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The First Conversation After the Fact

Tuesday December 30, 2003

“Ma, I wanna talk to you. 

“Josie, I’m dead.”  

“All the more reason. There’s so much we didn’t say.”  

“Come on, we talked ourselves blue in the face.”  

“Yea, but Mom, until you know you’re gonna be dead there’s so much that doesn’t get talked about.” 

“What do you want me to tell you? I can’t tell you how to live your life, although I can tell you if you don’t quit smoking you won’t have much life left.”  

“Oh, Ma....”  

“Well, you see, you only want to talk about what you want to talk about.”  

“Well, it’s just that when you were alive I didn’t talk about some things, like things that might have made you angry.....which actually was a lot.....”  

“Like what?”  

“We’ll get to that. For now I have other things to ask you.”  

“So ask.”  

“Well, after you’re dead, what did your life mean anyway?”  

“Beats me, but why is the question different after I’m dead?”  

“Well, it seemed to me that when you were still alive my thoughts about it were different. At first, what it meant in recent years was a supreme effort just to keep it that way.” 

“That’s true.”  

“But even more, I thought about all the different lives you had and I felt joy, pride, pleasure. And your difficulty and nastiness was just a part of you....a part I didn’t want to talk about because you could flare up any time.”  

“Well, life made me mad. You made me mad. You still do. Even from here I feel you never gave me enough recognition, attention. I know you had your own life, but you were a selfish brat seeking your own gratification. All your fancy degrees. I never finished high school. We couldn’t in those days.”  

“Lots of people did. That’s something I hate about you, that you always blame your failings on things outside you all the time. And I’m sick of your resentment. When I got my JD you said you earned it. What the hell did you ever do to even help, let alone earn it? You tried to stop me in every way. You told me it was stupid to go for it. You tried to borrow my tuition money (thank god I didn’t let you). You accused me of indulging my every whim. ‘Isn’t two graduate degrees enough for you?’ It was just like my piano lessons. All two of them.  

And then you said, ‘that’s all, who do you think you are? ‘ You were afraid I’d learn to play while you couldn’t.”  

“Is that the kind of thing you want to talk about?”  

“No, not just that, but those things too. When I was little I thought you were the cat’s meow. I mean you were so competent. You could get anything done. I used to listen to you on the phone and hear how you just got people to do what you wanted. I learned from you.”  

“Well that’s good so it shouldn’t have been a total loss.”  

“Don’t get smart.”  

“Well tell me a memory you liked: In fact, tell me one from every different age.”  

“Mine or yours?”  


“Okay. One I just loved was when you were 81 and living in that retirement place in Santa Rosa.” Josie raised her voice at the end as if it were a question.  

“You mean the one Bea and I were at?”  

“Yea. When I came up to visit you I sat at the table with you and Bea in that dining room and the young sycophantic waitress came over to fill your cups with tea and said ‘More tea, dearies?’ and you two just shut up because you were discussing what your respective salaries were as full time functionaries for the communist party in the ‘40s! That just slayed me.”  


“Well, on every level. She thought you were just biddies. She would have plotzed if she knew what you were talking about. What your past was. She was the biddy.”  

“Josie, she wasn’t a biddy. She was a ninny. There’s a difference.” 

“That too. That the world was smarter then too. When you were my age. That your life meant something then. This young girl was modern but empty. A future of globalized nothingness and unconsciousness.”  

“But, Josie, she was uneducated.”  

“Let me remind you, Ma, so were you.”  

“Not exactly, I didn’t go to college but I had read all of Joseph Conrad, et cetera. Not the same.”  

“True, and she never would. She was raised for McDonalds.”  

“What other level?” her mother asked.  

“Well, wondering what it was all for? I mean what did you guys accomplish anyway? I mean that’s an enormous subject in itself. What that fucking Party really was.”  

“Josie, we’ve been through that one a million times and I really don’t care to repeat it. In fact, I don’t care to remember it.”  

“That isn’t fair.”  

“Fair? To whom?”  

“To me.”  

“You. It isn’t about you.”  

“Isn’t it? It ruined my fucking life. Whadya mean it isn’t about me!”  

“How did it ruin your life? It gave you a whole lot.”  

“I know. But it cost a lot. I can’t ever join anything or believe in anything.”  

“Why the hell not? What are you talking about?”  

“God, Ma, I wouldn’t know where to start. Let’s say we start with Milan Kundera’s image of the photograph of the Party VIPs and the succeeding photograph, ...same group, with the purged guy missing from the picture. That tells the story.”  

Her mother giggled with the memory.  

“If they didn’t want to make people crazy, they should have at least left the motherfucker’s fur hat in the picture.”  

“What has that got to do with you?”  

Josie started to laugh. “That’s like Woody Allen, Ma. You remember the kid that was taken to the psychiatrist by the Jewish mother and they kept hocking him a cheinik ‘What’s bothering you?’ until he blurts out ‘The cosmos is shrinking’ and the Jewish mother says, ‘So what’s that got to do with you?’”  

“That I get,” Lizzie said to her daughter, “But what’s the commissar’s missing fur hat got to do with you? That I don’t get.”  

“How can you fuck with reality and say ‘What’s that got to do with you’? Ma, it’s like the time when I was 10 and I asked you how you could be so sure that Beria was guilty and the Rosenbergs were innocent and you slapped my face in front of all the company.”  

“I’m sorry I did that. That wasn’t right. I was just trying to prevent trouble but I really was very proud of you.”  

“You know, Ma, I knew that. Somehow I knew that and it saved my life, my sanity. But I also knew at that moment that you, we, were living in a dictatorship—you were being told what to think. What was right and what was wrong. By a committee. It made me cry.”  

“Is that why you cried! All those years I thought you cried because I hit you and I was so sorry.”  

“Better you should have been sorry that you and your Party were trying to fuck with my head.”  

“Nobody could fuck with your head. You were so headstrong. I guess now that I look back on it, that was a damned good thing.”  

“But it was a lot of pain for me. I remember how painful it was when I started to read things that made me understand what The Party was all about. I still remember sitting in the yard in Venice Beach at the age of 20 reading The God That Failed and seeing in print for the first time what that shit really did to people. Reading Gide’s saying that the ordinary Soviets ratted on their neighbors if they wore clothing better than their situation allowed. They’d turn each other in. And I had just read The Counterfeiters and loved and trusted Gide and knew it was true.”  

“Yeah, and you called me and blamed me after every god damned book you read.”  

“I wasn’t blaming you. I was trying to figure it out.”  

“It sounded like blame to me when you asked me if I had been unconscious in the ‘30s.”  

“I remember that. That was when I read the book about American Communism in the ‘30s by that Emory U. guy. I was shocked.”  

“Why were you shocked? You were shocked by every thing you read. You were shocked by Orwell’s Homage To Catalan.” 

“Yea, but Ma, shocking as that was, it was over there. I mean they were shooting people in the back, but it was in Spain. It’s harder to take when it’s in Brooklyn. I mean you guys were doing that right on Broadway and 72nd Street. Right in front of the IRT!”  

“Oh, come on, Josie, “nobody ever shot anybody on 72nd Street.”  

Josie laughed as if her mother meant they did it on 27th Street, but laughed with a shudder of recognition. They probably did. (Even if her mother didn’t know about it. After all, she didn’t know that Whitaker Chambers and Alger Hiss were passing secrets to the Soviets.) 

And even if they didn’t do it with a bullet, they sure did it in other ways. 

But Lizzie cut her off with, “Listen, kid, if that’s what you want to talk about now that I’m dead, I’m ringing off. I don’t want to talk about that any more. You were supposed to tell me a memory from lots of different ages. Yours or mine. So get off the Party and tell me something else.”  

“Well, okay for now, but it’s not done with.”  

“Awright, save it. As you used to say, ‘tell me a story’.”  

“Well, can I tell you what I didn’t like too?”  

“If you must.”  

“I just can’t understand what you became. I don’t even know when it began. But by the time you died you were this white-haired old lady in a retirement village buying gold jewelry (where the hell were you going? To the dining room?). Looking like Nordstroms and pushing away every new idea or anything that disturbed your peace. I tried to give you some slack—to understand that you had had enough of the world. But I could not find you. I didn’t know who you were anymore. You seemed disturbed by young people. By anything sexual. By...”  

“Oh, you and your sex all the time. To be ‘turned on’ as you always call it. What a thing to look for! What’s so damned important about sex? I never understood you. Couldn’t you have just masturbated?”  

“Well, Ma, you’re right. I probably would have met a better class of people that way.”  

“You sure would. God, the creeps you brought around. That Jack or Zack, whatever his name was. The only thing he ever did for you was to buy you a ring.”  

“Yeah, I used to tell him it was the only thing he ever gave me that I didn’t have to take to the gynecologist.”  

“Josie, that’s disgusting.”  

“But true. But then, now that you’re dead let me ask you. What kind of creeps did you have?”  

“At least I married them.”  

“Well that was pretty stupid of you, wouldn’t you say? Besides, that was just a matter of fashion. Wasn’t it? I mean you wouldn’t have today.”  

“Well, if you had married yours I wouldn’t have had to make up stories all the time to cover.”  

“You didn’t have to,” Josie said. “That was your mishegoss.” 

“Well, whatever. You always wanted to judge the world from your time, your standpoint. I had my world too. And it mattered there. And I’m tired of talking now. You’re too demanding and I have to go.”  

“Go where? Where are you anyway, Mom?”  

“I’m dead.”  

“I know, but where is that? Are you up there or down there?”  

“Up where or down where? You mean in heaven or hell?”  

“I guess so.”  

“That’s a toughie. It depends on how I’m feeling about you at the moment. Well, we’ll talk about that another time. I’m tired of you and I have to go now.” 

“Go where? Where are you? What goes on after death?”  

“We’re not allowed to tell you that.”  

“Why not? Another Communist Party?”  

“No and just because.”  

“Is it for our benefit? At least supposedly?”  

“I can’t say. Go live your life. We’ll talk more later.”  



“How will I find you? What am I supposed to do, feel your aura or something? Light a yahrzeit candle? Hold an object of yours? What?”  

“Just call me when you want. If I wanna talk, we’ll talk.”  

“It’s like calling God. It’s not like I know your telephone number you know.”  

“You can call God too if you want. Remember, by us it’s a local call.” 

“That’s a weird remark coming from you. The lifelong atheist.”  

“I wasn’t an atheist. I was an agnostic.”  

“That’s news to me. When did that happen?”  

“I don’t know. No certain time. Gradually. Maybe my eighties.”  

“You mean when you thought you might die soon and didn’t want to?”  

“Maybe,” she said.  

“What was it? An insurance policy or something? Getting straight with the man upstairs?”  

“Don’t get smart. Wait, you’re in your fifties now. Wait, you’ll see. Different things for different times.”  


“Listen, I gotta go. We’ll talk more later. Just call me.”  

“Okay. Bye, Ma.”  

“Bye. Zei gezunt.”