I am looking for the letter that arrived after Uncle Sol’s death.
The one that says: The war is over! Love to Kayla, X-O-X.
I even searched back through the cardboard box,
opening each envelope in precise reverse order—
sorry for the lapse between this missive and the last—
watching their lives drawing closer once more,
hearing the rail cars heading back home;
hitched again in the South Brooklyn Yard.
I was twelve when my grandfather visited the Temple Mount.
My whole life and he’d never once left the neighborhood;
I can’t even picture him on a bus.
But today he’s boarding a doublewide body.
That’s him, dour among the smiling tourists.
I can’t imagine who snapped this photo—
I still have the envelope with the Israeli stamp,
mailed two days after his death—
or how it made its way back to Brooklyn.
I ask my mother, but she’s paying me no mind.
Here’s Moses, posing on Mount Nebo,
looking forward toward the promised land.
Sure, it’s blurry, she says, he’s shaking like your grandfather;
davening the way all old men do at the edge of their dreams.
Today, my son tells me, everything is clear and instantaneous.
I can’t tell if he’s making a moral judgment, or just snapping at random.
All I know is I’m trying to interest him in my uncle’s letters
and he won’t look down. It’s Grandma Kay’s brother, I say.
He was eighteen, your age, and already married. You carry his name.
I want to circle Germany on a map, make some point
about life’s preciousness, how every moment might be our last.
But I settle for sitting beside him on the couch and turning up the TV.
We’re watching the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
It’s South Korea versus Spain. It’s the penalty shootout.
It’s sudden death. The crowd is going crazy.
Me? I don’t know a single soul in South Korea.
I’ve never even been to Spain, though these days Spanish
is spoken everywhere in Brooklyn. Nobody knows Yiddish.
Want Dickel’s? Sol would ask, if he stopped by.
Today he’d be seventy eight. No big deal.
Moses lived until one hundred and twenty. Me?
I was born three weeks before the end of the Korean War.
Dickel’s Pickles, I tell my son. Hot pastrami on rye.
It’s Hong Myung-Bo who converts the final kick.
He’s a national hero. Look how handsome, my mother says,
handing me a photograph of my father as a boy. Bo won’t know
until tomorrow about the dead widow, but back here everybody
in the building is talking. Her son heard her shout We won,
just before she collapsed. The phrase he used was shriek of joy.
How did kids used to meet up after the game, my son asks.
I can’t remember, I answer, but it’s beside the point.
I couldn’t even tell you anymore why I’m always so angry:
Today for instance, at the graduation, I watched him
text-message his girlfriend from across the aisle.
Me? I can’t catch anyone’s eye. Look this way, I yell, waving,
my arm outstretched like I’m signaling from shore as the plane
passes overhead, my voice drowned out by its fading engine,
my eyes blinded, by a sudden flash of light.
Say Nagasaki, I say. C’mon. Smile.
Forget the VCR. I can’t even program my answering machine.
What are you, my son asks, some sort of philistine?
Leave your message after the beep.
If it’s important, they’ll call again, I say. I’m going to sleep.
Repeat your name and please speak clearly.
Anyone there? The war is over. I love you dearly.
Sorry you missed me. Try my cell.
I’m at Nebo’s. I’m at Dickel’s. I’m at David’s citadel.
I just stepped out. I’ll be back in an hour.
Turn on the TV. It’s me. Holy shit. South tower.
You know what to do, so don’t be shy.
Pick up. It’s Dad. Gunshot. I…
I watch as outside my window my son head-fakes the rhododendron
and dribbles past the bougainvillea, running circles around the swing-set
he hasn’t used for eight summers, and now my heart stops as he feints
left, scoops, and follows the ball up the seesaw, balanced momentarily
on the rotted wooden fulcrum. I’m not telling you anything
you don’t already know, or won’t come to know in your own time. Sol
was on his way home, his teenaged wife, my aunt, not yet remarried,
and my grandfather, younger than I am today, was what? Praying?
It will be days before the dispatch arrives. See here, my mother says,
isn’t he looking dapper in his new hat? Now she’s turned the page
to a photograph of my father I’ve never seen before. Is it possible?
I’ve been through this album how many times? He’s lying on the pavement,
bleeding, dying. He’s trying to speak. What? I lean in close. One moment,
I beg, but my son’s tapping on the glass, impatient, all attitude, challenging me,
one-on-one; he, blindfolded, or running backwards, winner take all.
Sudden death, he mouths. And suddenly I see that his face,
pressed against the lower right-hand corner of the pane, is a stamp
on an upside-down un-addressed envelope. And I don’t know where
he is going or when he will arrive or who will be looking for him
at the other end, or even the contents of the letter inside. He’s not talking,
not to me at least, but his body is so full of words it can barely contain
its victories and defeats, and all of the sounds that it still needs, somehow, to say.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.