World Trade Center. He’d never made the reservation. Now he never would. Where was the rabbi’s rage? What other human response made sense?
This unarticulated fury required an outlet and propelled his nerves into action. He stood, unconsciously, rising while the rest of the congregation remained seated. His fist braised; mouth ready to shout down the charlatan. Gail tugged hard at his jacket.
“William,” Gail said in a harsh whisper. He knew when his wife invoked his given name, it was serious. He sat down, feeling like a grenade with a pin pulled out that somehow had not exploded.
Following the service, the mourners filed into a spacious but unremarkable social hall. He had the vague sense that food and drinks were available, but after what he’d just endured, the thought of a bagel spread offered no relief. He’d been separated from Gail and Jody. Who had they needed to schmooze with? Sounds bounced off the wood floor and walls, creating an oppressive cacophony. His chest—no—his whole body, felt laden with heaviness.
That fact that everyone in the room wanted to pay their respects to Meryl and Shimon—the brother-in-law who’d replaced Arthur—should have protected him from an unwanted interaction. Yet his eyes told him that the couple was headed straight for him, the crowd of would-be-greeters parting like the waters of the Red Sea.
Where the hell were Gail and Jody, he wondered? They should be protecting him. Jesus Christ.
“Oh Bill, my little girl,” Meryl said, leaning forward, the overhead lights illuminating the tears that had fallen on her face and mourner’s dress. Before he knew it, she was leaning on him, tears dampening his shirt. He had no choice but to offer a tentative embrace.
Why had he harbored a long-held grudge against his sister-in-law? Why, today of all days, did he hold it tightly? In Klapholtz’s view, Meryl had continued the Stein family tradition of treating him as a non-entity, an undeserving, uneducated riffraff who’d married into the Stein clan only because they had been powerless to stop it. “He’s going to be a truck driver,” Klapholtz had once overhead his future sister-in-law telling Gail. “You’ll never see him, and you’ll spend your whole life living on a sixth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn.” Years later, when his own daughter was 5 and already reading short sentences, the girl told him after a visit to the Steins, “Daddy, Aunt Meri says I’m going to have a Ph.D., and not a GED like you. What’s a GED?”
As it happened, he would spend his career in aircraft maintenance. He’d headed a crew responsible for equipment worth upwards of $150 million. In 35 years, his hands, and his analytical, disciplined brain, made sure landing gears descended when they were supposed to and that countless people arrived safely at their destinations. He and Gail had long-owned a two-story, semi-attached home in Northeast Queens. It wasn’t Syosset, but it was nearly as safe as could be in New York City, and it was paid for with respectable, honest work. They’d had fine Italian and Irish neighbors and a playground across the boulevard. On good days they could be at Shea Stadium in 10 minutes.
“I loved Samantha,” was all he could think of to say.
“Right, of course. Look at all the people here. So many loved her,” Meryl said in a way that he took to be an utter dismissal of the significance of his role in Samantha’s life.
He was rescued from staring into the eyes of a childless mother by a hard slap on the shoulder and vice-grip placed on his right hand. Shimon wasn’t the girl’s father; he didn’t get a pass for being a schmuck.
“What a service Bill, have you seen anything like it?” he said, his voice booming and over-enunciated as if he were speaking into a camera. “In Israel, it doesn’t matter who you are, funerals are a rushed affair. It’s the corrupt chief rabbinate that turns the remembering of the dead into a factory. Here, they take time to tell a person’s story.”
Shimon loved his television appearances and had made it known that, with the world scrambling to understand what motivated the madmen, he’d passed up several cable news invitations in order to tend to his wife. What really bugged Klapholtz was that Shimon treated every conversation as a lecture and an opportunity to display a glaring achievement gap. The professor needed to yammer on about how the medieval Islamic response to the Mongol invasion shaped today’s conflict between the West and the Islamic world. Many times, he’d wanted to deck Shimon, a much smaller man with superior military training and experience, but imagined he’d end getting his eye gouged out with a pinkie and his windpipe busted with a chop. Klapholtz could easily talk as long and as authoritatively about the maintenance life of aircrafts, about A, B, C and D checks, about the millions of dollars it costs to uphold routine aircraft maintenance. He never felt the need to demonstrate what he knew in words. The proof, he’d always thought, was in the, takeoff, flight and landing.
“I learned things about her,” said Klapholtz, proud of himself in the moment for his restraint. “Jesus Christ, it’s too damn much.”
The couple moved on; the dreaded encounter had ended.
Airplanes, for all their complexities, made far more sense to Klapholtz than human beings. With airplanes, with cars, lawnmowers, clocks, VCRs, tricycles, with anything mechanical, there almost always was a path toward fixing. And if there wasn’t? Well, that was the end of the aircraft. You can’t just retire a broken person, but too often it seemed to him, you couldn’t fix one either.
“Dad, you look like you could sit,” he heard his daughter say.
“Not feeling so good, Jo.”
“Okay dad. We’ll find mom and go home.”
He put his arm around her shoulders, letting some of his weight rest on her.
Back at the house in Queens, he labored upstairs feeling as if he’d walked 100 miles. Klapholtz sat on his firm bed and stared at the blank television, desiring nothing and expecting nothing. He loosened his tie and flung it in the direction of his closet. He removed his sport coat, tossing it as well. Every limb felt heavy as he collapsed on his bed, still wearing his dress shirt, leather belt, and pants.
Gail grimaced as she came into the room. She’d recently reinjured her knee during one of those cycling classes. Sometimes, when he developed what he’d call jackhammer headaches, which he attributed to the constant exposure to the world’s loudest noises, the presence of her hand on his forehead could dull the pain.
“I’m OK, I’m not having another heart attack, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said, sitting up on the bed as she continued to rub his temples.
“You looked ready to charge the rabbi on the bimah. What were you thinking?” she said.
What was he thinking? How could he say that, in addition to feeling relief, he felt responsible? He hadn’t worked on the Boeing 767-200 used for flight 175, the plane that hit the south tower. But he’d worked on similar aircrafts.
“I just don’t know if I can go back to work, knowing planes can be turned into missiles,” he said, almost mumbling.
“Why don’t rest up so you can act like a human being tonight? Take a nap. Watch something other than the news. Or, God forbid, try one of those mindfulness exercises.”
She removed her hand from his head.
“I’m not going back to their house,” he said. “I offered my condolences. I paid my respects. What she’s going through, I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But I can’t see her tonight, or the professor. Don’t you understand?”
She got up and began to pace their bedroom, heels muffled by the carpet.
“William, you have to come. Jody and I can’t go by ourselves. What will we say?”
“Say I had another heart attack. Say the day was just too much for me. Say I know how much she doesn’t want me around and I’m finally listening. I don’t care,” he said, slightly unaware of his volume. “I don’t want to spend another minute with the Long Island princess or her professor.”
Jody quietly entered her parents’ bedroom.
“Honey, tell your father this isn’t about him, that all he has to do is ride in the back of the car, sit at a table, eat some rugalach and lox and that’s it, he’s fulfilled his obligation to the family he says he can’t stand,” Gail said.
Klapholtz’s daughter, still wearing the funeral dress that bulged on one side, took Gail’s place sitting on the edge of the bed, as if it was her turn to visit a hospital patient.
“Come on daddy,” she said, trying not to use her teacher voice. “Some things, you just have to show up for, you just have to do for family.”
“Your family, not mine,” he growled.
He knew he’d gone too far and, momentarily, lost his closest ally.
“We leave at six,” Gail said. “Come. Stay. Do whatever the hell you want.”
Gail left the room. Jody started to follow, but apparently turned around, walking back to the bedside.
“Daddy,” she said so quietly he strained to hear. “You know what I’ve always said about you, at least to myself? You almost always say the wrong thing. You do. You never understood the power of words, how they can hurt, how they can heal. But you almost always do the right thing. Anytime someone needs help, you’re there, daddy. I know you’ll do the right thing.”
He pulled the covers over his head. From the window, he could hear the birds mocking him. The sky, still incredibly clear, taunted him. He’d momentarily lost his will to get up and work, balance the checkbook, mow the lawn, deal with Gail’s family.
He must have drifted off, because the light through the window had faded and his bedside clock read 6:17 p.m. He’d wanted to be alone, to process everything, to mourn his niece privately. Except now, he didn’t want to be alone. Though he felt an urge to stand, yet his interior voice couldn’t convince his body to move. He searched for other voices; his wife’s, his daughter’s, his niece’s. The only voice he could hear clearly in his head was the rabbi’s. The goddamn rabbi.
“We come together, people of all faiths and no faith, in community, to search for meaning. Or at least to affirm that meaning is possible or could be possible again,” the rabbi had said. Why could Klapholtz not get these words out of his mind?
“What kind of God, what kind of world, would offer someone an incomplete life, only to take it away in a tower of flames? Here’s what I know: every month, every week, every day, every moment matters. How many lives did Samantha impact in her abbreviated life? How do we quantify the good she did? Its incalculable. It’s near infinite.”
Klapholtz knew he’d never forget those hours on that day he spent calling Jody, unable to get through. The New York City Public School where Jody taught second grade sat 80 blocks north of Ground Zero. Yet his heart didn’t stop beating properly until he finally heard her voice. His daughter was alive and his niece was dead. He never in a million years would trade his daughter’s life for his niece’s. As if he’d been deep inside a jet engine and finally found a broken part, he saw his guilt manifesting.
His feet were on the floor, his quads engaged, struggling, but the muscles managed to lift his weighted upper body off the bed. He’d gotten out of bed. Sweet Jesus, the rabbi’s words had worked in cosmic concert with his broken parts to get him out of bed. His world had truly turned upside down.
He changed into a golf shirt, khaki pants, and sneakers, descended the stairs, grabbed his keys, went out the front door and climbed into his 98’ Ford Explorer, giving up a prime street parking spot. He’d go to the mourner’s household all right. He’d do it not for Shimon and Meryl, but for wife, daughter, and his departed niece. He’d turn the dashboard dial way up and blast one of his CDs. What would do the trick? Bat Out of Hell? Led Zepplin II? Best of the Doobie Brothers? Quadrophenia? Who’s Next? He opted for the ease of classic rock radio and was greeted by the voice of perhaps the only man, alive or dead—in this case, dead, by assassin’s bullet—who could raise his soul from the depths. John Lennon.
Whatever gets you through your life
It’s all right, it’s all right
Do it wrong, or do it right
It’s all right, it’s all right
He sang, at the top of his lungs. And he drove like he did back when driving was new, when it represented freedom, rather than just traffic jams and drudgery, another illusory trapping of adulthood.
About forty minutes later he arrived at the Syosset townhouse. An intricate display of hedges and hydrangeas distinguished the address from surrounding homes. The evidence of a private landscaper reminded him he’d entered a zip code where people earned more from investments than from working. Nearly every parking space in the development was filled, but he didn’t see Gail’s Chevy Impala.
He’d only been to his Meryl and Shimon’s place once and had forgotten how much smaller it was than the home Meryl, Arthur and Samantha Stein had once shared about five miles east. Photocopies of the Newsday story about Samantha were piled on a table beneath an abstract painting that slightly resembled a penguin. He could almost hear the penguin laughing at him for not getting the artistic irony.
A few dozen people, strangers to Klapholtz, filled the floor, really a wide and extended room. Conversations bounced around, almost casual, though he couldn’t pick out any substance. Klapholtz found few things more disorienting than overwhelming background noise. He never understood why Jewish homes in mourning weren’t more somber. Why did people pretend like things were normal when the whole world was under assault? At any minute, the terrorists could be planning another attack, he thought, the city as he knew it could lay in ruins.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Shimon, the scent of whitefish salad on his breath.
“You, my friend, you look like you could use a seat and a drink,” Shimon said, motioning toward an empty spot on a leather couch that wrapped around a corner.
He turned toward the Israeli, disarmed, as if all his rage had been used up, with weariness all that remained.
“I’ll take that seat,” he said. “You know, I’ve hardly eaten today. Got any egg salad?”
Shimon returned with a glass, three-quarters filled with soda, ice and lemons, and a plate carrying a rye bagel and three generous scoops of egg salad. Klapholtz had known Shimon for 10, maybe 15 years. He wondered if that was the kindest thing the professor had ever done for him.
“Listen, I know I tell a lot of stories,” the professor said.
“That you do,” Klapholtz said, leaning back, letting his chest fully rise and expand as he held his untouched soda, opting to alternate between the egg salad and the sliced bagel. “You know I was in the army? National Guard. Six months in Alabama saved me from Vietnam.”
“Do you wish you’d gone?” Shimon asked.
“Of course, you don’t,” Shimon said. “No one wants to go halfway around the world to die on someone else’s soil. But what if your enemies had been on your doorstep? Bill, I think you would have done what I was taught to do my whole life, run toward the danger. If your grandparents were crazy like mine, if they had set sail for Palestine instead of New York, we could have served in the same unit. We could have been brothers.”
Shimon continued. Strangely, Klapholtz didn’t mind. “I ran toward the danger, we all did. When it came to perform my duty in a fight, I could do it, but the waiting, the waiting nearly killed me. What are we waiting for now? An attack? A miracle? You know, in ’56, my battalion out there in the Sinai wilderness, we lost a whole unit, they were totally cut off from battalion and, by our calculations, surrounded by hundreds of Egyptian troops and about 30 tanks. What did we do? We held out hope. And this one Moroccan Jew in my unit, a janitor when he wasn’t serving the country, used to sing the most beautiful, ancient melody, the notes would travel to the mountains, rise to the heavens like stars. It’s a wonder it didn’t lead Nasser straight for us, it must have echoed everywhere. And what happened? We got every single one of our lost comrades back, tormented but alive. I’ve never considered someone dead until I have seen the body. I can’t give up hope without seeing a body.”
Klapholtz sat up, drinking enough of his Diet Coke that he figured it was only a matter of time until he needed to visit the bathroom. “There’s no miracles, Shimon. There’s no way to fix this, put this back together. I know you loved Samantha as if he were your own, but she’s not coming back.”
Shimon stared ahead blankly for what seemed like several minutes before he spoke again.
“So, now tell me, when can we expect your lovely wife and daughter?” he said, with some measure of warmth.
“They’re not here?” Klapholtz said, confused.
“They told me they were coming here.”
“Bill, I’m sorry, I haven’t seen them since the service this morning.”
The next time Klapholtz spoke, his voice had grown louder, his words harder to comprehend. “They told me they were coming here. I was meeting them here.”
Proportion and logic were replaced by an immediate, fight or flight panic. He wasn’t given to visions. But in this new world, it wasn’t hard to imagine the worst. The worst was right there in his mind. The room faded; the cacophonous sounds silenced. He saw Gail and Jody, their car wrecked on the side of the road, Gail already dead, never to comfort him again. Jody suffering from internal injuries, the breath leaving her, the world collapsing, her mother dead, in front of her. Her hand, twitching, perhaps for her father, a father she’d never see again. He saw this terror, the end of his world, more clearly than he’d ever seen anything in his life.
“It’s too much,” Klapholtz uttered like a man beseeching God. “It’s too damn much.”
Since the planes struct the towers, really, he’d been like a bomb ready to detonate. When it finally went it off, it didn’t explode at all, it imploded. The force of the collapse was more than he could bear.
Seeing a grown man sob uncontrollably seems almost as unnatural as watching a heavyweight boxer fall to the canvas, like the giant George Forman being knocked out by Muhammed Ali. Klapholtz’s whole body convulsed as snot haphazardly escaped his nose. He felt the eyes of the room train on him. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. A hand offered him a tissue. It was Meryl’s, the despised sister-in-law.
He cried more publicly than he ever had in his life. He’d let Meryl keep thinking he cried for Samantha. And who was he to say he wasn’t, at least partially.
“Bill, give me your phone.” Shimon’s commander baritone brought Klapholtz back to the room.
Klapholtz felt as if he were flying in a depressurized cabin as he watched Shimon press his ear to the phone, the professor’s mouth still. Then Shimon’s lips began to move. Sounds, words even, but no comprehension for Klapholtz. Then Shimon offered Klapholtz the most reassuring look the mechanic had seen in his life, telling him his grief would not grow, at least not on this night.
Shimon handed the phone to his brother-in-law. The sound of Gail’s voice told Klapholtz both she and their daughter were among the living. Jody had simply been overcome, had needed time to collect herself. They weren’t far away, sitting by a peer on Oyster Bay, the waters calming them. He should stay put. They’d be there soon.
He struggled to regain his breath, to talk. He brought himself to speak the names of the bereaved.
“Meryl. Shimon. Thank you.”
He had, somehow, made it through the day. How in God’s name would he make it through the days to come, no matter how many or how few, no matter what they would bring? Meryl still had her hand on his shoulder. The woman who had lost all was attempting to comfort him. Strange times they all now living in. Klapholtz tried to imagine the agony she’d been through, but couldn’t separate it from his own. Maybe, at least for a short time, everyone’s grief was linked together, creating a net for those in danger of falling and hitting something worse, something unspeakable.
“Of course, Bill,” Meryl said. “We’re family.”
Bryan Schwartzman is an award-winning journalist and communications professional. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in JewishFiction.net and the Schuylkill Valley Journal. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., and lives with his family outside Philadelphia.