My wife Sally and I were just settling in for our usual night’s TV watching when the phone rang. That was unusual. We rarely got calls that late. “Probably a robo call,” I said. Then I saw it was from my brother Jake. I’d left a message on his answering machine about two weeks ago. I picked up the phone and said, “Hi, Jake.”
“It’s Esther.” Esther was Jake’s second wife of some 20 years. He’d met her when he’d retired to Florida. We were in California so it was eleven in Florida, late. I immediately had a sinking feeling.
“Not good.” Jake had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The doctors gave him six months. That was two months ago. “He was in the hospital but now he’s back home. He may not have long.”
I was shocked. “But I thought it was a matter of months.”
“The doctors were wrong. I think you should come if you want to see him.”
“Can I talk to him?”
We talked a few minutes more, then I hung up. Sally looked at me questionably. “Jake?”
“Esther says he may not have long. I think I have to go to Florida, if I can get a flight.”
* * *
“How’s he doing?” I asked as soon as I came in the door.
He’s a little better today,” said Esther.
I had managed to get a flight to Miami, then I’d taken a cab to their condo. Esther led me into the living room, which was large and sunny. “Can I see him?” I asked.
“Yes.” We went into the bedroom. Esther said, “You have a visitor from California.”
I have a curious history with Jake, my older brother by about ten years. When I was a little kid I’d idolized him. He’d been one of the top handball players in the Bronx and naturally I’d taken up the game myself and was pretty good at it. When I was 13 we’d go together to Crotona Park, about a mile’s walk from our apartment, where the best players were, and Jake would play in the money games while I either watched or played with my gang. Then Jake had gone to work for our Uncle Al, known in our family as the button king, then from there to the small ad agency that handled Al’s business, then to a larger ad agency, and along the way he’d married an uptown girl Laurel and his handball-playing days were over. After 20 years he’d been divorced from Laurel, then after retiring he’d moved to Florida and met Esther. During all this time I myself had left New York for California and had pretty well lost touch with Jake. It was only during the last few years that we’d started calling each other and re-connected. Jake had never had children and he was very interested in my two sons.
“Hi, Jake,” I said. My brother was sitting up in bed. The Jake I remembered was stocky and strong-looking with muscular arms, just like our father. Now he looked thin and shrunken.
“Hi, Arnold,” he said. “You didn’t have to come.”
“You know I love to fly.”
Jake laughed. He knew how much I hated airports and airplanes. “I want you to know I’ve made provisions for your two boys in my will.”
“You don’t have to worry about them,” I said, “but thanks.”
:”Not that I’m planning to go just yet, but just in case.”
“Sure. What about Esther?”
“She’s pretty well fixed, but I’ve also made some provision for her. She’ll be fine. How are the boys doing?”
I told him about my sons’ latest doings. He asked me about my wife Sally. I told him about her latest, a knee replacement. He asked me about my hip; I’d had a hip replacement a few years ago. Then he said, “We were pretty good on the handball court once.”
“You were. I thought you could beat Buddy Wolf.” Buddy Wolf was at that time considered the top player in the Bronx.
Jake smiled. “You were the only one who did. But we had some pretty good times that summer, didn’t we? Remember?”
I remembered. I’d often thought of that summer, Jake and I walking to Crotona Park, climbing the steps to the handball courts, the sense of anticipation lifting my legs, then cheering Jake on in the money games, playing myself and looking forward to the time when maybe Jake and I could be partners. That never happened.
“Yeah, we had some good times. You remember that candy store you found just outside the park, those big malted milks, three or four glasses. We’d stop in there every time on the way back.”
“Yeah, four glasses for a quarter.”
“And sometimes we’d go to that deli for lunch, two hot dogs and a soda.”
“Yeah, also a quarter.”
“Mannie the bookie. What a character.”
“Yeah. And Big Leo the cheater.”
There was a minute’s pause, then Jake said, “And on the walk back, all the windows were open and all the radios had the Yankees’ game on. Mel Allen. His voice was always floating in the air.”
At this point my eyes began to tear. We continued talking until Jake said he was getting tired. I stood up, went over and grasped his hand. His grip was still strong.
* * *
Esther and I were in the living room. She brought tea and cake. “How did he seem?” she asked.
“He was tired, but he knew what was going on. Maybe the doctors are wrong and he has a little more time.”
“I hope so. Maybe a miracle will happen.”
But no miracle happened. Two days later Jake passed on. I stayed another week for the funeral and to help Esther with some of the many things that have to be done after someone dies. Then I returned to California and Sally and I resumed our mostly uneventful retired lives. But nothing was the same.