Sweating and panicked, you and your brother
Bolt up the stairs two at a time, the flames
Racing up behind you, chasing you
From the second floor where you have your tailor shop.
The blaze comes shooting up from
The basement where a vat of wax
Has bubbled over in the candle factory.
Louis is an athlete and he twists
His body around the fifth-floor cornice
And drops to the roof of the adjoining building
Two stories below while the fire escapes
Fill up with men screaming for help.
A friend tries to restrain you while
The firemen set up their net,
But Louis is motioning wildly
And nothing can hold you back.
Just another Jewish immigrant
From Russia on the Lower East Side.
Just another tailor saving money
To bring his family across in steerage.
But you were my great grandfather’s brother.
I knew my great grandfather, and you might
Have been part of my childhood too.
Meanwhile, your wife was waiting in a shtetl
Near Minsk, hoping to come over within the year
With your three daughters, the youngest
Just six weeks old. You had never seen her.
I went looking for you, Meyer,
On Clinton Street off Delancey to see
If some part of you still lingered there.
The building had been gutted and rehabbed
And now there were apartments with parquet floors
And marble bathrooms where you and the others
labored. But the outside looked original
And I wondered if I was looking up
At your fire escape. I saw the squat building
Next door where Louis had landed
And I wished that someone could have told me more
Of his story. I couldn’t track anyone down.
But I found you in the Washington
Cemetery out in Brooklyn. The gravestones
Were all crowded together like the tenements
On the Lower East Side—it must have been
Easier to breathe when you first came out here.
Yours was just a small, white marker
Dwarfed by the massive stones around it.
I cleared away the tall weeds and kneeling down,
I put my arm around your headstone.
God knows how long you’d been alone.
What was I supposed to do?
God came and put me to the test
It’s not like you have a choice
At a time like that
When my son asked me what we were
Going to do for the burnt offering
I misled him
How nice of my father to admit that
He misled me
This is the same man
Who argued with God before I was born;
What if there were 50, then 45, 40?
All the way down to 10
Bargaining with God
Not to wipe out the whole city
On account of a small number of innocent
Theoretical innocent, I must add
It’s not the same thing
And you know it
In the case that you’re talking about
It didn’t involve me personally
I just couldn’t see God acting so unjustly
Now in your case
God gave me an order
I don’t care
You argued for people you didn’t even know
To save a whole city just for a few
But for me you didn’t say one word
And you notice that Mom died right after
What you call a “case”?
Please don’t bring your mother into this
She was already an old woman when she gave birth to you
It was a miracle that you were even born
And that was why she laughed in the first place
Dad, are you telling me something that I don’t know?
You don’t want to face the simple truth
You put a knife to my throat
And then you expect me to act like it never happened
Look, if I could do it all over again—
Don’t give me that!
You don’t get a do-over here
The whole world thinks you’re some kind of saint
Because you checked your mind
Before we went up the mountain
Gentleman, I’m afraid that we’re going to have to
Bring things to a close now as we’ve run out of time
I actually think that this was a very productive session
As you both got a lot of things off your chests
And it’s good that you’re talking to one another again
I’ll see you at the same time next week
Until then, take it easy