Tools of His Trade

An impending visit by elderly parents provokes a chain of volatile memories.

December 2007

Click here to listen to a message from the author about his novel Now You See Him and hear an audio reading of the first five chapters of this beautifully wrought portrait of childhood friendship, lust, murder, and the way our tenuous loves direct the course of our lives.

In one of the drawers of my Boulder home is an ancient document, foxed and brittle with age. Removing it from my desk drawer, I slowly unroll it. Because it is the height of summer, I have to blink away the harshness of the daylight before my eyes adjust to take in the familiar details of an old boat, printed in what is called rotogravure, shown plowing through an open stretch of water. Below the boat, the curlicue writing on the paper identifies it as a "captain's license" for my uncle, Albert Gottlieb. It's a kind of portal for me, this piece of paper, a dream-enabler that launches me back in time, to an era made sepia in memory, when men sported bowler hats and watch chains and women wore flounced skirts and button-up shoes. Cars had names like REO and Deuce and Cord back then, and the subways of New York were mostly "els," which is short for "elevated," or running above ground on girdered platforms. Manhattan, lurching forward out of the Depression, hummed and flowed with new energy. And about five miles northeast of Manhattan, in a part of the Bronx called the Grand Concourse, my four uncles and my father were jostling each other in two beds, trying to get to sleep at night. They were rambunctious boys, crude, loud, grasping, and horny, and it was hard to settle down. Their own father, long ill, was at that very moment coughing his tubercular lungs out in a sanitarium in the Adirondack Mountains, soon to die. It would be left to their mother, her brilliant gifts cramped in this New York City tenement, to raise them into men. All of these boys in their turn would eventually—to their surprise—grow old, their bodies broken by the hammer blows of stroke, diabetes, and heart attack. But for now they were glossy young kids, laughing out loud at night, on an evening of memory, in an America itself still young, and bristling with the novelties of the new century.

Placing the captain's license back down on the table, I glance out the window to where the slabbed Flatirons are visible, glowing in the morning sun. None of my uncles, nor any of their children, has ever seen these majestic rocks. They lived and died along the Northeastern corridor, working in Staten Island, in New Jersey, and in Connecticut, before eventually gathering in Florida, to ride out their last years in keeping with the seemingly ironclad laws of Jewish migration. My eyes light on one wall of my studio, where there hangs a photographic display. Here are the various uncles, immortalized as teenagers under glass: Bernie with his vain fillip of moustache and his bedroom eyes; Murray, the sanguine one, mouth slightly open; Arnold, always steady and predictable; my father, Leonard, a bit dreamy looking, and wearing my nose, brow, and eyes. At the center of the display stands Albert, the first-born son. Taut-muscled and blade-nosed, Albert seems to stare slightly downward at the photographer, as if aware not only of his important role as default father, and of his future job as "the first Jewish tugboat captain of New York harbor," but, of the appalling destiny that awaits him just a few years down the road. Until recently, I'd never understood why even the mere sight of his oldest brother was enough to reduce my normally stoic dad to tears. I hadn't realized that Albert was at the center of an emotional absence that has haunted him his whole life, rendering my father insomniac, autocratic, and predisposed towards a kind of brittle terseness. One day, in a rare intimate moment, he confessed to me he'd spent his entire life racked by the dream that he was lugging a dead body from pillar to post, hiding it under beds and in closets and staying only a half-hour ahead of the police. It would only be years later, mulling it over, that I would understand why.

Gazing at it one last time, I slide Albert's captain's license back in a drawer, then place the picture frame of photos out of sight behind the bookshelf. My parents are arriving later in the week for their first-ever visit to my Colorado home, and stashing the memorabilia is a preventive measure, the better to maintain domestic calm over what I expect to be an explosive few days.