A Country for Old Men

By on Apr 22, 2018 in Featured, Fiction

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“Actually,” Dr. Teitelbaum cut in, at his normal speaking volume, “you could say he invented this town. There really wasn’t such a thing as a retirement community until he came along.”

Hayley, exasperated, muttered a barely audible, “Oh, God…” I, however, felt I had been in the presence of a particular kind of greatness. I spent the rest of our time in line grilling the Teitelbaums on all things Morty Silverberg. I learned that he had developed Palm Beach Shores, the Villages, and a host of other such humbly-named retirement communities. While this had made him his fortune, and established him as the undisputed pioneer of senior living, these properties had long since lost their luster as a result of the new wave of gated communities in Palm Beach Gardens and points north, with glamorous names like Estates of Tuscany and Monaco Hills, boasting multiple golf courses and lavish shopping promenades. I learned the stately woman who accompanied him was not his wife but his companion of sorts, an Argentine Jew named Ava Roth who was even wealthier than he. The phrase “Argentine Jew” was theirs, not mine, by the way. His wife, Rose, had died of cancer decades ago. She was a lovely woman by all accounts. He never remarried.

When the waitress came around to take drink orders, Mrs. Teitelbaum made it known to all that she never drank soda, except at Jerry’s she would have a diet Dr. Brown’s. Dr. Teitelbaum ordered the same, as did Hayley. I craved a beer, but I knew my future in-laws would find this off-putting. Still, if I was to be vaguely pressured into drinking soda on my Saturday night out, I thought I might as well live it up as much as I could. When I told the waitress I would have a Dr. Brown’s black cherry, regular, I could tell that the Teitelbaums approved of my boldness. However, this was just a taste of what was to come. When Mrs. Teitelbaum declared her intent to order a Reuben with lean turkey pastrami, I silently resolved to order one with regular pastrami. My youthful vigor knew no bounds.

It was over our main course that Dr. Teitelbaum expounded his career wisdom to me, between massive bites of lean turkey pastrami. “You know, our family has been down here for three generations — that’s very rare. We were one of the earliest Jewish families on Miami Beach. When I was finishing my residency, I had a chance to go anywhere — New York, San Francisco, Boston, you name it. But I could see this was really the land of opportunity. Did you know that Palm Beach County is the most visually impaired county in the United States?”

“I thought it was second,” Mrs. Teitelbaum cut in.

“It depends on the ranking system. The American Journal of Ophthalmologists bases their rankings on number of visually impaired people per thousand. We’re actually third in that list now, behind a couple of places in Arizona. The National Ophthalmologists’ Association, though, takes into account the degree of visual impairment per person.  It’s much a more sophisticated measurement. That ranking system puts us number one, just ahead of Broward.” He looked immediately back up at me with a serious expression, seeming to demand my vindication that the National Ophthalmologists’ Association’s method was indeed the more meaningful way of ranking the relative visual impairment of American counties.

“You were quiet tonight,” I observed to Hayley as we merged onto the highway headed south. Being off-season there was no traffic, and I was savoring the four empty lanes that spread before me. The car smelled like the loaf of rye bread we had picked up on the way out of Jerry’s at Hayley’s parents’ insistence. It was a pleasant smell.

Hayley didn’t respond. I was wondering if she was thinking she may have romanticized going back home a little too much, remembering beaches and high school parties, whereas it was now settling in that more Saturday nights were going to be spent with family than she had planned.

“Let’s go out for a drink when we get home” she proposed.

After backing into our tandem space, we went back to the restaurant level to the massive Irish-style pub and I had the beer that I owed myself from dinner. I got the cheapest one on the menu and Hayley got the second-cheapest. It felt a little like we were in school again.

“Tonight was weird. I’m sorry about my parents.”

“Don’t worry, mine are much weirder.”

“That’s true.” It was.

“Anyway, I enjoyed my Reuben. I could go there again. Also, that was amazing the way that Silverberg guy just waltzed past the line.”

“Oh please,” she sighed. “My parents talk about him like he’s some kind of Vanderbilt or Rockefeller. He’s just a guy from New Jersey who came down here and started destroying the wetlands to create retirement homes.” It occurred to me that people in the real estate business called them swamps, while environmentalists called them wetlands.

“But don’t you think it takes a kind of vision to see thousands of old people, where everyone else just sees alligators and mosquitoes?”

“Oh, come on, it’s just greed.” She looked off into space for a few moments. I always liked the way her face looked from this angle. “Let’s go to the beach tomorrow. We’ve hardly gone since we’ve moved down here.” It was true. I had been doing more work on the weekends than I had expected and probably, to be honest, more than I had to. The handful of law school friends that I kept in touch with had all gone to the big New York firms and were bragging about their late nights and weekends in the office. I felt I needed to display at least some degree of competitive masochism for them to take me seriously. Hayley told me this was pointless and I knew she was right but still, there I was, spending one Sunday afternoon after another researching land use statutes and drafting limited liability company agreements. So, tomorrow would be a beach day. In bed that night, Hayley finished a chapter of The Great Gatsby for a book club she had joined and then went peacefully to sleep, while I lay awake next to her.


2

Those weeks of the early fall were punctuated by another Teitelbaum family engagement: in October, Hayley’s cousin Josh was Bar Mitzvahed. It had been years since I had been in a synagogue, and it was all a little disconcerting, especially because I was coming off a harried week at work and would probably need to go into the office Sunday, and had too much too drink last night besides. A mild headache pulsed beneath the glare of the temple lighting, which also struck me as inappropriately bright — I remember the Long Island synagogue of my youth as being dark and cavernous, which heightened the sense of mystery. Here, the fluorescent lights and cheerful Judaica décor seemed incongruous with a guilt complex and a history of persecution.

 

I had long considered it a truism that the Bar Mitzvah was a ceremony that had outlived any semblance of its original meaning, a relic of primitive society in which life expectancy was barely thirty and so thirteen truly was the age of adulthood and responsibility. But never did the creeping growth of the human lifespan strike me more squarely than at that morning service.  Outside of Josh’s family members, and a gaggle of teenagers from his Hebrew school class, there was barely anyone under seventy in the entire temple. And then here I was, nearly thirty myself, barely out the school system, unable to call myself an adult without irony. It seemed to me that each life stage was being stretched out unnaturally. When I mused to Hayley afterwards that maybe the natural order was that we should only live until thirty and things may have been better when that was the norm, she countered that I was romanticizing a time in which we would have both probably have been dead by now from tuberculosis.

The consensus afterwards was that Josh did a fine job on his Torah portion.  I couldn’t say myself, because with my headache and exhaustion, I was having a difficult time paying attention to begin with, and that was before the Hebrew started. Josh’s pre-pubescent biblical chanting was literally putting me to sleep. When the Rabbi began his sermon, his nasal voice broke the peaceful spell.

“… and every year one of my students asks me about this passage. If God is all-powerful, why did He need to take a day of rest? How can God be tired? Well, this is a question that Torah scholars have been debating for thousands of years. They’ll probably still be debating it thousands of years from now. Personally, I think…” Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly what he said to try to reconcile logically God’s omnipotence with the apparent need for a day of rest. I do remember being vaguely impressed but not convinced. Through my throbbing headache, I listened to the closing prayers and announcements from Sisterhood. Next week’s Lox’n’Learn Torah study brunch was canceled, I learned.

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About

Aaron Sokoloff is an attorney in San Diego. His short story "The Red Panda" was published in Wild Violet in July 2017. He was the editor of The Brown Jug humor magazine, and his ranking of the entire Pink Floyd discography was published in Nerve.com under his pen name, "Aaron Sokolof." He wasn't just trying to be controversial by listing Atom Heart Mother at #3; that is actually his opinion. He is currently working on a biography of his brother entitled Other Peoples' Cars: The Life and Times of G-ron Sokoloff.

3 Comments

  1. You are so very talented. You must have very talented and amazing parents.

  2. I know for a fact that he does.

  3. I knew it was a fungal ear infection.