Christmas in Austin

Benjamin Markovits

November 27, 2019 
The following is excerpted from Benjamin Markovits's novel. Markovits grew up in Texas, London and Berlin. He is the author of six previous novels including The Syme Papers, Either Side of Winter and Imposture. He has published essays, stories, poetry and reviews on subjects ranging from the Romantics to American sports in the Guardian, Granta, The Paris Review and The New York Times, and others. He lives in London and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Bill and Rose grew up in Port Jervis; he hadn’t been back there since their mother died, 20 years before. And now Rose was dead. Mourners were supposed to meet at the cemetery office, not the grave. He didn’t expect many to come but had called the secretary at Temple Beth-El, where they used to go to synagogue as children; she put an announcement on the website. Afterwards, back in Yonkers, they were having a reception at Rose’s house—sitting what Judith, his niece, called “mini Shiva.” Bill had spent the morning buying food while Judith covered the mirrors and set out candles. Everything was ready.

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They arrived at Laurel Grove half an hour early. Judith wanted to sit in the car and wait, with the heating on, but Bill walked around. It was a cold bright day. The cemetery occupied an island in the Delaware River—Pennsylvania lay across the water. It was caught between two highways, route 6 and interstate 84. The grounds were dotted with pine and oak and sycamore, picked out in white by the snow, but you could also hear through the clear air a constant stream of cars, making little zip sounds, zip, zip, zip, as they passed by. It was the sound of life, busyness, urgency, but it also suggested to Bill the passage of souls. With the headstones all around it was hard not to make the connection. A machine had cleared the roads, pushing the snow to the side, but it meant that some of the plots were sitting under four-foot drifts. He was sweating lightly by the time he got back to the car.

Only eight people showed up—Bill counted them as they stood around in the cold. Including the new rabbi at Temple Beth-El, a fat young man, with a scratchy beard; he was red-faced and cheerful, too. He wanted to impart his own good mood. They were short of a minion, even if you counted the women, so he called up his cousin, a screenwriter from LA, who was staying at his house.

Ten minutes later the guy arrived, wearing a borrowed jacket over jeans and Nike running shoes. But he made a likable impression, he didn’t seem at all put out. This is my kind of crazy afternoon, that was the impression he made. The cousins had a good relationship, you could see their breath when they talked. You owe me lunch, the guy said, but he was smiling, and the rabbi said, For what?

The secretary at Temple Beth-El was old enough to remember Bill’s mother. She carried her handbag in both hands, hugging it to keep warm. Laurel Grove is large and they ended up taking three cars to the burial site, driving along slowly behind the hearse. Bill’s cousin Doris was there, too, with her husband. They were perfectly friendly but rode with the secretary, and Bill wondered if they still held a grudge because of his marriage. His wife was not only Christian but German. In those days people cared about these things. But you can’t really tell after so much time—the distance has been created.

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When he got out of the car, Bill saw the hole in the ground, beside his parents’ graves.

When he got out of the car, Bill saw the hole in the ground, beside his parents’ graves. He went up to Doris and said, “Did you ever see Rose? Did you keep in touch?”

“Every new year we included her in the family round-robin.”

She didn’t look well. Her skin was colorless, like she was missing a layer of paint. To make up for that she had put on bright red lipstick. Her husband wore a suit and tie and gloves but no overcoat. He said, “I went to Dallas last month. On business.” He mentioned this because Bill lived in Texas. “They took me out to eat at some restaurant, it’s the place everybody goes. The food arrived—I had a plate of meat this big.” He held his hands apart. They lived in Westchester, in a very small house; their son was 40 years old and single. Doris was one of these people who concerns herself with the family tree, maybe to make up for the fact that she didn’t have grandkids. For most of her life she had been underemployed, and you felt that, too, in her restless hemmed-in manner. But she showed up, whatever the reason; you get points for that.

Two young men from Kaplinski-Sternau, the funeral home, slid the coffin into the ground—the hearse had backed up to the spot. For some reason, his sister was inside; she was lying there.

The rabbi gave a short sermon, he had asked Bill beforehand to corroborate certain facts. Because that’s all he knew about Rose, he had never met her. She was born in 1941 and graduated cum laude in 1963 from Syracuse University, where she joined Sigma Delta Tau. She received her masters in education from Teachers College, New York, and worked for three years . . . There were details about her marriage, too, her husband and their daughter and Michael, her beloved grandchild. Events clustered in the 60s and 70s, and after that the facts thinned out. Is this what it felt like to live her life, too, Bill wondered. There was something impersonal about the list but also moving. So that’s who she was.

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“Do you want to say a few words?” the rabbi asked.

Bill shook his head. What he felt was not for public consumption, there was no need. But Judith stepped forward. Something had happened to her, sitting in the car; it’s like she’d taken a nap and had just woken up. She seemed sleepy but also somehow freshly rinsed.

“I didn’t bring anything suitable to wear.”

Her voice was clear and loud.

“When the hospital called, I just kind of threw everything in a suitcase, I had to find somebody to look after Mikey. Which meant a long conversation with my ex-mother-in-law. (No picnic, believe me.) I had to pack for him, too. So I didn’t bring anything black, and this morning, when I was getting dressed . . . but then I remembered. Of course, I’m staying at Mom’s house. Everything she owned—half of it’s black. When she started putting on weight ten years ago, that’s what she felt comfortable in. So I’m wearing one of her dresses. Which is why it’s so big.”

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She laughed sweetly and, Bill thought, like somebody who is confident of charming, of receiving love. This was Rose’s doing, for better or worse.

A pile of dirt by the side of the grave had a shovel sticking out of it. These bullshit rituals annoyed Bill, there was something ye oldey about them, part of the world he grew up in and from which he’d been cut off after marrying Liesel. But maybe the problem was that he basically believed in them. He didn’t want to wait in line and shovel dirt on his sister’s grave, he didn’t want to be complicit, but he did it anyway. Judith handed him the shovel, the dirt made an audible thud and he turned around and gave the shovel to the next guy, feeling—that’s the last you’ll see. Everybody was cold, nobody wanted to be there; they wanted to get in the cars.

They were sitting in a rented car on a cold day in December. Her mother was dead. She had lost her temper, it was like stirring up dregs.

Afterwards Bill said to Judith, “Maybe we can drive by the house for a minute. I haven’t been back here in 20 years.”

The streets were quiet at lunchtime, and they stopped off at the Erie Hotel for a bite to eat. Bill had a Reuben sandwich. “My father used to meet clients here,” he said. “But it was called something else.” From their table in the window (the restaurant was mostly empty), they could watch the occasional traffic on Jersey Avenue. The awning dripped, the sky was bright blue, there was a parking lot over the road and a church behind it. Small town America. A couple times a year his father drove them to Manhattan, for a ball game, or to visit his sister, and Bill was always grateful afterwards to get back home. He waited for Judith to order coffee then paid for both of them and they walked back to the car.

It didn’t take him long to find the house. Liesel always said, you could have been a black cab driver. He had a head for directions, they were part of the information a responsible person should store in case of emergency. “Do you want to go in?” Judith asked. They were parked by the curb with the motor running. He switched off the engine but didn’t move. It was a funny old house, on a corner plot—his mother liked to say they lived on Roosevelt Avenue, but really the front door opened on to Watkins. The present owners had built an extension at the back. The yard was covered in snow. Judith said, “There’s no point just sitting here,” so he got out, but he didn’t have the nerve to ring the doorbell. He let her do that.

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“I don’t know who lives here now,” he said. “They’re probably away.”

But their car, a Mazda 6, sat in the driveway. The door opened and a man put his head out. He hadn’t shaved, he looked about 30 years old. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, under a dressing gown.

Judith explained, and Bill said, “I sat in that kitchen, doing homework.” He could see it at the end of the hall, where he used to come in from the cold, tracking snow. His mother shouted at him, take off your shoes, then got down on her hands and knees with a dirty towel, to wipe up after him. It was cold now, and he stood on the porch, peering in. The sink was still under the window, overlooking the yard; everything else was unrecognizable.

“I’d invite you in but this is not a good time.” His wife had just had a baby, she had just gone to sleep.

“The baby or the wife?” Bill joked. Company of any kind cheered him up.

“Come back in like six months,” the guy said. He was trying to sound like the crazy parent, the one everybody leaves alone.

Judith was unimpressed. “We’ll be very quiet, we just want to look around.”

“I’m sorry, no.” He had stepped outside, onto the porch, and shut the door quietly behind him.

“We buried my mother today,” she said. “She grew up in this house. Uncle Bill just wants to see it again.” The sweet or sleepy tone had gone; she was angry, and the man held out his hands in a gesture of, what can I do.

“Look, I’m not kidding,” he said. “We’ve had a tough couple weeks.”

Bill turned to his niece. “I’m okay.”

“It’s not okay,” she said. “He should let you in. People think they’re the first person ever to have a baby.”

“I’m trying to be a nice guy here,” the guy said. “I’m trying not to be a dick, because what I really feel like saying is, get the fuck off my property.”

“Come on, let’s go,” Bill said, but Judith wasn’t finished.

“I’m sorry your wife is taking it like this.”

The fact is, black suited her. Her pale and red coloring, her mother’s complexion, stood out against the black neckline—her cheeks were bright with cold. She wasn’t particularly attractive but she had brass.

“Like what?”

“That’s part of your job, too. You know that. Not to give in to unreasonable demands.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“These things can be signs of post-natal depression. Obsessive concern with sleep or weight gain. Negative thoughts, general irritability. A feeling like you can’t really cope. These things are all signs.”

“I’m going inside,” he said. “If I have to come back out, I’m calling the police.”

Bill noticed, he had been standing around in his socks. “Let’s go,” he said, and this time they went.

“What a prick,” Judith said.

Her anger had turned into something else. They were sitting in a rented car on a cold day in December. Her mother was dead. She had lost her temper, it was like stirring up dregs. You have to wait for them to settle again. The drive back to Yonkers would take an hour and a half—more if they hit rush hour on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then, when they got there, she had to put on a social face again, people were coming at five. Maybe no one would show up. Anyway, she was going home tomorrow, she would see Mikey.

Bill turned the heating on, but before heading back, he drove around the neighborhood. Some of the houses were hidden by trees, they had wide front yards. He crossed over Kingston Avenue, towards the river. There was a car-dealership on the corner, with a Christmas tree in the lot, and bunting strung up on poles along the sidewalk. The houses on the other side were more modest, the plots were smaller, and he stopped outside a white clapboard bungalow built on a sloping yard, so that the basement walls were visible to the rear. There was a narrow driveway with a garage, a small front porch, two or three steps leading up to it. No fence, no bushes, no trees in the yard, which was covered in white.

“This is the house we were born into,” Bill said. “Rose, too.”

Bill stayed in the car and Judith didn’t suggest getting out. The road dead-ended in the park where he used to play baseball. He stopped there for a minute as well. You could see the river-sunlight reflected endlessly off the water and dripping trees, you had to squint. On the far side was the golf course where he caddied in the summer. Driving back to the interstate, he passed his high school.

“Every day we walked to school right by our old house,” he said.

“Who lived there after you?” Judith asked.

“The Manolo sisters,” he said, in his football announcer’s voice. She was trying to make it up to him, to let him reminisce. So he reminisced. “Their father owned a restaurant on Main Street.”

Later she said, “I’m sorry I lost my cool back there,” and he turned to her in the car.

“Don’t worry about it. He had it coming.” It didn’t matter if he did or not.

When they crossed the Hudson, an hour later, the sun was going down behind them—down the length of 287, flashing off cars. Everything shined. It put a blind spot in his rearview mirror, he adjusted the angle. Already it felt like time had passed, distance had come between them and the funeral, who knows when he’d go back to Port Jervis, maybe never.


Excerpted from Christmas in Austin by Benjamin Markovits. Published with permission from Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Markovits.

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