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My Brother’s Thirtieth Yahrzeit, My Grandmother’s Third


Walking after my bath to the room I share with my little brother, I stop to pull my underpants up beneath my robe. The baby sitter—black frizzy hair, white freckle-specked cheeks—turns from the blond friend keeping her company and points below my waist, “Be careful! I don’t want to see your private parts.” Then I’m on my back on the bedroom floor, hoping the fall I’ve just faked was loud enough that she’ll have no choice but to check if I’m okay. I’ve opened the fly of my pajama bottoms, but as soon as I hear her footsteps outside the door, I chicken out and put my penis back where it belongs. She hovers over me, whispers my name so she doesn’t wake Paul up, and I can smell the patchouli on her, just like my mother wears. I open my eyes and offer my hand so she can pull me to my feet. She turns me to face the bottom bunk, where Paul should be sleeping, but he’s not. Instead, he’s sitting at the desk we do our homework on, playing a game of chess against himself. He’s only made the first move, white pawn to king four, but that’s how I know I’m dreaming. When we lived in Flushing, Paul was too young for chess.

The babysitter smiles—I know this even though my back is to her—leans in so her lips almost touch my ear, and whispers my grandmother’s words, “There was one thing your brother told me he’d never forgive you for.” As if that were his cue, Paul looks up from the chessboard with a big grin on his face. His lips start moving but no sound comes out. My dreamed self knows he shouldn’t speak, but the question demands to be asked, and the me who is dreaming doesn’t know how to stop the words from forming: “What did I do wrong?” My brother’s eyes close, his mouth tightens, and—The Young Rascal’s “It’s A Beautiful Morning” setting the rhythm—pixel by pixel, he begins to fade. When he’s gone, I find myself standing just inside the front door, my left hand resting on the wrought iron grate we hung Red’s leash on before he ran away. In my right hand, the battered black case that held the zither I was sure no one wanted, that I convinced myself fame would find me for making music with, but someone told on me before I could play even a single note, and I had no choice. I returned it to my neighbor.


Maybe it was Abby who told. Abby, in whose room I watched To Kill A Mockingbird the one time my mother couldn’t find a babysitter on canasta night. Abby, missing her two front teeth, chasing me when the neck pointed my way in spin-the-bottle, and maybe I liked it when she caught me, but when my mother puts on the movie my grandfather took of my second-grade birthday party, and I know Abby was there, I cannot say which girl is her.

Then we’re sitting in a French restaurant, Abby and me, a half-drunk bottle of expensive red wine planted on the table between us. Our plates have been cleared and we’re holding our glasses halfway to our mouths. She puts hers down. “My uterus has colonial ambitions,” she says, a joke I don’t get because in the dream I don’t know what endometriosis is. She explains, telling me her doctor thought pregnancy might be a cure, and did I want to be the one to help her heal? When I say, “No, a child is not an instrument,” she single-gulps the rest of her wine, rises from her chair on dragon-green wings I am not surprised to see, and hisses that I’d probably let her bleed to death in the street if it meant finally getting right the color and contour of dragon blood as it poured out onto the  pavement.

Before I can answer, an old-fashioned phone starts ringing. I look over at my night table, and it’s 2 AM. For as long as I can remember, it’s been 2 AM, and sometimes it’s a buzzer in my ear, and once, in a different dream, when I opened the door I knew would lead me to a truth about myself, and my father was behind it, or his father, or maybe both, a silent burst of light blinded me awake—at 2 AM. At first, I think I’m no longer sleeping, but then I realize I’m naked, shivering, panting bursts of vapor into a quiet Manhattan snow. The iridescent blue glass balls I’ve chased all the way from Gramercy Park have gathered at Abby’s feet. “You,” she says, pointing a mittened hand at me and smiling like she’s doing me a favor, “might as well go straight to S&M.” A door slams. I jump out of bed. Sure enough, it’s 2 AM. Dressed for the weather, I drive Manhattan’s empty streets till I find the intersection I dreamed her on, Canal and West Broadway. She’s not there, of course, so I let the engine idle and turn up the music, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” which is why I don’t hear the two sanitation trucks honking behind me or see the men running at my car, holding up between them an open bag of seafood-restaurant refuse that they empty screaming onto my windshield, “Motherfucking coward, you deserve this!”

Then the crash of another slamming door, though no door slams, and I’m awake for real, at 2 AM on Yom Kippur morning, my grandmother’s words fresh in my ears, as if she’d said them last night at dinner. “Your brother wouldn’t tell me what, but there was one thing he said he’d never forgive you for.”


Richard Jeffrey Newman writes about the impact of feminism on his life as a man and the relevance of classical Persian poetry to our contemporary lives. His books include The Silence of Men, a volume of his own poetry, and The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi's Shahameh, a translation of part of the Iranian national epic. He curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Queens and is on the Board of Directors of Newtown Literary Alliance, a Queens-based literary non-profit. In 2105, he was awarded a grant from the Queens Council on the Arts to work on his second book of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done. Newman is Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY. His website is Newman is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. 

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