The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Storiesby Joseph Epstein
In his first collection of stories since Fabulous Small Jews, Joseph Epstein delivers all the pleasures his readers have come to expect: stories of ordinary men confronting the moments that define a life, told with the bittersweet humor and loving irony encompassed in the title of the book. These fourteen tales map a very particular world—Jews/i>
In his first collection of stories since Fabulous Small Jews, Joseph Epstein delivers all the pleasures his readers have come to expect: stories of ordinary men confronting the moments that define a life, told with the bittersweet humor and loving irony encompassed in the title of the book. These fourteen tales map a very particular world—Jews whose lives are anchored in Chicago—in rich, revealing detail even as they brim with universal longings: complex love affairs and unspoken rivalries, family triumphs and private disappointments. Epstein, who “happens to possess a standup comic’s gift for punch lines” (New York Times Book Review), brings his emphatically grown-up characters to witty, rueful, and charming life. The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff is a marvelous collection from a master of the short form and one of the most distinctive writers working in America today.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
The Love Song of
A. Jerome Minkoff
Dr. A. Jerome Minkoff, family practitioner, three years a widower and coming up on his sixty-fourth birthday, met Larissa Friedman, two years into her widowhood and fifty-two, at a charity dinner at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago for ALS, dreaded, goddamn Lou Gehrig’s disease, from which both their spouses had died. Each had donated $25,000 to the annual national ALS fundraiser, where they were seated next to each other at the same table near the dais. Mrs. Friedman gave the few things he said full-court-press attention. She smiled. She agreed emphatically. More than once she touched his forearm, gave it a gentle squeeze.
Since Marlene’s death three years ago, Minkoff had been considered, if not by himself then by friends, many patients, and all female acquaintances, a highly eligible bachelor. He had gone out with a few women, but nothing resembling a relationship came of it. He grew wary. Divorcées recited ghastly sagas of grievance that were lengthy and painful. Others were far too willing to share their many problems. Minkoff, who had never in his life uttered a word of complaint to anyone but his wife, preferred to devote his problem-solving prowess, which he thought not inconsiderable, to the patients in his large family practice.
Minkoff found himself acting rather coldly to Larissa Friedman, not responding to her attentions, directing his own conversation to others at the table. Back in his apartment on State Parkway, getting into his pajamas, he had a touch of bad conscience. Why had he assumed the worst? After all, like him, she had gone through the hell of seeing someone she loved put through the tortures of ALS. She was alone in the world. She was generous in her giving. She had done nothing to warrant such chilliness.
Larissa Friedman lived in Los Angeles, and Minkoff recalled her saying that she was staying at the Drake. Late though it was, he called her there and asked if he might drive her to O’Hare tomorrow, a Wednesday and a day off for him.
Minkoff picked Mrs. Friedman up at nine-thirty a.m. in front of the hotel. Her plane departed in three hours, but she had mentioned that she liked to get to the airport early. The traffic on the Kennedy was unusually light, and they arrived a touch after ten. She suggested a cup of coffee, and so Minkoff pulled up in front of the O’Hare Hilton, turning his Honda over to a young Mexican guy at valet parking. In the hotel coffee shop, they exchanged talk about the cruelty visited upon their late spouses by disease and about their own lives, as she put it, “as bachelors.” She was small, dark, with black eyes, and wore makeup with evident artistry. She had a French haircut, or so he thought of it, with one side falling across her well-sculpted forehead. More than once Minkoff felt her knee touch his. Concerned about the time of her flight’s departure, he checked his watch.
“Not to worry,” she said, smiling. She called United Airlines from her cell phone and rescheduled her flight. She leaned toward Minkoff, giving off a strong whiff of expensive perfume, and whispered into his ear.
Minkoff looked at his eyes in the rearview mirror. He had spent four extraordinary hours in a room upstairs in the airport Hilton with Mrs. Friedman — make that Larissa. After checking his male patients for testicular cancer, Minkoff always inquired, “Everything all right down there?” Who knew how many prescriptions in recent years Minkoff had written for Viagra, Cialis, Levitra, and the rest? He hadn’t himself entirely neglected things down there, but Larissa Friedman had refreshed his memory of how revivifying they could be. She was a woman of experience. Although himself an easy A student in anatomy and the veteran of nearly forty years of medical practice, she was in possession of a few things about the physiology of the human body that until now had not occurred to Dr. A. Jerome Minkoff.
She told Minkoff that she planned to be back in Chicago early next month and hoped they might be able to spend some time together then. Yes, sure, of course; he would look forward to it. They kissed, and she patted him, twice, on his bottom as he walked out into the cool hallway of the O’Hare Hilton.
Things progressed quickly. Larissa called to say that she was returning to Chicago two weeks earlier than expected and would have the use of an apartment in the 900 N. Michigan Avenue building that was owned and used as a pied-à-terre by a neighbor of hers in Brentwood. Their week together left Minkoff exhausted. Every night Larissa made reservations at one of those restaurants Minkoff used to read about with less than casual interest in Chicago magazine but had never taken Marlene to: Tru, Trio, and Charlie Trotter’s, where well-connected people ate — a great privilege, apparently, this — in the kitchen. Larissa had acquired tickets to the symphony, to a Goodman Theatre production of Death of a Salesman, to Steppenwolf, where they saw Lady Macbeth deliver her monologue in the nude. Afterward, she and Minkoff retired to the pied-à-terre and did not sleep much.
They were invited to dinner at the apartment, on East Lake Shore Drive, of Larissa’s old high school friend Rita Greenberg, whose own date for the evening was her personal trainer, two decades younger. A locally famous interior decorator of whom Minkoff had never heard was there with his partner. The conversation covered mainly new restaurants and movies and vacation spots. Minkoff hadn’t much to contribute and, despite Larissa’s efforts to bring him into the conversation whenever possible, felt out of it.
Perhaps it was just fatigue. Minkoff worked long hours. He began making his rounds at Rush–St. Luke’s at seven a.m. He saw twenty patients a day. His schedule was no heavier this week than any other, except that instead of shuffling off to bed at nine-thirty every night, he was out with Larissa Friedman, whose energy, in bed or out on Michigan Avenue, appeared to be inexhaustible.
Minkoff was also distracted by a pathologist’s report he received earlier in the day. It confirmed that one of his oldest patients, Maury Gordon, had pancreatic cancer. Maury — he had insisted that Minkoff, whom he always called Doc, call him that — was a wealthy man of eighty-five. He was large — six foot one, close to 220 pounds — and in his dress and manner gave off fumes of high prosperity. He had owned seven or eight movie theaters around Chicago, which he sold at just the right time, before the multiplexes took over. He had invested well and, as he put it to Minkoff one day at the conclusion of his annual physical, was “out of the financial wars before I was fifty.”
Maury Gordon had a taste for ample generalizations. “If you have eighteen or so million in the bank it’s awfully easy to relax and be an entirely moral man,” he once said, “though I realize lots of money doesn’t have this effect on certain chazerim, who, let’s face it, wouldn’t be content with eighteen billion.”
When he turned sixty-five, Maury Gordon began getting physicals twice a year. He also came in once a month for a B12 shot. Over the course of four decades, their relationship gradually deepened. Shortly after Marlene’s death, Maury asked Minkoff if he thought he would remarry. A bit put off by the question, Minkoff said that he didn’t feel it was a pressing question just then.
“Oh, well, married, single,” Maury Gordon said, “neither is a solution.”
“A solution?” Minkoff asked. “What’s the problem?”
“Human existence, that’s the problem,” Maury replied. “Maybe you’ve noticed.” Maury then told him that he had had a wife who had died in her late twenties, of colon cancer of a kind now easily treatable. They had had no children, and he had never remarried.
“No children, no sense of futurity,” Maury said. “There’s just you, alone. You die — poof! — show’s over.”
Minkoff was himself without children, but not for want of trying. His wife and he had gone through the ordeal of a fertility clinic. He could remember rushing home when he had calls from Marlene that she was ovulating. The whole exercise made him feel like nothing so much as a field-goal kicker, called in to perform at odd, usually inconvenient times. Marlene, with her sweet sense of humor, would phone the office and say, “Send in George Blanda.” She was referring to the man who had been the Chicago Bears kicker when they were kids. But it all came to nothing. They talked about adoption, but finally decided that an adopted child was too much of a crapshoot, and so childless they remained.
Shortly after Marlene died, Minkoff had a note from Maury Gordon.
I am sorry to learn about the death of your wife. The toughest deals are those in which you lose both a wife and a best friend, which, from the few things you’ve told me, suggests this must have been the case with you and the late Mrs. Minkoff. Welcome to the sad fraternity of widowers. If you ever feel like talking things over, let me know, and I’ll be glad to take you to lunch.
Minkoff did not socialize with his patients, and he certainly didn’t let down his hair with them, or with anyone else. He didn’t take Maury up on his invitation to lunch. But he was touched by the note and found himself sharing bits of information about his social life with the older man. Only a few days before the cancer diagnosis, Minkoff revealed his surprising relationship with Larissa Friedman.
“What did her late husband do?” Maury asked.
“He was commissioned by Nike to make their sweat socks.”
“A sweat sock baron. What a country!” Maury said. “Is she rich?”
“I suppose,” Minkoff said. “Though how rich I don’t really know.”
“Worth knowing,” said Maury.
Minkoff soon found out. Only a day after she returned to Los Angeles, she called and asked him to come on the following weekend to attend a dinner party a few friends in Los Angeles were giving for her fifty-third birthday. At LAX, after picking up his bag, Minkoff discovered a limo driver holding up a sign with his name on it. He and the driver exchanged few words, but when they were near Larissa Friedman’s house in Brentwood, the driver pointed out a house across the street: “This is where O.J. lived when he knocked off his wife and her boyfriend.” As they pulled up in front of Larissa’s house, Minkoff noted in the driveway a convertible of a dazzling blue in a make he didn’t recognize. “Maserati,” the driver said.
Larissa’s house was capacious. She had a full-time maid, also a houseman to work on her lawn and garden and do other jobs. The dinner that evening was at a restaurant called Spago. Four other couples were there. Everyone called Minkoff by his first name. Two of the women obviously had had plastic surgery; the other two were younger than their husbands by twenty or so years. Larissa was wearing a ring with a formidably large diamond. Lots of talk about the food; large quantities of wine were drunk. Once again Minkoff felt himself the odd man out, but the glitter of the room absorbed much of his attention. He spotted a man with an ambitious hairdo a few tables away who was, he was fairly sure, the singer Steve Lawrence, now bleached by age. Later a tall man with large and too-white teeth came over, and Larissa introduced him to Minkoff — everyone else at the table knew him — as Garry Marshall, a television producer of some fame.
When the check came, Minkoff insisted on paying his and Larissa’s share. The men each put credit cards down, and when the waiter returned with the check, his part of the total came to $680. The tip was included.
“I have to tell you, I’m not a $680-a-dinner guy,” Minkoff told Larissa when they were back in her living room. “It’s not that I can’t afford a dinner like that from time to time. It’s just that I feel there’s something intrinsically wrong about it. People lie and cheat and even kill for money. This being so, I’ve always felt that the least I can do is respect it. Spending that kind of money for a meal isn’t, in my opinion, respecting it.”
“Sweetie,” she said, placing a hand on Minkoff’s cheek, “sit a minute. I want to show you something.” A few moments later she returned with a heavy leather folder. She ran through the pages of the folder with him. By the time she was done, he had learned that her net worth was somewhere in the range of $64 million.
“Really, baby,” she said, closing the folder, “I don’t think we need worry about a $680 dinner.”
Later that night, as she lay beside him, Minkoff thought about that $64 million. He had not slept with all that many women in his life, and it occurred to him that hitherto he had never slept with a woman worth more than $2 million. Just before he drifted off, he heard her voice in his head, saying, “I don’t think we need worry about a $680 dinner.” He would need to think more about that word “we.”
Back in Chicago, Minkoff had his monthly session with Maury Gordon. The worst of medical practice for Minkoff was conferring with patients who had been told that there was nothing further anyone could do to sustain their lives. Minkoff had had patients in their nineties asking for third and fourth opinions about their illnesses.
“What did the oncologist tell you?” Minkoff asked Maury in his examining room.
“That it’s the ball game,” Maury said, “though that wasn’t the exact phrase. He gave me four, five months, but said it could also be sooner.”
“When you get to be my age,” Maury said, “you’re just waiting to hear that your time is up. All this crap about sixty being the new forty, seventy being the new fifty, well, I have some friends who’ve reached ninety, and let me tell you, Doc, ninety looks to me like the new hundred and twelve.”
“Everything’ll be done to see that you undergo as little pain as possible.”
“Good,” Maury said, “I’m not fond of pain.” There was a pause, and Maury ended it by saying: “How’s life with the sweat sock queen?”
“Moving along a little faster than I’d planned,” said Minkoff, admiring the speed of Maury Gordon’s transition from his own death to Minkoff’s social life, and for once a little relieved to have the conversation shift to his rather than to a patient’s problems.
“What’s planning got to do with anything? You want to make God smile, tell him your plans. You probably heard that one before.”
“She’s using ‘we’ when she talks about us. I’m not sure I’m ready for ‘we.’”
“I’ve heard people say that when widowers remarry, it can be construed as a compliment to their dead wives. They know how good a marriage can be, and so they’re ready to sign up for another. At least that’s one theory.”
“Since you cared a great deal for your wife and didn’t remarry, I assume that it’s a theory you don’t subscribe to personally,” Minkoff said.
“Listen, if I met someone dazzling after my wife died, I would have pursued her with the throttle full out. I didn’t happen to meet that woman.”
“I suppose the question for me,” said Minkoff, “is if I have now met that woman.”
“Have you ever thought about what she sees in you?” Maury asked.
“Who knows?” Minkoff answered. “Maybe she’s looking for a family doctor on the premises.” He thought, but didn’t mention to Maury Gordon, that maybe she also found in him a man she could manage and easily dominate. Come to think of it, she was already doing a pretty good job on both counts.
Minkoff assumed his life with Larissa Friedman would be lived in southern California, in her house. He imagined himself driving the blue Maserati, top down, the Pacific Ocean on his right, the wind whirring through his thinning hair. He had originally planned to retire at seventy. Would it matter all that much if he knocked off five years earlier?
Minkoff’s wife had never taken to California, northern or southern. She thought it thin — that had been her word for it, thin. She would go on about it. “Not that I have anything against good living,” she would say, “but a person shouldn’t make it the center of his life. Least that’s what I think.”
Marlene was full of opinions. If you stitched them all together they constituted a point of view about how a person ought to live: for work, for other people, for something outside and larger than yourself. And she lived her point of view, or so Minkoff always felt, which gave her an impressive dignity, a certain standing in his eyes and in those of their friends.
She had taught math to seventh-graders. The salary from her teaching had helped put him through medical school. She would probably have quit teaching if they had had kids, at least while the children were growing up, and they probably would have moved out to Northbrook or Highland Park, where so many of the other Jewish physicians lived. Minkoff felt the disappointment of childlessness that was at the center of his wife’s life. Yet she never grumbled about it. She carried on.
Minkoff thought of his wife as one of those people who had always been tested. Her father died when she was fifteen, and, as her mother never really got over his death, Marlene essentially took over the running of the household and the raising of her two younger sisters. Her mother came down with Alzheimer’s in her early seventies, and, as the only one of the daughters still living in Chicago, the heavy burden of seeing her mother through the final three years of her life fell entirely upon Marlene. The final, most brutal test was her ALS.
The disease hit when Marlene was fifty-eight. She began to lose energy, then muscular control, first in her arms, then her legs. Soon she was sleeping with the aid of a mask and an oxygen machine, which eventually she used all the time. Minkoff hired two Filipina caregivers, working in eight-hour shifts, to watch over her when he was at work. She had to be fed soft foods. She sat in a chair in their den, her head drooping, the oxygen machine at her side, listening much of the day to chamber music CDs on the Bose radio–CD player Minkoff had bought for her and placed next to her chair in the den. At night Minkoff carried her to the toilet. The worst of it was when her speech became so slurred that he had to ask her to repeat four or five times what she was trying to tell him.
One Friday, when the younger of the two caregivers, whose name was Honeyjoy, called in sick, Minkoff stayed home with his wife. Mornings Marlene showered. Minkoff wasn’t sure how the caregivers arranged Marlene’s daily showers, so when he carried her into the bathroom, he took off all his own clothes and went into the shower with her. As he held her up, she seemed feathery light. Leaning against him, Marlene looked up at Minkoff, smiled, dropped her head on his shoulder, and died, right there, in his arms. “Expired” was the word that came to Minkoff’s mind. She had expired, was gone, free at last. He stood there naked, the water beating down on him, his dead wife in his arms, befuddled by loss.
“Jesus, a house call, I don’t believe it,” Maury Gordon said when Minkoff visited him one evening after work at his apartment at 1212 Lake Shore Drive. Maury was now on a light morphine regimen, beginning his final descent, and spent most of the day in bed.
“More like a social call,” Minkoff said. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” He could see that the answer was not very well. His normal suntan had deserted Maury, and he must have lost forty or fifty pounds; his pajamas and bathrobe hung on him.
“I’ve been thinking for some reason about my father,” Maury said. “I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my father.” And then he did: Like many of his generation, Velvel Gorodetsky came to this country to avoid the lifelong slavery that conscription in the czar’s army would have meant for a Jew. He was a man of scholarly interests, but found himself forced to cobble together a living running little dry-goods shops. Maury said his father had wished he could have been a teacher; he admired teachers because they didn’t have to worry about an inventory.
“Did he live long enough,” Minkoff asked, “to see your financial success?”
“He did. But you know, he would have preferred that I do something better than merely make a lot of money. We’re snobs, we Jews. I think my father would have preferred that I had become a professor or a rabbi. He wasn’t all that impressed by wealth.”
“My own father’s ambitions were pretty much satisfied by my becoming a so-called professional man,” Minkoff said. “I don’t think he thought about the possibility of my ever rising any higher, or that there was any higher to rise. On the other hand, I disappointed him by not bringing him any grandchildren.”
“What are Jewish children for,” Maury said, “if not to disappoint their parents? Not for nothing was King Lear the favorite Shakespeare play in the Yiddish theater. I had two sisters, both of whom had kids, so my father was a grandfather, though I’m not sure it gave him all that much pleasure. My father used to refer to me as his Kaddish — you know, the one who would say Kaddish for him when he died. I never did, and I’m sorry for it now.”
“If that’s your only regret,” Minkoff said, “that’s not bad.”
“There’s others. I wish I had risked more. I see now that I was a safe player. I made my money early, invested it wisely, and got out of the game. I lived comfortably; I didn’t get hurt. Big deal. Maybe that wasn’t such a hot idea.”
“I wonder,” Minkoff said, “if we can will ourselves to be something other than what we really are.”
“Life offers more mysteries than there’s time to solve,” Maury said. “I fancy myself a thinking man, but I haven’t solved a single one.”
Minkoff walked the seven or so long blocks back to his own apartment, feeling as lonely as he had ever remembered feeling.
Later that same week Larissa called to say that she was coming to Chicago, and asked if it would be all right if she stayed in his apartment.
“Of course,” Minkoff said. “Shall I pick you up at O’Hare? What airline are you flying?”
“No need. I’ve arranged for a limo,” she said. “Actually, my friend Harriet Ginsberg and I have chartered a plane. With having practically to get undressed for security checks and all that, flying commercial is getting to be a big bore.”
Larissa arrived a little after five o’clock with two large Louis Vuitton suitcases for a three-day stay. She told him that they had tickets for the Lyric Opera that evening — Placido Domingo in La Traviata — and they needed to be there by eight. There wouldn’t be time for dinner until afterward. Minkoff opened a bottle of Riesling, put out some cheese and crackers. Over a glass of wine, they talked about his moving to California.
“I’m a little edgy about it,” Minkoff said. “For one thing, I’ve never not worked. I’m not sure that I’m built for leisure.”
“I’ll bet something in the way of part-time work could be arranged at UCLA,” Larissa said. “My husband endowed a chair at the medical school.”
“I don’t do research,” he said. “I just meet with my patients. I diagnose, I give advice, I send people in serious trouble off to specialists. That’s all I know how to do.”
“Don’t worry, baby,” she said. “We’ll have a wonderful time, a full rich life.”
Minkoff wasn’t sure how things had gotten to this point. He hadn’t proposed, but once that “we” had established itself in Larissa’s conversation, it was as though she had already arranged for the movers. She had taken to calling him every night. In their nightly conversations, the word “when” began to replace “we,” as in “when you move to Los Angeles” and “when we are together . . .” Minkoff also learned, almost by the way, that Larissa’s husband who had died from ALS was actually her second husband; she’d had a first marriage, made when she was only nineteen, that had lasted just two years. No children from either marriage. She was a good closer, Larissa, give her that, Minkoff thought.
He slept through much of the last two acts of La Traviata. She had tickets for them tomorrow evening to see John Malkovich in Of Mice and Men at the Royal George Theatre on Halsted. Life with Larissa would mean many tickets: to operas, plays, movies; lots of modish restaurants and dinner parties and visits to art galleries; trips to Tuscany, Paris, Tunisia. A full, rich life, just as she said. All the happiness that money could buy.
Minkoff arose early the next morning to get ready for his hospital rounds. He made coffee and, trying not to wake Larissa, got into the shower. He was shampooing when Larissa entered. “Hello, darling,” she said, with a sleepy smile. “Seems a shame to waste the water, so I thought we might as well shower together.” She put her arms around Minkoff’s neck.
He remembered the last time he had been naked in the shower with a woman. In this same shower, Larissa’s highly maintained body, the work of so many hours in spas and at health clubs with personal trainers, should have filled him with a sense of all the promise that life still held out, even at his age. Instead he felt only a deadening sense of emptiness and betrayal.
“It’s not going to work,” Minkoff heard himself say.
“That’s all right, darling,” she said, “we’ve got all of tonight.”
“No,” he said, the water splattering them. “I mean my moving out to Los Angeles, our getting married.”
“Why? What’s wrong, baby?” she asked, looking up at him, water dripping into her eyes from her fine French haircut.
“What’s wrong is, I am I, and you are you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What it means is, I’m not California. I’m not Brentwood. I’m not Maserati. I’m not Spago dinners. And the truth is, I have no interest in being any of those things.”
“Try,” she said.
“I have tried. I’ve wasted your time. I apologize.”
Larissa left the shower. Was she crying? Minkoff couldn’t tell. She had wrapped herself in a red towel and, as she departed the bathroom, slammed the door.
Minkoff realized he still had shampoo in his hair, and had had the entire time he was telling Larissa that things weren’t going to work out. A nice clownish touch, he thought. “Send in the clowns,” he heard himself mutter. “Don’t bother, they’re here.” He didn’t know any of the other words of the song, but he began softly humming what he remembered of the melody. In no hurry to leave the shower, he carefully soaped up, finished his shampoo, shaved, and readied himself to haul those two large Louis Vuitton suitcases onto the street and into a cab, so that he could get back to work.
Meet the Author
JOSEPH EPSTEIN is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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