2009 Second Prize in Prose
THE BROOKLYN FOSSIL by Miles Margulies
I sat on an old mohair couch surrounded by bits of porcelain nothings in my great aunt Florence’s apartment in Brooklyn. She’d told me to stay in the living room and watch TV while she and my father visited with each other in the dining room. On the TV, an old Dutch archaeologist was stalking about the chalky, ancient barracks of old Masada under the crackling Israeli desert sun and grinning at me through the tiny Panasonic. In the meantime, I could hear Florence, the great aunt I speak of, and my father quietly chat with each other over the old hickory table. They were talking about the towers, which had fallen just a few months prior to our visit. “I used to be able to see them from that window,” she said, motioning to the dirty pane above her chipped radiator. “That day, I mean, you couldn’t believe the smoke, the dust, my god.”
Florence was a bitter, stern-browed Jew from Coney Island, a product of the depression in which her father, my dad’s grandfather, had abandoned her and her siblings, fleeing from the responsibility that came with a family of five in hard times. During the war, she joined the WAC’s, an aviation unit for women that entailed the testing of prototypical airplanes before they were approved for production. After the war, she came back to Brooklyn, got a secretarial job, and settled into the life of a stringent spinster, eventually estranging herself from all the living members of my family, including my father.
The whole visit in fact, had been my idea. My father had been reluctant to even take me to see her, he had only told me of their relationship and the extent of her eccentricities and flaws. He had never been on healthy terms with her and after the death of my grandfather, had found no reason to keep in touch and hadn’t. It wasn’t until my curiosity had boiled over about my Jewish roots, the origin of the stories he had told me, and the place of his childhood and I’d begged him to take me to meet some of the family that he’d consented to making the journey to lower Brooklyn.
Seated now on my aunt’s couch in the cold little apartment, I buried my nose into the neckline of my jacket and peered down at my hands. I rubbed my fingers together, still slick from the initial, awkward handshake. The skin on my aunt’s small hands was saturated with various moisturizing creams and oils, the preservation woes of the elderly. I wiped my hands on my jeans and looked up at the sand-caked archaeologist as he sifted through holy sand and ceramic splinters.
I heard movement in the other room, chairs being pushed back, creaking as Florence and my father rose out of them. It must be time to go. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to talk to my aunt. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to get any sort of sense of her as her true unguarded self, that she would still remain the woman from my dad’s stories, the cold old woman who never came to the funeral of my grandfather, her little brother because of a decades-old feud, and festered in her tiny apartment writing letters to her alderman about the traffic on the street below her. Even so, I couldn’t see and relate to what my dad and others who knew her saw in her. We moved to the door; it was a cold February that awaited us outside the building. My little pygmy aunt gave my father a curt peck on the cheek and patted his back. She came to me, did the same, but then held my hands, kneading my knuckles with her thumbs.
“Here,” she said, dipping her hand into one of the pockets in her wool sweater, “for college.” Her hand emerged with six crisp sheets of paper. I took them, looking over the print and feeling them. Israeli Bonds.
“Thank you.” I said. I gave her a hug.
“You’re very welcome, young man, you’re very welcome.” My dad was waiting outside in the hall and after I had finished saying goodbye, we left. We had a train to catch.