Coney Island Avenue

Monday, January 15, 2018

The morning of Al’s funeral we wake to streets, sidewalks, trees, and cars encased in a sheet

            of ice one-eighth of an inch thick so that everything under our overcast sky gleams


Al is my neighbor Felicia’s father

His father’s surname was Rabinowitz, but the family anglicized it to Roberts

A week and a half ago, Al died, aged ninety-four and ninety-five days



The last time I saw Al, he was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap and was sitting on Felicia’s back

            deck in a wrought-iron chair on a warm day in early November, watching the

            orange-yellow leaves of the sugar maple tremble in light breeze

His eyes were a watery blue.  They almost matched the Cubs cap

By the end he had lost his short-term memory

The Cubs had just won the World Series for the first time in one hundred and eight years

He didn’t say much

His eyes kept tracking the squirrel leaping from half-bare branch to black telephone line and




Even after salting the sidewalks, everyone walks slowly, baby step by baby step on the ice, as

            if they too are nonagenarians and have misplaced their canes or walkers



Joshua, his eldest son, gives the eulogy and tells the family story of how Al was supposed to

            meet them all at the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard

They got on the ferry—Joshua, Felicia, Matthew, and their mother, Audrey

“All aboard!” the captain called out over the loudspeaker

No sign of Al

The ferry started to move away from the dock

Then they saw Al sprinting toward them

At the last possible moment, Al jumped from the dock out over the four-foot gap of

            saltwater widening between dock and ferry

Joshua says, “To me at eleven years old, it looked like my father was Superman, able to leap

            tall buildings in a single bound”

He starts to cry

He cries silently for almost a full minute

Everyone in the retirement community’s nondenominational chapel is quiet



Grief is like walking on ice

One has to go forward, knees bent, leaning forward slightly

Our bones are fragile

Be careful not to fall

Al leaped

He landed safely on the steel deck of the ferry that carried him, his daughter, two sons, and

            wife across seven miles of water to an island

They lived there for two weeks one summer



Joshua looks out through his tears at the surviving family and friends

It is hard to see them

Crying is like chipping the ice from his windshield this morning

At first, that opaque sheet wouldn’t break

He had to hammer at it with the edge of his plastic yellow scraper

Then one hairline crack

The ice separated into three tectonic plates moving slowly apart on a film of water

Suddenly one whole plate shattered into shards of glass



Tears come unbidden

Then they stop as suddenly

It is as if he has been crying splinters of ice

They come from water frozen inside himself

He wipes ice melt from his cheeks



Joshua sees the room again with aching clarity, as if he just had the lenses of his glasses

            changed to a new prescription

He sees people he should know

They are strangers, dressed in various shades of black and gray

They are a black and white rainbow

No, here are his mother, brother, sister

He sees them as if for the first time

His mother dabs at the tears streaming down her face with a small sodden bit of Kleenex



Joshua tells another story

How, during the Depression in Brooklyn, an ice-cream truck drove past 902 Coney Island


As it turned the corner, its back door flew open and a cardboard cylinder of ice cream—two

            feet long, ten inches in diameter—fell out

It was chocolate

The truck did not come back

Al and his childhood friends had two choices: they could either eat it or let it melt

They sat on the stoop and ate all the ice cream

Throughout his long life, Al would remember that hot afternoon, how cold the ice cream

            felt going down his throat

It felt, he said, like trying to say an incomprehensible word from the Torah, a word of many

            syllables, all the hard consonants turning in his mouth to that one vowel of

            chocolate, so dark, bitter, and yet silken sweet

Monday, January 15, 2018