Alec Niedenthal’s original story, “Miss Weinburger,” captures the dynamics of the modern American Jewish family. The tableau could be called Rothian, had Roth given Sophie Portnoy the pen and allowed her to chronicle the disappointing childmen who people her world and the persistent desires that get her through the day. Meaning accretes in objects—a gift card to World of Cheesecake, for instance, takes on the weight of loss, and the significance of losing something that might not have been that great to begin with. We’re left with complex, hyphenated emotions, like compassionate-deficiency, freeing-loss, and shame-caring.
It was widely known that Miss Weinburger’s children were difficult.
One of her sons was slightly dazed, high-seeming even as a preteen, before he ever smoked pot. The other, younger one was hyper—uncomfortable if he wasn’t cracking a joke, until he got older and nothing was as funny as it once was and anyway jokes didn’t work to dissolve the loneliness and nervousness anymore, or more accurately, he began to understand that they never worked as well as he thought.
At age fifteen, the elder son discovered pot and discovered also (they were the same discovery) the long tradition of burnout Jews who trail jam bands. His name was Michael, but he went by Mikey. He was almost kicked off his Birthright trip for getting stoned before going to Mount Sinai, but then he fell against a rock and was bloodied on the face and forgiven. After high school, he tried attending various colleges, none of which stuck: Alabama, somewhere in Colorado, somewhere else in Colorado. What he wanted to do was follow the jam bands that ran through his being like genetic material, to hear the songs that sounded to him like reminiscences of a past life, like impressions on his cognition left by a disaster he would never remember. So he grew up, and grew a beard as his father had, and focused his life on the frequent attendance of meandering concerts.
The younger son became a gambler, also in Colorado; he had a real estate license that was useful when he ran out of money and had to work. His Birthright trip was without incident—in the sense that his older brother’s trip, from which he emerged with stitches over his eyebrow, was with incident. He went later in life than Mikey, on a tour oriented toward “young professionals.” Everyone had taken two weeks out of the office, and all they talked about the entire time was work. Even after fucking each other, they would talk about their jobs, quirks of their managers, the best and worst lunch places near the office; the others on the trip would hold hands on the bus and speak about debt collateral and supply chains, even as the beautiful and blasted landscape of their stolen homeland slipped by. David—that was his name—pretended to work in real estate, even though he hadn’t sold a house in more than a year after a successful and lengthy run on video poker. He didn’t fuck anyone on the trip, but he fell in love.
Miss Weinburger, their mother, began to age. After their father passed she met a man named David. At first it was strange dating a man with the name of her son, but gradually, she grew to prefer it. She liked drinking wine not necessarily with David but around him, generally as he watched television and she repeated certain scenes from her life in her head. A glass of wine would activate her horniness, which took on more and more interesting forms.
For a long time, Miss Weinburger had to endure the complication of how to be proud of her sons. The sons of her friends led excellent lives, attending the best schools, becoming the same kinds of doctors as their fathers were; it became problematic for her to check Facebook, because there was always someone else’s good news waiting for her, an engagement, a professional triumph by the children of the women she was close to.
Eventually, as might have been predicted, David had to come home. His credit card debts were immense, and it was entirely possible that he would have to file for bankruptcy as a twenty-six-year-old. But Miss Weinburger had taught him to take responsibility for his wrongs; her sons saw themselves as the locus of shame, where so many other boys cast it outward, placing the shame wherever it would fit. In her life, and this was a new practice, she tried not to blame anyone. Life was an unfolding; regret was useless, time relentless. She had learned this as her husband lay dying.
She heard her friends’ children say things like, “These programs just want more minorities” when they didn’t get into an elite medical school, or else, “I wasn’t that into her,” when their girlfriends left them for men who lived in states that were slightly less depressing than Alabama. David, on the other hand, blamed not only his actions but his soul.
“This is who I am. I’m a debtor,” he said in an email. “I want you to know that this isn’t your fault. You did the best you could but my destiny is to be in debt. I don’t know what to do. Please help. Not with money. I know you don’t have the money. I’m not asking for the money. But something? I hate Colorado. I hate it here. I don’t know why I came here. The mountains? I don’t even ski.”
She told him to come home, and then she made his room beautiful, like it was before he hit puberty. She dreamed of beginning again, of another life that was the same as this one. It would be identical, manifesting on the same track, in the same ways, but simply a second dice-roll, a second play of chance. Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? It was chance, the distribution of genes, she thought, but also the words you said around your sons, the secrets you hid. What did you tell them about money? Or sex, drugs, alcohol—pleasure?
She hung linen curtains in the windows of his room. She bought the number-one sheets recommended by the internet for men in their mid-twenties. She made everything tasteful and calm, minimal and small, in line with the tastes of the day, afterward coming downstairs to find her husband—David was her husband now—masturbating in the bathroom. She could hear him through the closed door, the rush of his breathing, the flapping noise that she recognized as the jerking of his curved penis. He did this sometimes, but she tolerated it the way that a coach might accept that his team would lose even as he projected confidence in the locker room—such was the only way to live with men, ignoring their vulnerabilities, pretending not to know their secrets. When he emerged she was at the kitchen table, imagining a second chance, thinking of another life, and also reading the Psalms on the handheld digital machine where you could download books. Whenever she heard her new husband masturbating, she took to the Psalms, the consolations of King David.
“How are you, baby?” he asked, wiping his washed hands on the pair of bermudas that he called his “weekend shorts,” bending to kiss her. It seemed that there were better places to jack off than the guest bathroom. “What’re you reading?” he asked, and she lied to him again, telling him it was a detective novel, a mystery, just something to pass a Sunday.
Her boss was a miserable asshole. She rarely cursed, not even in her head, but this was her epithet for him.
He was fanatical about the state of Israel, even though, as a registered Democrat and nominal liberal, he blamed the Likud Party for its wrong turns. “Netanyahu is just a grifter,” he would say, a term commonly used then for politicians when one wanted to avoid thinking very hard about the people who had elected them. He talked bitterly to Miss Weinburger about nearly all human beings, including his wife and daughters, despite being almost comically soft-spoken and kind in official interactions. He had a small cheval mirror on his desk, sternly turning to view himself as he typed or used the phone.
He was often on the radio, speaking for all the Jews in Alabama, broadcasting their shared viewpoint. “Great to have you with us again, Richard,” the host would say, and he would reply, “It’s great to be with you again” in his whispery, fictive way, as if his voice were incapable of the harsher registers; and then he would tell the listener what the Jews felt, which was whatever he himself felt multiplied thousands of times.
Occasionally she heard Richard yelling at himself in the men’s room. He would come back to his desk looking red-faced and joyous, as if he’d had a glass of wine. “What kind of man are you, Friedman?” she heard him asking his image in the restroom. “Lamb or wolf? Are you a lamb, or are you a wolf?” Or else he’d simply say, “You’re a lamb, Friedman. You’re a silly little lamb.” Men could be themselves in restrooms, she felt.
During the workday her first husband died again and again. She saw him falling from buildings and crashing in cars that passed outside her blinds. He was resurrected in the window of her mind, which itself was a window of the soul, which itself was most likely nothing, only to die in violent ways. But she was so lonely in the long afternoons that it was almost pleasurable to see him again, even if it was to see him be killed. It felt like sacrificing that which was not yours to sacrifice, because the object was already gone, and so it was good to simply watch this sacred person return.
She felt like the children she used to teach, like me, who used to daydream and she would feel insulted and send them out of class. But now she understood that they were sacrificing the daily play of their imagination by being there, by being in Hebrew school, and in this way she began to understand the mysterious connection between sacrifice and dream.
In Hebrew School during particularly anarchic moments, when she lost control of the class, she would resort to lectures about the ill-defined concept of togetherness. “Please, guys, let’s have some togetherness,” she would say as the boys laughed maniacally about their silent sex jokes. “Let’s try to focus and be together in the moment, please,” attempting to rectify their misbehavior by making the stakes sort of spiritual. This never worked, and in fact it often backfired, with at least one of the boys saying, “That’s what she said” in reply. No one ever wanted to be at Hebrew School. It was a good idea but no one knew how to execute it.
In her work desk she kept a stack of notes he’d written her: pointless reminders to pick up the dog’s pills on her commute home, sloppy love letters he left in her purse. It was magic to open the middle drawer and see his handwriting there. Most of the notes were dated, so it was like she could compile his history, could fall through time and find him there, like some sort of trampoline. More and more she was convinced that when people died they became part of time, the passing of moments, the incessant transformation of the present into what has been.
On the day her son was to return, she found among the notes an old gift card for World of Cheesecake; their gift cards’ expiration dates were famously generous, because you never knew when you would crave cheesecake. It could be tomorrow or ten years from now or at the end of your life, as your bones weakened, as your teeth failed (although the gift cards didn’t last quite that long). This was certainly one of the three laziest gifts her dead first husband had given her. He took her to the World of Cheesecake for their anniversary and then gave her a gift card to the very place they were having dessert. Though of course they had more than cheesecake. They had dinner. They had drinks.
She slipped it into her purse, thinking she would treat her son, who was due to arrive in an hour. Her husband would pick up his stepchild, this debtor with whom he shared a name.
Richard Friedman had a photograph of himself shaking hands with Barack Obama on the wall, and he often stood there, studying it. He did so now.
“Barack had no idea what he was doing economically, but he really is such a nice guy,” he said.
“It’s so amazing you got to meet him,” Miss Weinburger said. “If only he asked for your help on the economy.”
“Ha!” he said, not laughing really, just making the sound.
She’d said this to Richard, these exact words, maybe twenty different times. He cycled through the same statements, the same observations and complaints, the same jokes; likewise, Miss Weinburger recycled the same responses, making her career into a fugue state of a single day, a narcotic dream of the same eight hours endlessly refreshed.
Miss Weinburger, despite attending shul twice per month, had only modest religious beliefs. She believed in the spirit, in something more, something very old and very ancient which gave strength to the weakest, which made the lowest among us into heroes. But it occurred to her sometimes, as now, that if there were a God, He gave every person a Richard Friedman, an instance of the primal negative, a terror, a test. If you triumphed over your Richard Friedman you would be saved in the last days. You would qualify for a space in—not heaven exactly, because there was no heaven—but the afterworld, the slipstream of time. Meanwhile all of the Richard Friedmans would evaporate in the steams of hell. Roughly speaking, this was how she continued to justify working for the Foundation. Sacrifice your time now and be resurrected then.
Miss Weinburger searched on her computer for the World of Cheesecake menu, wondering if she were her younger son, what she would order, measuring the prices against the value of the gift card, and the remainder against the balance of her joint bank account, calculating that he could order a cheeseburger, one of his beloved “high gravity” beers, and a split piece of cheesecake without her having to resort to the dreaded credit card whose APR was the very language of her nightmares, the medium of her worst dreams—its terrible numerical value. How could a negative number grow? How could you have less of nothing?
Sometimes Miss Weinburger felt like she was someone else. It was like she smiled and said things but it was not her smiling and saying things, instead some sort of hollowed-out clone which she was stuck inside of. When it turned out that David didn’t want to go to World of Cheesecake, and was planning to go over to a friend’s house for his first night home (to play poker, she assumed), Miss Weinburger entered fairly quickly into one of these dissociative states, the only solution to which was television and red wine.
Miss Weinburger liked red wine. Her disappearance itself disappeared as she drank one glass and then another. Yet often two was too much, while one was too few.
When she drank it was, to her, a preparation for death, for the time when she would join her husband in the substance of time. It also made her sort of horny, or really flirtatious and emotional, which was the form her horniness took now. Whenever their more or less biweekly attempts at intercourse were successful for her, it was because Miss Weinburger could tunnel into this feeling which mixed grief and play in such a way that the one couldn’t easily be distinguished from the other.
“You’ll go to World of Cheesecake another night,” her second husband said. “The gift card is still good until—when is it good until? Let me look.”
“No,” she said, and held the gift card to her chest. David was a nice man. When he wasn’t jerking off in the guest bathroom, or assigning strange names like “weekend shorts” to his clothing, he took her loneliness, cupped it in his hands and drank it away. But she would not let him see the gift card.
“Okay, Debra, I tried to help,” he said, turning to his friend, the television, which was also her friend. Or really it was a meta-friend, a friend which made the friends who lived inside of it possible, which enabled these characters to speak and act out their hospital dramas and sitcom romps.
They had bought the television, which was large, with David’s credit card, and sometimes the bank which lent them the credit would have a commercial on the television, and when this happened Miss Weinburger would think that life was a commercial for life, and that the real thing must begin only at the edge of death. This happened now. “What? Only 10% APR for the first year?” said the slightly famous child actress in the ad.
Since her first husband died in an inpatient ward at night, her thoughts had stretched toward death, as a healthy plant stretches toward its light source.
On the back of the gift card—she turned it over now—was a message from the dead. In a tiny white box intended for one to write “Happy anniversary!” or “You’re the best!”, the dead man wrote, “For the woman I owe everything.” He was always talking this way. “I don’t know what I would do if I never met you,” he would say over dinner, “I don’t know who I would’ve become,” as if when they discovered each other at her coworker’s wedding in Jacksonville, he was some reprobate, instead of a mid-level accountant who only grew less ambitious as he aged.
But over time she understood: he liked this falsehood of all the debt he owed her, all the credit she lent. Her older son liked to talk about how his generation was saddled with so much debt; after losing his job at the tool store, he had recently become political, and his politics seemed to be, mainly, hatred for her generation. But it was people like her and her dead husband who invented credit in the form of the plastic card, swipe and forget, but they made it into a language for things, a romance, a practice of love. They bought vacations that would have sucked their bank accounts dry. They purchased steak dinners they didn’t need with money they didn’t have, and this was how they showed affection. Debt and credit were relationships of love; for her son, they were words for anger, the double root of his rage.
My generation, my generation.
Feel the braille on the front of the card, the silver numbers that connect you to merchandise.
I owe you everything. The hand was gone but the writing remained.
She wondered how long David would stay for.
David came home—which to him was not home as such but rather the house of his stepfather, despite a door mat that said “Welcome Home. It’s A Family Thing”—David came home in the brittle hours of the morning, when the continuity of Miss Weinburger’s sleep was susceptible to the tiniest noises. These included her second husband stretching in his sleep, causing his joints to crackle, or even her own breathing.
She once would get upset about that but had come to see the abrupt end of one’s sleep as a way of preparing to die. In certain senses life was a slumber and death was a new awakening into the sublime beauty of time. There was also something gleefully erotic about waking up at two or three in the lonely sanctity of one’s body. You felt memories flow through you and your body was a conduit for all that had happened to you, the past and present forming a circuit of confusion and ecstasy. You would hallucinate faces in the dark; you would feel the hands that had felt you in the past. In certain ways her horniness was now a vessel of memory, a recollection of satisfaction.
It wasn’t even sexual but just erotic, a tracery of the breeze on her skin through the window screen. Then she heard her second husband—who drank maybe one glass of water per day—smack his lips, and the moment of the disruption of sleep was itself interrupted. She was back in the dumb present, the time of lip smacking, the tense of debt and repayment.
Miss Weinburger heard her second son, David, rustling around in the kitchen. Wearing her cow pajamas, she went down partly out of annoyance—for what possible reason could he, whose cooking repertoire extended to scrambled eggs, be sifting through the stack of pans?—and partly because she knew that his babylike noisemaking was a way of demanding her presence. She understood the codes and sign-systems of her sons better than they themselves did, most likely. Who understood hers?
“David? What’s going on? Can I get you anything?” she asked, finding him pouring oil in a pan and cracking an egg into a bowl.
He turned to her, his eyes red not with drugs or drinking—she couldn’t smell anything on him—but with a panic that he very badly did not want to feel.
“Did you lose at cards?” she asked. “We should’ve gone to World of Cheesecake. I had it all planned out what we’d order.”
“I didn’t play cards,” he said. “I didn’t play. I’m done playing. I’m done playing cards.” He stopped making the eggs, which was a signal for her to take over as he sat down.
As his mother made him eggs, he explained. “I was asking for money. Mom, I hate money. I wish we could live without money. I wish I could say, ‘Here, take this glass in exchange for a haircut,’ or something like that, instead of having money, but unfortunately, we have money. I guess I owe you an explanation. I was doing so, so well at online poker, I’d won a hundred thousand bucks, but then it went to shit. That’s how it goes. You start losing and then you play more to get out of the hole, and you keep losing. Well, anyway, I was in the hole, down down in the hole. But then a friend of mine comes forward with a proposal. This friend of mine, Tyler, Tyler came forward and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m working on getting the money together for a desert tour company, out in West Texas. The idea is basically that West Texas has this totally untapped tourism potential and we’re going to show you the oil fields. We’re going to show you history,’ and so I’m like, okay. That’s who I am, mom. I say okay. I say okay to everything. I don’t think. ‘Do you want to play another game of poker?’ Okay. I always say okay. Okay! I hate okay! So I get a loan from my friend Cage—that’s his last name, but we call him Cage—I got a loan from Cage, who himself is this bigtime gambler, always back and forth from Reno for tournaments and such. Six months or something later, the business gets off the ground. They even have a website, a Facebook page, LinkedIn, everything. Two months later it folds. Turns out that no one wants to visit West Texas. No one wants to go on a fucking desert tour of West Texas and if I had taken a moment, a single moment to research West Texas and what, generally, it’s like out there, I would’ve known that, but I say okay. That’s what I do. I say okay and then I go into things totally blind and—and—can I tell you something? Can I be honest with you, mom? West Texas is an endless desert. There is nothing there to look at. There is nothing there to tour. There is history but it’s all been dissolved. It’s all gone. You wouldn’t be able to find it. It exists virtually, on the internet, written down, but there are hardly any markers or any plaques, and if there were, West Texas is so big you wouldn’t be able to find them. There is nothing there to look at. It is endless. It is endless and terrible and strange. Who would consent to paying for a tour of a place like that?”
“So you have to pay back twenty thousand dollars,” his mother said, serving him the eggs and sitting with him at the breakfast nook where no one ever ate breakfast. Her second husband ate cereal in his useless suit and tie in front of the television; she only ever read the Psalms here, the paeans to God, the desperate attempts to buy Him off with praise in exchange for another life, another world.
“Basically,” he said. “Can you help me? Can you and David help me?” She and her dead husband had made the generational middle-class mistake (particularly common for couples who were dishonest with themselves about how much money they actually made) of not talking to their children about their finances, so it wasn’t surprising that David was blind to the situation. Plus, her second husband’s fairly spacious house was way too expensive and was a large part of the reason they were underwater, and so this must account for some of David’s blindness. She thought of those “Life Is Good” shirts all her friends’ husbands used to wear. How nice for life to be one thing, to be described in a single word.
What he was asking was frankly impossible. “I’ll talk to him in the morning,” she said anyway. “We’ll figure something out.”
Her second son was shaking. “Really?”
“David, I wish you wouldn’t have done this. I hope next time you’ll do a little research into a particular region of the country before you agree to fund a business there. But we’ll figure something out,” she said, even though there was nothing to figure out except for how she would eventually reveal that it was impossible, and how they would move forward then.
“David, eventually I’ll die, and your stepfather will die, and you’ll be left with your own debts,” she said. “This is what the future holds for us. You need to be ready for that.”
“I’m going to be ready,” he said defiantly, squirting more ketchup onto his eggs. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life getting ready for that time. I’m done with video poker. I’m done saying okay to things I don’t understand. I’m going to get my real-estate license renewed and then I’m going to use it, mommy. And then I can pay you back.”
In lieu of telling her son that he shouldn’t worry about paying her back, because there would be nothing to pay back, she said good night. On her way upstairs she remembered that, before bed, she’d stuck the World of Cheesecake gift card into the pocket of her cow pajamas so that her second husband wouldn’t be able to take it and read the sacred note her dead husband had left her. She unfolded it and went in the bathroom and read it, sitting on the toilet cover, listening to the breeze through the gap in the window. Miss Weinburger tried to leave each window in the house cracked the same amount.
I owe you everything. It occurred to her that in lying to her son she was replacing his guilt with her own, his shame with her own shame at not being able to pay, where to so many of her girlfriends it would be as nothing.
She heard David, full with eggs and (in his imagination) liberated, enter the room she had made beautiful. She heard the bedframe shift under his weight and then she heard him talking through the thin wall. His voice had the mixture of fright and relief of someone making a difficult call and reaching the other person’s voicemail. “Hey, Cage—hey, man. I’m sure you’re out so just leaving you a message. Talked to my mom and I think I’m good for the twenty thou, which is awesome, so hopefully that takes some of the heat off you, and off me too. Pretty glad to kind of just have this resolved so I can move on and start something new, you know, no more gambling, no more—none of this kind of shit. Anyway, talk to you soon. Night. Peace. Hope you’re out having fun. Okay. Bye now.”
Miss Weinburger believed she was prepared to die. In death there was no debt, just plenitude and togetherness, just the comforts of the moment. Everything would be repaid. No one would owe anyone anything. She might be prepared to die but she was not prepared to do what she was standing and leaving the bathroom to do now, which was: to knock softly on the door of her son’s room and then tell him that he would have to find some other way of getting the twenty thousand dollars that he spent trying to cash in on the nonexistent tourist industry of the deserts of West Texas, the oil fields and harsh scrubland that no one ever went to by choice.