When David Leitman came back from five absolutely miserable days biking through the Adirondacks he was greeted by the following message on his antique, yet reliable, answering machine.
“David, it’s Tante Perle. We have to bury the toe.”
The toe in question belonged (at least for the next 36 hours) to David’s father, Harry, an 89 year-old diabetic who lived on cake and peaches.
David made a quick, and possibly relationship-ending, call to Bryn.
“Honey, I’m really sorry. I can’t come over now, and I can’t go look at apartments tomorrow.”
“I have to bury my father’s toe.”
“Listen, It’s an orthodox thing. I’ll explain later. Right now I’m going to call the hospital, and make sure they don’t throw it away.”
If Harry had been scheduled for surgery in Queens or Brooklyn, the nurse probably wouldn’t have hung up on David. But Harry insisted on a hospital at the tip of Long Island.
“Rich people go there. They know what’s good.”
“Rich people live there, Dad. Besides, it’s only a toe.”
The phone rang. “Mr. Leitman, this is Ms. Bradford. We spoke a few minutes ago. Your father’s surgeon says he’ll check with the health department.”
“It’s just a toe. Why is he checking with the health department?”
“The doctor will call you back.”
Jewish law, which Harry followed unwaveringly, except when he didn’t, says you have to be buried with all your body parts. Since Harry’s toe was predeceasing the rest of Harry, it would need its own itty-bitty burial. Poor little toe, all alone by itself in that big old grave!
Where, exactly, was that big old grave?
David found Tante Perle’s number on his caller id.
“Tante Perle, where are we supposed to bury the toe?”
“Ver Vaist? Wait, maybe I have it written down here somewhere.”
David could hear the sound of papers being shuffled frantically, and Tante Perle saying ‘oy, oy, oy.’
“Who knows? How can you not know where your brother’s supposed to be buried?”
“He’s your father. How come you don’t know? Call his burial society. They’ll know.”
“Ok. What’s the name?”
“Ver vaist?Wait. It’s supposed to be in the drawer here. Drawers were opening and shutting, and Perle’ was letting out an endless stream of ‘oys,’ and tongue clucking.
So David thought he’d spend a few seconds googling, and he’d have to make a few phone calls. How many Jewish Burial Societies could there be in New York… and why couldn’t he find any of them online?
He hit redial.
“Tante Perle, it’s David.”
“Oh, Duvid, I found the name. It’s the Benevolent Trumpaniker Burial Society. “
“Do you have their number? Never mind. ‘Ver vaist.’”
The Benevolent Trumpanikers don’t have a website. That’s not a high priority when most of your members don’t know how to use the TV remote. For Harry, the teabag was high tech. He still thought you should tie a red ribbon around a baby’s finger to keep the evil eye away. You can take the boy out of Chelm, but you can’t take the Chelm out of the boy.
The man who answered the Trumpanikers’ phone spoke an even worse hybrid of Yiddish and English than Tante Perle did.
“ Du zukhn funeral home.”
“I need a funeral home? It’s just a toe!”
“You should call someplace near the hospital. Otherwise, wyk tyyar, fershtay?”
The owner of the Brautigan Funeral Home, the only one within five miles of the hospital, had no idea what David was talking about.
“I have to tell you, Mr. Leitman, we have never embalmed a toe before. I’m sure it won’t be a problem. If you come out here we can help you choose a coffin,” he said in a velvety, soothing voice.
“No. No embalming. No coffin. Just a plain, biodegradable, little pine box, big enough to hold a toe.”
The intercom buzzed. It was Bryn.“I come bearing H&H bagels, and an overnight bag.” He heard her clogs clunking up the stairs.
“I’ll call you back, Mr. Brautigan.”
“How’s it going with the toe?” Bryn shouted from two flights down.
The first and only time Bryn met Harry she and David joined him for lunch at Fine and Shapiro’s.
“This is Bryn, Dad.”
“What kind of a name is Bryn?”
“A first name, Mr. Leitman.”
Harry began picking out and eating the mushrooms from his mushroom barley soup. He waited a few minutes, and called the server over.
“This is supposed to be mushroom barley soup. Where are the mushrooms?”
Shortly after that Harry informed David that Bryn didn’t wear ‘up-to-date’ clothes, and that she didn’t ‘know how to talk’.’
Harry spoke six more sentences, none of which he said directly to Bryn. He took another ten minutes finishing his soup and hard roll, looked at David and said, “Tell your girlfriend she should wear makeup. It would help.”
That was it for Bryn, who announced that she had to get back to work. David followed her out.
“No more lunches. How did you live in the same house without killing him? I could hardly get through my pastrami sandwich without killing him.”
“Look, Bryn, I know he’s difficult, but he’s my father.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone that.”
Bryn walked in, gave David a kiss on the cheek, and unwrapped a bagel with cream cheese “I guess this means no wild post-vacation sex tonight.” She stuck it on a paper plate, and put it down in front of David, who was now slumped at the table with his chin on his hands.
“Give yourself a break, ok? It’s almost 9. Your suitcase is still next to the phone. You won’t be able to get a hold of anyone else until tomorrow morning, anyway.”
He pushed away the plate, got up, and wheeled his suitcase into the bedroom.
She followed him in. “I guess this means no sex of any kind, right? In that case, let’s play the HGTV Drinking Game! It’s a new one. You’ll love it. Every time someone says ‘Granite countertop’ or ‘Open plan’ you take a shot. The first one who passes out loses.”
David lay on the bed, expressionless and staring at the ceiling.
She walked out of the bedroom, closed the door part way, and stuck her head back in.
“I’m going to stay up a little longer. I wouldn’t want to disturb your nervous breakdown.”
At 7:30am the phone rang. “Mr. Leitman, this is Edward Brautigan. I have good news. It so happens my uncle has a friend who builds furniture for birds. He says he can make you a pine box to your specifications. Exactly how large is the toe?”
“I don’t know large it is. It’s a toe.”
Bryn put a pillow over her mouth to stifle her extremely inappropriate laughter. She hit the button for speakerphone in time to hear Mr. Brautigan say,
“Do you think it’s bigger than a canary?”
She dropped the pillow, grabbed her clothes, ran into the bathroom, and got dressed, occasionally snorting uncontrollably.
“See you later, baby. Go out for breakfast. The carbon monoxide will clear your head.” She blew him a kiss and left.
Hethrew on his running clothes, walked the four blocks to Variety Coffee, and got the last table without a computer on it, or a stroller next to it.
Fortified by a double espresso and two bran muffins, he returned to his apartment and another message from Tante Perle.
“Duvid, Tante Bayla says you should talk to a rabbi so you shouldn’t do something wrong. You should check with Rabbi Finkel in Brooklyn. Tante Bayla thinks he’s the one at your father’s shul.”
David hadn’t asked a rabbi a question since he was an 8th grader in yeshiva. And ‘Rabbi Finkel?’ Which Rabbi Finkel? Well, it didn’t matter if he found Finkel. A rabbinic opinion is a rabbinic opinion.
There was a tiny Orthodox synagogue two blocks away. He’d passed it hundreds of times on his way to and from Morgan-Chase Prep, where he taught history to fifth graders, none of whom lived in 4th floor walkups. When he told Harry he got the position Harry’s only comment was, “What kind of job is that for a grown man?”
Rabbi Shaivitz, who looked like he could be the slightly taller younger brother of a lawn gnome, nodded his head sympathetically as David told his story.“Well, I know how difficult this can be, but it sounds like you’re doing things right.”
“Rabbi, is there anything I have to say, you know, some prayer, when they bury it?”
The Rabbi shrugged.“What could you say? ‘It was a good toe?’”
David met the hearse at the cemetery Tuesday afternoon. The cemetery director gave the driver a map, and made an X on Harry’s plot.
“Did you want to go, too, Mr. Leitman?” the driver asked, pointing to the hearse.
“No, No thank you.” He was a little curious about how they lowered the toe into the grave. Did they use a winch, or just drop it? Better not to know.
As he left the cemetery he thought about taking the ninety-minute bus ride out to the hospital in the Hamptons, but he didn’t have the energy, so he schlepped back to Brooklyn, and called the hospital.
This is David Leitman, Harry Leitman’s son,”
“He’s in 313. I’ll put you through.”
“No, no don’t.”
“So now you don’t have a father? So you’re so busy schtupping that girl you couldn’t come to see me last night? You’d better be careful. She can lie in the bed all day. You’re a weak boy. You could have a heart attack.”
“Dad,” Harry hung up on him.
David was sitting on his couch, immersed in guilt, when he heard the buzzer.
“I come bearing dinner from the Chinese takeout down the street. I skipped the overnight bag,”Bryn announced when he opened the door.
She set the table while David sat there like a lump. She gave him two spareribs and a pile of noodles, and watched him push the food around with his chopsticks. He finally starting eating a sparerib, and put it down after two bites.
“I feel really terrible for not going to visit him.”
“Oh, I think you saw enough of your father for one day. Now eat your chow foon before it gets cold.”
He didn’t say anything for the next five minutes.
“Wow, this is like having dinner in a monastery.” Bryn picked up her purse, and headed out the door. “Talk to you tomorrow.”
‘Tomorrow’ ended up being 1 am, which technically qualified.
“Look I can’t deal with your destructive family constellation. Call me if he dies.”
“That’s what I’m going to tell the nurse. I mean the ‘call me if he dies’ part. Anyway, I don’t think two people constitute a constellation.”
When David called the hospital he used the authoritative voice he generally reserved for the first day of class. If it worked on 10 year-olds, it would work on Ms. Bradford.
“This is David Leitman, Harry Leitman’s son. I’m attending an important conference for the next four days, and don’t want to be disturbed unless it’s an emergency.” He could always decide what to do about Harry on day five.
Bryn insisted on taking him out to Le Baricou for drinks that night. She signaled the server, and ordered two ‘Meadows of Love,’ with extra absinthe.
When the drinks came she raised her glass in a cheerful toast. “It’s over. Let’s celebrate. Next time it won’t be so stressful.”
“Next time?” He put his glass down.
Bryn took a substantial swallow of her absinthe-laden drink. “Your father’s never going to die, David. He’s going to disappear a tiny piece at a time.”
She took his hand, and said very earnestly, “I really didn’t mean that. I know how upsetting this must be for you. He’s still your father, and he’s old and sick. He could die any day. After all, he already has one toe in the grave.”
David pulled his hand back. “That’s not funny.”
“Yes, it is. You want to split an order of pomme frites?”