JULY 3, 2018
THIS IS PART IX of LARB’s serialization of Seth Greenland’s forthcoming novel The Hazards of Good Fortune. Greenland’s novel follows Jay Gladstone from his basketball-loving youth to his life as a real estate developer, civic leader, philanthropist, and NBA team owner, and then to it all spiraling out of control.
A film and TV writer, playwright, and author of four previous novels, Greenland was the original host of The LARB Radio Hour and serves on LARB’s board of directors. The Hazards of Good Fortune will be published in book form by Europa Editions on August 21, 2018.
To start with installment one, click here.
When the Biblical Exodus took place and the enslaved Hebrews cast off their chains and lit out from Egypt headed for the land deeded by Yahweh to Abraham as recounted in Genesis 12, crossed the conveniently parted Red Sea which crashed down on the pursuing Egyptians (notoriously non-buoyant), wandered the inhospitable Sinai Desert for forty years—a fractious time during which Moses received the Ten Commandments—then hiked to a mountain summit where, sun-seared eyes feasting on the plains of Canaan and what should have been, if their deity’s approbation was any indication, a radiant future, the Chosen People watched their leader expire, at which point, exhausted but unbowed, the ragtag Israelites descended into the beckoning valley and the next phase of their journey through history, the idea that multiple millennia later the descendants of this hardy and disputatious desert tribe, ex-slaves now liberated, would gather in their finery around brisket-laden tables in the New York suburbs to commemorate these unlikely events with song, prayers, and sweet wine would have been inconceivable.
Passover was never Jay’s favorite holiday. When Grandpa Jack reached the age where his ego no longer required he host the service, the patriarch announced that, following the Hebrew predilection for primogeniture, the family would now gather for the feast at the home of his eldest son, Bernard (Bingo). At that juncture in the family history, although Bingo was the designated host for the evening, Jay’s Uncle Jerry led the service and Jerry’s religious devotion, while not full-blown Orthodox, nonetheless significantly exceeded that of his brother. Uncle Jerry was a forbidding presence in the Seders of Jay’s youth, presiding at the table in a suit and tie, a model of decorum. His trim physique, in contrast to Bingo’s more bulbous one, and his enviable head of well-coiffed, silvery hair, crowned with a yarmulke for the occasion, led Jay and his sister to refer to their uncle as the Jewish Johnny Carson only without the gags, since the prevailing atmosphere during the annual Passover holiday resembled that of a morgue. Jay’s cousins exhibited all the liveliness of the daily catch at a fish restaurant until they were tasked with reciting prayers or chanting songs, both of which they would do in passable Hebrew, to the wonder of the children on the other side of the family, for whom the language might as well have been Mandarin.
The absence of anything resembling levity was, for Jay, what defined those dreary celebrations. Uncle Jerry would lead the prayers in a monotone and woe to anyone who did not participate in the hour-long slog with anything other than rapt attention. Bingo, typically a far looser presence, acted as his brother’s enforcer. One year Jay and Bebe locked eyes during the Ten Plagues when Uncle Jerry, dipping his fork into a glass of Manischewitz and placing drops of red wine on his white china plate to commemorate each more horrendous curse, hit the word “boils.” Jay murmured “zits” to his bored sibling—this passed for wit in a twelve-year-old—and a mutual laughing attack ensued, suppressed at first, hidden behind hands, swallowed in gulps of breath before finally bursting forth into prolonged hysterics that resulted in temporary banishment from the table. Other than his Aunt Estelle’s gefilte fish—truly superb with horseradish—it was Jay’s only joyful Passover memory.
Jay’s mother Helen was a happy participant at those family gatherings but, at eighty-two and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she was unable to recall most of them. Still, when he picked her up at her east side condo where she lived with her Jamaican caretaker, Mrs. Braithwaite, her pleasure at the prospect of another Seder pleased her son immensely.
Boris held the back door of the Mercedes as she delicately folded herself in, Mrs. Braithwaite, in a starched dress, beside her.
“Is Uncle Jerry leading the service?” Jay’s mother inquired.
“Mom, Uncle Jerry died.”
“Really?” she said, her spirit undimmed at this news. “Well, Jerry was very dull.” Jay was never sure what she would remember, but her mood usually remained steady. “Will your Aunt Estelle be there?”
Jay chose not to remind his mother that her sister-in-law had been interred next to Uncle Jerry two years earlier, so he only said no.
“She’s got somewhere better to be?” Jay’s mother asked, reaching into her purse to produce a peppermint candy that she unwrapped and placed in her mouth. “Big shot.”
On the ride to Bedford, Jay reflected on the call he had received earlier that day from his ex-wife in which she informed him that their daughter and Imani were sharing a bed. What I’m about to mention isn’t gossip, Jude said, but in the interest of co-parenting, I think you should be aware that we might have a gay child. Jay informed her that he already suspected as much and wished his ex-wife a happy Passover. After much cogitation on the subject, he found Aviva’s putative homosexuality considerably less distressing than her support for the Palestinians.
He stole glances at his mother in the backseat where she was nibbling Saltines. Before her mind had begun to dissolve, she had been a formidable presence in his life, stern and opinionated. She had expressed pride in Jay but was not shy about letting him know when she disapproved of his behavior, as was the case when he divorced Jude. Nor was she a fan of Nicole although the arrival of her new daughter-in-law coincided with the diminishment of her mental capacity and her negative attitude about the marriage eventually disappeared into the maw of vanished memory. Jay contemplated his mother in sadness at her state, but also because the situation reminded him of the ephemeral quality of everything. A day earlier, his urologist Dr. Tenenbaum had removed a tiny chunk of his prostate because he had noticed something suspicious. He did not want to think about what that procedure might portend.
If you wanted the world to see you in a certain way, there was a limited time in which that could happen. To their congregations at Yom Kippur, the rabbis would intone, “May you be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.” The Book of Life, indeed. Our lives are written in ink, and always hurtling forward, Jay reflected, as they drove north. What has been done cannot be erased. His mother’s life, the part of it when a woman known as Helen Gladstone was in charge of her cognitive faculties, had been written. And yet the effect this paragon of rectitude had on her son persisted. Jay’s diffidence was his maternal inheritance.
The condition of the modern kitchen in Bedford did not reflect the five hours of preparation the dinner had required because along with the chef Nicole had enlisted to assist her, she had hired two young waitresses, both recent Irish immigrants—they were employed by Jay and Nicole’s nearby country club—to serve and clean up. Counters and sinks were clean, covered dishes warming in the oven. The fragrant smell of chicken broth filled the room. As the chef (it was his day off from Babbo) put the finishing touches on the Seder plate, Marcy Gladstone tasted the matzo ball soup simmering in a large pot. Nicole watched her warily, a second glass of chardonnay in her hand. Bebe freshened her spritzer.
“Not bad,” Marcy said. “Is the broth from a can?” Nicole nodded. Mouthing the words so the chef wouldn’t hear her, Marcy said, “I would have made it for you from scratch. What are you paying him for?”
“My mother used canned broth,” Bebe said.
“Who’s perfect?” from Marcy.
Nicole topped up her wineglass and imagined herself in a mikveh bath with her cousin-in-law, warm water caressing their naked bodies, united in this millennia-old rite of purification shared by Jewish women, while she held Marcy’s head under the water long enough for her to drown.
“Only you,” Nicole answered.
The servers set the long table in the sunlit dining room for thirteen. On every plate was a Haggadah. In the living room hors d’oeuvres had been laid out, herring, chopped liver, even gribnitz (fried chicken fat) that Nicole had tracked down at Sammy’s Roumanian on the Lower East Side. Everything had been done to reduce the variables and, while the intent of the evening was to honor the holiday and recall the story of the Exodus, Nicole was going to remind Jay—through her actions because she would never be so crass as to lay it out verbally—of her immense skills as a hostess, a wife, and, by implication, a mother. She refilled her wineglass and gazed toward the backyard where Franklin addressed Aviva and Imani, both of whom were drinking vodka and Coke.
“Two black guys are walking past a synagogue during the High Holy Days,” Franklin was saying. With one hand, he moved his fingers through the air to simulate walking. His other held a glass of scotch. “And they hear,” now Franklin tucked his chin and: “MMMMMMMMUUUUUUU.” He repeated the noise in several staccato bursts. Satisfied with his performance, he continued, “One black guy turns to the other and says, ‘What’s that sound?’”—This question was delivered in the vocal equivalent of blackface—“and the second black guy, he says, ‘Dey blowin’ de shofar,’” pronouncing it chauffeur, with the accent on the initial syllable. “And the first black guy says, ‘Dem Jews sho’ do know how to treat dey help!’” Franklin’s buttery gut shook in delight as he awaited a reaction to his material.
The young women stared at him. Franklin, expecting appreciative laughter, heard crickets.
“I did a little comedy when I was younger,” he informed them, in the event they doubted his credentials. “That was Redd Foxx’s voice.” Still nothing. “You girls have any idea who Redd Foxx is?”
Imani laughed listlessly in a way Franklin wanted to interpret as assent.
Aviva’s face remained impassive. Staring at her second cousin, she said, “Where do I even start with that?”
“I’ll send you some DVDs,” Franklin offered.
“That’d be swell,” Imani said.
It dawned on Franklin that a social blunder had been committed and he developed a sudden need to refill his drink. He excused himself, marveling inwardly at the lack of humor in so many young people today and wondering just what was going on with those two.
In the media room, Boris played Gears of Death with Ari and Ezra. He did not spend time with the twins outside of family events for two reasons, the first being that they had far more disposable income. This disparity stopped Boris from participating in the bottle service, nightclubbing, Zovirax-ingesting life led by the pair. The other reason: Since they were, to Boris, in their sense of entitlement, incurious intellects, and general obliviousness, a personification of the argument for a one-hundred-percent inheritance tax, he barely tolerated them.
The twins were gaming with Boris because, upon having scrutinized their cousin Aviva’s girlfriend and determined that neither of them considered her a potential sex partner (Imani’s lesbianism eluded them), they concluded video games were a more valuable use of their time.
Ari and Ezra had discussed violating their father’s order to not talk about their bid for the hockey team. The two thought it would increase their status, but fear of Franklin’s wrath kept them mute on the subject. Conversely, Boris would have enjoyed lording his involvement with the Sapphire over the twins, but his self-control forbade it.
Ezra deftly maneuvered his controller and destroyed Boris’s avatar, which exploded in a cloud of pixilated shrapnel.
To Ari, Ezra said, “Give it up, bro,” and they bumped fists.
To Boris, Ari said, “Want to put some money on the next one to make it interesting?”
“It could never be interesting,” Boris said.
The empty living room was an oasis and Jay could be found there seated on the sofa with a laptop searching for a relevant, nonreligious text with which to kick off the Seder. After looking through several political speeches, essays, and poems, he chose a passage he found meaningful and went to his upstairs office to print it out. He heard the murmur of voices from the various rooms, a comforting pre-ritual hum, and trusted that this congenial evening would be a respite from his vexations.
The Passover table resembled a glossy magazine layout. The most exquisite white china and linens, the finest silver, and in the middle of it all a Seder plate on which were arrayed the requisite maror, charoset, karpas, shank bone, and roasted hard-boiled egg in a still-life arrangement that Renoir would have been glad to paint had he been able to put his anti-Semitic sentiments aside long enough to complete the task. The tiny bulbs of a crystal chandelier glittered benevolently, light particles knitted into a warm raiment draped across the shoulders and over the heads of those fortunate enough to be present. All of it whispered that if the attendees could not be in Jerusalem on this night, northern Westchester County was the next best place.
Jay presided at one end of the table opposite Nicole. To his left were his mother, Bebe, Franklin, Marcy, and their fifteen-year-old daughter Chloe (wraithlike, saucer eyes, profoundly bored), on his right, Ezra, Ari, Aviva, Imani, and Boris. Mrs. Braithwaite had been invited to dine with the family but elected to eat her dinner in the kitchen.
The Seder began with Jay remarking that while he loved and missed Uncle Jerry, it was his considered view that the evening could benefit from modernization, and to that end, anyone who had a question, or wanted to talk about a topic germane to the themes of the evening should feel free to interpose. To set the tone, he unfolded a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and began to read “I Dream A World” by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Between the first and second stanzas, Jay glanced at Imani. The poem was intended to be an act of inclusion, but her expression was enigmatic. He finished and cleared his throat. No one said anything. Unsure of what to do, this being a complete departure from every previous Gladstone Seder, the guests waited. Trying to coax conversation, Jay looked from face to face.
“No poetry lovers here?”
Resentful of being forced off script, Marcy said, “Interesting choice,” followed by Bebe bailing him out by saying, “I liked it,” and her affirmation was the end of the discussion.
“Jay,” Nicole said, “Why don’t you start the Seder?”
“I thought I had,” he said, attempting a joviality that barely concealed his displeasure. Had his wife missed the point of what he said about making this a different kind of evening?
“Why don’t you light the candles,” Jay suggested to his wife.
Nicole stood and lit the candles with a wood matchstick, recited the Hebrew prayer, and glanced obliquely at Marcy to gauge her reaction to the nonkosher nature of the moment. Marcy stared at the cover of her Haggadah and refused to look at the fire-wielding shiksa. Nicole sat back down and took a long pull on her fourth glass of wine. Jay observed what was going on—his wife did not hide her feelings about Franklin’s spouse—and prayed neither of them would erupt. A day earlier, Nicole had told him that Marcy had requested via email to light the candles and Nicole hadn’t answered. She intended to light the candles herself, and when Jay asked why this mattered since she wasn’t Jewish, he was treated to: “Because it’s my fucking house.”
The first cup of wine, the ceremonial washing of hands, the hiding of the afikomen which Jay placed behind an abstract sculpture in the living room with the poignant knowledge that no one present was still young enough to look for it. He directed each person in succession to read a short portion. Although Jay had made it clear he wanted this Passover to resonate more deeply than those of his youth, no one deviated from the roadmap provided by the Haggadah. The Seder moved briskly along, a direct reaction on Jay’s part to the lugubrious, mind-numbing, endless exercises in religiosity presided over by the sonorous Uncle Jerry. Marcy and Franklin read their assignments in Hebrew (then translated the words to English, thereby doubling the time it took to finish, to everyone’s dismay), Chloe, as the youngest, listlessly asked the Four Questions, Ari and Ezra read with an excitement that suggested the text was a tax return. Bebe’s reading was clean and efficient. Boris delivered his bit with some fervor since he was the only Jew present one generation removed from actual persecution. Aviva and Imani read with brio because they were engaged citizens of a complex and ever-evolving world who believed all wisdom traditions possessed some inherent value, and Nicole committed to her allotted lines with a rogue energy animated by her loathing of Marcy.
The group was going around the table a second time when Ari Gladstone dolefully recited the words, “When we were slaves in the land of Egypt,” and Imani answered, half-joking, “What do you mean we, white man?”
Not sure what she intended, Ari’s brother Ezra said, “Because we were slaves in Egypt.”
Imani turned to Jay and politely asked if she might say something out of turn. “Go right ahead,” he said, superseding the Uncle Jerry legacy. “The Seder is about freedom.”
“You see,” Imani said to Ezra, “I’ve got a problem with that.” Marcy stared at her and fretted where this was going. Aviva was interested since it appeared a seminar might be breaking out. Nicole smiled graciously at her young guest, happy that the interruption seemed to annoy Marcy.
“You’ve got a problem with freedom?” Ezra said, more a statement than a question.
“No, because that would be ironic,” Imani said, “Wouldn’t it? Being African-American and all.” She waited while the puzzlement on his face retreated and the usual self-satisfied expression returned. “The problem I have is with the whole idea of Jews and slavery.”
“What problem is that?” Marcy asked.
“It’s the idea—” Imani paused. “How do I put this?”
Unable to contain her irritation, Marcy interrupted, “We were slaves in Egypt, Imani.” Her tone brooked no contradiction.
Feeling expansive, Imani said, “My point isn’t the historical record.” The vodka and Cokes had loosened her up considerably. “Although, frankly, who knows if any of this is true, right?”
“Oh, it’s true,” Franklin assured her, earning several marital points in the process. He enjoyed displaying his commitment to the faith in front of his religiously observant wife.
“Lots of people don’t think Jesus was real,” Imani pointed out. “It’s just that in the American narrative, my people, black people, own slavery, you know? We were brought here in chains, the middle passage, the plantation, right? Slavery is our thing. You all have the Holocaust and, yeah, it’s horrible, maybe the worst tragedy ever, you probably win that one—not that it’s a contest—but what I’m asking, I guess, is why do the Jews need slavery?”
“You’re quite the little provocateur, aren’t you?” Jay said.
“I’m just saying,” Imani replied.
“Well, Jay,” Nicole drawled, “You wanted a discussion.” Her pointed words hung in the air. It felt as if some baleful force had sucked all of the oxygen out of the house. Silence lay like a giant upon the table, awaiting the slightest stimulation to awaken and wreak havoc. The only sound was Chloe’s exhalation of breath caused by her despair that this marathon of devotion would never end.
Bebe looked sympathetically at Jay, a general whose elegant strategy had suddenly gone awry. Franklin gripped Marcy’s perspiring hand. Boris watched Ari and Ezra and hoped one of them would say something appalling. He was not going to engage with Imani in this situation but would be happy to see her pummel either one of the twins.
Marcy was the first to break the polar hush. “First of all, Imani, bringing the Holocaust, the greatest tragedy to ever befall humankind, into this conversation is not appropriate or acceptable. And second, no offense, but the Jews were slaves before the blacks.”
Imani asked, “So the Jews own slavery, too?”
“Too?” Franklin said. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You need slavery and the Holocaust?” Imani said. “I mean, pick one.”
This request appeared too daunting for Marcy, who rolled her head back and focused on the chandelier while she marshaled her disorderly thoughts. The friendly confines of the discussion group she attended at Temple Rodef Shalom in a leafy section of Great Neck did not prepare her for live fire. Franklin placed a steadying hand on his wife’s arm.
“Imani,” Jay said, attempting to smooth the turbulent waters, “it isn’t that the Jews need slavery, per se, but it’s a vital part of the story of the birth of Israel as a nation.”
Franklin removed his hand from his wife’s shoulder and now held both of his palms out as if trying to stop the flow of traffic. “Wait, wait, wait,” he said, seizing the role of interlocutor. “I’d like this young lady to clarify her last remark.”
“She means Jews own a lot of stuff,” Aviva said, feeling more oppressed by her bourgeois origins than usual.
“Oprah owns tons of stuff,” Ari pointed out.
“Last we heard, she was still black,” Ezra alerted the table. “Not Jewish.”
“Check your privilege, Casper,” Imani said to Ezra, or perhaps it was Ari. To her, they were interchangeable.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ari asked, echoing his father.
“You’ve had all kinds of advantages,” Aviva said, “so maybe you shouldn’t have an opinion on this?”
“I can’t have an opinion,” Ari said as if he didn’t particularly care either way.
“Why isn’t he entitled to an opinion, Aviva?” Marcy asked.
“She called you Casper,” Ezra said to Ari, stifling a laugh.
“All right, all right,” Jay interrupted. “Everyone’s entitled to an opinion because we’re in America. And this kind of exchange is good because if you think about the Jews spending forty years in the desert, there was probably a lot of arguing, right?”
This attempt at levity elicited some nervous titters. Even Marcy forced a nod of acknowledgment that led Jay to believe the evening could now be retrieved from the ditch into which it had lurched.
“Jews love to argue,” Franklin said. Then, to his wife, “Right, babe?” She covered her surgically enhanced eyes with her hand and did not answer.
Jay resumed, “Perhaps we can all think about slavery as a horror that both Jews and blacks endured, and that shared affliction is something that can bring the two peoples together because when you think about it, there’s a lot of common ground.”
“You know, Imani,” Marcy said, “matzo is called the bread of affliction.”
“That’s what black folks should call cornbread,” Imani replied.
Aviva’s eyes blazed as she looked at Imani. Her girl was winning this Seder.
Jay hesitated, waiting to see if anyone was going to pursue that thread. To his relief, no one did. Control restored, he said, “Ezra, I think you were reading.”
But before Ezra could resume, the newcomer, trying to avert further misunderstanding, attempted to clarify her position. “I didn’t mean to imply anything about what Jews physically own,” Imani said, as the older adults (not including Helen, absently chewing on a piece of matzo) inwardly moaned, eager to navigate out of this conversational cul-de-sac. “I was trying to establish a connection between the narrative of the Jews as it relates to the story of black people.”
“What is she talking about?” Marcy asked Franklin, who shrugged.
“This is what I’m talking about,” Imani said. “For you all, America is the Promised Land, but black people, we’re still in Egypt, you dig?” Ever since taking African-American Feminism as a Tate freshman, she spiced her conversation with bebop lingo. Satisfied that her last remark had hit its target, and gaining strength from the unwavering attention trained on her, Imani forged ahead. “Look at America. You see all kinds of institutions that are structured to keep black people down, whether it’s access to housing, or jobs, or quality public education.”
“There are interlocking systems of oppression,” Aviva chimed in.
“The establishment fixed the game,” Imani continued. “It’s the same situation with the Palestinians. They’re still in Egypt, too.”
“Here we go,” Franklin said.
“They’re in Palestine,” Ezra said.
“You mean the Territories,” Franklin corrected. “There is no Palestine.”
“Anyone knows that who reads the newspaper,” Marcy dripped. Whether her condescension was directed at her son, who only looked at the sports section, or Imani was unclear.
“The reason there’s no official Palestinian state,” Imani said, “is because the Jews—”
“Are you an anti-Semite?” Marcy inquired.
“You mean the Israelis,” Aviva offered, sotto voce.
“Sorry, you’re right, baby,” Imani said. “Because the Israelis refuse to give back the land they stole.”
“The land they stole?” Franklin roared. “You mean the land God gave to the Jewish people in the story we’re trying to tell here tonight if you would quit interrupting.” Imani appeared startled at the anger she had unleashed, but Franklin took no notice. Everyone stared at him. His voice grew louder as he declaimed, “Since Biblical times Israel has been Jewish land and anyone else who thinks they can claim it, I’m telling you, it’s a false claim! A false claim! They’re outta their cottonpickin’ minds! That land is ours!”
At the head of the table, Jay’s mother leaned toward her son and wondered, “Why is Uncle Jerry yelling at the cleaning woman?”
“She’s a guest,” Jay whispered. “She’s not the cleaning woman. And that’s Jerry’s son, Franklin.”
Satisfied with this explanation, Helen sank back into her seat oblivious that the last exchange between her nephew and Imani had once again decimated the atmosphere. Even Chloe had stopped texting and was swiveling her raccoon eyes between her father and Aviva’s defiant friend.
“Cottonpickin’?” Imani said, more amused than outraged.
Aviva and Imani shared a glance familiar to anyone who has inflicted their family upon a romantic partner for the first time. See? The glance said. I told you. They’re bananas. But our coupledom will be forged in these flames and made stronger.
“A figure of speech,” Franklin clarified. His fulmination had aggravated his digestion, and he massaged his upper intestine.
“Kind of racist,” Aviva pronounced. Then, to the group: “Everyone needs to take a cleansing breath.”
“I think we’ve had enough discussion,” Jay said. “We’re not going to solve the problems of the Middle East tonight, so let’s move along.”
“Thou shalt not steal,” Imani said, unable to contain herself. “That’s in the Bible.”
While Aviva suggested to her girlfriend that she had said enough, for now, Marcy rose from her seat like a hot air balloon unleashed from its tether, pointed at Imani and said, “You’re an anti-Semite.” Turning to the head of the table, she continued, “Jay, what kind of cockamamie Seder are you running?”
With a flick of an angry wrist, she threw her white linen napkin on her bone china plate and, torso pitched forward, stalked away.
This display was more than Nicole could take.
“Sit down, you condescending cow,” the aggrieved hostess said, “and stop judging everyone!”
The command arrested Marcy in her tracks. She whirled around and fixed her persecutor with a gaze to level a pyramid. “Excuse me?” she said, her voice pinched by the constriction of her throat into a higher register.
“You’re not going to ruin Passover,” the hostess snarled.
Franklin turned to Jay and muttered, “You better control your wife.”
As much as it pained Jay to do anything Franklin suggested, his cousin and business partner had a valid point, so he called across the white tablecloth to his inebriated spouse, “Nicole, perhaps it would be helpful if we all just dialed it down a notch.”
Everyone’s heads rotated from Jay to Nicole, to Marcy, whose slight forward angle now seemed to suggest that she might leap at her opponent. Even the apathetic Chloe was riveted by the show. The twins stared at their flustered mother, who was agitatedly working one of her palms with the fingertips of the same hand.
Aviva monitored her father, wondering if he could assert himself as the leader of this squabbling band of (mostly) Jews and deliver everyone safely to the coconut macaroons that marked the end of the meal.
Imani eyed Aviva and questioned her attraction to this guilt-ridden member of the ruling class. Bebe reached across the oblivious Helen and gave her brother’s arm a supportive squeeze. Stricken at the turn the evening had taken, Jay’s eyes darted between his livid wife and the reeling Marcy. Right now, he wished the Jews had never thrown off their chains and left Egypt in the first place.
Nicole’s blood felt like fire. The small of her back moistened. Despite the winey haze that enshrouded her, she remembered her intense desire to have Jay’s baby and her level of inebriation was not so acute that she didn’t realize burning the house down with the righteous anger she felt toward Marcy would fail to advance her cause. With this fresh and timely awareness, the internal tumblers that had become so misaligned locked into place and she faced her guests, all of whom were staring at her, stunned at what had occurred, and said with great conviction, “That was unforgivably rude, and I apologize to all of you.” To her target, she implored, “Would you please come back to the table, Marcy? I especially apologize to you.”
While the distressed Marcy thought this over, Nicole turned to Imani. “And would you mind not talking about the Middle East for the rest of the night?”
“Of course,” Imani said, chastened by the hurricane of repressed emotions her rhetoric had unleashed. “My bad.” Aviva rubbed her girlfriend’s back, in hopes of conveying that she did not bear all of the responsibility for the direction the evening had taken. Several anxious seconds passed during which Marcy displayed no more movement than a recently discovered Pleistocene mastodon that had spent the last ten thousand years in a block of ice.
“Mom, come back to the table,” Ari said.
“No more Middle East,” Bebe said. “Let’s talk about Obama.”
“He’s no friend of the Jews,” Franklin said.
“I voted for him,” Marcy informed the room, then returned to her chair and sat down as if nothing had happened. She didn’t look at Nicole. “But I’m disappointed.”
“I believe Ari was reading,” Jay reminded everyone.
“Back to the fairy tale,” Imani said.
“What?” Marcy nearly screamed, her serenity vanishing in an instant.
Jay put his hand up, indicating that he would take care of it. He turned to Imani.
“What did you say?”
“The exodus story is a fairy tale. It’s bull, and the Jews use it to justify their oppression of the—”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Jay snapped. His volume louder than anyone present had ever heard at a Seder. “That is quite enough!”
“Jay—” Nicole ventured.
“No!” Jay said to his wife. “I need to say this.” Then, to Imani, “It’s people like you who are delegitimizing the Jewish state. You’re a direct threat to Israel, which is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Although Imani was startled by her host’s tone, she remained poised. “Me? I don’t think so.”
“You need to leave. You’re no longer welcome here. Get out.”
“Jay—” Nicole said, meekly.
“I’ll take care of this!” he shouted.
Aviva indicated to Imani that she should remain calm. Imani’s lips did not move, but her eyes implored What did I do?
Aviva said, “Dad, what are you doing?”
Enraged, Jay glared at his daughter, who raised her Haggadah like a shield. “If you want, you can go with her!”
Aviva opened her mouth, but nothing emerged. Imani rose and left the room.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Aviva said, and followed her girlfriend. The whole table watched them go. Then everyone looked at Jay. Several mortifying seconds elapsed.
Finally, he said, “I think Ari was reading.”
Like the other guests, Ari was surprised by Jay’s outburst, but he nevertheless turned his attention to the heretofore noncontroversial part about the Jews being slaves in Egypt, finished the passage, and to everyone’s relief the Seder limped forward. Jay forged ahead to the part where dinner is served, and platters of food were brought to the table and passed around. The matzo ball soup, kreplach, gefilte fish, brisket, and kugel were all first rate, but Jay could hardly taste any of it. Only the nuclear intensity of the freshly ground horseradish could penetrate the torpor that had descended upon him.
Aviva and Imani ignored each other.
Facing the woods with their backs to the house and separated by twenty feet of dirt road, they waited, slightly drunk. It was a cloudy night, the moon barely visible through the twisting branches. The scent of pine and decomposing leaves filled the air. Aviva had called a cab, and after five minutes of watching the trees, those were the only words either had spoken.
It was a mystery why her girlfriend had chosen the Gladstone family Seder as the place to declare slavery an exclusive cultural inheritance that did not include Jews. Aviva would not have gone to a dinner with Imani’s family and instigated a discussion of anything having to do with black people other than to say she admired them. Her thoughts were more complicated than that. Lately, she wondered if she fetishized blackness and her attraction to Imani was a manifestation of some colonialist orientation—not the lesbian part, although she did not entirely identify as a lesbian, rather as polyamorous (to her a more palatable category)—and this possibility only compounded her sense of white privilege. Just to think about it was draining. If you had a problem with people of color you were racist, but if you liked them too much you were—what? Was admiring communities of color another manifestation of white privilege? They were not asking for her admiration. Further, many members of those communities would be offended by her use of the word “they” since it conveyed otherness (except when used as a pronoun by the newly voluble trans population). All of it made her head hurt.
Aviva did not believe she was fetishizing anyone. She was drawn to Imani, the person. Not at this particular juncture, admittedly, but for the most part, she loved her. As for tonight? Imani’s performance at the Seder was enormously uncool. How could she let that slide?
“Your father is the problem,” Imani said.
It was a relief to have the impasse broken.
“He can be difficult.”
“He’s a Zionist thug.”
The phrase jabbed. Aviva had hoped for a quick reconciliation and was taken aback by the aggressive words. Jay Gladstone, a thug? Her father was—she did not know how to characterize him at this point, but a thug? The term only revealed a paucity of imagination.
“Maybe if you had said you were sorry, it wouldn’t have gotten out of hand.”
“You think I should have apologized?”
“It wasn’t an academic conference.”
“Oh, word to the ‘nice Jewish girl.’”
“We should stop this conversation because it’s already too fucking offensive.”
“We’re supposed to stop because you’re offended?”
“Don’t apologize if your pride won’t let you.”
“You don’t think I know what an a-hole my father can be?”
“I bet you know that.”
“But he’s okay.”
“For a plutocrat.”
Money again? Aviva’s college friends had teased her about this since freshman year when Axel had seen an article about Jay on the Internet and asked if she was related to “that Jay Gladstone.” Aviva thought about responding to Imani, but the idea of defending her father’s net worth was enervating. She couldn’t remove the stigma of her family’s wealth. To keep the fight from accelerating Aviva walked across the road.
“Where are you going?” Imani asked.
Aviva disregarded her and peered into the trees. She stood there for a full minute. The glow of the house did not extend to where they were standing, and the woods were gloomy and endless. Finally, she turned around, walked toward Imani. She stopped in the middle of the dirt road, lowered herself to the ground. Then she lay flat on her back, arms perpendicular to her body. How much vodka had she poured in that Coke?
“What’re you doing?”
“Why don’t you crucify me?”
“Since there’s no way I can change the essence of who I am,” Aviva said to the sky.
“You’re just gonna lie there in the road?”
“If you don’t like who I am, the question becomes to be or not to be.”
“Get the fuck up!”
“There’s no point. I’m white; I’m a Jewish girl who’s at least a semi-Zionist. I come from the Gladstone family. It’s the trifecta of everything you hate.” She was speaking in a monotone. “I should just expire.”
“I don’t hate Jews because that would be racist.”
“Jews aren’t a race.”
“Aviva, get up out of the road! Nothing is going to run you over out here. What’s a trifecta, anyway?”
“It’s from horse racing.” Aviva looked up at the moon. She felt silly lying in the middle of the road (and for having used a horse-related term). From her prone position, she checked the time on her phone. “How long have we been waiting?”
“This isn’t funny.”
A pair of headlights sliced through the trees. Imani glanced around nervously. The car headed toward them.
“Aviva, get up.”
“I’m sleepy,” Aviva said and closed her eyes.
“Get up, girl.”
“Lie down with me.”
Unable to take it any longer, Imani walked to where Aviva lay and pulled her inert girlfriend to the side of the road by her armpits. The heels of Aviva’s boots dragged along the dirt road.
Imani said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Aviva started to laugh. Then Imani began laughing. Aviva wasn’t sure whether that had been an actual apology, but it was enough to ameliorate the hurt feelings. Clambering to her feet, she quickly kissed Imani on the mouth.
Their argument was unresolved, but Aviva could no longer bear to perpetuate it.
Following the main course, after the third ceremonial cup of wine (but before the macaroons, rugelach, and coffee), it was time to place the traditional glass of Manischewitz on the front steps of the house. Every year, Bingo used to say: Elijah never comes, he’s not coming, why bother? And everyone would laugh. Jay poured the glass, stood and, rather than delegating the task, availed himself of the opportunity to leave the table.
The first thing he did was peek in the guest room, then out the front door. He wanted to know if Aviva and Imani were still on the premises so he could cauterize the wound. Jay assumed they had made their way to the train station. He stepped out on the back porch and inhaled the crisp air. The clouds had parted, and several constellations were visible. From the roof of his office building, he had observed the recent eclipse and had vowed to increase his knowledge of astronomy. Placing the wineglass down, he surveyed the lawn and the stable silhouetted against the sky with its striations of indigo and violet, a wafer moon illuminating the woods and meadow. However much the temporal world might pitch and heave he felt secure with his back to the house as he stood between his querulous relatives and the flickering stars. He thought about his dead father, his diminished mother, his troublesome daughter. Whatever Aviva was going through, Jay was confident she would one day come to understand how a family could at once be a font of almost insurmountable exasperation but also of pride and the deepest security.
He pulled out a phone and texted her:
I feel terrible about what happened tonight. Please call me so we can talk.
Jay had wrenched the Seder back from the brink of a plague-like disaster. If he could make peace with his daughter and her sexuality (“Let the shift be temporary, please God.”), it would be a challenge to embrace her current girlfriend. Although Nicole had tried her hardest to make the evening a success before the arrival of the guests, her outburst at Marcy, however warranted, had embarrassed him.
Jay had received a report from an auditor tasked with taking a closer look at Franklin’s books and had been dismayed by what he read. And he had to fly to South Africa the following day because the ambitious Gladstone project over there had reached a critical point and his presence was required. This trip was going to cause him to miss the Obama dinner at the Waldorf. He was counting on face time with the president to enhance his chances of an ambassadorship.
All of this weighed on Jay when he returned to the table where, to his relief, hostilities had not again broken out. He cajoled the assembled guests to sing “Dayenu,” which they did in several keys simultaneously, and the Gladstone family Seder concluded—Next year in Jerusalem!—with some bruised feelings but without further incident.
After dinner, Franklin approached the host and whispered in his ear, “You should never have divorced Jude.” Jay was offended but not surprised and before he could respond Franklin beckoned to Ari and Ezra, and the three of them lumbered off.
Nicole was in the kitchen drinking coffee and commiserating with Bebe when Jay approached and asked if she was all right. She assured him that she had never been better and that this was the last time she was going to host a goddamn Seder since no one seemed to appreciate all the work that had gone into it, and instead the evening had turned into a burlesque of what it was meant to celebrate. Since it would have been unwise for Jay to underline her part in the meltdown, he chose to elide it. Instead, he told her how much he and everyone else appreciated what she had done, thanked her again for her efforts, and said they could talk about what was going to happen next year when the time came.
Jay found Franklin savoring a postprandial smoke in the backyard with Ari and Ezra. They greeted Jay, and Franklin offered him an impressive looking cigar.
“It’s Cuban,” he said. “The best.”
Jay politely declined and asked the twins if they would mind giving their father and him some privacy. Franklin indicated they should scram.
“Let’s go, Casper,” Ezra said to Ari, and the two of them dissolved into giggles as they wandered back to the house.
Jay squinted into the darkness, uncertain how to begin. The stables were behind Franklin and what Jay wanted to do was go down there, check on the horses, and not have this conversation. He wanted to mention Franklin’s crack about Jude but realized that would only serve to muddy the waters of what he had come outside to say. His cousin, who seemed to enjoy Jay’s discomfort, regarded him askance and waited. The surrounding woods pressed toward them.
“Sorry about Nicole,” Jay began. “She’s under a lot of stress.”
“It happens,” Franklin allowed. He took a puff of his cigar and blew a smoke ring as if to show how unperturbed he was. “Could you believe that little shvartze in there?”
Shvartze, Yiddish, literally translates as “black,” but there’s a stink to it. A dated, lower-class word used by uneducated Jews. Raised in Sands Point, Franklin should have known better. Whatever Jay thought of Imani’s behavior, that term was repugnant to him. He had heard Franklin use it before and it always made him squirm. But this was not the time to lecture his cousin about the pernicious effects of casual racism—it wasn’t as if the man possessed the psychological tools to change—so he let it go.
“She’s a kid,” Jay said.
“An animal,” Franklin said. “Which reminds me. You know who Christine Lupo is?” Jay said he was familiar with her but was unclear on the connection between the Westchester County District Attorney and Imani. “Christine believes in traditional values, not the left-wing bullshit Aviva’s friend subjected us to.” Jay let that go. “She’s running for governor and Marcy and I are going to host a fundraiser for her.” This information surprised Jay since Franklin, for all of his opinions, had never involved himself directly in politics. “I know you’re a liberal and all, but I think you’d like her. She’s a lovely lady, and you and Nicole should come.”
Jay let that go, too. “I never received those reports I asked for,” he said.
Franklin did not immediately respond to this shift in the conversation. Instead, he took another puff of his cigar and exhaled the smoke in an unruly swirl, rather than the more relaxed ring. He looked at Jay appraisingly as if sizing up his current appetite for conflict.
“We had a delicious meal, and now I’m enjoying my Havana,” Franklin said. “You sure you don’t want to leave this for another time?”
“Would you rather I tell you in an email?”
“Tell me what?”
Now it was Jay’s turn to relish his cousin’s discomfort. He had always envied the relationship between his father and his Uncle Jerry, two men of strong will whose dialectical qualities complemented each other and led to the creation of a stronger whole from which the entire family continued to benefit. Jay and Franklin were meant to honor that fraternal tradition.
“Bebe and I have commissioned a formal audit of the family’s operations in Asia.”
It had taken Jay several days to prepare himself to impart this information because he was expecting pushback but Franklin didn’t blink.
“I could have you audited, too.”
“You’re welcome to do an audit if you think I’m hiding anything.” Franklin nodded as if he was considering the possibility. “We didn’t want to go down this road, but you’re not giving us any choice. It isn’t that we don’t trust you, so please don’t think that. It could be a mistake by the accounting department, or who knows what. We’re discharging our fiduciary duty.”
Another drag of his fat cigar, another exhalation of smoke. Franklin forced a noise out of his gullet meant as a disparaging laugh.
“You think you’re King Pharaoh,” Franklin said, “coming in here swinging your staff around, smiting the Jews.”
“Would that make you Moses?”
“Of all the bulrushes in the world, you had to walk into this one,” Franklin said conflating Exodus and Casablanca in the voice of Humphrey Bogart.
Jay nearly laughed but refused to let Franklin believe he had disarmed him, although the Bogart impression was considerably better than many of the others he did.
“No, I don’t believe I’m like King Pharaoh at all.” He awaited Franklin’s response, which arrived in the form of a question.
“What do you guess our fathers would say?”
“They’d be disappointed,” Jay said. “Highly disappointed. But those two didn’t keep secrets from each other.”
“Someone’s keeping secrets?” Franklin asked, the implication laughable. “Why do you even mention your sister? Don’t pretend this isn’t all you.” He tapped the ash off the end of his cigar.
“I just don’t want you to be surprised, Franklin. I’m glad you were here tonight. I didn’t want to have this conversation in the office because it’s personal.”
Jay waited to see if his cousin would respond. Instead, Franklin jammed the cigar in his mouth and looked toward the woods. Jay had done all he could do. He gave Franklin the opportunity to behave honorably. For a full minute, they stood on the lawn, wordless as two ghosts. Marcy appeared at the door and beckoned to Franklin. The drive back to Long Island would take more than an hour and she was ready to leave. As Franklin trudged toward the house, Jay waved agreeably to Marcy and thanked her for coming.
Nicole was sitting up in bed pretending to read the Spinoza biography when Jay emerged from the bathroom in a Penn T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Her hair was loose, and her face scrubbed clean of makeup. The stress of the evening was gone—several cups of coffee had fought the chardonnay to a draw—and now, in a chemise with the covers pulled to her waist, she exuded tranquil radiance. When Jay slipped in beside her, Nicole put the book down and turned off the bedside lamp. She caressed the inside of his wrist with the tips of her fingers.
From the corner of his eye, Jay could see her lopsided smile. It was a look that in its earlier iteration had placed him in her thrall. But the events of the evening had so taxed his nervous system that he would have preferred to sleep alone and only chose not to because he believed it would have exasperated Nicole.
She said, “We can make a porno.”
“On Passover?” He laughed.
“You don’t want to show our son how we created him?”
“Come on, Jay. Where’s your sense of humor?”
Nicole rolled on her side and faced him, head propped on her palm. She did not appear fatigued in the least. It was as if the outburst at dinner had exorcised an entire gang of demons and left her in a state of alert relaxation. She reached for a bottle of lotion on her night table and squirted a dab on her palm.
“I’m spent,” he said as she slid her hand beneath the sheets and began to stroke his retreating penis.
“Could I have been a better Jew this evening?” Her hand was a metronome.
“I’m flying to South Africa tomorrow night,” he said. “I’ll miss the Obama dinner.”
He expected the announcement of his projected absence would cause Nicole to conclude her exertions but whatever disappointment she may have felt was not reflected in any cessation of her hand motion. Up and down his shaft she labored, from the root to the tip, flicking the glans with her thumbnail and stroking his balls, her enthusiasm undiminished by the ongoing lack of tumescence.
“I’ll represent the family,” Nicole said.
Why wasn’t Jay responding? She kissed his neck, redoubled her efforts. His condition remained invertebrate. After a couple of minutes, she took a break, still holding his uncooperative penis in her hand, but no longer moving.
“Is something wrong?”
“I told you,” Jay said. “I’m wiped out.”
Undeterred, Nicole released him. She opened a drawer in her nightstand, removed a blue pill, and handed it to him. He asked her what it was.
“It’s medicine for erectile dysfunction.”
Placing the pill on his nightstand, he said, “I don’t have erectile dysfunction,” despite current evidence to the contrary. The implication offended him since it called to mind both their age difference and his perceived inability to attend to his wife’s needs, neither of which, in Jay’s mind, were rooted in a physical cause. “Where’d you get it?”
“My internist had samples lying around. I told him we weren’t having regular sex.”
“Our issue isn’t biological.”
She was not sure how to respond to his declaration. They had reached that point in sex play where the initiator’s plan had somehow gone awry and now either both partners would tacitly agree to ignore whatever discomfort was afoot and start fucking, or one would determine that the other had crossed a line thereby destroying what remained of “the mood.” She was baffled by what seemed to be happening. Hadn’t she just produced the Seder to end all Seders? Yes, Marcy and Imani had conspired to destroy it, but Nicole had done all Jay could have reasonably expected. Transformed her home into a temple of culinary Jewishness, provided everything from the finest gefilte fish (her mother-in-law’s recipe, no less) to the best macaroons (as identified by the food critic of the New York Times), and put up with his irritating relatives. Now he was off to South Africa, another business trip, and he had not even told her how long he would be away. She thought of her own family, her barely extant relations with them. The men she had slept with cycled through her consciousness, and her complicity in those loveless liaisons. Her condition now, though materially superior, left her bereft and longing for not simply a rebirth but an actual baby. The modeling career, the time with the House Ethics Committee, what had it amounted to? She began to tremble. Had she engineered this reaction as a means of manipulating her husband or was this bodily vibration legitimate? No, no, she concluded, it was legitimate, thereby permissible, and she did not attempt to bring it under control.
“Are you all right?”
He caressed her arm, and she tried to relax.
“I’m still a little upset about tonight.”
“Thanks again for everything you did,” Jay said. “I know you put yourself out and I appreciate it.”
She took this as her opening and informed him, “I want a nursery in the house, I want to get up at 2:00 in the morning for a year, and I want my tits to sag from breastfeeding.” His answer, which she expected, was to say nothing. “I know we’ve talked this thing into the ground, but I’ve been thinking about it, you know, and it’s nonnegotiable for me at this point.” In hopes of weakening his resolve, she had imbued the previous sentence with hints of softness, understanding, and a not-to-be-trifled with love, the one thing she had to give.
“I don’t want to upset you,” he said, “and I certainly don’t want to fight, particularly after what happened tonight. But that isn’t going to happen. I don’t want another child. The end.”
“What if I were to have one with someone else?”
“I get someone else to impregnate me, I raise the baby, you don’t have to do anything, and if the unthinkable happens and we split up, I have a baby that you bear no responsibility for. And saggy tits.”
“Nicole, that’s a bad idea.”
“What about artificial insemination?”
“You’re missing the point which is that I’ve been a father. I’ve raised a kid, it did not go particularly well if tonight was any indication, and I’m not doing it again.”
“She’s grown. No one looked for the afikomen this evening.”
“We can wait for a grandchild.”
“Hah! You think Aviva and Imani are going to be parents?”
Jay still was not convinced his daughter was gay, nor was he pondering how her life would progress past college. The idea of Imani Mayfield as his future daughter-in-law was beyond comprehension.
“I’m choosing not to think about it.”
“Meet your grandson, Louis Farrakhan Gladstone.”
Despite himself, Jay laughed. “Listen to me, Nickie.” The childhood nickname only brought out when he needed to communicate something meant to reach the deepest layer of her core. Jay sensed she was girding herself. He gently caressed her arm, gazed directly into her eyes, and said: “No more kids.”
She absorbed this declaration and did not reply. Instead, she turned away and climbed out of bed. From a chair, she retrieved a robe and threw it on, fists shooting through the sleeves like a fighter’s. She grabbed the Spinoza biography and shoved it under her arm.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m sleeping in the pool house,” slamming the door behind her.
What Jay felt more than frustration or anger was sweet relief. He was not worried. A version of this exchange had occurred several times and invariably Nicole, upon reflection (and the recognition of the reality that a signed agreement existed stating she accepted there would be no children in the marriage), softened her stance and allowed peace to reign.
Jay took a sleeping pill and dozed off wondering why his wife was reading about Spinoza of all people, an iconoclast who challenged man’s relationship to God, who questioned the very nature of God. Wasn’t he the Jew other Jews wanted to be rid of? Jay had wrestled with Spinoza in college when he wrote a paper on 16th century Amsterdam that paired the philosopher with the painter Vermeer with whom he overlapped. Jay had told Nicole about it when he saw she was reading the book. Something about Spinoza’s story did not ring true to him. However outrageously an individual carried on in the realm of family, business, or theology, the Jews were not supposed to excommunicate. With his exquisitely rendered, orderly canvasses that spoke to a rational, mercantile world, the artist had been a far greater source of pleasure than the philosopher.
When Jay awoke the following morning, Nicole had not returned. He showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and still no sign of her. Since her Range Rover was in the garage, he assumed she was horseback riding. It was their custom to leave a note signed with several xs and os if one of them left the house on anything other than a short errand. On that morning, Jay’s pen remained in his pocket. He would not see her before leaving for Africa.
The degradation of our increasingly delicate planet caused by the merciless extraction of fossil fuel led the eco-aware Jay a decade earlier to renounce the use of private jets in any but the most unusual circumstances, so late that evening, after drinks with Church Scott during which they resolved the D’Angelo Maxwell contract situation (there would be no max deal, although they would raise their initial offer, and no deal at all if the team failed to qualify for the playoffs), and an early dinner with Bebe at the Paladin Club, he boarded a commercial flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. Following the complimentary glass of champagne served in the first-class cabin Jay’s seat morphed into a bed surrounded by a curved fiberglass shell that made him feel like he was lying in a large egg.
For a couple of hours, he read A History of the Weimar Republic and listened to German language lessons. He would send President Obama a note apologizing for missing the dinner at the Waldorf and include a copy of the book as a gift. As Jay covered himself with a quilt and tried to find a comfortable position, his thoughts turned, as they often did, to his father. During the 1970s, at the height of the apartheid regime, the two had often argued about South Africa. Although Bingo believed all races and creeds were equal, he saw nothing wrong with speculating in the Krugerrand, an activity his son found abhorrent. Jay made no effort to hide his strong feelings but although Bingo celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island with the rest of the world and applauded the collapse of the regime that soon followed, the decisions the elder Gladstone made regarding his financial dealings lacked the moral dimension Jay vowed his own would not. When the events of the previous evening—the Seder, the wife, the daughter, her friend—intruded upon his thoughts, as they had throughout the day, he smiled to himself and thought about what Bingo Gladstone would have made of Imani Mayfield, and then tried to crowbar those unwelcome reminders of last night back to a less accessible place.
But as Jay continued to search for a position in which sleep might visit, pesky thoughts of Aviva sailed over the ramparts of his consciousness like arrows. His text from the night before had gone unreturned. Until now he had congratulated himself on his imperturbability in the face of his daughter’s new identity. He had done a little reading about the “gender fluidity” of her generation and, since he viewed himself as a paragon of tolerance, felt slightly hypocritical at even having acknowledged, if only to himself, that he was not comfortable with her sexuality. If she persisted in traveling that road he would learn to live with it. More problematic for him was her complete lack of interest in the family business. This attitude did not look to be changing anytime soon, which made his thoughts turn, as they invariably did, toward the unhappy Nicole, from whom he had not heard all day. She had failed to respond to the multiple conciliatory messages he had left. “Hey, it’s me,” he said, trying to maintain an even tone. “Just wanted to say goodbye and I love you, and to quote the Beatles, ‘We can work it out.’” He regretted the Beatles quote immediately—too corny—but hoped she would appreciate the sentiment.
He was no longer quite so certain why he had insisted on the execution of a prenup forbidding children as a condition of their marriage. At the time, five years previous, it had seemed like the way to go. Although Jay loved Aviva, he did not romanticize the idea of children and the thought of another infant, who would not develop into an interesting conversational partner for at least a decade and a half, had little appeal. That was a given. But legacy was something he allowed himself to think about occasionally, and it was one of the ways he framed his relationship with his father, who remained the most influential person in Jay’s life. He doubted Aviva would say that about her father and this troubled him. There were so many ways Bingo resonated in Jay, from his posture, to the steely nature of his resolve to the sanguinity of his worldview. Bingo passed away soon after Jay had married Nicole, but he let his son know how much he liked his second wife. Bingo’s approval meant a great deal, and he found himself considering this as the plane soared through the night.
Perhaps the behavior of his wife, the drinking, the outbursts, was related to thwarted maternal desire. Of course, those patterns were never traceable to one thing, but this particular situation was not having a positive effect on her state of mind. Nicole had the skills to be a mother, certainly. She was kind and loving, and although her relations with her own family were not the best, she made an effort with the various Gladstones. Certainly, the connection Nicole had with Bingo was real. His father told Jay that he admired the manner in which she had claimed her place in the world (“She’s got a lot of moxie,” Bingo said) and that was one of the qualities that made her attractive to Jay. The more he considered the question of a child and his stubbornness around the subject, the more he regretted his behavior.
While he thought about Nicole, he felt an unwelcome twinge in his lower abdomen. What was that? The oysters he had consumed earlier at the Paladin Club were the of highest quality so they couldn’t be the cause. Jay was not the kind of man who ascribed every unfamiliar sensation to disease, but his mind just then dropped three inches from abdomen to prostate. Was he feeling something there, too, or was that his imagination? What sinister florescence might be occurring in that highly vulnerable neighborhood? A friend in the real estate business had only last year received a cancer diagnosis, been told what he had was treatable, and died three weeks later. A lawyer he worked with, a veritable Yo-Yo Ma of the tax code was cooking a ragu in his Martha’s Vineyard kitchen the previous summer and dropped dead from an embolism.
The notion that who knew how long any of us would live was not one Jay often dwelled on but now he found himself thinking about it. Perhaps he would revisit the idea of having a child with Nicole. It was his calculation that her desire to have a baby was far greater than his desire to avoid one. If he were not going to get another divorce, a new Gladstone would only make his life easier. He could name a son (a son!) after his father. In the Jewish tradition, one was only required to use the first letter in the naming of the baby, so the options were many: Benjamin, Barrett, Barack. Barack Gladstone! Named in blessed memory of Bernard of the Bronx. It would be worth calling the baby Barack just to tweak his cousin Franklin.
What was that abdominal pain he was feeling? It was there for a few seconds, and then it was gone. He shifted his weight, and the pain returned, or did it? Determined not to have the night derailed by minor discomfort, he sat up, reached beneath the seat for his bag, and rooted out the painkillers he congratulated himself for having remembered to pack. He swallowed one, chased it with water, and again reclined on the egg bed where he continued to think about Nicole and her desire to expand their family. He vowed to revisit the situation when he returned from the trip.
In South Africa, Jay met with the minister of trade and industry, the local engineering team, and the president, who had been following the Gladstone project with eager interest. Jay visited the site of the proposed town, thirty kilometers from Durban, along with a delegation of government ministers and representatives of the local media. When he gazed over the land, he thought of his father’s proudest achievement, Gladstone Green, affordable housing built in the Queens of the 1960s, and a smile danced on his lips as he felt Bingo’s spirit rise within his breast.
He followed the news at home and was thrilled that his team beat the Charlotte Hornets, disappointed they lost to the Chicago Bulls, noting that Dag had scored twenty-five points in the loss, but sat out the win because his knee had flared up.
Jay initiated a rapprochement with Nicole—she finally picked up the phone when he called—and was optimistic about the improvement of relations upon his return, particularly given that he had decided he was going to broach the subject of the hoped-for pregnancy. The only blight on Jay’s time in Africa was the sensation in the area where his urologist had extracted tissue samples. As he worked his way through the increasingly ineffective painkillers, he feared a return visit to the doctor would occur sooner than planned.
Jay’s trip had been so efficient that he was able to cut it short. The journey from Africa back to New York would have been wholly uneventful were it not for the ratcheting up of the pain he was experiencing. The long westward flight passed in fractured sleep, a haze of movies he couldn’t remember, and whiskeys he shouldn’t have consumed. The stewardess offered champagne before landing, and he drank several glasses. When Boris met him late in the evening at Kennedy Airport, Jay was not in the mood to talk about his trip, or anything else, and slid exhaustedly into the backseat of the Mercedes for the drive to Bedford. It was after eleven and he fell asleep as they drove over the Whitestone Bridge.
Jay awoke as Boris guided the Mercedes to a stop in the driveway. He did not feel well when he climbed out of the car and steadied himself for the walk up the steps to the front door. When Boris departed, Jay lumbered upstairs, carrying a diamond pendant purchased in Johannesburg with which to surprise Nicole (he had not informed her of this change in travel plans). Because there were lights on he assumed she was home, but as he moved from room to room calling her name there was no response.
Sometimes when Nicole could not sleep, she would visit the stables and commune with the horses. That evening the property was wreathed in mist and when Jay looked toward the stables from a second-floor window all he could discern was a great swath of darkness. But a soft blush of interior illumination lit the pool house situated down a small incline from the main residence. With the diamond in his pocket, he made his way unsteadily downstairs, his hand on the smooth stained oak banister. How much liquor had he consumed on the plane? He couldn’t recall as he stopped in the kitchen to pour a glass of water that he drained in one continuous gulp before tilting in the direction of the backyard.
The dewy grass was already lush from the spring rains and slick under the feet of his leather-soled loafers. The cicadas had arrived, and their symphonic hum seemed louder and more insistent than usual. The chilly night air customarily would have invigorated Jay but because of something unholy going on between what he had eaten, the whiskey he had imbibed, and the painkillers, it only added to his queasiness. Perhaps after he greeted Nicole, he would ask her to drive him to Northern Westchester Hospital. He comforted himself with the nostrum that a course of antibiotics would take care of whatever it was.
Nicole had transformed the pool house into a guest cottage and jewelry studio. The door opened into an art-filled space with a small kitchen to one side and across from that a workbench with neatly arranged materials and tools. Beyond was the bedroom.
The glow Jay discerned was coming from the pool house bedroom where the door was slightly ajar. He padded over a Turkish rug that belonged on a museum wall—the couple had recently purchased it on a whim in Istanbul—so as not to wake Nicole in the event she had fallen asleep while reading in bed. Had she finished the Spinoza biography yet? As he reached for the diamond pendant, he thought about their wedding day, and about how being apart for a week threw her best qualities into sharper relief, and these memories cut through the physical pain that clawed him. It would be good to see his wife.
Gently, Jay pushed the door open and in the dimly lit room beheld Nicole on the bed astride a man, bucking wildly up and down in a rhythmic trance of ecstasy punctuated with sounds her husband had never before heard her produce. The physical force generated by this image felt to Jay as if it would send him reeling back but the weakness of his body kept him rooted in place, and he stared in mute bewilderment. The musk of sex filled his nostrils. His lower jaw moved down and up, once, twice; but whether it was a nervous twitch or an attempt to speak was impossible to tell.
Before Jay could form words, the male figure in the bed said, “Oh, shit,” in a subterranean timbre and that was when Jay realized the man penetrating his wife was D’Angelo Maxwell.
Nicole whirled around and shrieked. She rolled off the nine-time All-Star, grabbed the floral duvet, and reflexively covered her breasts. Dag did not move.
Jay tilted his head two degrees left and with as much savoir-faire as he could manage, given the situation, plaintively asked:
“Why does everyone in this family need to have sex with black people?”
Later, he never denied uttering those words.
It should be noted that Jay’s question was posed in genuine wonderment as if he wanted to know how iron was extracted from mountains and transformed into skyscrapers or how feathers were related to the concept of flight. It was empirical, an attempt to expand limited knowledge. Bafflement and incandescent rage were threaded into his question, too, but indeed, at that ghastly moment, the undeniable nadir of his entire life (until then), he needed to know. Because that was how he could create a delay, a habitable nothingness in which he could dwell, and not have to address what was in front of him and its more global ramifications.
“This never shoulda happened,” Dag said.
Boxers slipped on; trousers pulled up; the player buttoned his shirt with its starched upturned collar. When Dag rose to his immense height and threw his jacket over his shoulders, Jay realized he was wearing a tuxedo. Nicole’s dress, one of her closet full of slinky designer numbers, was draped on a chair. Jay remembered: the Waldorf-Astoria event for President Obama.
The errant wife huddled in bed, watching her addled husband, who had not followed up his initial query with a statement, another question, an accusation, or any sound at all. Nicole seemed to be of the mind that this was a propitious time to say nothing. Condition red, she idled and waited to see what Jay might do.
“Did you get to meet the president?”
“Y-yes,” she managed.
Dag ignored the question, assumed it was not for him.
The membrane of insouciance Jay attempted to maintain was straining against the weight of the immense psychological force unleashed by his discovery, and the emotional battering blended with his ongoing physical discomfort to nearly undo him. His stomach seemed to have plummeted several inches, crowding his pubis, his bowels felt as if they were sliding down, and what was going on with his prostate?
“Sorry about this,” Dag mumbled. “No excuse.” Striding to the door, he loomed like an ocean liner. The mixture of sweat and body spray wafting off him was overpowering. Jay glanced in his direction as if the man were something repulsive that had become affixed to a shoe, but the difference in their dimensions allayed whatever mad notion the owner might have for a nanosecond entertained about wreaking physical revenge on the player. Jay would never strike anyone, much less a man of D’Angelo Maxwell’s intimidating dimensions, but he wanted to say something that would make an impression, anything really, other than the lame question he had posed in a misguided attempt at suavity. If this was the extent of his verbal capacity, better to have already left the scene.
Unfortunately, Dag beat him to it and Jay turned to watch the player’s retreating form pass through the workroom and out the door.
Nicole murmured, “I’m so sorry, Jay.”
He wheeled to face her and considered unleashing a stream of invective whose heat would bleach the equine-themed wallpaper behind the bed.
“Oh, god, I made a terrible decision,” his wife simpered. Her voice was a simulacrum of kindness and repentance braided with fear of what she had wrought. “Will you talk to me?”
The Nicole Era was over, but there was unfinished business with the man who had just left the room. The last words of D’Angelo Maxwell to Jay Gladstone when they parted in front of the Paladin Club: We’re good men, he said. We do what’s right.
Jay heard Nicole’s plangent voice calling his name like a ringing bell, once, twice, three times, as he slanted across the Turkish rug and out the door. Adrenaline kicked his system into dangerously high gear. Animated by an overwhelming desire to confront Dag and discuss how the athlete squared his professed morality with such dubious behavior, Jay squinted into the darkness searching for his quarry. In the distance, a tuxedoed silhouette could be seen making for the driveway. Jay called out, but Dag did not turn around. He just wanted to talk, about what he was not sure. Dag had already apologized. Did he require more deferential words? Or perhaps on some unfathomable level, he desired a physical confrontation that would both salvage his manhood and end in his annihilation.
The player was no longer in Jay’s field of vision. Intent on forcing the issue, and having, he believed, retrieved sufficient control of his faculties Jay staggered uphill struggling for traction on the slippery grass and nearly falling twice. He glanced toward the porch but saw no one. He did not suspect that, after what had happened, Dag would let himself in the house, yet somehow, he had dematerialized. Where was Dag’s car? Jay’s eyes went to the street and—there! Dag was jogging down the road.
Jay yanked the door of the Mercedes open and fell into the driver’s seat. For the briefest moment, he wondered whether he was clearheaded enough to drive. Boris always left the key under the seat and Jay was relieved to find that at least one person in his orbit could be relied upon not to betray him. He rammed the key into the ignition, shifted into reverse, and hit the gas sending the sedan shooting backward. He cut the wheel hard, crushed the brake, then shifted into drive and again stomped his foot on the gas pedal. The wheels screamed as the car shot forward.
He raced out of the driveway, nearly losing control, and swerved on to the country lane. There were no streetlights and Jay cursed as he peered through the darkness. The car gained speed, bumped over the uneven surface, and accelerated as Jay swiveled his head like a prison floodlight, one way then the other. Less than a hundred yards ahead Dag appeared on the side of the road looking incongruously dapper. His back was to the car as he loped unevenly along, the tiny light of his cell phone screen visible. Had he summoned his entourage?
The same interaction of painkillers and whiskey that led Jay to believe it was a good idea to leap into his car to confront the younger, more virile, and incomparably stronger man, steered him to the wild notion that he should accelerate toward Dag and stop just short of striking him. It would terrorize his adversary, and terror is what Jay needed to inflict in order to quash the feelings of impotence and shame which had temporarily deranged him. As the Mercedes continued to gather speed, Jay lifted his foot off the gas, intending to jam it down on the brake with great force. But the adverse chemical conditions caused the irrational driver to mistake the accelerator for the brake so when he thrust his foot down, instead of skidding to a dramatic halt, the car shot forward and caught the long-legged athlete just above the knees. The collision sent him sailing through the night sky higher than a basketball hoop before he crashed to the road taking most of the impact of the landing on his left shoulder and his head. The Mercedes smashed into a tree and the force that crushed the grille and collapsed the hood snapped Jay’s head back, then forward into the steering wheel. He blacked out.
When Jay emerged from the car, he wasn’t sure how long he had been there. His face and shirt were drenched in blood, knees banged up, chest bruised. What had happened? Moments earlier, he had been in his house and now he was standing unsteadily on the side of the road and the car was wrecked. What had he done?
A bolt of dread shot through Jay when he saw Dag lying on the ground, limbs arranged in an unnatural configuration. This was followed by another jolt when he realized Dag was unconscious. He kneeled down to take Dag’s pulse, and the large hand flopped out of the tuxedo sleeve. Jay thought he felt life, and then it was gone. He couldn’t tell what was real and what his short-circuiting brain madly imagined. Dag’s head was twisted at an odd angle, blood trickling from his mouth. Jay placed his fingers on one of Dag’s neck tattoos. Was he already dead? Had he been killed instantly?
Jay was lightheaded. Every cell in his body vibrated, his entire organism spinning out of control. He struggled to his feet. Blood spilled from his nose. Jay took his shirt off and held it to his face. Stripped to the waist, he shivered. The Mercedes headlight that had not shattered cast a ghostly light in the woods where the trunks of pine trees stood straight as jury members waiting for the judge to enter the courtroom. Whether D’Angelo Maxwell was dead or had suffered severe injuries but clung to life, or—and dear God, let it be this, anything else is unacceptable!—the damage was minor, and he would make a full recovery, the disastrous situation in which Jay Gladstone found himself was going to be exceedingly difficult to explain.
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events,
real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2018 by Seth Greenland
First Publication 2018 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.
Seth Greenland is the author of five novels. His latest, The Hazards of Good Fortune (Europa Editions), will be published in 2018. His play Jungle Rot won the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund For New American Plays Award and the American Theater Critics Association Award. He was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love.