Condolence

By Michele Ruby

The family of Jack Shane
wishes to thank you
for your kindness and sympathy
at this difficult time.

The family

Well, some of us. Me, mostly.

My sister Jeanette has gone back to Cleveland on the first flight out after the funeral. “I’m not good at death,” she says. “Who is?” I say. “Well, you obviously are,” she tells me as she clicks shut her carryon. “You’ve got everything under control.” Not by choice. “I’ve got to get back to my life,” she says, Dad’s muffler artfully draped around the shoulders of her coat.

I, on the other hand, have no desire to get back to my life. My father’s illness and death have been my life. One hundred and forty-three condolences to respond to. Is there life after death? I could use some.

My brother Charles is also no help. Good-time Charlie, Dad called him, purely as wishful thinking. Charles wears his depression like a get-out-of-jail-free card. He sighs as he thumbs through the stack of condolence notes and donations. “None of them are my friends,” he says, “and nobody can read my handwriting anyway.” He returns the cards, now somewhat out of order, to my desk, moving slowly, as if he were underwater. I suppose he is. “Surprising how many people claim to have liked the old charlatan,” he mutters to our mom.

Our mother came in for the funeral without her current husband. Her face is now a taut mask of surgical effect, over which her tears glide elegantly. She’s here because even after all these years she can’t stay away. Dad is a car wreck she can’t turn her eyes from. She has to slow down to see it before she speeds past. “Now’s your chance to get the last word in,” Charles says, not loud enough for her to hear him.

of Jack Shane

The body in Jack Shane’s grave at Beth Shalom Cemetery was Yaakov Olshansky eighty-three years ago. A judge made him Jack Shane sixty years ago, right before he married Marian Weiss. They named their children Mavis, Jeanette and Charles. As if one look at us wouldn’t dispel any notion that we were Irish or French or English or any other European besides Eastern. His funeral was probably the first time he’s been in the same room with a rabbi since his Bar Mitzvah. It was definitely the first time he’s been in the same room as my mother since they divorced when I was in college. She’s on her third husband; he never remarried. “Too much trouble,” he used to say about it, meaning marriage. “Too much trouble,” our mom used to say about it, meaning him.

Yaakov Olshansky, now surrounded by Jews. Astoundingly, at his own deathbed request. God will not be fooled; he never was.

wishes

If wishes were horses, Jews would gallop away, my dad once said. I’d love to gallop away from this, this event – full of gatherings and phone calls and mail and food and tears and emptiness. I wish, oh how I wish it had happened before. Before he forgot that he was Jack Shane and became Yaakov Olshansky again. Before he let his English gallop away and took to telling us in Yiddish everything we might ever have wanted to know, so frustrated at our frustration. Before he forgot who we were. Before he soiled himself and wet himself and couldn’t get food on a fork or a spoon to his mouth. He was a ghost well before he died. The family wishes he’d taught us a little Yiddish. The family wishes Jack Shane would haunt us again. The family wishes.

to thank you

Those few of you who visited him in the last years, when it was so very tough to be with him. Oh, yes, I also want to thank those of you who didn’t come, who made do with an occasional card or phone call, petering out to silence. I do not call you cowards because I know he’s your mirror. At least your memory of him will feature a fast-talking, life-of-the-party raconteur, and not what he ended up as, what I remember him as. The emperor with no clothes.

for your kindness and sympathy

And food. The cold cuts, the rye bread, the lox, the bagels, the kosher pickles, the fruit salad, the mandelbrot, the coffee cake, the carrot cake, the cookies. We had blt’s the night he died, the night before the onslaught of shiva food. You did know he loved bacon? Like garlic to ward off vampires, he ate bacon as if it would keep Poland at bay. When he stopped eating it, Poland came right in. Yaakov Olshansky. Two cups of tea from one bag.

at this difficult time.

By time, I guess they mean now, the now that began when it began and stretches beyond each of our endings. Life. Death. A difficult time. For Jeanette, a small woman in a big house in Cleveland. For Charles, lost in his own head. For me, Mavis, with one hundred and forty-two more to go.

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About Michele Ruby

Michele Ruby lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, her children and her incredibly talented and brilliant grandchildren. When she’s not writing or reading, she plays tennis, canasta, mah jong, and – lest she become a cultural stereotype – she tap dances. Her fiction has appeared in Arts & Letters (winner of 2015 fiction prize), The Adirondack Review (Fulton Prize finalist)Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Shenandoah, The Louisville Review, Lilith, Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, Rosebud, InkwellHayden’s Ferry Review, Phoebe, Denver Quarterly, New Delta ReviewThe MacGuffinAlimentum, and many other journals.  A collection of stories was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award, and two others were finalists for the St. Lawrence Book Award. She has an MFA from Spalding University, has taught fiction writing at Bellarmine University, and is now a fiction editor for Best New Writing.  She’s currently wrestling with a novel.

4 Comments

  1. Virginia Ward
    Posted January 2018 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Well deserved first place. Kudos.

  2. Bonnie Omer Johnson
    Posted January 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Such universality makes this a bittersweet prose to read. So many of us relate to being the capable one, and are haunted by the known history of the treatment of Jews. I admire greatly the structure of “Condolence”, the deeply personal experience of a parent’s death, the broader dynamic between siblings against the wide cultural references to aging, to dementia, and to one’s culture of origin. Another brilliant contest winner by the deserving Michele Ruby.

  3. Diane Tobin
    Posted January 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I loved this short story. Mickey captured the very accurate and sad feelings of my own father’s death in just a few paragraphs. Thanks for a great read.

  4. Betty Pohn
    Posted January 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    So much thought in a concise manner. I love the car wreck analogy!

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