When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, “Leo Gursky is survived by an apartment full of shit.” I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, I have to go by way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.
I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I’d bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese takeout. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes, I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands at the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I’ll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.
I try to make a point of being seen. Often when I’m out I’ll buy a juice, even if I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded, I’ll sometimes go so far as to drop my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I’ll go into the Athlete’s Foot and say, “What do you have in sneakers?” The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck that I am and direct me to the one pair of Rockports they carry, something in spanking white. “Nah,” I’ll say, “I have those already,” and then I’ll make my way over to the Reeboks and pick out something that doesn’t even resemble a shoe, a waterproof bootie, maybe, and ask for it in size 9. The kid will look again, more carefully. “Size 9,” I’ll repeat, holding his gaze while I clutch the webbed shoe. He’ll shake his head and go to the back for them, and by the time he returns I’m peeling off my socks. I’ll roll my pant legs up and look down at those decrepit things my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I’m waiting for him to slip the booties onto them. I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.
A few months ago, I saw an ad in the paper. It said, “NEEDED: NUDE MODEL FOR DRAWING CLASS. $15 AN HOUR.” It seemed too good to be true. To have so much looked at. By so many. I called the number. A woman told me to come the following Tuesday. I tried to describe myself, but she wasn’t interested. “Anything will do,” she said.
The days passed slowly. I told Bruno about it, but he misunderstood. He thought I was signing up for a drawing class in order to see nude girls. He didn’t want to be corrected.
“Their breasts?”he asked. “They show their boobs?” I shrugged.
“And down there?”
After Mrs. Freid on the fourth floor died and it took three days for anyone to find her, Bruno and I got into the habit of checking on each other. We’d make little excuses—“I ran out of toilet paper,” I’d say when Bruno opened his door. A day would pass. There would be a knock on my door. “I lost my TV Guide,” he’d explain, and I’d go and find him mine, even though I knew his was right where it always was, on his couch. Once, he came down on a Sunday afternoon. “I need a cup of flour,” he said. It was clumsy, but I couldn’t help myself. “You don’t know how to cook,” I said. There was a moment of silence. Bruno looked me in the eye. “What do you know,” he said. “I’m baking a cake.”
When I came to America, I knew hardly anyone, only a second cousin who was a locksmith, so I worked for him. If he’d been a shoemaker, I would have been a shoemaker; if he had shovelled shit, I, too, would have shovelled. But he was a locksmith, he taught me the trade, and that’s what I became. We had a little business together, and then one year he got TB. They had to cut his liver out, and he got a 106 temperature and died, so I took it over. I went on sending his wife half the profits, even after she married a doctor and moved to Bayside. I stayed in the business for more than fifty years. It’s not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet. The truth is I came to like it. I helped in those who were locked out; others I helped keep out what shouldn’t be let in, so that they could sleep without nightmares.
Then one day I was looking out the window. Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza; in the end life makes window-watchers of us all. The afternoon went by; little grains of darkness sifted down. I reached for the chain on the bulb and suddenly it was as if an elephant had stepped on my heart. I fell to my knees. I thought, I didn’t live forever. A minute passed. Another minute. Another. I clawed at the floor, pulling myself along toward the phone.
Twenty-five per cent of my heart muscle died. It took time to recover, and I never went back to work. I stared out the window. I watched fall turn into winter, winter into spring. I dragged myself upstairs to sit with Bruno.
Bruno and I were friends when we were boys. When I came to America, I thought he was dead, and then one day I was walking down East Broadway and I heard his voice. I turned around. He was standing in front of the grocer’s asking the price of some fruit. I thought, You’re hearing things, you’re such a dreamer, what is the likelihood—your boyhood friend? I stood frozen on the sidewalk. He’s in the ground, I told myself. It’s fifty years later, here you are in the United States of America, there’s McDonald’s, get a grip. I waited just to make sure. I wouldn’t have recognized his face. But the way he walked was unmistakable—skipping along like a bird. He was about to pass me. I put my arm out and grabbed his sleeve. “Bruno,” I said. He stopped and turned. At first he seemed scared and then confused. “Bruno,” I said. He looked at me; his eyes filled with tears. He touched his hand to my cheek; with the other he held a bag of plums. “Bruno.”
A couple of years later, his wife died. Living in their apartment without her was too much for him, so when an apartment opened up on the floor above me he moved in. We often sit together at my kitchen table. A whole afternoon can go by without our saying a word. If we do talk, we never speak in Yiddish. The words of our childhood became strangers to us long ago—we couldn’t use them in the same way, and so we chose not to use them at all. Life demanded a new language.