The Unexpected Dryness of a Lemon Poppy Scone
By Jacob Ginsberg
Eight pages into Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, after being stunned to find I’ve somehow plagiarized a book I’ve never opened, I linger over the text on Sophie Mol’s tombstone: A SUNBEAM LENT TO US TOO BRIEFLY; I look up to a sunbeam through a cracked window, and I realize I’ve completely surrendered my whereabouts to the driver whom I’ll underpay through a company known for harassing women, so I stop reading and write a lengthy sentence about consumption and experience.
“Somewhere around here?”
We’re in a verdant cul-de-sac on the corner of Mulberry Drive and Bead Tree Lane. We look for house numbers until I spot my father in a black suit. I’ll be the only one in a t-shirt.
“Here’s perfect,” I say. “Go birds.”
Dad is on the phone. I don’t know where I’m going, so I read the sentence I composed in the car. I want to add a clause about the irony of propounding ethical consumption while using a device built in a sweatshop, but it seems cliché. I wonder why I believe criticism has to be unique to be valuable, why once something like tech companies using sweatshops becomes common knowledge, writing about it about it feels platitudinous and preachy.
Dad covers the bottom of his phone and mouths, “Where’s Adam?”
His senior project is his excuse, but really my brother is too terrified of death to attend an event like this. “Working,” I say.
Dad nods, then ushers me into the house. He went to the funeral before shiva, and he’s Gordon’s best friend. I’m close with Gordon’s kids and have met their extended family, but can’t remember names, can’t remember meeting Gordon’s mother before she died. I don’t know her name, and walking in alone I feel peripheral and under-dressed, like my presence is delegitimizing and somehow insulting.
Across a thin white hallway checkered with family photos, I make eye contact with someone I don’t recognize. I smile. It’s too early to determine what atmosphere I’ve entered, but it seems loud for oppressive grief. My only experience with death before now is what I’ve seen and read, which is probably why I expected hushed tones and low wailing. It sounds like a normal party.
Mom is in front of the drink table with Sharon, Gordon’s distinguished, endowed-professor wife. Hugs for both.
“Can I fix you a seltzer?” Mom asks.
I want the bourbon beside it but say, “Seltzer’s perfect.”
“Gordon was fantastic,” she says. “He captured what made her unique.” As she hands me the drink, Gordon wades in.
Another hug. I am sorry for his loss.
“We were just talking about your eulogy,” Mom says, “And how your mother had such an admirable approach to life.”
Gordon crunches on an ice cube from his own beverage, alcoholic I assume. “All that mattered to her was the company she kept,” he says.
“A great philosophy,” Mom says, earnestly.
We collectively sigh.
I want to ask if earnestness is the antidote to cliché, but it doesn’t seem like an original thought, either.
Sharon gently taps my shoulder and says, “I’ll go check on my kids.” Both are upstairs, Jake napping since he made the funeral via a 5:00am flight out of Burlington, Audrey sending off her daily since she works in finance and it’s a weekday.
Mom checks email on her cellphone, so in Sharon’s absence I tell Gordon my brother asked me to pass on his condolences. In the ensuing silence, I ask if it was special having the whole family together last night. Gordon’s mom died on Friday, and Jewish tradition dictates the body be buried as soon as possible, but rather than holding the funeral Sunday, the family elected to postpone it a day so they could gather to watch the Eagles steamroll the Vikings 38-7 in the NFC championship. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that the football tradition won over the religious one. Judaism is about questions, uncertainty, diaspora; the Eagles are constant, easy to believe in no matter what anxieties or doubts creep in. I want the Eagles to win even when I want to give up on writing, when I lose touch with what’s real.
“What a dominant performance,” Gordon says, slurping his final ice cube.
“I still can’t believe they’re going to the Super Bowl,” I say.
He swirls imaginary whiskey in his empty cup. “It might be coincidence, but the last time they went my dad was dying. He passed four days after they lost to the Patriots.”
I remember watching the game in his home that year over a decade ago, but don’t remember knowing that his father’s life was dwindling.
Gordon appears to be looking at something just past the top of my head. I fight the urge to look behind me.
“This year’s different though,” he says. “Mom dying before the game is a good omen. That’s why my brothers and I are going.”
“We’re still deciding if we need to sacrifice someone else for the win.”
I laugh, but lightly, then drink my seltzer. It occurs to me that using dark humor and exorbitant spending on Super Bowl tickets to manage grief is at once relatable and out of reach. I try to untangle the threads connecting death and football in Gordon’s life. I wonder if losing his father right after the Super Bowl made the death worse, if knowing that it was about to happen made it harder to watch the game, if Gordon thinks about his father dying every time the Eagles play, or just every Super Bowl.
Mom’s phone emits an email-sending swoosh, then clicks locked. As she pockets it, Sharon returns with Jake and Audrey.
Hugs for both. I am sorry for their loss.
They seem tired, but not that sad. Audrey explains why she had to do her report even under the circumstances (“It would have taken me longer to teach someone else to do it, so I just did it myself”), and Jake yawns. She’s wearing a fine black dress and he’s in a sport coat.
While I fidget in my t-shirt, we start to catch up: Audrey is working more than I can fathom and enjoys living at home. She has learned most of her responsibilities on the job. She usually gets Saturdays off. Her parents pick up the dry cleaning. Jake loves school. He parties, but not too much because of squash. He works extremely hard while seeming to do very little. He’s missing class today, but his friend told his professor that he’s sick to avoid announcing Jake’s family death in front of their peers. He’ll head back to the airport in a few hours so that he can attend class in the morning. I’m empathetically exhausted for them both, and I’m eager to investigate the food spread.
Fortuitously, Audrey says she wants to eat, so we break for the kitchen.
While trying to think of the word for a doorway without doors, I’m stopped underneath one by Dad, who introduces me to a man who says a name I immediately forget.
He asks the scripted follow up. “What do you do?”
It’s easier to say I’m a tutor. They ask what I teach, I say primarily test prep, but let them know I take any work I can get in all subjects, and it ends with me handing them a business card stamped with my bold blue name on the front and a pretentious Faustus quote on the back.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
He doesn’t present like the kind of person who will tell me I need to write every day or judge me as a hack afraid to cut his hair and enter the real world, but I worry he’ll ask me if I’ve been published, to which I’ll have to say “some letters to the editor, but no fiction.”
I’m thus surprised when he asks, “What are you writing right now?”
My face opens and my ears perk up. “I’m working on a story where the narrator kills a window washer. Or he tries to. He does something to him. He’s walking down the sidewalk and gets dripped on, and when he looks up,” I look up and wave my hand for emphasis, “He sees this window washer suspended thirty stories above the ground, shining in sunlight reflected off a modern glass sky scraper, swaying on his little seat like a celestial painter. And in witnessing this moment, the narrator just snaps. He starts imagining what it would be like if the window washer fell. He tries to devise a way to kill him.” I’m oblivious to my funeral faux-pas of talking so animatedly about a murder.
The man whose name I don’t remember sort of nods and inches slightly away from me, so I don’t tell him I’ll probably abandon the story, since on the way over I discovered the entire premise is already captured as the foreboding thought of a character in God of Small Things. I don’t tell him that at Sophie Mol’s funeral, Rahel daydreams about the person who decorated the ceiling:
She imagined him up there … barebodied and shining, sitting on a plank, swinging from the scaffolding in the high dome of the church, painting silver jets in a blue church sky. … She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret.
A literal celestial painter, shining and swinging on a plank, falling to his poetic death. My eyes are dazed while I reflect on Arundhati Roy in jealous admiration, and Dad recognizes that the man has tuned me out, so he changes the subject and allows me to escape. Walking away, I’m certain that my accidental plagiarism is a sign I’m incapable of writing something original, that there are no new narratives, that the Patriots are going to win again.
I survey the remnants of two large platters. One is covered by folds of deli meat, the other by cream cheese, smoked salmon, and a ten-inch white fish. There’s also noodle pudding (Audrey calls it kugel) and a basket of bagels. While I spread cream cheese, I try to guess how much catering companies use grief to inflate their prices.
Once I’ve assembled my plate, I see Jake and Audrey are engaged in conversations. Rather than trying to join, I sit on a folding chair in the living room and start eating.
Beside me sits an old man, also alone. His dry red cheeks contrast his halo of gray hair. He wipes his nose and sips his tea, then rests the cup in a saucer on a plastic coffee table. “You’re a Ginsberg, right?”
He must know me, or he’s seen me talking with my father. “Yes, I’m Jacob.” I have no idea to whom I’m speaking, so I set my bagel down and dab my mouth with a napkin. “Remind me of your name?”
“I’m Richard. I know your father, Gordon’s friend. Was it easy for you to get here? Where do you live?”
I explain my Philadelphia origins, New York childhood, Providence undergraduate education, and brief westward experiment before moving back to Center City here in Philly.
Richard points across the room to his daughter, who he says lives in California. “She also went to college in New England, about forty minutes from Foxborough,” he says. He shows the hint of a smile. “She stayed an Eagles fan, of course.”
“Go birds,” I say, latching onto the topic because it’s the ultimate conversational lubricant. Go birds is the Philadelphia shalom, interchangeable with hello or goodbye, used to greet friends or part with loved ones or shout at strangers in jerseys across the street. Homeless men will say it if you don’t have change for coffee, and if you do, they’ll tell you, “Doug better take care of business this week.” It’s the perfect subject to discuss with someone I should know but still can’t identify.
“How do you like our chances?” I ask.
“This our year,” he says, like I’ve asked him for the time and he’s simply reporting the fact from his watch.
“You really think so?”
Now he shows a full smile, and shimmering eyes. “You bet.”
I realize that he probably remembers the first Super Bowl, that he’s been waiting for this moment for decades, that he might count himself lucky to be alive for it. I try to imagine him listening to Eagles games on the radio as a child, tailgating with raucous friends at the Vet, watching a playoff game on a tiny, grainy screen with his daughter in 1980.
Like Gordon earlier, Richard is focused on something behind me. In his older face, I recognize it as a look into the past. “Gordon was at my wedding,” he says. He spins his mug in the saucer without lifting it. “Technically. My sister, who the funeral was for, she was pregnant with Gordon at my wedding.” He sees her in a bridesmaid’s dress instead of my face upon realizing who he is.
Trying not to reveal I didn’t know he’s the brother of the deceased, I ask, “Was she an older or younger sister?”
“Did she look out for you?”
Another smile, but it’s slightly uneven, diminished. “No, I took care of her. She didn’t even speak to me until I was six. Completely ignored me. It wasn’t until my first day of kindergarten that she acknowledged me. She was walking to the bus stop with her friends, and they asked, ‘Who is that kid following us?’ She turned around, put her hands on her hips, and thought about it. Then she said, ‘Oh, that’s my brother.’ She finally decided that I was all right, that it was okay to have a brother. From then on we talked.” A crumpled handkerchief collects a tear from his red cheek.
“Was today difficult?”
His eyes shift to the immediate past, and he sees himself shoveling dirt onto her coffin. “We buried her in my family plot, next to my parents. Now it’s just me.”
He is the sole living member of his nuclear family; the other three are together in the ground. No one else knows what it was like to be in that family. Others lost a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, but no one else lost a sibling, one supposed to accompany him from start to finish, one who knows him well enough to understand why he’d skip a funeral without him needing to explain, who’d gladly pass on an excuse and awkward condolences for him. No one else is sitting near this man whom I didn’t recognize, who is completely alone in his grief, who is the last survivor of the family that formed him.
I’m overwhelmed by this intimacy and his isolation, but as I open my mouth to speak, I’m called from across the room. Over my shoulder I see my father with a Gordon relative, so I say, “Be right back,” and leave Richard to his aloneness.
In a sitting room littered with used plates, the relative apologizes and says, “We thought you could use a rescue.” I tell them I was fine, but I settle on a couch and reach for a pastry on the coffee table.
Another relative asks, “What’s that one?”
“I thought it was going to be a lemon poppy scone,” I say, “But I’m not sure. It’s unpleasant. Very dry.”
Dad shakes his head knowingly. “I saw someone consolidating cookie trays, and only those were left,” he says. “Definitely not a winner.”
“Agreed,” I say, before putting the rest of the scone in my mouth.
Dad and the Gordon relatives are puzzled. They tell me I should just take a different pastry, but I explain I feel unethical throwing away food.
“Like this morning I had to throw away bananas,” I say. “They aren’t grown anywhere near here. They’re picked by workers in poverty and shipped by freight using fossil fuel; then they turn brown and end up in the garbage.”
“You can freeze old bananas and use them in smoothies,” someone offers.
“I know, but I’m stuck in this cycle. I see them in the too-browned-to-eat but not-brown-enough-to-freeze stage, and by the time I check them again, they’ve turned moldy at the bottom of my fruit bowl.”
Everyone sort of nods and inches slightly away. They try not to visualize moldy bananas to avoid thinking about decomposition. I brush a lemon poppy crumb out of my beard and know it’s time to leave.
Two weeks after the funeral, Gordon and his siblings fly to Minnesota. They check into a four-star hotel and slip their Super Bowl tickets into lanyards around their necks. Before kickoff, they send their families photos of themselves and their view from seats that cost thousands. They try for a final time to divine the meaning of their mother’s death.
Two hours after kickoff, Richard sits alone in front of his television. He watches the Eagles line up at the one-yard line on fourth down, thirty-eight seconds left in the first half. He clutches his armchair and feels his heartbeat in his palms, giddy like a child.
Two seconds after the game ends, my brother and I scream and embrace. We shove beers into our back pockets and join the chaos outside his apartment. We run down Walnut Street to City Hall, where from all passageways Philadelphians converge to climb light poles and awnings, set off fireworks, topple cars, and sing. We elate with one hundred thousand voices.
Four days after the riot, 700,000 people line Broad Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, convulsing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in an endless ocean of green. Some are carrying urns. When the procession passes, they scatter the ashes of loved ones and weep. My brother stands on my shoulders to get a better view of the trophy glinting in the sun.
Sixty years after the parade, my brother will sit completely alone in the aftermath of my funeral. A strange young man who never met me, doesn’t know my name, has no idea to whom he’s speaking, will sit beside him and awkwardly munch on an unexpectedly dry scone. He’ll cough and choke down water, then make small talk with my brother by asking about football.
“Do you remember where you were when the Eagles first won the Super Bowl?”
My brother will shine a full smile, and shimmering eyes. “You fucking bet.”
Jacob Ginsberg is a writer and tutor living in Philadelphia, PA, where he attends as many Birds games as possible. He earned his MFA at Temple University. This was slated as his first publication before it was delayed by forces of nature, so he’s still counting it. You can read more of his work in Tiny Molecules.