Joan Newburger
Death and Taxes


Every other Sunday afternoon Paul drove through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey to see his father. He hated the tunnel. It wasn't just the bad air--although that was bad enough-- but, what if the tunnel collapsed? His heart would jump as he envisioned the cave-in: rubble and cars and bodies being swept about furiously by the swift and crushing waters of the Hudson. Janet once said that his fear of the tunnel represented his need to create a gulf between his adult life in the city and his childhood on the other side of the river. A cheap but convenient explanation, and probably correct.

Today the miasma swirled around the entrance to the tunnel. Paul felt as if he were about to be dissolved in the poisonous air. He glanced at the cops in the little booths along the way. "Surely they receive extra pay for hazardous duty," he said. That was Janet's line; she too used to hold her breath as far into the tunnel as possible. Since their divorce a few months ago, he had found himself supplying her side of imaginary conversations.

Paul's father greeted him in bathrobe and slippers. The old man had apparently been puttering around his tiny apartment all day, doing what Paul was unable to guess, and had not bothered to dress.

"Dad, if you'd rather not go out, I'll go to Greenspan's and get delicatessen to eat here."

"No, no. We'll go to Angelo's. It's new, out on Grand Street near the cemetery. When I take the bus out to your mother's grave, I go there for dinner. I want to stop by the cemetery today. You haven't been there in months."

While his father dressed, Paul paced around the little apartment. The place smelled of soup and furniture polish, much as his home had smelled when he was a child. Everything was in its assigned spot. "Each to its own," his mother used to say, as she painstakingly arranged the salt and pepper shakers on the table. Now they were lined up evenly, the same shakers, cut glass with fake silver caps, right next to each other on the small sideboard. Even the Sunday papers were stacked neatly on the coffee table.

In the kitchen, a few plates and pots lay in the dish drainer, small items close to the sink, larger ones stepping ever upward toward the other side, just as his mother had done her dishes. His father must have washed them. Mrs. Kolavits came to clean only on Thursdays. When had the old man learned how to wash dishes? He had never done them in the old days. Did he also cook for himself? Paul had imagined that his father would buy prepared food to bring home. He looked in the refrigerator. There was a plate of roast chicken covered in plastic wrap, a bowl of leftover broccoli. Fruit salad. It looked freshly made. How about that.

"Dad?" he called. "Who made the chicken?"

"What are you, spying?" his father asked as he came into the kitchen. "I made it, who else?"

"I just wondered. I thought Mrs. Kolavits might do some cooking for you when she comes."

"Mrs. Kolavits couldn't boil water," his father said. "Let's go already; I'm hungry."

The old man sat in the passenger seat and looked straight ahead. His eyes were barely above the level of the dashboard. His back was pretzel-bent now, and he seemed shrunken. He had been as tall as Paul until Paul's mother died. Sometimes, Paul was certain it was an act. Harry Spivak probably was straight as a pine tree when no one was looking.

"Your fancy car's uncomfortable," his father said. "Why don't you buy a bigger one? I like this, though."

"Like what?" Paul asked.

"This little handle above the glove compartment. In case of a short stop . . . What're you doing? You're going the wrong way. You always do that. Every time we come this way."

"I like to, Harry," Paul said, laughing. "I like to go the wrong way so I'll have to turn around and come back." Paul made a U-turn.

"You forget," his father sighed. "Almost your whole life you lived in this town and now you're Mister Big Shot in the City and you forget how to get to the cemetery."

Paul parked in a little cul de sac and helped his father out of the car. Winter was still hanging on. Tightly closed buds shivered in the early April chill. He wondered whether his father's coat was warm enough. The old man seemed unconcerned; he walked along the stone path at a sideways tilt, one foot dragging slightly. A new addition to the routine.

"There she is, may she rest," his father said, as he stepped off the walk onto the hard patchy earth and stood staring at the gravestone. It was a plain rectangle, lettered simply, ANNA SPIVAK-1923-1996.

She shouldn't have died so young, thought Paul. People don't die that young any more. His mother had been healthy. A simple case of pneumonia, and she had just let herself go, as if she thought she was still living in poverty on the Lower East Side, as if she had not been able to separate herself from the previous generation.

"I still miss her," his father said. Then he pointed with his foot to the plot of ground next to his wife's grave. "I'm right there, next to the walk, so you shouldn't get your feet wet when it rains."

WEDDINGS BANQUETS PARTIES A LA CARTE ANGELO'S RISTORANTE COCKTAIL LOUNGE read the long black-lettered sign running under the eaves of the white clapboard building. The place had obviously been someone's home and had spread out through the back wall to the end of the property and through the side wall to envelop whatever building had been next to it. Paul parked the car across the street in a lot next to a gas station which still was, in part, someone's home. It was just dusk and a rosy pink sunset spotted the upstairs windows of the gas station/house and sent a glow out over a block of low wood and false brick buildings. Stores were closed, either for the Sunday holiday, or forever, display windows showing taped cracks and empty space behind.

"You'll love this place; best Italian food around," his father said as they pushed open a rippled glass door. As they waited for the hostess to seat them, Paul looked around. The square lobby was dotted with plaster nudes on white wooden pedestals under a trellised ceiling. Plastic grapes clustered at each crosspiece of the trellis. Stairs led from the lobby up to a room where a wedding party was in progress. Disco music was being played in steady four- four time by a small band and squeals and booming male laughter spilled into the lobby. Bridesmaids in lavender and men in too-tight tuxedos and women with corsages moved up and down the short staircase. Paul wondered where they thought they were going, for they never branched out into the restaurant area; they simply came down the stairs, looked around a bit, the men rocking on their heels, the women touching their hair, and then they walked back up.

The hostess steered them toward a table along the wall. Green lighting stripped all the color from people's faces and Paul felt like laughing and was depressed at the same time. Tears surprised him and he was glad of the dimness of the ugly light.

"No, not here," his father said. "Over there, where Judy works."

"All right, sir," the hostess said, and they were led to the center of the restaurant.

"Who is Judy?" Paul asked as they sat down.

"She's a wonderful waitress. She brings me warm bread. Eight kids she's got and you should see her energy! She looks like a kid herself. That's her."

"Hi there honey. How are we tonight?" The woman was missing several upper teeth at the side of her mouth and her smile was clown-like. Paul saw a lined, exhausted face and thin, dull hair and wondered at her smile. It seemed real.

"Isn't she something? I'll have the manigot, Judy," the old man said. "And remember, make the bread nice and warm."

"Right, honey. Nice and warm. And you sir?"

"I'll have the manicotti too."

"Right. Two manigot."

"Isn't it ‘manicotti', Dad?" Paul asked when the waitress moved away.

"Manigot. It's pronounced manigot. Eight kids she's got. Isn't that something? So, how're Susan and Michael? When are you going to bring them to see me? Doesn't Janet let you see them?"

"Every other weekend. They go home on Sunday morning."

"They're still my grandchildren. I got a right to see them once in a while."

"Of course. One of us will bring them out soon, I promise."

"She doesn't call me. She should call me and let me talk to the kids."

"Yes, Dad. I'll make sure she does."

"Divorce. The first in our family. A disgrace. Fifteen years of marriage, two beautiful kids. I don't understand it. I didn't raise you like that."

"Sometimes I don't understand it either, Dad."

"Your mother and I. Fifty-four years and it wasn't enough. What good is all that education if makes you divorce? Mister Big Shot Know It All in the City and he gets divorced."

"Stop it, Dad. Here comes the waitress."

"Here y'are honey. Nice warm bread."

The bread had been toasted in thick slices and was so hard it tore at the roof of Paul's mouth. He stuck his fork into a gluey mass of pasta and cheese and expected the worst, but it was surprisingly tasty. Tears rose at the back of his throat again, and he coughed to cover them.

"Is this the best!" his father said. He ate slowly but heartily, his thin hands shaky as they moved from pasta to bread to salad, his head bowed over the plate.

"So, Dad. What have you been doing with yourself? How's Mrs. Stein?"

"Sick. A phlebitis in her leg. That's what she gets for gambling. I told her."

"Gambling?"

"There was a casino night at the Community Center. Just for fun--Joe Palooka money. She won at Black Jack and she fainted. The next day, a phlebitis. She has to stay off the leg for a while. You remember Sadie Morris? Lived in the building across from mine? Not a good class of people there. Sam Weinberg died in his apartment and nobody noticed he didn't come out for a week. That wouldn't happen in my building. They're getting ready to do a nice planting in front."

"Sadie Morris, Dad. What about her? Is she Bobby Morris's mother?" Bobby Morris had been a close childhood friend of Paul's. What had happened to him?

"Right. Bobby's mother. She had a phlebitis like Elsie Stein and went to go out on that bad leg and got mugged in front of the building, right in broad daylight. Fourteen stab wounds she got."

"My God! Did she die?"

"What do you think? Of course she died."

"Well, for heaven's sake, tell Mrs. Stein to be sure and stay at home."

"You're laughing at me, Paul. Don't you laugh at me. I don't appreciate it." The old man finished his meal and waved his hand at the waitress. "You want dessert, Paul? Judy, I'll have sanka and a tortoni. You got tortoni tonight?"

"We always got tortoni, honey. I'll bring you a nice tortoni. You want tortoni too, sir?"

"No, thank you," Paul said. "I will have coffee though." He watched the waitress weave smoothly through the tables. The place was less than half full. How could she make enough money in tips to justify the long hours on her feet? Even if the restaurant were full, the prices he'd noticed on the menu were so low, she couldn't possibly take home enough to make any difference. "Dad. Is her husband alive? Judy's, I mean."

"I don't know. She's got eight kids. Wait. Yeah. He's a truck driver, or something."

"Who takes care of her kids while she's working?"

"How should I know? Somebody. Maybe nobody." His voice trailed off and he sat, staring, the corners of his mouth turned down.

Paul looked carefully at his father. He had always taken his parents' faces for granted. But now his mother was dead. He looked at his father as if he had not seen him in years. When had that firm and ruddy skin paled and slackened? How many moments had he missed, would he miss? Even if a bell tolled for each significant dot of time, how could he take note of them all? "Dad," he said. "Are you okay?"

"What do you mean, am I okay? Of course I'm okay. Do I look sick?"

"No, no," Paul said. "I don't.... I mean, in general. Is the apartment warm enough? Does Mrs. Kolavits come regularly to clean? Is the money coming on time? No problems with the bank?"

"You're a good boy, Paulie. Stuck up, but a good boy. No. Everything's fine. No problems. Oh. Did you talk to the accountant about the taxes? I don't have the strength to deal with that again. Last year, a mess. It's what killed Grobart."

"Your taxes killed Grobart? Come on, Dad. Don't be silly."

"There honey, a nice tortoni." Judy slipped dessert and coffee onto the table and glided away.

"Grobart died of a heart attack last year. His partner Shapiro got an acute diabetes and turned over all his business to Wexler. Wexler's been blacking out. I don't know. I wouldn't want him to drop dead."

"Dad," Paul said, laughing so hard his eyes watered. "Paying taxes might kill you. Doing someone else's returns never killed anybody. Let's go. It's getting late."

Paul paid the check and they headed toward the door. The wedding party was winding down. The bride and groom had left long ago and the music echoed tinnily in the nearly empty room above. Paul stopped in the lobby and turned to look up the stairs at the feet of the few dancers still on the floor.

"Paul," his father said . "I saw what you did. You over-tipped the waitress. I didn't raise you like that."

Paul thought about the ride back to the city and wondered if his father would give him a bed for the night.

~