lichen, Fall 2001


The Jewish Spectator, October 2001

� 2001, Jennifer M. Paquette
Do not reproduce without explicit permission from me!!!

"I am the viper --"

I still say it, even though it's been years."I have come to vipe your vindows."Old punchline from a bad ghost story; the Vindow Viper.Let the kids laugh; it brought in the business.

"Leo," my brother Volf used to say to me, over a piece of herring."Leo, what's with that accent?What's with that voice?Furniture, a grocery store, maybe -- wasn't good enough for my brother; you had to go out and wash windows?"

"Listen to yourself!" I would say."Worse English than me, and a job?You should have it so good as I have with the windows."But I miss Volf.He's dead now; ten years.

He had a smell, like a good suit, a suit you use maybe once, twice a year.So what if it gets a little musty?You pull it out of the closet, you think about taking it in to the cleaners, and it smells like all those bar mitzvahs, so you hold it up to the light and say, "Probably it can go another little while."

That was Volf; he was like that suit, full of memories, but he's dead now.I probably said that already, so you sit there thinking "Leo, he's not so much for brains anymore."

Let me tell you:I'm still here.That's good?Maybe, maybe not so good.

I still have eyes.Bad eyes, maybe, but eyes.Thick glasses, maybe, but glasses.

Today, the nurses catch me in front of the mirror in my room, but they don't let me look."You're a real lady-killer," they tell me, and they push me in the wheelchair over to the elevator to go down for Friday morning singalong.What is it that they don�t want me to see?I wasn�t the best-looking, maybe, but not too hard on the eyes, either.Decent.

Maybe some others thought it was dirty work, but at least washing the windows, you get to know your own reflection -- if you're any good at getting the windows clean.And even in a dirty business, you have to look clean for the customers to trust you.

Lady-killer; that was Volf, never me.But Volf never could have met his Beckie sitting around in the furniture business, and the windows brought me Rosie.She appeared to me behind a window when she heard me washing there."I am the viper," I said.Rosie was a dream, her white face smooth, like a bowl you lick clean after strawberry ice cream, with a little pink left around the edges."May I vipe your vindows?" I asked her, and she let me, and I didn't ask for money.

It's all in the reputation; she knew I'd work hard.And I always made sure I looked clean, just like for the business.She married me; four kids.One dead now, but the others come and visit me on a Sunday.

It's the reputation, and the look, but the girls in this place can't afford to be choosy.Like the old saying:in a place where there are no men, try to be a man.Here, there really are no men.The girls here see that I�m a man who made a living.More important, I�m a man who�s still alive.An excellent catch.

There was no "life expectancy" in the old country: just alive or dead.You were alive, so thank God; somebody needs to make money.You were dead, well, you thank Him for the chance to finally rest.I never saw a wheelchair before I came to this country.But here, the men die younger and the girls, with their life expectancy, live on.

I haven't seen a mirror since I came here.Just a little stroke, nothing much, but privacy is the first thing to go."Call the orderly when you need the bathroom," they say.They help me in the bathroom, which has no bath; they shave me, too.My hands cannot be trusted anymore.Like my reflection? I think, wondering what it is they don't want me to see.Once a week they put me in the tub in a room with no mirrors.

Ask my kids?Well, I'm careful what I ask from them.My whole life, I said what I want, but now that I'm here, I want them to know that I'm all together in the head."Give me a mirror," is not what they want to hear.What they want to hear is "it's good," so I tell them it's good.But it's important to look clean, to look like a man, and less and less of me is like a man every year.My Rosie, gone, and now Volf, and I don�t even put on my own clothes anymore.I touch my face after the orderly helps me shave, to make sure he's really done it, but I don't know if I can trust my fingertips either.

The elevator door opens and the nurse pushes us out into the main area, where volunteers will take over, bringing us to the singalong.A shiny window across the lobby catches my eye.Windows and windows, all around the little museum they have set up here.My oldest son, Freddy, tries to take me there sometimes on a Sunday to see the menorahs and beautiful things from the old country, propped up on velvet and satin, sitting in that museum like kings.

My own parents brought things like these over here, too, wrapped in dirt and burlap; a silver mezuzzah smuggled in the heart of a loaf of bread.I never went into that museum.When Freddy pushes me over there, I tell him "I know, I know."I've seen it before.But now the windows of museum glass catch my eye, and all the shiny trinkets inside; a million mirrors waiting for me.I wonder why I never noticed them before, never thought to look for my own reflection in their dazzling surfaces.

The attendants are busy lining up the wheelchairs around the piano, and I am near the outside of the group.They don't notice me slip away, pushing myself towards the museum, almost afraid of what I'll see.I have never moved the wheelchair by myself that distance, and so it's slow going.

A volunteer sees me moving away from the group and rushes over."Sir?Sir?Why don't we just turn you around, right here?"she asks.She has a voice like Sam�s kindergarten teacher used to have. "Let's find you a good space."

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"I don't want to watch," I tell her.I smile and smooth down my collar, but I doubt she sees these efforts."Just the museum.I�m going to that museum there."

The volunteer nods, and starts to push me over there, but then I am worried she'll come in with me, and try to teach me about all those mezuzzahs when all I want to see is myself.

I point at Mrs. Levin, stuck again, over by the elevators. "Maybe you should help her?"

"Oh, somebody else will get her soon," she said."We'll have lots of fun at the museum."

"I want to go alone," I say again."Thank you."

She looks hurt, but she lets me go on alone, rushing over to help Mrs. Levin, who can walk by herself with a walker, but who probably wouldn't mind the company.

The Torah crown is the biggest piece of silver and I can�t see a clear reflection in it after all.My face is bent, curled around the bulging sides of the crown like those mirrors in the fun-houses the kids used to throw away good money on.They would turn around to all sides, short and fat in one mirror, tall and skinny in another.In the Torah crown, I am tall and skinny, even in the wheelchair.In the base of a menorah nearby, I am short and fat.

"Dressing mirror, Poland."It was there all along, but I almost didn't see it.I think it is a man watching me and I don't like to stare.He stares out at me and I look away, but then I look again:he is me.The sign underneath says 1883.

If the year is 1883, the man in the mirror could be my great-grandfather.He is so old.But this does not surprise me:we are all old here.The skin, flopping down loose around the chin and the neck.Clean-shaven, but brownish spots, like a banana, and not exactly clean-looking.

None of this surprises me; I look like Volf did when he was old, before he died.He always did everything first.Teething, chicken pox, marriage, babies, liver spots, strokes.My clothes, at least, are smooth, and I look in the mirror to make sure there are no food stains; my mouth and chin are dry, at least.

The surprise is that my head shakes, back and forth like one of those jack-in-the-box clowns.The zeidy in the mirror is surprised also.His eyes meet mine, and he clucks his tongue."This life, Leo," his eyes say."What did you expect?"

I hold up my hands to the mirror, and they are not so steady either, but I press them to the museum glass so they won't move around. The man in the mirror has calm hands, but his are pressed to the museum glass also.

The glass under my fingers is smudged and grimy; children must come through here often.Children have never had respect for clean windows.I pull out my handkerchief.The aides laugh sometimes and tell me a tissue would be modern, but now I know what I have to do.A handkerchief is not modern, but tissues could never get the glass clean the same way.I rub and rub with it until all the glass that I can reach is clean -- all the glass the children can reach, for in this wheelchair, I am no taller than a child.All around the little museum, I imagine the wafting sourness of vinegar.I remember the crunch of old newspapers that by some miracle never left a streak.

When I�m back where I started, I can�t help looking into that mirror again, through the clean glass now, at that old, old man.The clean glass is a pleasure, and through it, he doesn�t look so bad.The man in the mirror is no older than the rest here.And the glass was dirty; now it is clean.I�m not dead yet.

So my head is old; let it shake.My skin is spotted with brown; so be it."I am the viper," I say, under my breath, as I roll out from the museum, over to the elevator, away from the singalong.I'm going back up to my floor.The girls hear me coming:Mrs. Stropp, Gerta, Elsie.Even though the voice is hardly my own any more, they hear how it creaks, high and low, and how I whisper to keep it steady.

At my voice, they gather.Gerta hides her trembling hands under a pink blanket her daughter knit."Bread.I vant -- a -- piece of -- bread.Give me -- a -- piece of � bread," she mumbles, over and over again.And Mrs. Stropp, with her bunched-up hair slipping off to one side and always, pictures of the kids.Sometimes, I sleep, right here in the chair.Why not?I'm not going anywhere.When I wake up, they'll still be there.

"It's not an exciting life, Leo," Volf would have said, like he always did about the windows.

"So what's exciting?" I could tell him."I woke up alive this morning -- more than I can say for you, I might add."The girls come and go, and I live on.

And the girls; they are music.A moving circle, wheelchairs coming and going the whole day; a parade of afghans and doilies and tissues.From under the pink blanket Gerta�s rhythmic drone:"Bread -- I vant --."�� One woman with a dark-brown wig cries, quietly.Some days, she yells out loud, but lately, she's been quieter, and I think her life expectancy will be soon.Mrs. Stropp murmurs "keneynehora" over the new grandbaby, and the other girls join in.This is the music our old souls make to God for keeping us alive.Our lives have become the music; there is not much else left in us.

I know what I'll do when I see Volf next.I'll come up from behind, push my hands over his eyes, like when we were boys, so he can't guess who it is."I -- am -- the -- viper," I'll whisper in his ear.My voice will be back, strong and clear, and I'll shout, "I've come -- to vipe -- your vindows!"He'll grab me, and throw me down on my belly, pin my arms behind my back."You mamzer, Leo," he'll say."You call that a life?"And I'll nod, because he'll have my face shoved so hard into the dirt.It's been a long time since I felt that, the dirt rubbing into my skin.Almost a lifetime.

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