***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 David Samuel Levinson
Thursday, April 14, 2022
Los Angeles welcomed them with a dark, moody sky that broke open halfway through breakfast. The drizzle fell gently at first, then more profoundly, in sheets that ricocheted off the sidewalk, spotting the windows of the overcrowded IHOP on Sepulveda. Even for that late-morning hour, closing in on eleven, every table, booth, and countertop was occupied. Someone, probably the reedy, pimple-ridden shift manager, had set his iMuse to play every awful electro-punk-funk artist in his arsenal, an eternal, cacophonic loop of sinister screeches, the latest craze perpetrated on the teen- age masses by a currently dying (again) music industry. The songs, which were forced upon them from four floating speakers hovering in the corners of the room, blasted through the bacon-grease-filled air. Each one collided with the other and sounded exactly like, if not worse than, the next, each vying for a top spot in Jacob’s memory as the most craptacular and inappropriate accompaniment to breakfast, in this case pecan praline pancakes and Belgian waffles, which he and Dietrich were trying to consume while also struggling to carry on a conversation.
Around them, all was din and dystopia, and for a moment Jacob looked up from his plate of congealing syrup and butter, wondering if they hadn’t wandered into some sort of bizarre casting call— girls in pale purple tutus performed pirouettes in the aisles; boys in Wranglers, cowboy boots, and spurs played horseback with imaginary whips and a few misplaced whinnies; a couple of the dads wore big red clown noses and frizzy orange Afro wigs; and many of the moms fed their saurian offspring lines from scripts, as they them- selves shoveled eggs Benedict into their mouths.
“I thought you told me in L.A. the sun is continuous,” Dietrich said, his German accent far more pronounced when he was tired or irritated. Or both, which was currently the case, Jacob suspected.
“And I thought you told me it rarely snowed in Berlin,” Jacob said. “I guess we both did some exaggerating.”
“I realize the historical and momentous ramifications of rain- fall in this part of America, but still I was hoping we would leave that damp far behind us in Germany,” he said, his heavy, dark soul more crestfallen than usual, his jet-lagged disappointment already palpable and nearly unbearable to Jacob.
Too tired to rise to the bait, Jacob just smiled, blinking his burning brown eyes, wanting nothing more than to get to his brother’s house in the San Fernando Valley, take a shower, then fall into a deep, uninterrupted coma of sleep. However, the famished and equally fatigued Dietrich had spotted the quaint facade of the International House of Pancakes—“I hop, you hop, we all hop for IHOP!” he sang, pointing at the Dutch-inspired house with its orange cantilevered roof and blue trim—and had asked Jacob to stop. More like commanded, but Jacob was used to it. He applied a new varnish of syrup to his stack of rubbery pancakes in the hopes of revitalizing his appetite, which had flagged the moment the waitress had set the plate in front of him. So there they were, still only a few blocks from LAX, one of the most dreaded points of reentry into the
country for Jacob, who never imagined he’d find himself back here so soon. God only knew how long it would take to get to Calabasas with this traffic, he thought, where his mishpucha, the immediate ones, were gathering like a terrifying golem made from the clay of behavioral tics and personality disorders—a litany of ills and a penchant for hypochondriasis and full-blown neuroses, with bouts of accompanying sanctimony, blinding narcissism, and a plain, old- fashioned, wrath-of-God-style guilt, which bound it all together in one neat package.
Speaking of guilt, any second now Jacob expected a deluge of texts and calls from the golem wondering where they were, he and Guess Who’s Coming to Dieter—one of his dad’s more amusing puns, although Jacob need not have reminded him that he was named Dietrich, not Dieter—and braced himself for the inevitable telephonic Jacobson onslaught by shoveling another forkful of cold, spongy pancake into his mouth. It was only after he was choking on the oversaturated hunk of surprisingly dry, inedible flapjack that he realized that none of them had a way of getting in touch with him—he still had his German cell, rendered useless here in the States—and relaxed, the muscles in his neck also relaxing, which allowed him to swallow, his throat having all but closed up when he pictured the grueling, emotionally withering days ahead.
He coughed in earnest and glanced up at Dietrich, whose face was blank save for that tiny moue of his, a wry smile Jacob still had trouble reading, although by then they’d been together for three years—the first two remarkably good, this one remarkably bumpy, with another two months left to go. For now, however, Jacob considered Dietrich the love of his thirty-eight-year-long life, loving him all the more when Dietrich slid his glass of watery orange juice toward him and ordered him to drink it. Was it too much to say Jacob’s wants had changed already and that instead of a shower and bed, what he actually wanted was to fast-forward through the next four days, to look down upon L.A. from the height of thirty thousand feet out the tiny window of his tinier coach seat? How, he wondered again, had he let his siblings talk him into this trip? It was one thing to subject himself to the unpredictable heart of Julian Jacobson, patriarch pro tem, yet a different thing altogether to wish his dad upon the unsuspecting Dietrich.
The coughing subsided. And with it so did the last of Jacob’s appetite. It fled out the door into the rainy street, where one of those British-inspired, double-decker tour buses, clearly lost and in search of more affluent pastures, like Beverly Hills, ran it over in cold blood. No matter, as Jacob had been talking to Dietrich just that morning about shedding the weight he’d put on in Berlin, due in large part to the addictively heavy German food and miraculously delicious, buttery pastry. (For a country of such historical darkness, they’d certainly managed to create the lightest, tastiest breads in all of Europe, surpassing, in Jacob’s estimation, even the French.) Just another reason to push the plate of soggy pancakes toward the slim, marathon-running Dietrich, who, at twenty-six, never gained a sin- gle ounce and remained as lithe and striated with muscle as he was in the photos Jacob had seen of him at sixteen. The fucker. Dietrich, who finally finished his waffles, started on Jacob’s plate, releasing a satisfied smile and a coo of pleasure after every bite.
“Knock yourself off,” Jacob said, grinning at his own use of this idiomatic faux pas Dietrich had made on what was destined to be their second date, although neither of them knew to call it that back then. They’d gone for ice cream in the East Village and Jacob, hav- ing devoured his within minutes, took his spoon and dipped it into Dietrich’s. “Knock yourself off,” the German had said, as serious as ever. Jacob laughed, correcting him. If he had to guess, he’d have told anyone who cared that that was the moment he’d fallen in love. “Tu dir keinen Zwang an!” Dietrich replied humorlessly, and Jacob understood he might have stretched the joke too thin, at least this morning when their nerves were, respectively, fried and fraying. Dietrich proceeded to knock himself off, slicing the pancakes into precise wedges with his knife and fork, while Jacob flagged down the waitress, who dove at the table as if it were an end zone and she a wide receiver. “I am not your cashier. Pay up front,” she said, then was gone, leaving a scintilla of powdered sugar and sweat in her wake.
Jacob left Dietrich to spoon up the syrupy butter and headed for the cash register near the door. Standing in line to pay for what had to be one of the most awful excuses for a breakfast he hadn’t had the desire to eat in some time, he pulled out a Deutsche Bank ATM card and set it on the counter.
“We don’t take that,” said the cashier, a pregnant teen with braces. She pointed to a small laminated sign taped to the glass that read in schwarzenegger we trusted, all others pay cash. Returning the card to his pocket, Jacob, bleary-eyed, pulled out a wad of bills and handed the girl a twenty. “Look, mister, do you want me to call the manager? American . . . dinero,” she said, enunciating the words slowly as though he were a dumb foreign schmuck. She wasn’t half wrong, as Jacob had been living abroad for well over two years and was acting just like, well, a dumb foreign schmuck.
He apologized and repocketed the twenty-euro bill just as Diet- rich approached, peeling the proper currency from his fancy, silver money clip, which was in the shape of an undulating German flag blowing in a strong breeze. Jacob glanced at the money clip, which shimmered faintly under the garish Suntopia solar-flare tubes, the opening lines to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” gathering in a poetical storm inside him. When he and Dietrich emerged from the main carnival tent that was the IHOP into the cold, soaking rain that was L.A., the lines came up and out of him with an irrepressible urgency and, what’s more, in a startlingly clear, effortless Deutsch (it must have been the fatigue, for he’d never been so nimble with Dietrich’s native tongue), lingering on the last two lines, his favorite:
“Oh frag’ nicht, ‘Was ist es?’
Laß uns gehen und unseren Besuch machen.”
“ ‘Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit,’ ” Dietrich said.
As they hurried through the sloshy parking lot arm in arm, Jacob considered the heroic couplet and the voice of the boy who’d just translated and recited it. He loved Dietrich all the more for his willingness to go and make their visit, for his good-naturedness in the face of what was bound to be a fiasco of phenomenal proportions.
“Your inaugural meal in L.A. I wanted to pay,” Jacob said, once they were safely ensconced in the rental car. (Another rhyming couplet, this one left him drained of amusement, however.) He was acutely aware of not wanting to seem cheap in Dietrich’s eyes. It was a fine balance. The harder he tried to master it, the more often it left him feeling like a skinflint or an utter mooch. He wanted to provide, to split everything fairly and evenly down the middle, from the rent they shared to the food they ate. But 1-2-3-Speak!, where he taught basic English to recent Russian and Israeli immigrants and business English, whatever that was, to German yuppies looking to emigrate to the financial districts of London and Manhattan, only paid a measly twelve euros per hour, which was, even by Berlin standards, insulting. As generous as Dietrich was with his money, Jacob knew there’d soon come a reckoning when he, Jacob’s own personal Shylock, would demand Jacob pay up, lest Dietrich exact his pound of flesh another way. He didn’t want to think about any of it, what with the heavy rains, the sudden merge onto the treacherous 405, which was nothing but red, beady-eyed taillights as far as he could see, and in a car that was not his, but he quickly did another tally of how much he thought he owed Dietrich—close to five thousand euros. This sum just happened to be the same amount that he’d withdrawn from his checking account in Berlin and that now lined the bulging front pockets of his stretchy, baggy jeans, stretchy and baggy because of the twenty extra pounds he’d put on in the past year alone.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Dietrich said, pulling out the page of directions, which he’d printed before they left Berlin, “I will let you buy me dinner but not tonight. Didn’t I tell you? I am to dine with Lucius Freund. He will prepare a delicious meal.”
“Meal? Lucius Freund? What are you talking about? You told me you didn’t know anyone in L.A.,” Jacob said, his voice pinched with jealousy. “So who is he, huh? Who?” He thought he was joshing Dietrich, but if this were the case, why then did he feel the ex- plosive aftermath in his capillaries and his circulation speed up, the razzmatazz of blood in his face? “He’s German, this guy? How’d you meet him?”
“Jay, keep your eyes on that road, please,” Diet said. Even after spending years of his life in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins, then in Manhattan, at New York University, Diet still sometimes had trouble differentiating between the, this, and that. “Yes, Lucius Freund, he is a hunk of a man. I have been planning this rendezvous with him for weeks and months. So now is as good a time as any, I think, to tell you that I am leaving you for him. Please pull over and let me out. I cannot do this anymore.”
Incoherent with exhaustion, Jacob nearly did as Diet ordered, though pulling over would have involved crossing four lanes of high- way. Besides, who the hell broke up with someone doing sixty-five miles per hour in traffic like this on the fucking 405? This was a fucking joke. Wait. Was Dietrich actually joking? Jacob’s jet-lagged brain could barely think straight. “Pull over? Are you kidding me?” he asked. Up ahead he saw red and slammed on the car’s brakes just before his front end married the back end of the black Mercedes SUV, which had stopped short. As he did, Diet was thrown forward out of his seat—rarely a passenger, he’d forgotten to buckle his seat belt—and banged his head against the windshield.
“Oh, oh my God,” Jacob said, as Diet crumpled in his seat and went still. The Mercedes SUV, that wicked black carriage of evil, thought Jacob, found an opening in the congestion and sprang away, spraying the car with dirty, oily drops. Jacob tried the wipers, albeit to no avail—the cleaning solution proved useless, the wipers even less so, streaking the glass and further straining his already limited visibility. The rain came down harder and faster, intensifying Jacob’s feeling of bewilderment and failure. He glanced at the unmoving man beside him, at the purplish welt forming in the center of his forehead, a mean-looking bull’s-eye, and felt more love for him than he had ever felt for anyone in his entire life. Hadn’t he raised his arm and flung it out in protection, an involuntary response to danger, right before he slammed on the brakes? “Why weren’t you wearing your seat belt?” he asked. He wondered if Diet had suffered a concussion, if the impact would have long-term ill effects, and if he shouldn’t get off the highway and hightail it to a hospital. But he had no earthly idea if there was even a hospital nearby. He looked around frantically for the page of directions but couldn’t find it.
Jacob switched on the hazards and limped into the far-right lane, doing the best he could with the information he had, his copilot out cold beside him. He imagined what it would be like to live without Diet, and the very idea of it was unendurable. What if his brain’s bleeding? What if he’s dying right this second? Jacob thought, massaging the back of Diet’s neck, which was still warm if lightly sweaty, a good sign. “You can leave me for Lucius Freak or Lucien Freud or Lucius Fiend or whatever his name is, but you have to wake up first. Wake up, wake up, wake up,” he said, shouting into the claustrophobic confines of the car until his throat hurt.
As if roused by Jacob’s magical words and by the even more magical sound of the deep, exponential concern in his voice, Diet awoke and blinked his eyes. “Baby, you are back!” Jacob said.
“I am back?” Diet asked. “Did I go someplace?”
“Don’t make jokes,” Jacob said, taking the next available exit. “I need to get you to a hospital. I don’t even know if we’re near a hospital, but I’m going to find out.”
“Schatz, please,” Diet said. “I am German, you are forgetting. Our crania are made of superhuman strength, like our wills,” and he smiled, though it was a wan, used-up smile and hurt Jacob to see it. “I am fine. Really. Let us go and make our visit.”
Jacob crawled off the 405 and out of the rain, taking shelter at one of the thousands of gas stations that sat on all four corners of
every intersection, giving this world an even more transitory appearance. He couldn’t believe he’d spent four years in Westwood, at UCLA, graduating on a Friday only to beat it out of there the same night, on a red-eye to New York, which was his home until he and Diet moved to Berlin. His collegiate days well behind him, he barely remembered them. What he did remember was the car, getting into it, getting out of it, filling it up, checking the tires, the oil, having the tires rotated, hauling his ass to Long Beach, where his brother lived at the time. His brother, the registered dietician and semifamous actor who was now married to Pandora, the proud parents of five sons: a set of triplets, twelve years old, and a pair of identical twins, five years old.
He remembered L.A. by night, the four-leaf clovers of interconnected roadways, everything set down and arranged like a vast, eerie circulatory system whose heart bled gasoline and whose lungs exhaled exhaust. We’re all leaving behind not just carbon foot- prints but a smogasbord of toxic delicacies for future generations, he thought, picturing his nephews and trying to remember their names, which he couldn’t. What he did remember were the semis, the tractor-trailers, the Pacific Ocean off to their left somewhere, and the romantic, russet-edged California sunsets, which, for as long as they lasted, made him feel nostalgic for his childhood in Texas. Even today, he still had never set eyes on anything as spell- binding as a Texas sunset. New York City came a close second. And Berlin—Berlin didn’t even make the cut, though he often lied and told Diet otherwise. That was what coupledom had done to him—he perjured himself constantly under the oath of love he’d taken.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” he said to Diet, whose head remained tilted at what looked like an odd, uncomfortable angle. Jacob took a gentle hold of his chin and lightly turned his head to fit more squarely in the seat, so that the headrest supported his neck. “Does your neck hurt? Do you feel dizzy? Are you seeing stars? Do you feel light-headed?”
“My head hurts a little, but that is nothing,” Diet said, stoical.
“When I was a boy, I fell into a well in my friend Andre’s backyard and bumped my head much worse than that. Twenty minutes later I was eating Kaiserschmarrn like nothing happened. I do not need a hospital, mein Schatz. If I start to feel weird, I will tell you.”
“Look at me,” Jacob insisted, as Diet turned to face him. “Tell me how tall the Fernsehturm is and when it was built.” Diet let out a recalcitrant huff and answered: 365 meters high, Berlin’s TV tower was erected from 1965 to 1969. “Now spell your name backward.” Diet spelled his name backward. “What’s the longest German word in the dictionary?”
Diet thought about this for a second, then took a deep breath and exhaled.“Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübe rtragungsgesetz. But I am not certain about it,” he said. “I believe it was retired. Maybe it is the second longest?”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is that nothing got scrambled. But—and this is a huge but—the second you feel unwell, you have to tell me, and we’re going to the emergency room,” Jacob said, stroking the back of Diet’s neck again and wondering if Diet knew just how much he loved that head of his and everything inside of it. “I think once we get to the Valley, it’d be a good idea if you were checked out by a doc-in-the-box.”
“Jacob, please, enough,” Diet said. “I am not a little child. If I die because of a slight bump on the head, then this is what is supposed to happen.”
He hated when Diet spoke like this, full of a ghoulish fatality and cynicism that continued to take Jacob by surprise. Though he didn’t share Diet’s morbid determinism when it came to death and dying, there was something singularly freeing in it, he supposed. It lived inside every German he met and spoke to, a quality and view of life so un-American that for his first couple of months in Berlin he had a hard time taking any of it seriously, as if each German was born with his or her DNA already encoded with instructions on how to die. Death not as a horrifying, unfathomable, and unexpected end, the bogeyman of time, but as the ultimate categorical imperative, a
duty to die to leave behind an impression on the world, an imprint of having lived, of having been there. Sometimes, though, Jacob wished Diet would just lighten the fuck up.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back. And don’t fall asleep,” Jacob commanded, hopping out of the car and hurrying through the swash to the lonesome pay phone—perhaps the last pay phone in all of America—sitting beside bound stacks of firewood on sale for $29.99 and the large, metallic bin of bagged ice, each going for a whop- ping $8. When had frozen water become a luxury item? Was it de- signer ice? In his absence, had Starbucks expanded into the niche ice market as well? If he didn’t distract himself with such bagatelles, he knew he would fall apart completely.
Once he was standing at the pay phone, though, Jacob found himself at a loss. He observed the quaint plastic and metal relic with fascination, the coin slot, the tarnished keypad, the numbers and letters smudged off from constant use and abuse. Berlin still had its share of pay phones, but who used a pay phone in L.A. anymore? Drug dealers, he guessed, and anyone having some kind of dastardly business to do, that’s who.
He took a deep, panicked breath, recalling the last call he’d had with his siblings a few months ago, a harrowing conversation in which they discussed their mom’s failing health and the management of her care—or rather the mismanagement of it, they all agreed with alarm, even Edith—if it were left up to their dad.
“Ma should just move to Cali,” Mo had said. “From where I’m sitting, that’s an easy slam-dunk. So are we done here? Because the twins and I are almost at the studio.” In the background, one of the twins had been melting down, shrieking as if he were being either held against his will or water-boarded by the other twin, Jacob hadn’t been able to tell which.
“You better untie him and release him back into the wild, Mo,” Jacob had said.
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Edith had said, finally piping up. She’d been so quiet that Jacob had all but forgotten her. “Hey, Bax,
it’s your auntie Thistle,” thickly slathering the southern accent in her voice and sounding, to Jacob, like Roy Rogers, if Roy Rogers had been a female with a BA from Harvard, an MA from Princeton, and a PhD from Georgetown. So more like Dale Evans, he’d mused, or Mr. Ed’s other half. Mrs. Edith? “Bax, can you do Auntie Thistle a favor and—”
“Baxter Judah Orenstein-Jacobson, I need you to zip it right this instance or else you will never see your beloved Wii again,” Mo had said.
It’s instant, not instance, Jacob had thought dourly, rolling his eyes.
“Really, Mo. Threats?” Edith had asked.
“Hey, Thistle, when you’re raising five boys—hell, even one boy; hell, even a houseplant—you can say whatever you want,” Mo had said. “Until then, do me a favor and uckfay offay, okay?”
“It’s a good plan, Mo, but you know Dad’s not going anywhere,” Jacob had put in, trying to redirect the derailing conversation.
For a moment, he had wanted to carry this outside—this call that had been shaping up to be yet another unpleasant round of hide-and-heat-seeking-missile with his brother and sister—and had gone to the sliding-glass door, finally deciding against it when he’d realized he’d have to bundle up in his parka and put on his snow boots because the balcony, which jutted out from the building and looked like a man with a protruding lower jaw, had been packed under a mound of fresh snow and months-old ice. Berlin in winter.
The sight of the balcony that night had had a profoundly negative effect on Jacob, recalling a remark he’d made to Dietrich, when they’d first taken possession of the flat, about how the balcony reminded him of his dad’s obscenely pronounced under-bite, which went hand in hand with the rest of his handsome albeit caveman- like face, thick, bushy eyebrows, broody, overhanging brow. All he needed was a club, Jacob had told Dietrich, and his dad could have been part of one of those dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. Also, he liked to grunt a lot and bang his fists.
“I heard that desert climates are better on the lungs for people with her condition. I read that someplace. I’ll find it and email it to you,” Edith had said. “She’s seventy-two years old, though. Maybe it’s just too late to do anything?”
“We shouldn’t even give them a choice. We should just demand it,” Mo had said.
“Um, again, good plan, Mo, but not exactly feasible,” Jacob had said. “I mean, you have met Julian Jacobson, haven’t you?”
“The old man just needs to relocate his habits out here. He can still garden, go fishing, and hit the gym—it’s not like we live in effing Georgia. No offense, Edith.”
“None taken,” she’d said, although clearly offended. “Look, I’m going to be brutally honest, because someone has to be: Ma’s dying. She’s never going to get better, only worse. And what, Mo, you and Pandora are going to look after her if, God forbid, something hap- pens to Daddy? What about you, Jacob? You’re going to move back from Berlin? And before either one of you say it, I may be a child- less spinster, but I’m not about to give up my cushy-ass job, which I love by the way and thank you very much, to be her caregiver. I love her to death, but it’s just not something I see myself doing. What’s the current state of her health anyway? Do either of you know? Ac- cording to Daddy, she could hang on for another year or more, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking? At some point we’re going to need to talk about some kind of managed care.” Edith had gone on in her usual self-absorbed way. “But then again it seems Daddy’s in tiptop shape and all of that. But you know how quickly that could change. It just takes one fall and . . . By the way, I’ve done some reading on those places and from what I’ve read they aren’t as odious as they once were. I’ll send you both links to the articles.”
Jacob had heard her tap-tap-tapping away on her keyboard to locate the links and shoot them off in an email. Here is my sister, he’d thought, our Thistle of the Congregation of the Path of Least Resistance.
“ ‘From what you’ve read’? Edith, are you insane?” Mo had said.
“Those places are La Brea tar pits of death and despair, and I’m not sticking our mother in one of them. She says he’s taking good care of her.”
“It’s the least he could do after she’s catered to that man’s every single agonizing need for her entire adult life,” Jacob had said.
“Remember what happened to Grandpa Ernie? He went in and never came out,” Mo had continued, ignoring him.
“He was ninety-six years old,” Jacob had said. “He wasn’t going to come out even if they’d put him up at the Plaza.”
“Look, I get that she deserves some happiness after all the shit Daddy put her through. Yes, okay, I admit it—he’s never been easy to live with. But Ma chose him, stayed with him, and clearly still adores him,” Edith had said.
“Here’s to loving difficult men,” Jacob had said, thinking about Diet, who was difficult in his own way, and Mo, who was difficult in his, and even himself, who, until quite recently, had thought he’d come to terms with and healed from the worst of his dad’s treachery, all those years of unwarranted hostility, by finding Diet and moving to Berlin. Unfortunately, he’d begun to realize that he’d unwittingly managed to smuggle the tyranny of his dad in through customs with him. Pieces of him, at least, and the worst pieces at that.
“Okay, so we’re here,” Mo had said, “and I really have to go.”
“Bye-bye, Baxter, bye-bye, Dexter,” sang Edith. “See you at Pesach!”
“You’re right, Thistle. She does deserve some happiness. And if Dad weren’t around, we wouldn’t even need to be having this conversation,” Mo had said, almost as an afterthought. “It would be totally mute.”