Kaplan

By Jeanne Levy-Church

Kaplan left for work yesterday morning holding a glass of grapefruit juice in his left hand.

“Why are you taking a glass of juice?” I shouted out the window.

“What?” he shouted looking up at the sky.

“The glass!” I shouted back.

“Oh that,” he said, gazing at his left hand. He turned around and walked back up the steps of our brownstone where I stood waiting at the door, an old sweater wrapped around my shoulders. “Here it is. Take it,” he said as he handed me the glass. Later that day as I was sipping my tea I get this call.

“I’m losing it,” Kaplan says in a whisper.

“Losing what?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “My head I guess,” he says, gasping.

“Are you sick?”

“No.”

“Well what’s going on?” I say. “The guys at the store are OK?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“If you’re sick come home right now,” I say.

“No,” he says. “I’m going to take off a few hours, go to the park.”

“You sure about that?”

An hour after the call, Kaplan’s at the front door ringing the bell. “You live here,” I say as I open the door. “What’s with the ringing?”

“I don’t know,” he says turning his head away from mine. “I need to get out of here.” He’s standing in the foyer scratching his head.

“What are you talking about?” I ask.

“I want to get out of here. See some trees. My head’s spinning,” he says.

“What does that mean? Your head’s spinning?” I ask.

“I don’t know?” Kaplan says, pulling on his curly hair with all five fingers. It’s scary as shit. Maybe it’s the stationary store? What’s the point? I mean since Mom died we have money so why do I need to work there?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I thought you liked the store, your job, all the guys there.”

“I don’t think it’s the store,” Kaplan says, as he walks into the living room and sits down on the tweed couch. “It’s something else.”

Kaplan and I are close, married twenty years, close as close can be. When we met Kaplan said the universe only gives us a sneak peek at each other. “Sneaky, sneaky,” he shouted lifting his long thin arms above his head and then twirling around and grabbing my chin. “This beautiful face. Just to know it,” he said, tightening his fingers so that I could feel his nails on my skin. “These lips, this head,” he said, moving his fingers all around the surface of my face. “We have this time together. Even when we get old and we’re limping around — we’ll limp like crazy animals. We’ll laugh. We’ll tease each other. We’ll call ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Limp. Each day together is an adventure, Mary,” he said, looking up.

It made sense to me that day when Kaplan said all that. It hit my logical mind like a rock.

“We’re the lovebirds, the duets.” That’s what Kaplan started calling us. “We’re lucky as hell,” he said. “We have time to see each other’s noses. Maybe by the time we die I’ll understand your nose. That would be something.”

The guy at the desk looks like a serial killer. He’s got pimples all over his face, even on his nose.

Kaplan likes to touch my nose, slide his pinky up and down over the bumps. He likes to pat my back. He likes to put his fingers on my thigh when we talk. He takes my hand on our morning walk around the block. We live in Brooklyn, quiet neighborhood. Our street is pretty simple: A few brownstones — one blue, three gray, one red, two yellow, a few bushes, a few scrawny trees. That’s it. Most mornings Kaplan makes bacon and eggs. At night we eat hamburgers, chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs. We go to the movies. We do regular stuff. We’re not out to make some big statement. We work. Kaplan manages a stationary store. I sell furniture. We have friends. We like to be together. So who can figure why Kaplan starts in with this crazy talk?

“I’m losing it,” he says again the next morning.

“Losing what?” I ask as we eat our bacon and eggs.

“I don’t know?” Kaplan says, shaking his head, his curly hair flying around his long face.

“Got to go,” he says suddenly as he wipes egg off his chin and gets up.

“What about our walk?” I ask.

“No walk today. Maybe tomorrow,” he says as he turns his head toward the kitchen door. I stand up and look out the window as Kaplan exits the room. I feel lost too. I feel like a boulder landed on my chest.

So that was Wednesday. Now it’s Thursday and Kaplan hasn’t come home at the usual time. He calls me around 7:00 from Motel 6. Says he needs a night alone.

“To think,” he says.

“Think about what?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says as he hangs up abruptly.

‘Time for a scotch,” I say out loud. I get the bottle from the cupboard in the kitchen. I knock over the vinegar in the process. But there’s no mess. I sit down in the living room and pour myself a glass. I wonder what Kaplan is doing at Motel 6? What do they have over there — a TV yeah, but what else? Here we have books and magazines. We get HBO. We have games — checkers, chess, Backgammon. Kaplan and I aren’t big on games but it’s nice to know we have them. I think about Kaplan in some crap Motel 6 room. What’s he doing there? He must be sitting on the bed. I doubt they have any chairs in the room. I decide to go on line and look up Motel 6. See what’s going on there.

I sit at my computer that is on our communal desk. I like our desk — thick, dark brown wood, square, plenty of room to spread things around. I see the pictures of the rooms at Motel 6 — small bed, nightstand, a tiny plastic chair that looks like a Christmas ornament to me. It’s 9 o’clock at night by now. I decide to head over to the motel. There’s only one in our area. I grab my coat. It’s cold outside. I get over there around 9:15.

The guy at the desk looks like a serial killer. He’s got pimples all over his face, even on his nose. He has thick greasy black hair that he tucks around his big ears, tattoos run up and down his fat arms.

“I’m looking for my husband, Kaplan Grim,” I say.

“Room 607,” he says, looking down at his computer and pointing his finger to the right.

“Thanks,” I say. I get to Kaplan’s room and I knock on the door. Kaplan moves around for a minute or two before opening the door. I’m patient. I know Kaplan’s having a tough time. No reason to get all bitchy about waiting outside in the cold. Finally the door opens.

“It’s you,” Kaplan says. “I figured you’d come over.” I step inside the room. The orange bedspread has a stain.

“Where should I sit?” I ask.

“Sit on the bed. The chair’s too small,” Kaplan says.

“The bed’s not bad,” I say as I sit down. I quit smoking but earlier in the day I bought a pack of Marlboros. I light up.

“Smoking huh?” Kaplan says squinting his eyes. “What good is that going to do?”

“No good,” I say, as I inhale.

“Well here I am,” Kaplan says, sitting down next to me on the bed.

“Weird without you in the house. That’s all I can say.”

“I bet,” Kaplan, says stroking the top of his head.

“So do you think you can come home tomorrow?” I ask. Kaplan pauses. We both hear the drip, drip of the water coming out of the faucet in bathroom. Kaplan moves his right hand near to mine.

“I don’t know. I think I’m going to drive upstate, see Aunt Sissy. Hang out up there.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know?” Kaplan says, scratching his head.

“Why can’t you feel lost at home?” I ask, taking another drag on my cigarette. Kaplan pauses. He moves his hand away from mine.

“I don’t know. Instinct. Instinct says I need to get away. See a tree.”

“We have trees,” I say.

“Yeah, but where Sissy lives it’s all trees and it’s quiet,” he says, scratching his chest. I get up and look for a place to put out my cigarette.

“I don’t get it,” I say.

“Don’t get what?”

“Why you have to leave?” Kaplan gets up off the bed and walks toward the bathroom. He turns on the faucet. When I turn around I can see he’s washing his hands. He’s more thorough than usual. His hands are covered in soap bubbles. He rinses them, dries them with one of those thin Motel 6 towels. He walks back to the bed and sits down.

“You know, I said I like things small. I said I didn’t want some big to-do life.”

“I don’t get it,” I say again, my voice cracking a bit.

“I know, ” Kaplan says, staring out the front window.

“So many people here,” he says after a few seconds. “I mean who would think there would be so many people staying at Motel 6. I figured there’d be a couple of truck drivers. That’s it.”

“So where’s the ashtray?” I ask.

“Are you kidding,” Kaplan says. “No one smokes anymore. Here’s a glass,” he says, getting up and heading toward the bathroom with great intention as if he’s going on a hike. As he walks back toward me I notice he’s hunched over.

“Something wrong with your back?” I ask.

“Nah, it’s a little stiff that’s all. Standing behind the counter at the store all day, I guess.”

Kaplan sits down on the other bed facing me. He puts the glass on the night table. I take a drag on my cigarette and then I smash it into the glass.

“It’s no good, you smoking.”

“Yeah, well I’m upset.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to smoke.”

“Well it doesn’t mean I don’t have to smoke. OK I shouldn’t smoke. But fuck, I feel like crap. So why can’t you come home? We can talk,” I say leaning toward Kaplan.

“Can’t talk about it.”

“We talked when your mother died. We talked for days, weeks. You were talking away and we made sense of everything and then when Al got cancer, why we called ourselves the Talkers. You called us Mr. and Mrs. Talker. You were joking around, putting your hand on my mouth. We had fun talking. What’s this now? I don’t get this at all. Not at all,” I say, scratching my knee hard.

“I don’t know,” Kaplan says shaking his head. “We shouldn’t have had so much fun after we found out Al had cancer. That was fucked up. We should have called ourselves the Talkers before we found out he had cancer, not after. That was weird. Give me one of those cigarettes.”

“No way, you with those lungs of yours. No way Jose.”

“Oh Jeez, Mary. It’s always like this. You get all the pleasure.”

“I’m not even going to respond to that,” I say. “We’re not just starting out here,” I add, rubbing my nose. “And by the way it wasn’t all fun and games when Al got cancer. We had plenty of rough times.”

“You’re right about that,” Kaplan says, nodding his head.

“So what is it? You’d rather be with a bunch of trees than me?”

“That’s not fair, Mary,” Kaplan says, grabbing a tissue from his pocket and blowing his nose. “I need to think.”

“Think about what?”

“I don’t know. That’s the problem.”

“So what started it?”

“I can’t pinpoint it,” Kaplan says, looking up at the ceiling. “Maybe it was last week when we watched that travel show.”

“Oh, so we don’t travel?”

“That’s not it.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t know?” Kaplan says standing up.

“I feel like a box.”

“But you said.”

“I know I said what I said.”

“What did you say?” I ask as I stand up. My legs are stiff. I rub my calves. Then I sit back down on the bed.

“You know, I said I like things small. I said I didn’t want some big to-do life.”

“Yeah you said that and I took it to heart. I took it straight to my heart all these years,” I say, tapping the pack of Marlboros. “We agreed totally on that one. I mean I could have studied something. I could have become a professional. But I didn’t. I liked our life. And I asked you about the whole box thing,” I say, my voice cracking. “You remember?”

“Yeah, I know we talked about it.”

“Yeah and you called us the Boxes. And you said you loved being in a box with me.”

“I know. I know. I don’t think that’s the problem.” Kaplan said, putting the tissue back inside his pocket. “Not the problem at all.”

“So what is the problem?”

“I don’t know,” Kaplan says, sitting down and putting his head in his hands. “Maybe it’s Mom.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah, Mom.”

“What about Mom?”

“I don’t know, the way she died it haunts me.”

“You mean ’cause she was alone?”

“Yeah. And we had that fight.”

“But she knew you loved her.”

“I don’t know if she did.”

“Well you told her. I heard you in the hospital, I heard you say, ‘I love you Ma.’ Jeez Kaplan, we talked about this a million times and then some.”

“Yeah, but everyone says I love you when someone is dying.”

“No they don’t.”

“Yeah they do,” Kaplan says, drumming his fingers on the nightstand.

“Listen Mary, I really want a smoke. Just one.”

“Jeez,” I say as I hand Kaplan a cigarette. I hand him the matches and he lights up. “Great for your lungs.”

“I know, I know,” he says, as he inhales. “Listen, Mary, why don’t you go home. Get a good sleep. I’ll call you after work.”

“Come on Kappy. Why do you want that?”

“I don’t know why? I don’t know what to do!” Kaplan shouts. I stand up, put my coat on and grab the cigarettes.

“OK then,” I say. Kaplan comes up to me and gives me a cheek kiss. It’s sweet of him but then again so what. I can hear him walking toward the bathroom as I leave. I shut the door with a bang. I’m saying something with all that noise.

When I get home I decide to call Sissy. Kaplan talks to her once in a while. Maybe she has a clue. I sit down at the kitchen table and take out my address book. I dial her number. My fingers feel weird like they should be resting, not moving around a phone. Sissy answers. Her voice sounds tired.

“Yeah,” she says.

“It’s Mary, Aunt Sis. Sorry to call so late.” I can hear her breathe as if her mouth was on my neck.

“What the hell, Mary, it’s close to 11:00. Did something happen to Kaplan?”

“Not exactly.” I can hear her sitting up.

“Well what is it?”

“He feels lost.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean in his head he feels lost.”

“But he has his job?”

“Yeah.”

“You and him are OK?”

“Yeah.”

“Al’s OK?”

“Yeah.”

“So why are you calling me? He’s fine,” she says, hanging up the phone. I feel pissed off. I redial.

“Yeah, you again.”

“Yeah.” I say. “Listen, he’s in trouble. He wants to come hang out with you.”

“With me?”

“Yeah, he wants to be around trees.”

“Well, I cut down most of my trees.”

“OK. I’ll tell him that. But I think he wants to see you.”

“Why?”

“Don’t know. Says he’s feeling lost.”

“Well tell him welcome to the human race.”

“He talks to you?”

“Yeah, once in a while.”

“Is he telling you anything unusual?”

“Not really.”

“Any scrap of information would help.”

“We just chat, every few weeks he calls. Have chatted for years. You know that.”

“Has he said anything different?”

“I already told you no. Listen Mary, go to sleep. Things always change in the morning.” She hangs up the phone. I go upstairs to get ready for bed. I feel strange. I go looking for my toothbrush. It’s always right by the sink in a glass cup. I don’t see it. I figure I’ll go to sleep with dirty teeth. I don’t bother to take off my clothes either. Taking off my clothes doesn’t make sense anymore. I get in bed and grab a pillow and squeeze it into my chest as if it’s my kid or something. I start to fall sleep. Just as I’m going under, the phone rings. It’s Kaplan.

“Can’t sleep,” he says. “The bed sucks here. Too soft.”

“Come home,” I say. There’s a long pause.

“Mary.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m afraid.”

“I know,” I say. “Me too.”

“We understood everything so quickly.”

“It was fast,” I say.

“It was great. I mean it is great — really so great, Mary. Don’t get me wrong. I mean the way we set things up together.”

“It was going good until tonight,” I say.

“I was happy. I mean I am happy. So fucking happy,” Kaplan says, his voice cracking a little bit.

“Me too,” I say.

“Do you want me to come over and bring you some scotch, a cigarette?” I can hear Kaplan fidgeting with something.

“I’m reading this Buddhist book.”

“Buddhist book?”

“Yeah, I found it on the bus.”

“So what does it say?”

“Nothing special,” Kaplan mumbles.

“So let me come over and have a look.”

“It says that when you come to your edge you have to sit with it.”

“With what?”

“With the discomfort.”

“So come home and sit with it.”

“It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t feel discomfort at home.”

“Yeah you do. That’s why you left.”

“No you don’t get it.”

“What don’t I get?”

“I don’t know,” Kaplan groans.

“But there must be something.”

“Yeah.”

“So let me come over.”

“OK,” Kaplan says. “Come over. And bring that scotch.”

I get out of bed. It’s a good feeling to be all dressed and ready to go. Reminds me of my mother singing: “Dressed and ready to go, that’s the way we Gary girls are.” I’m Mary Gary. Now I’m Mary Grim, I think to myself as I walk down the stairs. I grab the bottle of scotch and my purse and head out to the car. It’s a short drive but I’m having a lot of thoughts. I’m not calm. I’m feeling pissed off. Why now with this lost stuff? Kaplan has been so steady all these years. We’ve had a good ride, I think to myself, no fights, no conflicts. We used to call ourselves the Harmonies. “We welcome Mr. and Mrs. Harmony to the dinner table tonight,” Kaplan would say pulling out the chair for me. “Mr. and Mrs. Harmony will be having steak tonight with roast potatoes on account of their twentieth wedding anniversary.” That’s what Kaplan said last Wednesday night.

“Twenty years. God damn, Mary,” he said, holding my hand across our small round dining table. “Twenty years of bliss.”

“Yeah, bliss my ass.” I say this last sentence aloud. Helps me release some steam. I don’t want to show up angry to the Motel 6. What good would that do? Besides we’re all entitled to feel lost. I’m still talking out loud as I pull into the parking area. I’m driving around looking for room 607. I remember a long time ago Kaplan singing “607, I’m in heaven.” I asked him back then. “Why 607?” He just shrugged his shoulders. I get to the room, park the car and walk to the door. I knock. This time Kaplan opens the door right away, almost as if he’s been standing there the whole time.

“I have a clue,” he says, as he lets me in.

“Oh yeah,” I say, brushing some loose strands of hair off my face.

“Yeah, so last week this kid comes into the shop. Says he wants to buy an easel. Says he wants to be an artist. The kid’s like ten and he’s all excited. I tell the kid this is a stationary store.”

“So where can I get an easel?” he asks.

I say, “Well, where’s your mother?”

“What mother?” the kid says.

“Well you’re a kid, you can’t be walking around without a parent. Where’s your father?”

“What father?” the kid says.

“The kid looks strange like he has something in his eyes. He’s squinting and also, oh yeah, he’s shaking his head in this weird way. I tell the kid to sit down. I tell the kid to give me his home number. I go to get a pencil and pad and when I get back the kid’s gone.”

“So what did you do?” I ask as I take off my coat.

“I froze. I just stood there.”

“Why didn’t you run after him?”

“Don’t know?” Kaplan says, sitting down and putting his head in his hands. It looked to me like his hands were a cup and his head was a ball. “I should have gone after him.”

“He’s not your kid,” I say. “He’s fine,” I add, thinking the kid’s probably dead.

“You think so? I thought with his head shaking maybe he was sick like Al. Not that he had cancer or anything but maybe he had some neurological illness.”

“The kid’s too young for that,” I say, touching Kaplan’s elbow with the palm of my hand. “Want some scotch?” I ask.

“Sure. I’ll get a glass.” Kaplan says. “You want some too?”

“Yeah,” I say. “So what’s the clue?” I ask.

“Well the kid. The kid’s the clue.”

“What about the kid?”

“Why didn’t I run after him? Jeez Mary, the kid was weird. He could be in trouble.”

Kaplan sticks the glass out and I pour the scotch. Then I fill my glass. “We might as well smoke too,” I say.

“You bet,” he says. “Just today.”

“We’ve been so good all these years,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says looking down at the floor.

“One night of smoking’s not going to kill anyone. So maybe this is all about your brother.” I say.

“How’s that?”

“Well your brother’s sick, right, and so is the kid.”

“That’s a thought but I’m not feeling it. I don’t think it’s the kid.”

“What about Al? Maybe all this is about Al?”

“No I went through all the Al stuff. Besides he’s in remission.” We both sip on our scotch.

“Cold out there?” Kaplan asks, raising his bushy eyebrows.

“Yeah, winter and all.”

“The blankets are thin here.”

I look down and stroke the bed. “Very thin,” I say. “Aren’t you tired?” I ask.

“Nah. That’s another weird thing. I don’t feel tired. I know I should but I don’t.”

“We’re usually dead asleep by now,” I say.

“We sure are,” Kaplan, says, looking at his watch. “It’s quarter to twelve.”

“What about tomorrow?” I ask

“I’ll call in sick. I have a ton of sick days.”

I look down at Kaplan’s shoes. “Your shoes are all muddy,” I say. “What happened?”

“Oh I stepped in mud,” Kaplan says.

“What mud?”

“The mud in the park.”

“When were you in the park?”

“I left work early today, went for a walk. I told you I want to see a tree.”

“That’s good,” I say. “Why don’t you walk in the park everyday?”

“I’m not feeling anything in the park.”

“You mean you don’t feel lost there?”

“Right.”

“What’s so bad about not feeling lost in the park? Why do you have to go all the way up to Sissy’s place to feel lost? It’s so far. Just come home already. Tomorrow we can go to the movies or something. It’ll be so nice.”

“No.” Kaplan says in a firm voice. “No,” he says again. “I have a right to feel lost. It’s a human right. It’s my human right,” he says crossing his arms.

“Who says?”

“This book,” he says pulling a book out from under the covers.

“So that’s that Buddhist book?”

“Yeah,” he says handing it to me. I look at the cover. It’s a yellow paperback with a picture of a couple of trees. “When Things Fall Apart,” it says.

“So what’s this all about?”

“It’s like I said on the phone, the book says when you get to your edge you should just sit there. Don’t panic, it says. Relax, it says. Be in the discomfort.”

Kaplan unfolds his hands. He stands up. “Listen, maybe I need to be alone.”

“But I just got here,” I say.

“Yeah, but maybe I made a mistake. Listen, I’m sorry Mary. I just want to be alone.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Watch TV. How about you go home and we both watch the weather channel for a while.”

“But we can do that here,” I say.

“I know I know. But I have to be alone like right now.”

Kaplan grabs my coat off the bed and hands it to me.

“OK OK,” I say. “I’m going.” Before you know it Kaplan opens the door. I walk out. Kaplan waves goodbye as I button my coat and get in the car. I drive home. I park the car in the usual spot. I get out. Soon I’m in bed. I don’t bother to take off my clothes. I’m hoping Kaplan will call again. I turn on the TV and watch the weather channel for a while. There’s a bad storm in Kansas. There’s always something wrong with the weather, I think to myself as I fall asleep. The morning comes fast. I wake up early, 6:30. I feel my heart pounding. I try and think of that book. What did that book say? I dial information to get the number of the motel. Kaplan and I usually use the phone book. “Why pay an extra charge?” Kaplan always says. “Who cares about an extra charge?” I say out loud as I speak with the operator. “Motel 6 over here in Greenpoint, on Norman Street,” I say. I like how the number just pops out of the operator’s mouth as if the number was a ball or something. Kaplan picks up.

“Jeez Mary, it’s 6:30.”

“I know I know,” I say.

“So what’s going on?”

“What did that book say?”

“Say about what?”

“About being on the edge or something.”

“Oh yeah,” Kaplan says. “The edge. It says to relax. Just be in the discomfort. It says it won’t kill you to be in it.”

“Well, I feel like it will,” I say.

“Now Mary.”

“No No,” I say. “I can’t breathe.”

“Don’t panic Mary. Panicking right now is wrong for the both of us. Just breathe.”

“What do you mean just breathe?”

“The book says to count to eight. Well, the book doesn’t say that but that’s what I do.”

“So what.”

“I mean breathe in. You know inhale and as you do go real slow and count to eight. Then breathe real slow out — you know exhale and count to eight. Just do it. I’m right here.”

“No you’re not.”

“Well, I’m here on the phone. Jeez Mary I’m here OK.”

“Should I sit up?”

“Yeah, yeah. Good point. The book says to sit up. See you’re a natural.”

“A natural what?”

“A natural Buddhist.”

“I don’t want to be a Buddhist,” I say, my voice cracking.

“Mary, calm down. Listen to me. You don’t have to be a Buddhist. Just breathe. Breathe in — I mean inhale for eight and then exhale for eight.”

“And then what?” I say. “What do I do after that?”

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About Jeanne Levy-Church

Jeanne Levy-Church is a native New Yorker but spent a large part her life in the Detroit area where she worked as a psychiatric social worker. When she returned to New York she was instrumental in creating an organization whose mission (in part) was to provide strategic help to people caught in the criminal justice system. These experiences in Detroit and New York had a deep impact on Jeanne's writing.

Jeanne has been published in the journals: Prism International, Apostrophe, Washington Square, Yemassee and the Chiron Review.

She has studied with Sheila Kohler, Elizabeth Gaffney and Gordon Lish.

One Comment

  1. Anna-marie
    Posted October 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Love it. Please tell me you wrote more.

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