It’s another school day. I grab my book bag and head down toward the end of the block to Mrs. Tauber’s house. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, she’ll give me a ride to school with her son Mickey. I knock on the door, no response. I ring the doorbell twice and step back as the heavy wooden door creaks open; there is no one there. I step forward cautiously. The door shuts behind me with an abrupt, uncompromising force. My heart accelerates like a car with cut brakes sliding downhill over ice—fast, uncontrolled, a physics problem playing out in real time. The floorboards of the hallway transform into a maze of dividing stairwells; they grow and expand in all directions like an arrogant cancer. I am left standing in an Escher drawing. My fate is sealed; they will come for me.
Footsteps in the distance pound against the worn oak floor. They echo in no discernible pattern, though they seem to be moving closer. These are the footsteps of clowns, the evil clowns, clowns clutching meat cleavers as they race down stairs, sweat bleeding through their brightly colored silk shirts. Fear fills the air; my legs wobble, threatening surrender. I will them forward, hoping to find that one open door, that one hidden pathway that leads back to the safety of life on the outside. I can make out their eyes, glowing red orbs determined to find me, focused on the moment of capture and the inevitable slaughter to follow. The leader is close. I smell his breath. Yellow rotted teeth illuminate a wide exhilarated smile extending straight across his face. The sharp blade clutched in his right hand scrapes against the ground as he pushes forward. I stumble through unfamiliar stairwells. This is how it feels to be trapped beneath the ice of a frozen lake; knowing there must be a way out makes it impossible to stop searching for that one small opening. A sliver of sunlight shoots through the corner of a darkened window; false hope is still hope. From the distance I hear what seems like the sound of someone whispering my name; could this be a crack in the ice? I grab on to that sound for dear life, follow it like a lost prophet because there is nothing else to follow. I stand before a doorway; it seems familiar. In desperation I hurl my twelve-year-old, ninety-five-pound frame against the door. No luck. I get up and prepare to try again when the sound of the voice calls out, clearer now: Stevie, Stevie…I ram the door one last time with everything I’ve got, knowing that my life depends on it. My prayer is answered; the door flies open as my head springs off the pillow, heart pumping in overdrive. I am in the comfort of my own bed, in my own room. Sitting beside me with her hand pressed lightly against my forehead is Grandma Ethel.
“Stevie, Stevie it’s okay honey, you had a bad dream.” She sits by my side for a few minutes, then leans forward to kiss my forehead before heading toward the door. “Go back to sleep, sweetheart. It was just a dream…” Yeah, right Grandma, like that’s ever going to happen.
That dream haunted me over and over again when I was twelve, only this time my grandmother happened to be babysitting. As far as I was concerned, she had guided me to safety from the psycho killer clown house death trap.
My grandmother was Ethel Berkowitz.
You wouldn’t pick up on that right away when we stood next to each other. I’m six feet two inches tall. Ethel was maybe four foot seven on her best day. She never changed from the time I was a toddler until I was off to college. She was a tiny, heavy-set woman who always spoke English with a thick Polish accent. Everything she said sounded Yiddish to me. She had the brownish-red hair that older women in the Bronx always had. I had no idea that her husband Jack, my grandfather, had been dyeing it for years. In fact, for the longest time I had no idea a woman’s hair could go gray.
My grandparents lived in the Bronx, off the Grand Concourse on Tremont Avenue. They were known for the parties they threw. Jack had opened Jacques, a beauty salon in Manhattan where all the starlets had their hair done. Remember the June Taylor Dancers on the Jackie Gleason show? They would go only to Jacques. He told them he was from Paris, figuring Americans wouldn’t know the difference between a French and Polish accent, and he was right.
He loved to entertain. Guests at their parties were served drinks in the living room. Jack sat at the piano and played, reasonably well, occasionally stopping to tell entertaining stories about his travels through Europe. Even as an older man Jack had a certain sophisticated European look that was popular in the 1940s. He sported a well-groomed mustache just above the lip, deep brown eyes, and thick wavy hair, brushed back and slightly to the side, which had now attained a salt-and-pepper hue. I thought of him as the Polish Clark Gable. My mother often bragged that as a young man he had modeled expensive men’s hats.
I don’t recall him ever mentioning that he was AWOL from the Polish army at the time. When he came to New York as an immigrant he was dating Ethel’s younger sister. One day, while Jack waited in the parlor for his date to arrive, Ethel came home from work. She made a beeline over to her father. She kissed his cheek, pulled out the money she made that day, and handed it over to him. That was when Jack decided that Ethel was the sister to pursue.
Jack may have ruled the living room, but Ethel held court in the kitchen. It was a given that if you had a problem, any problem—your marriage, your kids, whatever—you could unburden yourself to Ethel in the kitchen. You’d pull up a chair and Ethel would serve coffee. She’d sit down across from you at the small round kitchen table and listen. She’d occasionally sip from her cup, nod her head in agreement, and listen as you'd say things you would never dream of saying out loud to anyone else. She never broke a confidence, never repeated a secret, and she never judged. For this Ethel was deeply loved by her friends.
After college I was off to California to make my way in the world. I rarely came back to New York, which meant my relationship with my grandparents took on some distance as well. One winter I was in New York on business, so I came to visit. I was in my early thirties by then; my grandparents had drifted well into old age. It was a freezing-cold day. We spent the afternoon drinking coffee and noshing on Danish. Jack decided he could use a walk and asked me to join him. This had never happened before, so I was excited to go. We put on our heavy coats, hats, gloves, and scarves, and made our way down in the elevator that always smelled a hundred years old, a Bronx smell that came from the accumulation of decades of home cooking. We walked silently for a few long minutes, adjusting to the frigid temperature. By this time Jack’s salt-and- pepper hair and moustache had turned pure white. He leaned forward slightly as he walked; there was caution to his gait as he moved through the cold, blowing wind and snow. This was the moment I had always hoped for; Jack was going to impart some heartfelt life lesson, an insight to his young grandson, and I could not have been more stoked. He stopped suddenly and looked me straight in the eye, then he let me have it:
“Your grandmother is driving me crazy.” He tightened his scarf, turned around and made his way back, shuffling without pause to the warmth of the lobby.
I won’t lie. The whole thing was a bit of a disappointment. Neither of us could have known that in less than a year Jack would be dead and Ethel would be flying with me to Los Angeles where I would take on the role of caretaker.
It didn’t take long to notice that Ethel had lost a certain degree of cognitive function. We began our descent into LAX.
“So, Ethel, is this the first time you’ve ever been to Los Angeles?”
She narrowed her eyes and peered at me suspiciously. “What are you talking about here?” She looked out the window and with utter certainty let me know, “This is the Bronx!”
“Ethel, we just left the Bronx, now we’re in Los Angeles, don’t you remember?”
She paused a moment, then waved a crooked little finger at me. “Of course I remember. I don’t forget nothing!” Jack’s words of wisdom began to take on greater meaning.
She was never quite certain as to who I was or why I was talking to her so much. Yet, through it all, she had a certain charm and determination that made me want to entertain her, keep her happy, make her smile. I lived in a small apartment and worked full time; there was no way to leave her alone. I arranged for a room at an upscale board-and-care facility in Santa Monica, just a half mile from the beach. She had her own room. Everyone ate together in the dining hall and there were activities so she could make friends. I showed up at meals, made certain she ate, took her out to visit family on weekends, and got to know some of the other residents.
Every Tuesday afternoon the staff set up a Bingo game. I came during my lunch break and called out the numbers. Afterward they played big band records for entertainment. One afternoon when they spun a Count Basie record, Ethel made her way straight over to me. She barely came up to my navel. She raised both arms over her head and said, “Come on, Mister, it’s time to dance.” So there we were, in the middle of the rec room surrounded by other residents leaning on their tennis-ball-reinforced walkers as we danced away. I tried to spin her around. “Hey, not so fast, Mister.” It was like taking my grandmother to the prom. The other women stared with envy as we shuffled back and forth, Ethel’s hands just reaching my shoulders, holding on, a smile etched on her face, enhanced by the deep red lipstick she always favored. When the record ended there came a small round of applause. Ethel took a bow, said thank you, then shuffled slowly over to the couch to take a well-earned breather.
This may have actually been more fun than my prom.
Each time I showed up for a visit it came as a complete surprise to Ethel. My cousin Jody came to see her one evening. Ethel had a question for her.
“There is this man, a giant man who comes to see me…who is this giant man?”
“Oh, that’s your grandson Stevie,” she’d tell her. Ethel would nod in recognition, then immediately forget.
When I’d come to see her she’d be wandering the hallways alone, pushing forward on her walker. I’d say “Hi Grandma,” and she’d look up at me with a start. Once, when another resident walked by, Ethel introduced me with great pride.
“I want you should meet my nephew.”
“That’s not your nephew Ethel. That’s your grandson.”
“How do you know my grandson?”
“Ethel, he comes to visit every day.”
“How come nobody told me?”
Months passed. I’d come during meals and find her at a different table each night. One night I showed up at dinner and Ethel was sitting all alone at a big round table that seated eight, her tiny frame hunched over a bowl of soup, a look of exasperation on her face.
“The food’s no good, the soup is cold,” a self-fulfilling prophecy when you stare at the bowl for twenty minutes. No one would sit with her; she grew more and more isolated and suspicious.
“Grandma, why won’t you eat your soup?”
She had a ready answer. “It’s the chef, he’s an anti-Semite. I tried to pay him a compliment one day, but he thought I insulted him, so now he is trying to poison me.”
More and more Ethel spent her time alone, seated apart from the others during activities. She was surrounded by strangers in a house she did not recognize. Where was her family, where was her home? Through it all, she never gave an inch. “Don’t tell me, I don’t forget nothing.” That was her mantra, until suddenly it wasn’t. One Saturday afternoon after work I came to visit. Ethel was sitting in her wheelchair, alone, lost in thought. Her face had an intense and confused look, like someone trying to solve a crossword puzzle in a language she did not speak. I walked over and asked how she was feeling, how was the food, how was she sleeping? For a moment she ignored me, her fingers clutched tightly against the handles of her wheelchair. She nodded her head, said hello, then back to silence. We spent over an hour that way. Her eyes scoped the room, looking for something familiar; the hallways, the doors, all a maze of stairwells leading nowhere.
I leaned forward to kiss her cheek and say goodbye. I tried to comfort her, put my arm over her shoulder. She abruptly sat up and grabbed my arm. The fear in her eyes said it all; she was deep inside a terrible dream, yet she knew she was wide awake. In a moment of exacting clarity Ethel understood her situation: she really didn’t know who she was, where she was, and there was nothing that would make it stop. The giant stranger sitting beside her was her only chance of escape.
“Wait, don’t go.” She was pleading now… “Who are you, how will I find you? Where will I eat, where will I sleep?” The door had shut behind her; she was trapped, left alone with her own vision of axe-wielding clowns. They were pushing wheelchairs, mopping floors, wandering the hallways, coming for her.
I tried to comfort her. I told her everything I could think of to make her understand that it was all okay. I told her I would be back tomorrow, that she was not alone, that people were watching over her all the time. I couldn’t find a way to wake her from her nightmare the way she had woken me so many years ago. When I left, her eyes followed me to the door, her last hope gone. I still feel that stare.
What if I had stayed longer?
The call came later that afternoon. Ethel appeared to be asleep in her wheelchair when they came to get her ready for lunch. “We are so sorry for your loss.”
Maybe the only cure for a living nightmare is to go to sleep.
Sometimes I’ll hear from a friend who wants to meet up for a cup of coffee, maybe they need someone to talk to. I sit across from them, occasionally sipping from my cup. I nod my head, I listen, I don’t judge, and I never tell.