An Antique Man is also an extraordinary portrait of a tightly knit Jewish family and makes a strong comment about the phenomenon of human isolation, for in death this little family realizes how totally alone it is in the middle of Los Angeles, city of strangers. The events are described through a curtain of courage and the added dignity of shattering, strengthening love. It answers the question, "What use is there in reading fiction?" To experience the love and pain in this book is of the deepest private value.
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About the Author
Her story “I Don’t Believe This” won an O. Henry Prize. “This Is a Voice from Your Past” was included in The Best American Mystery Stories.
Her non-fiction books include a travel memoir, Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence; a book of personal essays, Gut Feelings: A Writer’s Truths and Minute Inventions; and Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer’s Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother . . . and Life.
Gerber earned her BA in English from the University of Florida, her MA in English from Brandeis University, and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fiction Fellowship to Stanford University. She presently teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.
Read an Excerpt
An Antique Man
By MERRILL JOAN GERBER
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1967 Merrill Joan Gerber
All rights reserved.
WHEN WE ARRIVED at the house, Mrs. Pinlock, the old lady on the other side of the duplex, was waiting on her step before we got out of the car. She looked at my mother, and my mother nodded her head, and the old woman came forth and put her arms around my mother—her baggy maroon sweater crushed between her flat old chest and my mother's—the embrace making them one, sharers of a common destiny. My mother perceived it—the blue light burning on the stairs all night, the walks to the market with the wire shopping cart on wheels, the peering, peeking out of windows and doors, the sagging dresses and the bony ribs—my mother saw it all and withdrew with an apologetic smile. This was not to be considered for her yet. For this moment at least, her wifehood was still real, her husband was warm in his death, and my mother had the duties of a wife to perform.
My sister and I followed my mother up the stairs, clutching each other's hands. The house was perfectly still; we knew the bedroom would be empty, left as it was weeks ago when my father dressed and shaved himself, with sweat running down his cheeks as the wringer worked inside him, and walked downstairs to leave for the hospital.
The blankets were rumpled, the dent of my father's head was still in the pillow. Alongside the bed on a small table were his reading glasses and a half-filled glass of orange juice. Another bowl, which had been filled with alcohol used to cool him the last day he was home with a fever of 105, had evaporated its contents into the air, and a dried, stiff washcloth was crumpled in its bottom.
We did not look at one another. I took the bowl and the glass of juice to the head of the stairs to be brought down later, and my sister straightened the covers on the bed. My mother seemed to be walking in a faint—to the closet, to the dresser. She was looking for things; she unrolled three pairs of socks before she found a pair without holes in the heels; she chose a pair of shorts with the elastic intact. She held up pair after pair, shaking her head at the shredding waistbands, in wonder that she could have allowed him to wear things in such disrepair. The suit was still in plastic from the cleaners. She put everything in a box: the underwear, the white shirt; shoes? My mother looked at us. Do they wear shoes?
"I don't know," I said. She put them in.
"A tie," she said. "We need a tie." She went to the hanger, touched tie after familiar tie, all flared wide at the bottom, like my father's baggy pants.
"This is a nice one," she said. It had the initial M on it. "Daddy's name isn't with an M!" my sister said.
"Oh," said my mother. "Well, his Jewish name is, and his middle name, too. M is good for anything."
"A plain tie, Mother," I said. I didn't want my father wandering around in eternity with the wrong initials on. He had always bought his clothes in thrift shops, in other people's houses—he wore whatever came his way, he was happy with a P as well as a Q on his tie; anyway, he never wore ties.
My mother reached to the top of the closet and brought out the cherished, crumbled cardboard box that contained the charms of my father's religion. His tallis blue-banded, white-fringed, brown-stained with mildew and disuse. His yarmulkes—a black one, and a white satin one from his sister's wedding in 1949, inscribed inside in gold with the names Pearl and Carl. The Haggada, a wooden mazzuzah, a small torah encased in blue velvet. My mother looked at us. Which of these things did he need?
"Take the box," my sister said. "We'll ask them."
We began to feel we had to hurry. It was indulgent to be dawdling in the house this way, poking through things in the quiet while urgent business had to be done, was being done. Somewhere in the hospital, a pathologist was investigating the cells of my father's brain, in the mortuary they were making ready a slab; everyone was at work on this, we had no right to be in the quiet house, looking at things as we might in a museum.
My sister took my mother downstairs, and I went through my mother's clothes, pulling black things off hangers and throwing them over my arm. I was afraid to be alone in the room, as if a ghost were going to chase me. I made myself touch the bed where he had lain. Underneath it was a magazine opened to an article about Hell's Angels. In the hospital my father had talked about devils, angels. From this article, or from some more secret, basic source?
And also under the bed—a tie clip I had found when I was in first grade, that I had brought home and given my father. In its center was a blue glass stone, and the name SWANK was scratched into the greenish gold. He had always carried it in his wallet. A talisman and now it was mine again. I put it in my pocket.
On the way to the cemetery, we stopped at a coffee shop for lunch. I kept trying to catch the waitress's eye. If she had had the right kind of face, I would have said as we left, "My father died this morning." But all I said to her was that my mother's hamburger was underdone, that she could not eat it, and even when it came back, cooked to chars, my mother could not eat it then.
We had never been shopping at any cemetery. We had chosen one that morning and called it. We were told to come and ask for a "Mr. Price." The attendant at the information booth had never heard of Mr. Price, but he directed my sister to a parking space, and the three of us went in the mortuary's entrance.
It looked as it was supposed to: a cheerful florist shop. Refrigerated cases containing flowers lined the walls. The receptionist was selling a brown box to an overdressed, corseted old woman wearing a cluster of Christmas bells on her suit. The box was labeled "Greenlawn Grave Kit—For the burnishing of bronze grave markers." It was decorated with a Star of David.
"We want to see Mr. Price," my sister said.
"Mr. Price is out just now. If you'll be seated right through that door, I'll have Mr. Metzman with you in a moment."
We entered a small, fancy waiting room, furnished with a couch, a desk, and a display case on which sat eight or ten miniature boxes, resembling hope chests. We stared at them. Were these ?
A man came through the door and saw us. "How do you do?" he said. "What you are looking at are liners, or burial vaults. Containers. You understand that a grave will sink if it is not lined."
My sister and I nodded, anxious to be cooperative. He took from the desk drawer a form in triplicate. In a respectful, quiet voice, he asked questions. Some my mother answered, others I did. My sister stared at the grave liners on the polished shelves. We gave dates, of birth, of final entrance into the hospital, of death. The date of death: today. This very day was the day, for all of us.
We were sensitive with excitement. Out of the days of ordinary boring life, out of the days of sickness and worry, out of every bad, frightening, terrible moment we had lately endured, we emerged, at this moment, radiant. Three electric figures, separate and vibrating with the great, great, terrible news. He is dead.
"The basic liner costs sixty dollars. That is required by us to keep the level of the land. That has a top and four sides."
From the couch, my sister: "No bottom?"
"With a bottom it costs considerably more. From our point of view, only the top and sides are essential. If, however, you don't want the coffin to sink out the bottom (and it will, you see, with water and seepage) then consider the completely enclosed one."
"These?" My sister waved at the shelves.
"Well, you've indicated a limited budget. The simplest is just poured concrete. These, that you see, are lead-lined, embossed—you can see the various styles for yourself. They run into more money."
"We don't need a bottom," my sister said. "We only need what we need."
My mother turned her head sharply and looked at my sister; she must have been remembering for a moment their terrible fight, when my sister had said "I know what I need!" But the momentary intelligence of the gulf between them faded from my mother's eyes almost immediately, it was irrelevant here. Nothing could mean more than this shared loss. She nodded agreement with my sister. "Only what we need."
"You will need a grave marker, of course," said Mr. Metzman, "and there is the required fee for perpetual care, which means that we keep the grass cut and so forth, and then there is the question of bearers. You will need six men as casket bearers. If you have four, we will provide two without charge. If you have less than that, we will provide as many men as you need for fifteen dollars."
My mother thought. "Six men?" she said, finally. "He was so light at the end. I could have carried him myself." My mother turned her head away from the man and blindly reached in her purse for a handkerchief. Mr. Metzman put a question mark in the proper space, and waited for when he could resume.
"One more question, Mrs. Goldman. Will you want the casket lowered after the final service?"
"Well, we find that it's better to do that after you depart. It's simpler."
My mother stared at him. Simple? she must have been thinking.
"Most of our patrons prefer it that way," he said.
My sister said, "And if we want it done while we're there?"
"That can of course be done. A hydraulic machine lowers the casket. It is no trouble for us. The other way, we just do it after you leave."
My mother was considering. Somewhere inside herself she was fighting the sides of the question. She emerged. "It's too sad to see Daddy covered "
When Mr. Metzman realized she was not going to say anything else, he went out the door and after a few minutes, a young woman came in with a pad and a pencil.
"Just a few brief bits of information," she said. She looked at my mother, and decided she would do better directing her questions at me. "What color was your father's complexion?"
"Ordinary," I said. The night before I had looked at his skin, and it had been exactly like ice, white and almost transparent, and exactly as cold, though under it he was alive and had talked to me.
"A healthy suntan, would you say?"
"No, not healthy. Just regular."
"And his hair, where was it parted?" I had to look at my mother for answer, and my mother put her hand to her own head.
"Did he wear a mustache?"
"Do you want any of his effects buried with him? A ring? jewelry, keepsake?"
"Well, thank you so much." The young woman rose.
"Excuse me," I said, "but my father was very sick when he died, very pale. One of his eyes was sealed shut. His lips were eroded. We don't want him to be made up, or changed in any way. We don't want anything to be done to him."
"My dear," the young woman said. "We have to do a little if you want him to look natural."
"Natural is however he is."
The young woman lost courage and ran out. In a moment, Mr. Metzman appeared. "Mrs. Goldman," he said to my mother, "if we do nothing to the deceased, do not embalm him, then he must be kept in a refrigerated room. When we bring him into the chapel, the warm air on his cold body will cause condensation. In other words, he will be dripping wet. And if we do not use make-up, he will be gray."
My sister stood and said, "It doesn't matter. Nothing about this matters at all. Please, let's go."
Mr. Metzman looked at her. His disapproval registered in his eyes: long straight hair, no lipstick, slacks—in fact, his disrespect took in all three of us. We had no style. We had chosen the cheapest burial service. Now he had to take us to see caskets, plots. He would have to show us the cheapest of everything. He was fat and smug, his look said warm air would never condense on his body. He was alive, and everyone around us was alive, and it was not fair. But whoever said it was a fair game?
As we passed into the casket showroom, Mr. Metzman pressed a button which turned on a red light-bulb over the door. Apparently, it meant that no one else was to come in. Their delicacy was extreme.
We were braced for it all; the expensive caskets arrayed in all their glory about us, and in the far, far dim corner, the cheapest one, $150. My mother lingered in the front rows, running her hand over polished wood, touching the tags that read above a thousand dollars, looking at the hand-painted pictures on the portions of different lids that were meant to be closed over the faces of the dead. My sister and I talked business. A plain, pine box, covered with gray cloth. Where was it? Well, it wasn't here to be seen, but it was almost exactly like the one in the dimmest, darkest corner. Except that for these rounded edges that we saw, it had square edges. Except that it had no cushion for the head.
"Can I bring my own pillow for him, then?" I said.
Mr. Metzman looked puzzled. "I see no reason why not," he said after a moment.
He took us in his car the few hundred yards up the road where the cemetery began. It was a "memorial park" without a tombstone anywhere; there was nothing to be seen but green rolling hills, and in the distance, a neat, squared-off building. Crypts could be purchased in it, layer after layer, one above the other reaching skyward, Mr. Metzman told us. No water, no dirt, no insects. Clean.
He slowed his Cadillac, and stopped where the road became rocky and unpaved. "This area is our new development. Pipelines are coming in for a sprinkling system, and a good road will be paved. These plots, here on the hill, are in the new area now open for sale."
We stood on the top of the hill, looking down. At the bottom was a side road, and just beyond that, the freeway. A few trees were scattered about.
"Of course," said Mr. Metzman, "the graves here at the top of the hill are more costly. Down there, where that white marker is—about halfway down the hill is where the plots are fifty dollars less."
"What's wrong with them?" my sister said.
"Why, nothing at all."
"Then why are these better? There must be some reason."
Carol, in spite of herself, was getting lost in the maze of their mortuary reasoning. Better, worse; more money, less money; pillow, no pillow; lead-lined, plain.
Mr. Metzman appeared to be thinking fast; he explained that perhaps some older people might not want to walk all the way down the hill from the road, and then up again. It was quite a climb. It seemed the only reason he could give. He started to mention the noise of the cars on the freeway, but thought the better of it, and simply stopped talking.
We chose the cheaper land. It was halfway down the hill. My mother walked in the area he indicated, and pointed to a place which would, part of the day, be in the shade of a tall tree.
"Right here," she said. Mr. Metzman made a notation on his pad of the position of the plot. "And yours will be to your husband's right," he said to my mother. She looked up in panic. "You will want to buy a plot for yourself, Mrs. Goldman." It was not a question. It was imperative for her to do so the cemetery would fill up. My father would be surrounded by strangers. And then, what would happen to my mother?
So my mother nodded and walked across the earth of her own grave. I took her hand, but she made no response. It was as if she were prepared to occupy it already.
"It has a nice tree," my sister said.
"Trees!" my mother said, turning to Carol. "When Daddy and I took our trip to San Francisco to see you, when Daddy and I were in Muir Woods, he looked up at the Redwoods and he said, 'I would love to lie here all day and look up through the trees.'" Her mouth hardened, as some vision of that violent visit passed again through her mind. But again, she allowed it to pass. This was not the time to revive it.
"So he has his trees," my mother said.
Suddenly, on the way back to the mortuary parking lot, my mother leaned forward and grabbed Mr. Metzman's arm.
"On the hill," she said, almost gasping, "will they bury my husband straight, or slanting down?"
I saw my father, crumpled in a heap at the foot of his coffin, sliding and slipping into the next world.
"Mrs. Goldman," Mr. Metzman said, "Don't worry about anything."
Excerpted from An Antique Man by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1967 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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